MONTREAL - Even people who suspected the worst about corruption in this province's construction industry must have been shocked to have it confirmed as forcefully as it has been in the report of Quebec's anti-corruption squadThe report doesn't name firms or individuals who colluded in ripping off untold millions from Quebec taxpayers through manipulation of public-works contracts, but the general picture it draws is the construction industry as a cesspool of corruption worthy of a banana republic.
Where previously such allegations have come from investigative media reports, this time it comes from a government-appointed squad of veteran investigators headed by former Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau.
What it says, in short, is that:
Engineering consulting firms routinely in-flate the cost of public construction projects.
Construction companies conspire to bilk the government in bidding for contracts.
Such activities are abetted by corrupted government officials.
Organized crime is thickly involved in such machinations.
Dirty money from these scams finds its way into the coffers of political parties.
The report further notes that such criminal activity is enabled by a shortage of qualified engineers in the Transport Department's employ, and a reluctance by the department to prosecute offenders caught inflating costs - the preference being instead to negotiate out-of-court settlements that are a feeble deterrent to the culture of corruption.
Also disturbing is the government's response to these revelations. Newly appointed Transport Minister Pierre Moreau acknowledged that the report is a "proper diagnostic" of the ills plaguing Quebec's construction sector; in other words, that what it says is true. And yet he continued to reject the wider public inquiry that has been demanded not just by the political opposition, but by all sectors of Quebec society. The call for an inquiry has been strongly and persistently supported in opinion polls for more than a year now.
The minister maintains that police investigations will suffice to determine what illegalities are being committed and who is committing them, and that this will give the government the information it needs to apply corrective measures. But public trust in the government's ability and willingness to do so has eroded to the point where a more thorough airing of the situation is now imperative.
What is needed is a two-pronged approach. There must be a continued, and even steppedup, police operation to root out those who may be breaking the law and send them to trial, where stiff deterrent penalties should be meted out if guilt is established. There must also be a public inquiry whose primary function is not to assign blame so much as to fully clarify what has gone wrong and to establish corrective measures to keep the province from ever falling into such a morass again.
The Charest government has been resisting the calls for such an inquiry. One has to assume that a large part of the reason - though it has of course remained unstated - is that the government's management of the construction industry and public-infrastructure works would probably be revealed as deficient. But then, it is inconceivable that the corruption in the construction industry is limited to the eight years that the Charest government has been in office. It is too entrenched for that. It is quite likely that a thorough inquiry would also hang blame on previous governments for sins of omission and commission. Furthermore, a case last year in which a construction firm pleaded guilty to illicit political contributions revealed that the Liberals were not the only recipients.
The Liberals have more to gain than to lose by doing the right thing, which is to call a full public inquiry. In not doing so, after this damning report, they will surely be lost.