Rogue Quebec billionaire not so much going into politics as launching a takeover bid by Andrew Coyne
Mar 10, 2014
Source: National Post
On the day it was announced, Pierre Karl Péladeau’s entry into provincial politics was hailed as a “masterful coup” for the Parti Québécois, a “game-changer” that would bolster the party’s credentials on economic issues. And not just in the newspapers he owns.
A day later, the hazards of inviting rogue billionaires to try their hand at politics began to become apparent. Asked whether he would divest his controlling interest in Québecor, the dominant media conglomerate in Quebec, Mr. Péladeau refused. And if the province’s ethics commissioner tells him he must? “I have no intention of selling my shares,” he huffed, adding it was “out of the question.”
By the afternoon the tycoon was striking a more contrite tone, insisting that he would co-operate with the commissioner — indeed, that he was already doing so. Still, it left open the question: which Péladeau was one to believe? The arrogant plutocrat of the morning, or the humble democrat of the afternoon? He still hadn’t said he would sell the shares, after all. Would he conform with the conflict of interest laws, or would the laws be made to conform with him?
Indeed, Mr. Péladeau would seem to be a man of many contradictions. Was the Pierre Karl Péladeau who declared on Sunday that he would run for the PQ the same Pierre Karl Péladeau who, 11 days earlier, had firmly ruled out the idea? Is it possible that a man of such famously conservative leanings, so reviled in the union movement, could accommodate himself to the union-friendly, left-leaning PQ? And this now openly separatist Péladeau, the one who wants to give his children “a country of which they will be proud” — meaning an independent Quebec — can he also be the owner of the Quebec-bashing, jingo-Canadian Sun Media newspaper and TV holdings in the rest of Canada?
The last is the easiest to resolve: It’s just business, indistinguishable in this regard from the rabid nationalism of Le Journal de Montréal, Sun’s Quebec stablemate. Some people sell cheap perfume. Mr. Péladeau is in the cheap emotion end of things, peddling different brands of phoney outrage to different brands of rube. He doesn’t necessarily mean either kind; he just wants to profit from them both. (Not that there is any real contradiction between the two. Those who would take Quebec out of Confederation and those outside Quebec who urge it to go are objective allies.)
But then, the same is true of his other beliefs: where they conflict, business comes first. Mr. Péladeau’s supposed free-market leanings have not prevented him from lunching at the state buffet, whenever it suited him. His cable television company, Videotron, is a regulated monopoly, bought with the help of the province’s pension fund, the aggressively nationalist Caisse de dépot et placement. So it is outside the province: Sun News Network, which serves as the propaganda arm of the federal Conservatives, is the recent beneficiary of a must-carry ruling from the CRTC for which it aggressively lobbied, while Videotron’s wireless phone ambitions have been realized via a spectrum auction carefully rigged in its favour.
Mr. Péladeau’s views, then, are not so different from those of the PQ. He is not a free marketer but a corporatist. Like many businessmen, he is accustomed to identifying his own interests with those of the economy, seeing the economy in turn as a sort of corporation writ large. In a province that has made state capitalism — Quebec Inc. — part of its identity, and where the line between public and private interests is often blurred, this is not unusual. But rarely has it been taken so literally.
Quebec’s politics, more than most, have long been a revolving door in which corporate executives become cabinet ministers become executives again. Mr. Péladeau proposes to eliminate a step: If he is allowed to hold onto Québecor, he will be both at the same time. It does not matter that he no longer holds a formal management position. He controls the company, a position that is hardly affected by the farcical proposal to keep his shares in a “blind trust.” This is as meaningless as when it was proposed, federally, by Paul Martin — Joe Clark memorably called it a “Venetian blind trust” — with the difference that Mr. Martin was merely the owner of a shipping company, not a sprawling media empire.
In Mr. Péladeau’s case, the potential for conflict runs both ways: not only that he might use his public position to advance his private interests, but that he might use his private interests to advance his public position. This is hardly a theoretical concern: He is known to take a close hand in how his businesses are run; journalists and others who cross him have often suffered the consequences. His initial impulse to disregard the ethics commissioner is a sign of how unaccustomed he is to being contradicted — a foretaste, perhaps, of what’s to come. If this is the way he carries on now, imagine what he will be like if he ever gets power — that is, if he combines the power he already possesses as a media baron with the power of the state, as a cabinet minister, or even, as many suspect is his real ambition, as premier.
This is crony capitalism taken to the next level, oligarch politics of a kind more usually identified with Russia or Italy, a concentration of power that is not just unwise, but dangerous. Mr. Péladeau, it seems, is not so much going into politics as launching a takeover bid.
© National Post