Who do you trust most? The question has been asked in countless polls, and the answer is usually the same. Doctors and nurses tend to come first, the police are among the top categories - and journalists and politicians rank at the very bottom. Last week, an Angus Reid poll asked the same question of 807 Quebeckers - this time, with surprising results.
Unbelievably, but true, journalists were the fourth most trusted group! This sudden rise in public esteem, I believe, must have something to do with the superb work of a dozen investigative reporters, from various media, who have been uncovering for more than a year a series of scandals involving the Montreal administration and the Quebec government.
Unsurprisingly, priests ranked low on the list - even lower than lawyers. (This is a direct result of the scourge of pedophilia that has destroyed the image of the Roman Catholic Church). And, if only 33 per cent trust bankers (another unsurprising finding), the most distrusted category by far was politicians, who rated only 13 per cent. Never before have politicians been so reviled in the province. For 80 per cent of those interviewed in the same survey, politicians are seen as dishonest; for 88 per cent, they don't tell the truth, and 69 per cent think that politicians don't care about the interests of the population. Cynicism about politics has reached an unprecedented high.
This knee-jerk reaction, as massively unfair as it is - most politicians are honest and try to care about the public good - is more a sign of discouragement than actual contempt of the political class. Sixty-two per cent say they are "discouraged," a feeling that reflects helplessness rather than hate. And there are grounds for discouragement, indeed, in the accumulation of scandals now plaguing the Charest government.
There have been worse scandals before and, on an international scale, Quebec, as well as the whole of Canada, can certainly boast of having one of the "cleanest" political classes in the world. Still, when relatively minor cases are added on top of one another, it creates an atmosphere of acute distrust.
Let's just mention two recent incidents: Premier Jean Charest had to fire Tony Tomassi, a cabinet minister who used a gas company credit card belonging to a firm that had contracts with public institutions. That was followed by the opposition accusing another cabinet member, the Public Security Minister, of interfering on behalf of a businessman to help him get a licence to carry a firearm. The minister insisted in the National Assembly that there was never any political interference.
It seems like not a week goes by in this province without new allegations of conflicts of interest and shady deals involving politicians.
More importantly, there have been repeated allegations that the construction industry throughout the province is rife with political corruption and that this might be partly connected to improper financing of political parties. Yet, Mr. Charest has steadfastly refused to set up a public inquiry into the issue.
If an election were held today, the Liberals would be severely beaten. A recent Léger Marketing poll shows the opposition Parti Québécois would form a majority government with 40 per cent of the vote. A record 20 per cent say they would not vote or would spoil their ballot. PQ Leader Pauline Marois ranks much behind her party in voters' minds, but today she would have a strong chance to become the first female premier in Quebec's history. That is, if she ran against Mr. Charest. But when the next election is called - normally in about three years - one thing is sure: The Quebec Liberal Party will have a new leader.