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Editorials The Charbonneau lesson: Public contracts are always a criminal opportunity

Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau speaks at a press conference after the findings of her report that looked into corruption in Quebec's construction industry were released, Tuesday, November 24, 2015 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS

When large sums of public money are involved, things can go spectacularly wrong. And unless the store is carefully watched, large sums can easily go missing. It's worth remembering, as the federal government prepares to open the sluices on a multibillion-dollar national infrastructure initiative. The initiative is, all things considered, a good idea. But public money spent can easily be misspent – or worse.

Consider this week's report from the Charbonneau Commission, struck four years ago to investigate corruption in Quebec's construction industry. It should be required reading for anyone involved in a public tendering process.

In 263 days of testimony involving more than 300 witnesses, the provincially appointed panel heard of millions stolen through bid-rigging and inflated-billing schemes involving bent civil servants, dodgy contractors, political bagmen and, inevitably, the mob. Among the key recommendations: creating more distance between politicians and contracting decisions, setting up a standalone regulatory authority for would-be bidders, and more vigorous business licensing rules. There are also a raft of measures aimed at bolstering political ethics and stricter oversight on fundraising, which one witness called "a machine that has become a monster."

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Quebec's experience is a dolorous one, but it is by no means unique. And the province appears to be cleaning up the smelliest muck in its stable, with a permanent anti-corruption task force continuing to build cases. Some construction costs have even fallen in the short term.

But new ethical standards have also limited the number of qualified contractors, which necessarily restricts competition, at least in the short term. And the City of Montreal's inspector-general – a post created in response to revelations at the inquiry of widespread corruption of municipal officials – reported this week on ongoing collusion in the city's rich snow removal contracts.

Rooting out corruption in government contracting is a constant struggle. It is a fight against human nature, or at least one part of it, namely the impulse of insiders to use their position for financial gain. Justice France Charbonneau has exposed a variety of system failures, offered a series of fixes – and provided a reminder that the public purse will always be a target for those seeking private profit.

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