With much of Quebec locked in a heated argument over the place of religion in a secular society, it was easy to forget that the province’s corruption inquiry is toiling away in obscurity in a nondescript office tower in downtown Montreal.
But corruption was never going to be allowed to fade too far from memory. A late-night news flash Monday revealed anti-corruption investigators raided Quebec Liberal Party headquarters this summer.
Investigators have not yet revealed what, exactly, they were looking for at the party offices. But the revelation combined with the fact the Charbonneau commission will eventually emerge from a lengthy publication ban, means sordid tales of kickbacks, bribes and bid rigging back to near the top of the political agenda as members return to Quebec’s National Assembly on Tuesday.
That agenda will still be shared by the argument over whether hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes in the public service. One year after taking office, the Parti Québécois government has launched one of the most divisive debates the province has seen since the 1995 sovereignty referendum with its plan to draft a Charter of Quebec Values. The charter would create a framework for religious accommodation in the workplace, along with a ban on most visible forms of religious dress in public workplaces.
The plan, introduced with media-reported anecdotes as evidence and little legal underpinning, was widely criticized, even within sovereigntist ranks, as a populist ploy to gain favour with a majority of francophone Quebeckers who support the plan – possibly to set up an election campaign as early as the late fall.
The opposition Liberals are desperate to return the conversation to the economy, which has faltered lately with growing unemployment and dwindling economic growth. Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard seemed to have an opening Monday with the release of a Léger Marketing poll showing Quebeckers split down the middle and with waning enthusiasm for the idea of a values charter. The poll also showed Liberals with a slight lead on the government.
A Charter of Quebec Values may be impossible to draft if nobody can agree on what those values should be. Bernard Drainville, the minister in charge of the file, spoke outside a caucus meeting in a much more conciliatory tone, saying the law hadn’t been written yet, that he was open to improvements, that he hoped the debate could take place with a respectful tone. “We are aiming for the biggest possible consensus among Quebeckers,” Mr. Drainville said.
But other ministers speaking outside that caucus meeting were not making peace. Instead they offered a preview of their next angle of attack: A return to corruption, with a twist.
Several PQ ministers blasted Liberal member of the National Assembly Pierre Marsan, who sent a fundraising letter to a synagogue in a Montreal suburb reminding members of the bounty delivered by the Liberal government, including a permit for a publicly subsidized daycare. He also suggested some donations might help fight the PQ charter.
The handout of daycare permits to Liberal donors was just one of the scandals which embroiled Jean Charest’s government. Mr. Marsan said Monday the letter was improperly formulated: “I never influenced the awarding of a daycare permit, I offered my encouragement,” Mr. Marsan told reporters.
The PQ saw a familiar pattern. “Once again they’re using daycare permits to gain favour with some cultural communities,” said PQ minister Pierre Duchesne.
The Marsan letter is unlikely to cause damage on the scale of the Charbonneau Commission, which helped hasten the downfall of the government of the Liberals under Jean Charest. But the letter controversy is a signpost of what’s ahead: A Quebec Charter of Values will be presented in the form of a law this fall; the Charbonneau Commission will emerge from a publication ban and expose more tales of bribery and extortion; the anti-corruption police unit, known under the French acronym UPAC, has more arrests to make and none of the 100-or-so people already arrested have faced trial yet.
And while Liberals were behind the vast majority of the provincial-level wrongdoing exposed by the commission so far, Justice France Charbonneau has yet to examine the role of unions in corruption. The labour movement in Quebec has long been strong in its support of the Parti Québécois.
In this legislative session, Quebec will plunge ever deeper into corruption and identity politics. With a minority PQ government, the one certainty is the dive will end in an election campaign.