Pauline Marois faces a delicate political balancing act after her Parti Québécois returned to power with a minority government, following nearly a decade in opposition.
Quebec’s premier-designate must build a cabinet that not only reflects her stated commitment to a “sovereigntist” government, but that allows her minority to implement an ambitious and controversial agenda. That includes major reforms in such areas as language and culture – notably the promise of a “secularism charter,” which would forbid employees in public institutions from wearing overt religious symbols.
Ms. Marois is well aware that her minority government will have a limited capacity to push forward its legislative agenda. But she also knows that the first year of her mandate comes as the Liberals choose a new leader and the Coalition Avenir Québec seeks to replenish its depleted finances. Quebec politics will also be driven by integrity issues, as the Charbonneau commission begins hearings into corruption in the construction industry.
For now, at least, the PQ believes it has a window of opportunity to push ahead with its agenda without fear of losing a vote of confidence in the National Assembly. But if the PQ government hopes to survive, it will need to show early in its mandate that it has the ability to compromise.
Ms. Marois now has a fresh batch of MNAs to pick from for cabinet posts. She will weigh regional considerations and the need to reward those who have remained loyal to her when dissenting voices in caucus called for her resignation. With the PQ holding only four more seats than the Liberals, she will be careful not to provoke resignations from those who may feel betrayed if they aren’t promoted.
But only a few have any experience in government, and even fewer have the skills to handle the tough economic and political challenges ahead. Perhaps the most critical appointment will be the finance minister, who will be tasked with achieving the zero-deficit while abolishing the $200 health tax, tuition fee hikes and proposed increases in hydro rates while freezing daycare rates.
Ms. Marois promised a new language law within 100 days of taking office that will impact business sectors in Montreal, and the new minister of Montreal and the minister responsible for the charter of the French language will play an important role in scoring points with francophone voters on this issue. She will also need a strong minister to stand up to Ottawa and defend such key demands as full control over the Employment Insurance Program.
THE ECONOMY: A BIGGER ROLE FOR GOVERNMENT
The PQ has a strong contingent of intellectuals and social activists, but it has failed to elect candidates with strong business profiles such as François Legault, the former Transat executive who left the PQ to found the rival CAQ.
Nicolas Marceau, a former economics professor at Université du Québec à Montréal who has been the PQ’s finance critic for the past two years, is the odds-on favourite for finance minister. Mr. Marceau wants the Quebec government to play an increasing role in the economy, through its pension fund manager, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. He also favours tax credits that create jobs in strategic industries. But Mr. Marceau remains firm in his resolve to tackle Quebec’s deficit, pointing to the high level of infrastructure spending in past years which have been excluded from the province’s debt.
Another possible candidate for an economics portfolio is Élaine Zakaïb, a political neophyte. She is a lawyer with an MBA who spent the past 20 years at the Quebec Federation of Labour’s investment arm, the Fonds de solidarité, where she was the head of the regional investment funds. Others who may be touted to hold economic portfolios are Martine Ouellet, the party critic for mines and shale gas development who hounded the Liberals for failing to seek higher royalties from mining companies involved in the Northern Development Plan, or Plan Nord.
MONTREAL: THE NEED FOR A MINISTER
Ms. Marois may turn to the former president of the Commission scolaire de Montréal, newly elected Diane De Courcy, to head the ministry responsible for Montreal promised during the election campaign. There hasn’t been a minister responsible for Montreal, with an allocated budget and personnel, since André Boisclair was appointed in 2003. It is a portfolio that Michel Leblanc, president and CEO of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, dearly welcomes.
THE FIGHT WITH OTTAWA
If Ms. Marois keeps true to her to promise to demand more powers from Ottawa, she will need someone at the helm who can pick the right battles – ones voters will not perceive as pointless.
Among the sitting members who will play a major role in the new government is Bernard Drainville, a former journalist who is bilingual and may be invited to handle the Intergovernmental Affairs portfolio and lead the fight against Ottawa. Others include Agnes Maltais, Nicole Léger and Marie Malavoy, a potential education minister. All three are loyal Marois supporters.
THE FIGHT AGAINST CORRUPTION
Stéphane Bédard will likely be Ms. Marois’ right arm in the National Assembly as government house leader and perhaps the minister responsible for the key integrity and anti-corruption file. Along with Véronique Hivon, a seasoned lawyer and parliamentarian who was being touted as justice minister, he may play a significant part as the PQ government seeks to eliminate influence-peddling and collusion that fuelled allegations involving the Liberal government and contributed to its downfall.
STRIKING A BALANCE
Several newcomers will hold important portfolios in the new government. Réjean Hébert, the former dean of the University of Sherbrooke Faculty of Medicine, will likely be appointed minister of health and social affairs with the heavy burden of managing 48 per cent of the government’s spending programs. Former political adviser and columnist Jean-François Lisée will also play an important role. Other newly elected members, such as former journalist Pierre Duchesne, will be anxiously waiting to see if they make it to the cabinet table.
At the same time, Ms. Marois will need to make room for the current longest-serving member of the National Assembly, François Gendron, who may be tempted by the Speaker’s chair, a post he held during the last minority government in 2008.