Indecision 2012, Quebec Version: Is Cleaner Government Possible? (Print Version)
by Larry Deck*
Le Québécois Libre, August
15, 2012, No 302

It’s summertime in Quebec, and the stink of corruption is in the air. The cicadas are droning and so are the politicians.

Premier Jean Charest called an election when half the province was on vacation, perhaps in the hope that nobody would notice, but no such luck. His opponents in the Parti Québécois (PQ) and Francois Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) smelled blood and both moved quickly to put the emphasis on corruption and the need for cleaner government.

“Under democracy,” wrote H.L. Mencken, “one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right.”

It’s Just a Step to the Right

The CAQ scored a major coup by enlisting Jacques Duchesneau as a candidate for the riding of Saint-Jérôme. Duchesneau, a former Montreal police chief who famously leaked his scathing report on corruption in the construction and transportation industry last fall to prevent its being buried by the transport minister, is perhaps the only person in Quebec politics who could be taken seriously as a corruption-buster.

The open scandal of Quebec’s infrastructure—first and foremost its crumbling roads and bridges, and the widespread corruption that impedes every effort to fix them—is what rightly preoccupies the voters. Which is why the CAQ stands to have a major impact on this election and currently looks poised to hold the balance of power at the very least.

Could the CAQ actually do something to combat corruption? One wonders. Its specific proposals include expanding government oversight to contracts awarded by municipalities and by Hydro-Québec and Loto-Québec. That would be helpful if it involved increased openness and transparency, but other CAQ proposals are less impressive, and reveal an abiding weakness for the kind of thinking that created the mess in the first place.

For instance, one CAQ idea is to increase the pay of Transport Québec engineers in an attempt to prevent them from using the department as a “school” before decamping for more lucrative gigs in the “private” sector, where of course their salaries continue to be paid by the government indirectly through corruptly-awarded contracts. “The savings will be enormous,” said Legault absurdly about this plan to throw other people’s money at a problem as deep as government itself.

There are other signs that the CAQ intends to carry on business very much as usual. The party plans to do away with $4 billion in annual tax credits and other business subsidies... but only to replace them with direct grants to the tune of $2 billion! The problem with the tax credits, according to Legault, is that they are hard to monitor and control, whereas grants to “businesses deemed worthy” would make it possible for the government to privilege companies doing really innovative things and creating high-paying jobs. “One of the problems we have in Quebec is that we have far too many jobs at $10 an hour and not enough jobs at $20, $30 and $40 an hour.”

Another problem we have in Quebec is that everyone who comes to power in the province thinks it’s the job of government to blunder around picking winners and losers in the economy, awarding contracts and distributing grants and tax credits willy-nilly as if that could possibly be done in a way that did not involve favouritism and corruption.

The idea that something might be done to put an end to the state-corporate collusion that makes the province a goldmine for insiders and cronies is the farthest thing from any politician’s mind. Instead we have each party competing to assert its credentials as an exemplar of “economic nationalism.” Steps must be taken to prevent the foreign takeover of the hardware chain Rona! (Why?) The Liberals were wrong to prop up the province’s failing asbestos mining industry, but of course we have to create a government commission to investigate the prudence of allowing it to disappear. (Why?) The connection between “economic nationalism” and corruption seems to be lost on everyone concerned.

Or a Jump to the Left

The PQ has so far been less specific about its plans to combat corruption, which is no surprise: Pauline Marois plainly expects her party to ride public dissatisfaction to victory as the default alternative to the Liberals, so she has confined her comments to quips and pot-shots. Speaking about the scandal of officials allegedly taking bribes in exchange for valuable permits to open daycare centers, Marois said, “With the Liberal Party, daycares were one envelope, one permit. With the Parti Québécois, it will be one child, one space.”

As confident as Marois may be that she can eliminate corruption by decree without eliminating any of the incentives that produce corruption, she seems even more confident that her party will be the primary beneficiary of Charest’s misfortune, but there she may be mistaken. If the polls are correct, she is currently in three-way race that will not yield a majority for any party.

One way she can expect to gain is to encourage the students to vote. In spite of official declarations to the contrary, it has been clear for some time that the students who supported the boycott of classes in protest against the Charest government’s proposed tuition increase all intend to vote PQ. When the former president of the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) entered the race as a candidate for Laval-des-Rapides, he was merely continuing a fairly obvious political trajectory from student “radical” to party apparatchik.

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

Charest is probably counting on the “silent majority” of people opposed to the student uprisings to count in his favour, but his high-handed bungling of the whole affair has probably alienated as many non-students as students. Bill 78, the preposterous “special law” against public assembly, deserved all the public resistance and international derision it received, and Charest was lucky that summer came along to give his shambolic government a breather before things got really hairy. The whole thing risks flaring up again, and there’s no reason to expect the Liberals to handle it any better this time around. In any case, this generation of CEGEP and university students regards Jean Charest as a supervillain to be defeated at all costs.

For its part, the PQ is treating the students like its useful idiots and can clearly afford to do so as long as the CAQ offers a watered-down version of the tuition increase. Will the PQ keep its promise to peg tuition increases to the rate of inflation? Who knows? If it wins a minority, it can plausibly claim to be powerless against the imperious demands of the CAQ. If it wins a majority, well, all bets are off.

Larry Deck is a librarian who lives in Montreal.