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Business leaders remain wary of a PQ government

The Parti Québécois's minority government will leave Pauline Marois little elbow room to implement its economic platform – a prospect quietly welcomed by the business community.

While business leaders are generally leery of political uncertainty and unstable governments, many have raised concerns over the PQ's economic policies of increased social spending through tax hikes on high earners and mining companies. As a result, they welcome a strong Liberal opposition to a sovereigntist government that they believe could scare foreign investment away.

Already, leaders such as Yves-Thomas Dorval, president of the Conseil du Patronat du Québec, the main lobby for Quebec's big business, have warned that companies are holding off investment decisions because of the increased political uncertainty over this regime change.

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They are worried about the PQ's more interventionist stance in the province's economy, either directly or through the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which is technically at arm's length with the government. They generally oppose the party's intent to raise taxes for high-income earners, as Quebeckers are already the most burdened taxpayers in North America.

And they doubt Ms. Marois's resolve to tackle Quebec's debt, as the PQ has promised to freeze electricity rates as well as daycare and tuition fees. The pledge to reverse the Liberal decision to unfreeze electricity rates as of 2014 will deprive the government of $1.6-billion in extra revenue per year.

At the end of March, Quebec's gross debt stood at $183.7-billion – equal to 55 per cent of the province's nominal GDP, higher than in any other province.

Yet Ms. Marois has maintained throughout the campaign that she will balance the books in the next fiscal year by increasing the tax rate of Quebeckers who earn more than $130,000; by raising mining royalties; and by hoping the economy will pick up speed and bring in more revenues. But with as little as 32 per cent of the popular vote, the PQ Leader does not have a strong mandate to carry out business-averse tax hikes.

Ms. Marois is arguably the most seasoned politician in Quebec, having headed a dozen departments, including education and health. The former finance minister governed as a moderate and a centrist in 2001 and in 2002 and did balance her budget.

But the PQ has changed. It is to the left of where it stood under Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry, with marked increases in social spending such as daycare. It has hardened its stance on sovereignty, with a renewed sense of urgency. And as the PQ has evolved, so has Ms. Marois to win over her party base.

While trying to temper the party's hardliners, she has stated repeatedly that she and she alone will decide the date of the next referendum, when conditions are ripe. It is the double discourse of PQ leaders, as referendum fatigue is prevalent in Quebec.

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The last CROP poll is telling: When asked if the province should become a sovereign nation, only 28 per cent of Quebeckers would vote yes. In fact, two out of three Quebeckers don't want another referendum at all. So if the PQ is popular, its political option clearly isn't. This reassures the business community, which fears the uncertainty associated with another referendum.

If the leftist and sovereigntist Québec Solidaire party allies itself and its two seats with Ms. Marois, it could taint her mandate. Québec Solidaire wants the state to play a much increased role in the pharmaceutical and energy industries, through nationalizations if need be.

This is the worst-case scenario for the business community, which is hoping that a strong Liberal opposition will maintain the business climate as it is. The Liberals, however, could well be distracted with a leadership race, as Jean Charest was defeated in his Sherbrooke riding.

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About the Author
Chief Quebec correspondent

Sophie Cousineau is The Globe and Mail’s chief Quebec correspondent. She has been working as a journalist for more than 20 years, and was La Presse’s business columnist prior to joining the Globe in 2012. Ms. Cousineau earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois and a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from McGill University. More

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