MONTREAL – The experienced political adviser, a fresh enlistee from Ottawa, had a look at Pauline Marois’ communications approach and was concerned with what he saw.
The year was 2008 and Stephane Gobeil, then a backroom strategist for the Bloc Quebecois, says he identified a few problem areas after joining the Parti Quebecois leader’s team as a consultant for the election campaign.
Gobeil pinpointed Marois’ troublesome habit of adding unnecessary information to the end of otherwise-clear responses while replying to questions during leaders’ debates. The routine, he said, obscured her message.
He also noted how Marois would try to answer every journalist’s question and how she would often be baited by rivals into defending the records of past PQ governments, even though at the time it had been five years since the last Pequiste premier had held power.
This scenario would have been jarring for a man who spent years working in Ottawa, where he would have watched the Harper government obsess over employing a disciplined communications strategy on a daily basis.
“You should never enter into the game of opponents or journalists,” Gobeil said in an interview with The Canadian Press before Marois made Wednesday’s election call, which will send Quebecers to the polls April 7.
“If not, you will have a difficult time delivering the message. But that’s part of her personality, she responds to questions. She’s sincere.”
In announcing the election, Marois read out a list of what she called her government’s accomplishments since coming to power in September 2012. She did not take any questions from reporters.
Gobeil said he worked with Marois to help her improve in areas such as delivering her message in shorter, to-the-point sentences.
He recalled how Marois, who later hired him as a full-time adviser and speechwriter, embraced the project and dedicated many hours to it.
She went on to become Quebec’s first female premier four years later.
Since winning that minority mandate, Marois has further tightened her communications style.
For example, her office broke from tradition and began limiting the number of reporters’ questions during her news conferences.
Historically, these news events had been free-for-alls that gave journalists the freedom to challenge Quebec premiers with follow-up queries if they thought the initial answer wasn’t complete enough.
At some news conferences, Marois has also restricted the nature of the questions to the subject of the day, as a way to avoid thorny subjects and to limit surprises. She has even outright refused to answer certain questions from journalists at public events.
The PQ government’s communication tactics do share aspects with the strict modus operandi of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Since taking office in 2006, Harper’s news conferences have for the most part taken place far from Ottawa, with reporters hoping to ask one of the limited number of questions selected from a PMO-controlled list.
But his guarded media strategy has been labelled as too protective by Marois’ office, which expressed its public disapproval over the PMO’s approach in early 2013.
Her entourage balked at a proposal by the PMO’s communications team that they follow the Ottawa practice of taking questions from just four reporters and asking for their names in advance.
Harper and Marois were supposed to hold a news conference together, but their differences over logistics meant they settled for a joint statement instead.
“She’s not like Stephen Harper,” said Gobeil, a former adviser to ex-Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe who worked full-time in Marois’ office from August 2011 until August 2013.
Gobeil said Marois remains quite accessible to journalists and holds news conferences every week, but he acknowledged she’s had to be more careful with her words since becoming premier because they can have repercussions.
“If were to use a term for it, I would say that she’s taken control,” said Gobeil, who recently returned to the PQ backroom.
“Not like Stephen Harper, not in a control-freak type of way.”
Still, the PQ has taken precuations to reduce the risk of any Marois slip-ups by limiting her face time during the campaign.
The party has opted for a 33-day campaign, the shortest allowed by law, and it announced last week that Marois would participate in only one televised leaders’ debate — she took part in three in 2012.
With Marois the perceived front-runner, her team feels she has the most to lose. Recent polls suggest her guidance has led the pro-independence PQ within reach of a majority mandate.
Gobeil believes Marois, now 64, has grown more comfortable in the premiership, particularly since she no longer has to fight from the opposition bench.
“She’s more of a woman made to govern than to do political battle,” he said.
“It really showed when she became premier. We saw that she was in her element.”
Quebecers, he added, have also had enough time to compare Marois to her main opponents, both of whom have struggled: rookie Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard and Coalition party Leader Francois Legault.
