Premier Jean Charest has finally acknowledged what his critics have been saying for more than a year - that Quebec is a province mired in corruption and it needs to be fixed.
But the Premier refused to budge on growing calls for a public inquiry, instead promising a permanent anti-corruption agency modelled on New York City's Department of Investigation, set up about 140 years ago after the corrupt William (Boss) Tweed and his cronies skimmed millions from the city coffers
After suffering a stinging by-election defeat Monday - a vote considered a referendum on Mr. Charest's leadership - the Premier moved to mollify a public that has seen its government slide from one scandal to another. His Liberals have been buried in myriad allegations involving collusion, influence-peddling, illegal fundraising practices and unethical conduct.
"We need to look at permanent solutions," Mr. Charest said before heading into Tuesday's caucus meeting. "There are a lot of people that are concerned and worried about all these allegations of collusion and corruption."
He said that New York City can serve as a model, "but we have to be careful. You just can't transport from one jurisdiction what is done elsewhere. It's not the same thing. But it is a model that we are interested in."
New York established its Department of Investigation in 1873 but over the years, it has failed to stop organized crime from penetrating the construction industry and was unsuccessful at eliminating fraud and collusion in the city administration.
Revelations about favouritism and cronyism involving Liberal Party fundraisers at recent hearings into alleged influence-peddling in the nomination of judges have left many Quebeckers bitter about the political process. Since then, they have heard allegations of attempted bribes of provincial candidates, kickbacks paid by construction firms to organized crime, and alleged ties of construction union bosses to the Mafia and biker gangs.
Through it all, Mr. Charest has refused to call a public inquiry. On Tuesday, one of the last holdouts - the influential business lobby group Conseil du patronat - joined the chorus demanding such an inquiry.
The last time Quebec was gripped by controversy over organized crime was back in the 1970s when stories of mob infiltration of the construction industry and other segments of the economy as well as Mafia-related companies marketing tainted meat to consumers prompted then-premier Robert Bourassa to authorize a public inquiry that dragged on for years.
The Commission d'enquête sur le crime organisé (CECO) used its powers of subpoena to hold quasi-judicial hearings. At times, it seized the public's imagination, as a parade of fabled Mafia leaders such as Vic Cotroni and Paoli Violi were forced to appear before the cameras - sometimes defiant, sometimes humble, feigning ignorance in barely audible mumblings. They both were slapped with one-year jail sentences on contempt charges.
Its supporters say the commission cast a glaring public light on the dark side of the criminal underworld. Its detractors say it may have been good theatre but it did little to weaken the stranglehold of organized crime.
"Public education is not a bad thing," says one current prosecutor who is a veteran of several organized-crime and corruption cases, "But did it really solve the crime problem?"
Laval University political scientist Réjean Pelletier said the proposal to create a permanent anti-corruption agency was another way for Mr. Charest to avoid holding a public inquiry that would prove more damaging to the government than the decision not to hold it.
"Public inquiries like the CECO may not lead to arrest but it helps unmask the system of corruption set up over time," Prof. Pelletier said. "It would help us get to the bottom of the problem. ...This proposal to set up a special agency appears improvised and an attempt at appeasing angry voters."
Public Security Minister Robert Dutil was unable to say when the government will be able to announce details about the proposal to create a permanent agency and what special powers it will have to fight corruption.
With a report from Julian Sher in Montreal
The New York investigation model
The New York City Department of Investigation is one of the oldest law-enforcement agencies in the United States. It was formed in the 1870s following a scandal that involved William "Boss" Tweed.
Mr. Tweed had devised a scheme to falsely boost construction costs of public buildings and also use taxpayers money to improve the location of his properties, reaping huge profits from an increase in the value of the land.
The agency has a mandate to investigate and refer for prosecution city employees and contractors engaged in corrupt or fraudulent activities or unethical conduct. Investigations may involve any agency, officer, elected official or employee of the city, as well as those who do business with or receive benefits from the city.
The agency must also detect potential corrupt practices and recommend improvements aimed at reducing possible fraud, waste and corruption. It does background checks on those appointed to major decision-making jobs as well as on those selected to do business with the city.