National Column: Bombardier bygones may not become bygones

by Chantal Hebert

It has long been taken for granted that no prime minister, no Quebec premier, would ever let Bombardier go under on his or her watch. The aerospace giant’s leading contribution to Canada’s R&D sector and the thousands of jobs it provides kept it on the shortlist of Canadian corporations that no government would allow to fail.

Over and above any economic consideration, the fact that Bombardier was the corporate apple in the eye of most Quebecers guaranteed it was treated as a political sacred cow in both capitals.

In the wake of the uproar over its executives’ compensation, that is a status Bombardier may want to avoid putting to the test. It has become untouchable in the wrong sense of the word.

It is hard to overstate the magnitude of the popular backlash the company’s management has unleashed by handing itself pay hikes and bonuses of a magnitude normally consistent with a corporate success story.

At this juncture, Bombardier would qualify for that title only if it were considered a feat to wrestle a multibillion-dollar bailout from two orders of governments while eliminating thousands of jobs at home and abroad.

A poll published this weekend reported that 93 per cent of Quebecers were angry over the compensation news. That is as close to unanimity as one can get. It is also the kind of number that no politician can take lightly.

At this point, Bombardier has no friends in the provincial and federal capitals, or at least none who are not embarrassed to be associated with the company. In response to public pressure, it has announced that it was postponing part of the pay hikes for a year. That has provided its cover-seeking political allies with little more than a fig leaf.

In Quebec, the compensation story cut the legs from under Philippe Couillard’s Liberal government just as it was getting a rare post-budget boost. The premier has spent the past week fending off opposition charges that his government bailed out the company with little or no regard for safeguarding taxpayers’ money from abuse.

Couillard has chosen to make fiscal rigour the mantra of his government. The opposition is having a field day arguing that it walks that walk when it is cutting social programs, but not when it is issuing corporate welfare cheques.

On Parliament Hill, the controversy has given new life to the debate over whether Justin Trudeau was right to pledge $372.5 million in loans to Bombardier earlier this year.

There were plenty of signs in the months leading to the self-serving Bombardier compensation move that Quebecers were running out of patience with its financial demands. Only a company disconnected from reality or too arrogant to think it should be accountable to the taxpayers who bailed it out would have failed to take note of those signs.

Last fall, Couillard’s decision to sign off on a $1.3-billion bailout raised more opposition questions in the national assembly than it elicited applause among the public.

From Day 1, the Coalition Avenir QuÈbec had been arguing that the premier had failed to attach even minimal strings to the public money it handed Bombardier.

Even as the premier tried to turn the heat of public opinion on Trudeau for taking his time to match his government’s contribution, the federal Liberals’ standing in voting intentions in Quebec continued to climb while that of his own party declined.

When a federal package that fell significantly short of matching Quebec’s commitment was belatedly delivered in early February, it was Couillard, and not Trudeau, who took the most flak – for having failed to exact guarantees from the company that Ottawa had secured.

As of now, both governments can only hope Bombardier will make good on its promise to turn the corner on its financial difficulties – and that it will not ask for more money.

The company may have managed to make corporate bailouts of any kind a lose-lose proposition for politicians.

Bombardier executives believe Quebecers will get over their anger and let bygones be bygones sooner rather than later. But then, they also believed they deserved big bonuses for milking billions of public dollars out of two governments.

They might keep in mind that Quebec’s licence plates read: Je me souviens.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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