The PQ received another boost after details of its controversial secularism proposal surfaced last summer.
The identity charter proposed a ban on conspicuous signs of religion in the public sector, including Jewish kippas and the Muslim veil.
The divisive project led to condemnation and protests — even former PQ premiers called for the project to be watered down. But polls suggested it also attracted considerable support in Quebec.
Marois defended the charter as a document that would affirm gender equality and reflect universal values as well as Quebec values.
“We’re moving forward in the name of all the women, all the men, who chose Quebec for our culture, for our freedom, and for our diversity,” Marois said.
Gobeil, however, believes Marois has an opportunity to gain the most ground by staying focused on Quebec’s economy, an area long seen as a Liberal strength and a PQ weakness.
Marois, a former finance minister, announced a flurry of multimillion-dollar public projects in recent months, such as a new cement plant in Quebec’s Gaspe region and an oil-exploration project on the remote Anticosti Island.
“For the moment, the Liberal party, which has historically been the economic party, has absolutely nothing to propose,” Gobeil said.
“I think that right now we are credible, meaning the government is credible when it comes to the economy and jobs. Have we completely changed the perception? Maybe not, but a good part of it, yes I think so.”
The PQ, however, has been criticized for breaking its promise to balance the province’s books by 2013-14. Instead, it predicted a deficit of $2.5 billion in 2013-14 and a shortfall of $1.75 billion for 2014-15.
Its switch to red ink prompted Fitch Ratings to downgrade Quebec’s outlook in December to negative from stable.
Even ex-PQ premier Jacques Parizeau issued a warning to Marois in February, when he raised concerns in a newspaper editorial over the state of the province’s economy.
The economist, citing two recent studies on the Quebec economy, wrote it was the first time in 30 years he was concerned over the province’s fiscal outlook.
This wasn’t the first time Marois fought criticism from within her own party since taking over the leadership.
A high-profile caucus revolt in 2011 represented perhaps her biggest challenge, so much so that pundits had written her off.
At the time, PQ members had grown impatient over her refusal to commit to a timeline for a referendum on Quebec independence, which would be held after a PQ election win.
That tumult was followed by several Pequistes quitting the party in protest, including senior figures such as Louise Beaudoin and Pierre Curzi, over her handling of a controversial project to build an NHL-style Quebec City arena.
Marois, struggling in the polls at the time, withstood the months-long storm with a resilience that eventually earned her a Thatcher-esque nickname: “The Concrete Lady.”
“The hard blows rained down every day, it was very tough for her to read the newspapers, the radio, the TV in the morning,” said Gobeil, who added he spent several hours a day at Marois’ side during the crisis.
“But listen, she got dressed, she put a smile on her face and she went to work like nothing was going on.”
Marois hung on to lead her party to the 2012 victory over Jean Charest’s corruption-battered Liberal government, returning the PQ to power for the first time since 2003.
The win marked a crowning political achievement for Marois, who was first elected to the legislature in 1981 and had managed most senior cabinet portfolios over three decades in politics.
She campaigned for the PQ leadership in 1985 and 2005 without success, though her name emerged as a potential contender many times.
Her opportunity arrived in 2007, after the Andre Boisclair-led PQ suffered a crushing defeat, leaving the door open for an unopposed Marois to became leader.
Gobeil called Marois’ first year as premier “cacophonic” because her group of mostly inexperienced cabinet ministers “didn’t always respect the sheet music (and) it wasn’t always clear.”
But he thinks she found her bearing in July, around the time of the fiery rail disaster in Lac-Megantic, which levelled part of the community and killed 47 people.
Gobeil said the premier was credited with responding quickly to the emergency and also showed her human side in the devastated town, quieting critics who had long accused her of being aloof.
“I think everyone sees that we can like the PQ government’s politics or not, but I think everyone sees that she has the capacity to be a strong premier,” he said.