Facing an avalanche of criticism, Premier Jean Charest has bowed to public pressure and is giving greater powers to the public inquiry he had created just two days ago.
The probe headed by Madam Justice France Charbonneau of the Quebec Superior Court will be allowed to subpoena witnesses and offer full immunity if Judge Charbonneau believes it is necessary to conduct a proper investigation into allegations of collusion and corrupt practices in the construction industry and the awarding of public contracts.
“If, during the progress of her work, with the accumulation of evidence she will have gathered and with the intent of protecting it, Judge Charbonneau came to the conclusion that she would need constraining powers, she will be able to make a recommendation to the government and we will abide by her request,” Mr. Charest said on Friday night in his opening remarks to a weekend Quebec Liberal Party convention.
The original mandate unveiled on Tuesday restricted the inquiry’s right to subpoena witnesses or force them to testify in exchange for immunity. Mr. Charest argued that the limited powers were necessary because police investigations had to be protected and the public nature of the proceedings could put criminal evidence at risk.
He said it was also possible that witnesses given immunity could use their testimony before the inquiry to avoid prosecution.
However, several experts said the restrictions meant the inquiry would be nothing more than an expensive research exercise.
The Quebec Bar Association urged Mr. Charest to give the inquiry the means to achieve its objectives.
“It must ensure that the commission of inquiry that it has created can exercise the powers granted under existing legislation, meaning the Public Inquiries Act,” said Louis Masson, president of the Quebec Bar Association.
Mr. Charest was also facing dissent over the inquiry within his own party. A group of Liberal rank-and-file members were proposing to table a motion at the convention to grant greater powers to the Charbonneau commission. One delegate was even proposing to ask delegates to hold a no-confidence vote on the leader.
Mr. Charest’s surprise announcement on Friday night went some way toward easing internal party divisions and opposition against his leadership. It is also a response to public demand for a more powerful inquiry, expressed in public opinion polls taken in the past few days.
Mr. Charest said that his government’s change in the inquiry’s mandate proves he is taking seriously the recommendations in a report last month from Jacques Duchesneau, head of the province’s anti-collusion squad, that showed the infiltration of organized crime into the construction industry and in the awarding of government contracts.
“Tonight, I want to make it very clear that we have full confidence in the commission of inquiry, and those to whom the responsibility has been confided to conduct this work,” he said. “And if they need the power to constrain witnesses and they ask for it, we will grant that power. Because we want those who are guilty to go in front of the courts,” Mr. Charest said to loud applause from party delegates.