Premier Jean Charest is nothing if not a canny politician. His announcement on Thursday that he will focus on his province’s faltering economy in the just-called Quebec election campaign will give him a leg up on his opponents, distracted as they are by tired thoughts of sovereignty and the right to bang a pot in the street. But there is another issue that Quebeckers need to hear him make clear pronouncements about, and that is the sordid corruption scandal involving the province’s construction industry.
The taint goes beyond the allegations of bid-rigging, kickbacks, exchanges of favours and gifts involving politicians, deputy ministers and other ministry officials, violence, dangerously poor construction practices and organized-crime money laundering – all of which was outlined in a report prepared by the respected former Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau. Although that is bad enough, the exposure of this rampant corruption was exacerbated by Mr. Charest’s reluctance to properly fund and support Mr. Duchesneau’s investigation in the first place, and then by his unwillingness to follow up with a commission of inquiry into its deeply troubling findings. Only when Mr. Charest was backed into a corner did he agree to launch an inquiry, headed by Madam Justice France Charbonneau; even then he had to be further shamed by public pressure into giving the inquiry the power to subpoena and, if necessary, grant immunity to witnesses.
So what is Mr. Charest’s position on the corruption in his province’s construction industry? Does he have the courage and wherewithal to address it? He cannot use the dodge of there being an ongoing inquiry, which began in June, is now on break and will
resume 13 days after the Sept. 4 election to avoid telling voters what his party’s plan is for addressing the scandal. And he cannot disingenuously wage an election campaign solely on promises to lower the unemployment rate and rein in the province’s student protesters.
Pressed by reporters on Thursday to grade his own record in fighting corruption, Mr. Charest gave himself an 8 out of 10. Many others would score him lower. He needs to do more to assure Quebeckers that he has their interests at heart, and that he will work to protect them from elements that try to subvert those interests. Otherwise it will remain the elephant in the room.