Concrete Lady Bids to Return Quebec Separatists to Power

Pauline Marois, the political veteran seeking a greater government role in Quebec’s economy, is poised to become premier in next week’s elections and return her separatist party to power for the first time since 2003.

Four days before the Sept. 4 vote, Marois’s Parti Quebecois is leading in opinion polls. The governing Liberal Party, rocked by student protests over tuition fees and allegations of corruption after nine years in power, is running third behind the nine-month-old Coalition Avenir Quebec.

“Marois has enough experience in office as an administrator,” Antonia Maioni, associate professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal, said in a telephone interview. “In terms of her background in finance and other key ministries, she is one of the most competent politicians out there.”

Marois has held 14 different ministerial posts in her 31 years as a politician, including finance minister, health minister and deputy premier. In January, a newspaper columnist nicknamed her “la dame de beton” (the concrete lady) for her ability to weather defections and criticism.

A survey conducted Aug. 27 to Aug. 29 by pollster CROP Inc., published today by Montreal’s La Presse newspaper, gave the Parti Quebecois 32 percent voter support, compared with 28 percent for the Coalition Avenir Quebec and 26 percent for the Liberals under Premier Jean Charest. The telephone survey of 1,002 people, which has a 3.1 percentage-point margin of error, shows Marois with enough support to win power, but probably not enough for a majority.

Vote Splits

That means Marois may need to rely on support of the other parties to pass laws and hold off on the party’s central goal: independence.

“Everything is going to come down to how the votes are split,” Harold Chorney, a political science professor at Montreal’s Concordia University, said in a telephone interview. “If the PQ depends on support from the Coalition, Ms. Marois isn’t going to be able to do what she wants to do with respect to sovereignty or tuition fees.”

Balancing acts are nothing new to the 63-year-old Marois, a mother of four and grandmother of two who gave birth to her second child 11 days after being named to her first ministerial post in 1981.

As Health Minister from 1998 to 2001, Marois engineered the forced retirement of 1,500 doctors and 4,000 nurses to help the province eliminate a C$5.7 billion ($5.74 billion) budget gap. In her next assignment, she became the only Quebec finance minister in 50 years to pay down the provincial debt.

Balance Budget

“I’m often blamed for having reached zero deficit,” she told the Montreal Board of Trade in a speech Aug. 28. “I’ve never disowned these decisions. They took a lot of courage.”

Marois, who has a Master of Business Administration degree from the HEC Montreal business school, pledges to balance the provincial budget by limiting program spending growth to 2.4 percent a year and boosting revenue through higher mining royalties and income taxes. The tax increases, targeting residents who earn at least C$130,000, would bring in C$610 million annually, according to the party platform.

“We are going to run a very tight ship to reach our balanced budget goal,” Marois said Aug. 28 in Montreal. “It’s a very demanding goal, but it’s not my first one.”

Government debt amounted to about 62 percent of Quebec’s 2011-12 gross domestic product, highest among Canada’s 10 provinces, according to an August report by Toronto-based credit-rating company DBRS Ltd. Quebec’s debt is rated A+ by Standard & Poor’s, Aa2 by Moody’s Investors Service and A (high) by DBRS.

Investment Fund

Marois has promised to create a C$10 billion strategic investment fund -- to be run by the province’s public pension fund manager, the Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec -- and amend provincial law to make it easier for companies to fend off hostile takeovers such as Lowe’s Cos.’s bid for Quebec home-improvement retailer Rona Inc.

“Today it’s the head office and the ownership of Rona that is threatened,” Marois told reporters Aug. 9 in Saguenay, Quebec. “We must act and we must do it with force.”

While Marois has refused to commit to holding a referendum in her first mandate, she makes no secret that a sovereign Quebec is her ultimate goal. A Parti Quebecois government would call a referendum at the “appropriate” time, according to the party’s platform.

Referendum Unlikely

Quebec, which is predominantly French-speaking, has twice voted in referendums against seceding from Canada, most recently in 1995. The issue has lost momentum in recent years, with today’s CROP poll showing support for sovereignty at 29 percent, while 68 percent said they would vote ’No’ if a referendum were held during a first Parti Quebecois mandate.

“Unless the political landscape changes completely, it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll see a referendum in the next five or six years,” Jean-Herman Guay, a political science professor at the University of Sherbrooke, said in a telephone interview.

Marie Barrette, a spokeswoman for the Parti Quebecois, didn’t return messages this week seeking an interview with Marois for this story. Marois declined to say this week what she’d do on the issue of sovereignty in case of a minority mandate.

“What I want is to have a free hand to do what I pledged to do,” she told reporters in Montreal. “A majority mandate is what I wish for. That’s what’s going to allow me to respect the commitments I am making.”

Majority Critical

Winning a majority is critical for the Parti Quebecois if it hopes to widen sovereignty’s appeal, said former Premier Bernard Landry, who led the party from 2001 to 2005. Quebeckers are growing less attached to Canada, which should benefit the pro-independence movement, he said in an Aug. 29 interview.

“If the Parti Quebecois doesn’t get in, then there’s no promotion of sovereignty and no referendum,” Landry said.

If Marois wins, she would become Quebec’s first woman premier. The province would join British Columbia, Alberta, Newfoundland and Nunavut in having a female head of government.

Marois’s success in reaching her goals will probably depend on her ability to deal with Quebec’s unions, traditional backers of the Parti Quebecois.

Marois “has been very clear about the set of challenges and the set of goals she has staked out,” McGill’s Maioni said. To realize them, “she may have to go up against some vested interests that have powerful links to the Parti Quebecois.”

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