Bombardier's PR campaign losing altitude among Quebec opposition

A public relations campaign led by Bombardier CEO Alain Bellemare has, so far, failed to quell public anger in Quebec at the whopping pay raises he and fellow executives gave themselves after the latest round of government bailouts and layoffs.

The three provincial opposition parties each introduced motions in the National Assembly Tuesday, calling on senior management at the aerospace company to give up their $11-million pay bump.​

They also want the Liberal government to renegotiate the terms of the $1.3-billion investment it made in Bombardier's CSeries jet program last year.

"The opposition is united," said Parti Québécois House Leader Pascal Bérubé. "We want the government to join us so that the motion is unanimous." 

But the Liberal government, which has expressed its own reservations about the pay hike, used its majority to block any debate on the motions.  

Public outrage unabated

The motions — which were non-binding — came despite efforts by Bombardier to contain the controversy that erupted after it emerged that the chair of the transportation giant, Pierre Beaudoin, and five senior executives were in line to make $32 million last year, up from $21 million in 2015.

The company claims the increases were warranted because performance targets for 2016 were met. But fresh in the minds of many Quebecers is the $372.5-million loan Ottawa gave the company earlier this year, along with the province's own massive cash infusion last year. 

Bombardier, moreover, announced in October that it was slashing 7,500 jobs, including 1,500 in Quebec.

As fury mounted, Beaudoin asked the board to drop his compensation back to 2015 levels.

When public outrage continued unabated, complete with protests outside the company's Montreal offices on Sunday, Bombardier said it would defer a portion of the compensation package until 2020. 

In a series of recent interviews, Bellemare acknowledged the company did a poor job of communicating the reasons for boosting the executive compensation package.

"I can understand why people were so angry," he told CBC's Daybreak on Monday. "We were doing this to attract top talent because we need that to put the company back on the right track."

Only the lonely 

Premier Philippe Couillard said Monday that he was satisfied with the steps taken by Bombardier to respond to the outcry. But he is alone among the party leaders in Quebec City. 

The PQ argues that Bombardier's decision to defer the compensation represents a small gain. Only 50 per cent of the pay increase will be deferred, said Bérubé, and that portion was initially slated to be paid out in 2019.

"There wasn't much of a reversal on Bombardier's part. They're only delaying the salary increase," he said.

Quebec's investment in the company took the form of a 49.5 per cent stake in a limited partnership responsible for the assets, liabilities and obligations of the CSeries program.

At the time, Bombardier was facing a liquidity crunch, and the cash infusion was considered necessary to signal stability to potential buyers of the single-aisle business jet.

But for that level of involvement, the Quebec government should be entitled to a seat on Bombardier's board of directors, said François Legault, leader of the centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec.

Legault, a former airline executive, has been sharply critical of the government's deal with Bombardier, which he says leaves taxpayers shouldering much of the risk. 

"Philippe Couillard gave a blank cheque to Bombardier, and now we see what's happening," Legault said.

Bérubé suggested Quebec's pension fund manager, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, use the $2 billion it invested in Bombardier's transport division to sway an upcoming shareholders vote on the compensation package.

But the company remains controlled by the Beaudoin family (Pierre Beaudoin's father and grandfather also sit on the board) through a controversial dual-class share structure that ensures them a majority in any vote.