Pity Quebec Liberal leader Philippe Couillard. He should have gotten a lot of mileage out of recruiting Carlos Leitao, the Laurentian Bank chief economist that Bloomberg ranked as the world’s second best forecaster in 2008. But just like Llewyn Davis, the vagrant folk singer imagined by the Cohen brothers, who opened a show for Elvis Presley, the Liberal economic star was completely outshone by Pierre Karl Péladeau.
The “King of Quebec,” as one magazine dubbed him, has given the Parti Québécois the business clout it lacked when Pauline Marois took power with a cabinet so left leaning and green it glowed in the dark. Together with the Quebec president of the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, Simon Prévost, whose candidacy was unveiled Monday, Mr. Péladeau’s arrival has allowed Premier Marois to claim, without batting an eyelid, that the PQ is presenting the “best economic team in the history of Quebec.”
The PQ was never good at attracting business leaders. Its most famous catch was François Legault, an accountant who made a fortune with Transat A.T. Inc., the vacation specialist he co-founded. But that didn’t work out so well. Mr. Legault left the party in 2009, and less than two years later, he launched the competing Coalition Avenir Québec – the péquistes are still fuming over his treason.
That Ms. Marois was able to attract a businessman of Mr. Péladeau’s stature is a stroke of political genius. Few executives would willingly submit to the lowly pay, the long hours, the scrutiny and the partisan battering that come with public life. And no matter what you think of his politics, Mr. Péladeau is true to his long-held convictions. But this political bombshell is bound to create collateral damage: for the party he is joining and the company the former vice-chairman of Quebecor Inc. is leaving behind.
Mr. Péladeau will reassure die-hard separatists, even if independence is barely registering on the Richter scale of Quebec politics. In every interview he has given since Sunday, he has said that he is “in it for sovereignty” and that he wants “Quebec to become a country.”
Ms. Marois has been deliberately evasive on holding a third referendum, promising to consult Quebeckers before deciding when her government would hold a vote. Mr. Péladeau’s insistence makes things clearer. The impatient businessman will not wait for long, so currency traders can expect another Quebec psychodrama to happen sooner rather than later.
But just as Mr. Péladeau will likely lift the PQ’s fortunes in more conservative circles, he will also sow discord in a party that is prone to self-destruction. In fact, Ms. Marois almost lost the leadership of the PQ in 2011 after MNAs quit in protest over a controversial bill that awarded a contract to manage the new Quebec Coliseum to Quebecor.
While the PQ has been historically close to unions, Mr. Péladeau has a fierce anti-union sentiment. Moreover, the media empire he still controls has a history of rocky labour relations. PQ MNA Stéphane Bergeron once noted that Mr. Péladeau was responsible for 54 per cent of the lock-out days that occurred in Quebec between 2000 and 2009. Former premier Bernard Landry even quit as a guest columnist at the Quebecor-owned Journal de Montreal after its workers were forced into a lengthy lockout.
Also unclear is how Mr. Péladeau’s career change will affect Quebecor, the company founded by his father, Pierre Péladeau, and whose multiple voting shares he now refuses to sell. The federal Conservatives cheered when the results of the latest spectrum auction came in, praising the arrival of a fourth wireless competitor on the national scene. They now look like fools for celebrating Quebecor, a company that will remain controlled by a man whose avowed goal is to break up Canada.
Quebecor was quick to distance itself from Mr. Péladeau; in a release, the company noted he had resigned from all of its boards, and promptly erased his photo from its website. But there may well be a political fallout in a telecom and communications industry that is federally regulated.
Mr. Péladeau’s jump into politics also places its Quebec media outlets in an untenable position. The former Quebecor boss, widely known to be a micromanager, loomed over his newsrooms. Even if he says that he will distance himself from his media empire and abide by any decision made by the province’s ethics commissioner (short of selling his shares), there is a disconcerting proximity between the Quebec government and the biggest media group in the province that has Mr. Péladeau trending with Silvio Berlusconi on Twitter.
Even he promises to keep his nose out of his papers, something will never change: Mr. Péladeau is bound to stay on the front page.