In Quebec, construction pigs fly

Jean Charest sure has a funny way of projecting self-assurance

Here, your favourite two goddamned Englishmen finally dive arms-deep into the issue of Quebec, construction and Jean Charest’s latest 180-degree demi-pas.

PATRIQUIN Hi Phil. You remember Friday, right? You know, the day before the Habs’s truly undisciplined loss to Toronto. Yes, that long ago. Way back then, you and I started an email exchange about how Our Fair Premier Jean Charest flipped the mother of all flops and called a public inquiry into Quebec’s construction industry. I recently wrote something about Charest’s curious tendency to go back on his word after having incurred the maximum amount of political damage on himself, but this was a doozy, given that sometime in the last two years, the Preem basically had the words “no inquiry, let the police do their work” etched into granite and foisted up on the mantlepiece at Manoir Charest in Westmount.

So the public inquiry is called and, lo and behold, it’s a bundle of half-mesures that critics—notably including the province’s bar association—criticized as toothless. Charest called the commission “tailor-made” for the situation—though if that’s the case, that one helluva tailor: much of the inquiry’s work would be done behind closed doors, and showing up would be completely voluntary; France Charbonneau, the appointed judge, didn’t have subpoena powers. It was called all sorts of nasty names by journo and politico types, but I think you had the best phrase for it: “government-sanctioned investigative journalism.”

I was mere inches away from posting the bastard on Friday. Seriously. But some unseen force held me back. “Martin,” said a voice that sounded a lot like Charest’s and/or my third year American History prof, “this weekend, it is the Liberal convention. The natives are restless. Hold off until Monday.” And I did.

I’m glad I held off, because Charest has since provided more flip-flop fodder for the Deux Maudits Anglais mill. Now he’s decided to allow Charbonneau the power to subpoena—meaning, in effect, that the inquiry now has a set of incisors to chomp at the construction industry’s rear end. He may not have anything to hide, but if that’s the case he sure is behaving oddly. Surely it isn’t because his party is the beneficiary of the most construction and engineering firm money by a country mile, is it?

So I put the question to you: is Charest worried about the possible Gomery-like consequences for his party? Is he trying to keep the lid on Pandora’s Box? Inquiry-ing minds want to know.

GOHIER For clarity’s sake, we should specify that Charest managed to reverse himself twice over the course of the weekend. On Friday, he announced he would be open to granting Charbonneau subpoena powers to compel witnesses to testify provided she asks for his permission. The reversal was significant, but so was Charest’s apparent insistence that this exercise is, above all, being conducted under his authority, not Charbonneau’s. By Sunday, Charest was backing off even further, saying Charbonneau could ask for permission to conduct a full-scale inquiry, as defined under provincial law.

I don’t know whether Charbonneau is planning to make such a request, but assuming she does—because, well, why wouldn’t she?— Charest would be in no position to block it. That would not only grant her the power to order witnesses to testify and/or produce documents, it would protect witnesses from being prosecuted for their testimony, a by-product of inquiries Charest initially insisted he was keen to avoid. So the reversal isn’t just meaningful for the dent it left in Charest’s credibility, it’s meaningful because it takes the overarching authority over the inquiry out of Charest’s hands. It becomes, in effect, a judicial rather than a political or government exercise, as it should have been all along. So this is a good thing. A very good thing.

If Charest isn’t worried about Gomery-like consequences to the PLQ, he sure has a funny way of projecting self-assurance. What we saw last week—it’s worth remembering here that all this improvising about the inquiry happened over the course of just five days—was Charest trying to figure out how much leeway he still has with voters. The fact he ended the weekend by, frankly, just giving up, is a pretty clear indication the answer to that question is, ‘none.’ So does Charest get to stop answering questions about corruption now? Or does this put the wind in the opposition’s sails?

PATRIQUIN Correct you are. It’s hard to keep track.

I don’t think you’ll stop hearing questions on corruption, for a couple of reasons. A) there is going to be a steady trickle of leaks and what not stemming from the inquiry itself, methinks. There is still going to be a public aspect to the commission—the kind of think that geeks and masochists watch on Quebec’s version of CPAC, which guarantees continued media coverage—so I think interest will remain fairly strong (though less intense as we are seeing right now); which leads me to B) the opposition PQ is clearly on better footing when corruption is on the agenda. It’s actually quite fun to watch: the second the issue of corruption comes up, the PQ troops stop trying to gouge each other’s eyes out and fall in behind Pauline Marois. So it’s to her benefit to keep it in the headlines as much as possible.

How much wind this puts in the PQ’s sails, though, is debatable. Marois has never been able to pull significantly ahead of Charest, even when the construction corruption business was at its worse. A quick look at the polls show there is anywhere between 16 and 26 per cent undecided voters amongst voters. That’s pretty damn huge, and discouraging for both the Libs and the PQ. Josée Legault even went so far as to say that the two parties are living on borrowed time.

So who benefits? Step right up, François Legault. your carriage awaits

GOHIER I’ve not yet been converted on the viability of Legault, but I think you’re right that he’s got the best shot at winning the “Throw the bums out!” derby that’ll take place in the next election. Which, it’s also worth noting, are going to take place before the inquiry wraps up two years from now.

But even if the inquiry has no impact whatsoever on Quebec’s political map, its mere existence (especially in the form Charest petulantly and reluctantly agreed to on Sunday) is cause for immense celebration. Consider this nugget from the leaked Duchesneau report: in 2008, the winning bids for MTQ projects came in, on average, 1.7 per cent below estimates, and in 2009, they came in 8 per cent below estimates. Then, once Duchesneau’s crew started poking around, the prices dropped dramatically, to 17.2 per cent below estimates. Sunlight is a hell of a detergent.

If Charbonneau’s inquiry can have a similar impact on a broader scale, Quebec will be infinitely better off no matter who’s running it.