Pauline Marois’s government seems determined to make Quebec the most leftist – and greenest – jurisdiction in North America. Unless, of course, the Premier has to change course under pressure from the opposition parties her minority government is saddled with, and under the wave of criticism triggered by her choices for cabinet posts and a string of hasty policy announcements.
In less than a week, the government has managed to anger many people. It announced the closing of Gentilly II, a nuclear power plant in Bécancour that employs 800 workers, without bothering to send a government official to talk to the workers and the community. Natural Resources Minister Martine Ouellet declared that extracting natural gas from shale through “fracking” will never be safe, even though extensive government-sponsored studies are under way.
Then the Premier’s office said the new tax increases on capital gains and personal income over $130,000 would be retroactive to January of 2012 – a stunning development that was never mentioned during the election campaign. This sparked such a panic that the Finance Minister now says he might abandon the idea of retroactivity and try to be “flexible” about the ways he’ll extract more money from the “rich” Quebeckers, a tiny group of about 140,000 people who already are among the most heavily taxed in North America.
The opposition parties are incensed, but it will be politically difficult for them to side with the “rich,” since these tax hikes are designed to offset the $200 special health tax imposed by the previous government – a move that would please millions of voters.
Not only will the government re-establish the freeze on tuition fees that brought militant students into the streets last spring – a movement that the Parti Québécois enthusiastically supported – but the students will have their cake and eat it, too: The generous financial aid plan offered by the Liberal government in exchange for the tuition hike will be enacted. (Mind you, the radical student groups aren’t satisfied – they want no tuition fees at all, and they want amnesty for the protesters charged with various criminal offences.)
Ms. Marois’s cabinet choices were controversial, given Quebec’s current tough times and the lack of business or private enterprise backgrounds of her candidates. The Minister of Finance and the Economy, economics professor Nicolas Marceau, has never worked outside academia. Élaine Zakaïb, the Minister of State for Industrial Policy, is a lawyer whose main experience in business was as a vice-president of Gaspésia, the now-extinct paper plant that was a huge financial disaster.
At Environment, Ms. Marois appointed a radical environmental activist, Daniel Breton. His parliamentary assistant responsible for forestry and fauna will be Scott McKay, former head of the Quebec Green Party. Ms. Ouellet, the Natural Resources Minister, is a former manager at Hydro-Québec who worked for the past two years as an activist for an ecological group on water preservation.
Another puzzling choice is that of Sylvain Gaudreault, a former college teacher from the Saguenay, as Minister of Transport and Minister of Municipal Affairs, the Regions and Land Occupancy. Apart from shouldering a very heavy load, Mr. Gaudreault will have to be a quick learner since he’s a stranger to Montreal, where public transit and municipal governance are crucial files.
But what’s new? Montreal has always been the unloved child of provincial governments, since both the PQ and the Liberals cater to the vote-rich territories outside the metropolis.