AP Interview: Quebec premier seeks US investments

AP News
Posted: Dec 15, 2012 12:21 PM
AP Interview: Quebec premier seeks US investments

NEW YORK (AP) — Quebec's new premier, Pauline Marois, doesn't shy away from the truth about her government's separatist ambitions, and is banking on a policy of transparency and fiscal responsibility to lure foreign investors who might otherwise be worried.

It helps that given Marois' slim edge in the legislature — she leads a minority government — her Parti Quebecois has no chance of passing any legislation calling a referendum on separatism during this mandate. Still, she made clear in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday that breaking away from Canada is a goal.

"I say yes, we are sovereigntists ... and we want to explain this project and to convince the population of Quebec," Marois said. But an eventual move in that direction would be open and democratic, and would not come as a surprise, she added.

"We will not hide it. We will have a debate, we will discuss that and we will do a referendum if we think the population will agree with more than 50 percent of the vote," said Marois, who was on a three-day visit to New York to court potential investors and attract business opportunities.

Quebec has held two referendums to split from Canada, in 1980 and 1995, the last narrowly rejecting independence. A poll done shortly before the province's elections in early September showed support for independence was under 30 percent, but analysts at the time said voters were weary of the Liberals after three terms in office.

More pressing right now for Marois, who is the province's first woman premier, is to project an image of a healthy and well-managed economy and establish her government's credibility with the business community in Canada and abroad.

"I explain first of all, we will be responsible as a government," said Marois.

But the Parti Quebecois starts off with two strikes against it when it travels to the United States, said Pierre Martin, a political science professor at the Universite de Montreal.

"They are, after all, the party of the left, and there is the perception that they can't be fiscally responsible," Martin said, adding that Marois was criticized for enacting policies that were too austere during a brief stint as finance minister about 10 years ago.

"The other strike is that their raison d'etre is to make Quebec a sovereign country so they have to reassure the rest of the world this is not a statement of revolution ... that they value free trade," Martin added.

Marois took a first step towards a show of responsibility by introducing a tough budget that aims to eliminate Quebec's deficit in 2014 by imposing strict spending limits and tax increases for the wealthier citizens. Her government also has raised taxes on such non-essential goods as alcohol and tobacco.

Marois said she plans to increase mining royalties and pour the profit from those into a fund to pay down the province's debt.

"The goal is not to kill the industry. The goal is to have more returns for the population of Quebec," Marois said.

Separately, and to help sweeten the pot for investors, the PQ government is offering 10 years-worth of tax holidays to companies that invest $300 million or more in projects in Quebec.

Marois also must contend with a huge corruption scandal that exploded under the previous Liberal Party administration, led to the resignation of Montreal's mayor and revelations of graft and ties to organized crime in the construction industry.

Marois' government has since enacted laws to remove collusion and influence peddling when government contracts are awarded. Maximum political donations were set at $100.

The premier's visit to New York included private visits with potential investors — she said there are companies that have decided to invest, though she said it was too soon to say which — an address to industry and state and local government representatives at the Foreign Policy Association, and a night out to see a dance performance of Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal at the contemporary ballet Joyce theater.

Her mission was over Friday evening, but she planned to spend an extra day shopping in New York and (the mere mention filled her with joy) eating a New York pretzel from one of the city's iconic food carts.