Trying to stave off a growing controversy about his decision to remain the controlling shareholder in Quebec's largest media empire, Pierre-Karl Péladeau pledged Wednesday morning that he would put his shares in a blind trust and wouldn't meddle in editorial content should he become the leader of the Parti Québécois.
Mr. Péladeau made his promise just hours before the Quebec National Assembly debated a motion that would ban legislature members from holding a controlling stake in a media company.
The motion was proposed by the rival opposition party Coalition Avenir Québec, whose house leader, François Bonnardel, said that Mr. Péladeau had placed the legislature in an unprecedented situation.
"This aims at drawing a clear line and protecting the independence of the media from the political power," he told the National Assembly.
Currently, section 45 of the code of ethics of the Quebec National Assembly members requires that cabinet ministers either sell the shares they own or place them in a blind trust. There is no such requirement for opposition leaders.
The former chief executive of Quebecor Inc., Mr. Péladeau stepped down from the family business last year and was elected to the legislature in the spring. He is expected to be the front-runner should he throw his hat in the party leadership race that will be decided next May.
Reading a statement to reporters without taking questions, Mr. Péladeau said Wednesday morning that he is still trying to decide whether to seek the PQ leadership.
But he complained that there was "outrageous, deplorable partisanship in the motion" and said it would discourage others from seeking public office.
"I shouldn't have to choose between my decision to represents in the citizens of my riding in the National Assembly and holding on to the estate left to me by my father, Pierre Péladeau," he said.
The elder Péladeau founded Quebecor, whose holdings now include daily newspapers, magazines, regional weeklies, a news agency, a cable company and a television network.
Playing the patriotic card, Mr. Péladeau suggested that retaining ownership of Quebecor was a matter of nationalistic pride.
He said that his late father "was a phenomenal source of inspiration for me and I want to bequeath that to my children so that, should they choose one day, they could pursue the economic emancipation of Quebeckers."
Mr. Péladeau noted that under current rules he is not even required to put his shares in blind trust. But he pledged to do so should PQ members elect him to head the party, which would also make him the opposition leader.
"In addition, even though I didn't intervene in the editorial content of the newspapers and other media outlets of the company that I had the privilege to manage, I will also make, at the appropriate time, a solemn vow to never intervene in any fashion in the editorial content."
The controversy about his assets snowballed in recent days when another PQ heavyweight with leadership ambitions, Jean-François Lisée, condemned Mr. Péladeau's decision to hold on to his shares.
Other politicians had by then joined the fray, with the CAQ tabling its motion this week.
Both Liberals and CAQ members said placing Mr. Péladeau's shares in blind trust wasn't enough.
Mr. Bonnardel said that Mr. Péladeau's stated intention to maintain his ownership was bound to remain on the minds of the management of the blind trust and the Quebecor board.
"Parliamentarians and Quebecers are well aware that if Quebecor were to decide to sell some of its newspapers and the board recommends to sell, you'll understand there would be a good chance that the chairman of the board, Brian Mulroney, calls the chief interested party to ask, `Do we sell or not?'," Mr. Bonnardel said.
The PQ is in an awkward position because, while in opposition, it demanded the resignation of Liberal cabinet minister David Whissell, saying he was in a position of conflict of interest for holding on to a 20 per cent share of his family's paving company, ABC Rive-Nord.
Without naming Mr. Whissell, Premier Philippe Couillard allude to the PQ's past actions, "How would they react to his case of a family-owned business ... compared to the way they have approached other examples?" he told reporters.