Graeme Hamilton: Pauline Marois refuses call to reveal details of her sizeable personal wealth
Graeme Hamilton | March 25, 2014 8:31 PM ET
MONTREAL – As the Parti Québécois called into question the integrity of Philippe Couillard’s Liberal team Tuesday, Mr. Couillard attempted to turn the tables by challenging PQ leader Pauline Marois to make public the extent of her considerable personal wealth.
Mr. Couillard announced that he would be publishing on his party’s website before Thursday’s leaders’ debate his 2012 tax return as well as an accounting of all assets held by him and his wife, Suzanne Pilote. He called on the other leaders to do the same in the interest of transparency.
“People have to know, who is the person … asking me to nominate him or her as premier of Quebec,” Mr. Couillard told reporters in Trois-Rivières. “What is the character? What is the life story? What is her or his personal situation? How can he or she understand and feel what common people in Quebec do feel every week?” He maintained that the assets of party leaders’ spouses must be included in the disclosure because it is easy to shift wealth between members of a couple.
Ms. Marois promptly rejected the invitation. “The answer is no,” she said, noting that she made public her own tax return before the 2012 election and that she and her husband, Claude Blanchet, file a confidential report of their assets with the National Assembly’s ethics commissioner.
Mr. Couillard’s move was a thinly disguised attempt to focus attention on Mr. Blanchet, a businessman who has been practically invisible since Ms. Marois launched the campaign three weeks ago.
In January, the Charbonneau commission into corruption in the construction industry heard wiretap evidence suggesting the Quebec Federation of Labour had a “deal” with Mr. Blanchet to ensure the PQ, then in opposition, would block a public inquiry into corruption. Mr. Blanchet is a former head of the FTQ-sponsored investment fund, the Fonds de solidarité, which also later invested in one of Mr. Blanchet’s companies.
Ms. Marois and Mr. Blanchet had been summoned to testify about the alleged deal before a National Assembly committee, but the election was called and the legislature dissolved before the testimony could take place. Ms. Marois has denied that any deal existed and said her party was never asked to stall a public inquiry.
It is no secret that Mr. Blanchet is rich. He and Ms. Marois last year sold their sumptuous chateau-style home in the Montreal suburb of Île-Bizard for a reported $6.5-million. With their four children grown, they downsized to a $2.5-million condominium in Old Montreal, TVA reported last year.
The son of a gas-station owner, Mr. Blanchet was a millionaire by age 32 after going to work in real estate for tycoon Robert Campeau. Mr. Blanchet moved on to the Fonds de solidarité and later the Société générale de financement, a Quebec government investment agency. He had a mixed record there and left when the Liberals came to power in 2003. But he draws an $80,000 annual pension for his six years at the head of the SGF.
For Philippe Couillard, a surgeon who acknowledges he did well for himself in the private sector after resigning as health minister in 2008, the appeal for transparency also serves to contrast the PQ’s avowed commitment to social democracy with the fortunes amassed by some of its leading players. Star recruit Pierre Karl Péladeau, the former chief executive of Quebecor Inc. touted by some as a future PQ leader, is estimated to be worth close to $1-billion.
“It’s not the amount; it’s the transparency,” Mr. Couillard said. “I am not fighting wealth. I am fighting poverty. If people have succeeded financially, all the better. Excellent. Bravo for them. But people have the right to know who is the person before us, and that includes their financial situation and that of their spouse.”
With less than two weeks left before the April 7th vote, Mr. Couillard is looking to widen what appears to be a strong enough lead over the PQ to win the Liberals a government, if current polling is to be believed.
On Tuesday, the PQ and the Coalition Avenir Québec worked to hammer Mr. Couillard’s Liberal party over questions of ethics.
Ms. Marois repeatedly referred to former leader Jean Charest, warning Mr. Couillard would return Quebec to the days when corruption scandals were the norm.
“I am happy that we have finally reached the point where we can unmask Mr. Couillard and his team,” she said in Blainville, north of Montreal. “We ask him questions, and he doesn’t answer. He does not want to distance himself from the legacy of Mr. Charest.”
Tuesday afternoon, the PQ announced it had filed a complaint with the chief electoral officer related to evidence uncovered during a police raid of Liberal headquarters last summer. In an affidavit used to obtain a subsequent search warrant, made public three weeks ago, anti-corruption investigators said they had found evidence of a Liberal fundraising cocktail party that raised $428,000 and was not reported in the party’s financial statements. The date of the event is unknown, but it would have been before Mr. Couillard became leader.
“Philippe Couillard must tell us what he knows about this illegal funding system,” Pierre Duchesne, the Minister of Higher Education, said in a statement. “Where did the money go?”
Reflecting a consensus that the Liberals are now the clear front-runners, François Legault, the CAQ leader, joined the PQ attack. “It’s the same team that were thrown out because they were worn out and corrupt. And now people are thinking of re-electing them on April 7,” he said.
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