Each corruptly-obtained or overpriced construction contract whittles Quebeckers' trust in their public institutions. Premier Jean Charest is right to have called an inquiry into the province's construction industry, but the haphazard way it is coming together gives little confidence.
What's already been made public about the industry's construction sector is disturbing enough. Anti-corruption squad head Jacques Duchesneau says that criminal biker gangs use construction companies to launder money and raise the price of contracts – last year, the cost of contracts came in at $347-million above the bidding price. Companies give cash to workers to make “personal” donations to political parties, with every party at the trough.
It is costly, deadly and ruinous to Quebeckers' faith in politics. Criminal investigations are under way, but the allegations of corruption are so great that they merit a full political response.
For months, Mr. Charest resisted. This week, he offered a half-measure, a Cabinet decree creating an inquiry, with laudable measures to allow for hearings in private – all the better to encourage fearful witnesses to testify – but with no powers of subpoena.
Quebec has a Public Inquiries Act that would allow Madame Justice France Charbonneau, the inquiry's head, to subpoena witnesses, give them immunity, and summon documents.
Late in the week, the government started to bend. On Friday, Mr. Charest said that Justice Charbonneau will have subpoena power – if she asks for it. On Saturday, Transport Minister Pierre Moreau added “If ever, at some point, she wants to have other powers, she will have it.” On Sunday, Mr. Charest resurfaced to say “If she thinks [an official inquiry]is the vehicle that she needs to do her work, she will ask, and I don't see any reason that I would refuse her.”
The ad hockery just feeds mistrust and puts Justice Charbonneau in a difficult position. Mr. Charest does not have to be as “Mad As Hell,” as Paul Martin was in striking the Gomery Commission:Quebeckers are already fuming -- a party that doesn't yet officially exist, Francois Legault's Coalition pour l'avenir du Québec, leads in public opinion polls. But Mr. Charest needs to demonstrate some political leadership. He can still do the right thing and create a full, official public inquiry – without being asked first.