Quebec’s folly of corruption and bad taste

Jean Charest denied the mess all around him for years--eventually it will destroy him
A folly of corruption and bad taste
Jacques Boissinot/CP

So what’s the going price for Céline Dion tickets these days, anyway? Nine of them, in a luxury suite at Montreal’s Bell Centre? Figure a little over $200 each, anyway. Not less than $2,000 for the set.

If somebody gave you $2,000 worth of Céline Dion tickets, you’d probably remember who gave them to you. I know I’d never forgive anyone who gave me that much access to that much awful, awful music. But Nathalie Normandeau, who was deputy premier of Quebec until she quit politics last autumn, likes Céline Dion. She did get nine tickets to the Bell Centre suites for a 2009 Dion show. And she still couldn’t remember the name of her benefactor when the Radio-Canada investigative journalism program Enquête called her a couple of weeks ago.

It was a trick question, of course. The reporter from Enquête knew who gave Normandeau the tickets. It was Lino Zambito. The same guy who also gave her Madonna tickets.

Lino Zambito is not actually in the business of procuring concert tickets for cabinet ministers. In 2009 it was more of a sideline. Most of the time he’s a construction contractor. A lucky, lucky construction contractor. In 2007 his firm landed a $28-million construction contract that was made possible by a provincial subsidy to the town where he wanted to do the work, Boisbriand. Normandeau approved the subsidy, over her own bureaucrats’ objections.

It gets better. In recent years Zambito has organized five fundraising events for Normandeau. Together the events raised $77,000 for the Quebec Liberals.

So the minister forgot she received thousands of dollars worth of tickets from the guy who got rich off a subsidy she approved against her department’s best judgment, while he was raising the money she needed to win elections. Her explanation? “It was Céline Dion, after all.” There really is no accounting for taste.

The Normandeau follies were only the latest installment in the ongoing folly of corruption that has become public life in Quebec. The stuff I’m telling you about was on last Thursday’s episode of Enquête. But it’s a weekly show. When I wrote this column they were already promising more revelations for their April 19 episode.

On Tuesday, Quebec paused from its regularly scheduled programming to watch as police arrested 14 people north of Montreal on 46 charges including corruption, conspiracy and counterfeiting. The lineup includes Mayor Richard Marcotte of the town of Mascouche and construction company bigwig Tony Accurso. Police found “a system . . . allowing certain companies to gain an advantage toward the attribution of municipal contracts,” Sûreté du Québec Lt. Guy Lapointe said. Lavish gifts for public officials in return for favourable decisions was also part of the system. Maybe Céline Dion could write a song about it all.

Also on the list of the arrested: Louis-Georges Boudreault, the Quebec Liberal party’s Volunteer of the Year for 2010, and Normand Trudel, a businessman who raised $100,000 for the party in 2008 with a cocktail fundraiser in Terrebonne whose guest of honour was Premier Jean Charest.

Given all the above, there’s a good chance Charest will call an election within days.

Wait. What?

It’s true. Against his better judgment, and after stonewalling for more than a year, Charest has appointed a public commission of inquiry into corruption in the construction industry in Quebec. He tried to write terms of reference that would keep the commission’s hearings behind closed doors, but he had to retreat in the face of massive public outrage, so now it’ll all be live on TV. All day long. For months.

Those hearings will probably start this autumn. Right now is Charest’s last chance to call an election before that debacle begins.

There’s still a good chance he won’t start a campaign this spring. It would take nerves of steel for him to do so. The drumbeat of arrests is picking up speed. The very prospect of public hearings is leading insiders to leak to reporters, hoping to influence public perception while they can by ratting out former associates. Charest is way behind Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois in the polls. And the new party, François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec, is fading, which means the anti-Liberal vote isn’t as divided as it might have been last autumn.

Every day the headlines bring new horror shows for Charest. It’s true that the corruption allegations have no respect for party lines. The PQ can expect to be dirtied by whatever comes out of the commission of inquiry too. No matter. The public is in a mood to throw some bums out, and right now Charest and his Liberals are the bums.

His only hope, paradoxically, is the endless protests against his government’s university tuition increases. The students boycotting their classes have benefited from considerable public sympathy, but that’s starting to fray. And only the Liberals support the tuition hikes. In a polarized campaign, Charest could hope to hold some support while the opposition divides. It wouldn’t save his career as premier, but it might keep Liberal losses to a minimum.

Charest has been a great survivor. But he denied the mess all around him for years, rather than face it. Eventually it will destroy him. He gets to pick the date.