(Voici le texte intégral de ma réplique à Maclean’s)
I was more amused than shocked by Maclean’s cover naming Quebec The Most Corrupt Province in Canada. It certainly feels that way these days, and Martin Patriquin’s only challenge was to cram in a single story all the strands of allegations and shady shenanigans surrounding Quebec’s current Charest government. Strands brought to light by an aggressive Quebec media and no less insistent opposition parties.
Granted, the blow – being named Most corrupt province — was not as painful for me to take as for most of my brethren, since I am aware of Maclean’s penchant for take-no-prisoners covers. Thanks to the weekly’s headline writers, I had been informed these past few months that Lawyers are Rats, Hitler is Back, Toronto Sucks, New York is a Land of Constant Terror, Hillary Adopted an Alien Baby and Bush became a new Saddam.
No wait! Maybe one of these titles came from another magazine. No matter. Having been a journalist for a couple of decades, I did try to find in last week’s issue the methodology used to grant Québec its number one spot on the corruption scale. I was curious to know who was number two, and how wide the margin was – as in Maclean’s yearly university rankings. Did the writers use the number of corruption convictions of elected officials in each province since 2000? The cash amount proven to have changed hands illegally? Or, since no conviction is to be found in Québec (yet?), the number of police inquiries in play? I was disappointed. Maclean’s has no comparison metrics whatsoever. The whole cover is based on opinion and perception alone. Hopes for a Pulitzer on this one are dim.
So, just what is the fuss about? A a screaming headline loosely based on facts ? They’re a dime a dozen. They sell. And Maclean’s is in the selling business. So all would be forgiven, if it were not for Andrew Coyne’s scoop that Quebecer’s are impervious to «constructive criticism». Let’s try.
Coyne to Quebec: I have some constructive criticism for you.
Quebec: Great, let’s hear it
Coyne: You’re pathologically corrupt.
Quebec: Gee, thanks!
The story is not about the trifecta of: 1) alleged and probably rampant political-donation-for-contracts of the current Quebec government; 2) alleged and demonstrably occurring strong-arm tactics and graft culture of one major element of one of many Quebec unions; and of 3) alleged and probably rife bidding-ridding system of a group of contractors (dubbed «the fabulous fourteen») in the Montreal area since earlier in the decade. That would have been sufficient for a cover.
But no, Maclean’s writers purport to show – and clearly affirm – that Quebeckers as a people are inherently, historically and systemically corrupt. «Deeply entrenched», «inevitable» lack of ethics, with «roots of corruption [that] run deep», «a pattern». «A peculiar set of pathologies», writes Coyne. «A long line of made-in-Quebec corruption that has affected the province’s political culture at every level» writes Patriquin (yes, «every» level!)
Two arguments are marshalled to explain why Quebec stands «in a league of its own» in the corruption sweepstakes: size of government and a culture of gettint “loot” or “booty” from Ottawa. The first is the size of government. The second is the corrupting impact of a nationalist culture intent on getting “loot” or “booty” from Ottawa.
Let’s deal with the voodoo economics first. According to Maclean’s, the bigger the size of government in the economy, the badder, and the sleazier. Quebec being the most left of center government on the continent it should, of course, be the most corrupt. Am I allowed to use comparative figures in this rebuttal? I’m taking the chance. Transparency International tracks corruption in world and does show. People are asked if they had to pay a bribe or if they feel that private companies have to. The last report, like the previous ones, does show correlation between size of government and graft: reverse correlation. European governments and the greatest spenders, Scandinavian governments, are deemed significantly cleaner than North-American governments, who leave more of the economy to the private sector. Haliburton, anyone ? (A contender in my «best quote ever» file is David Frum’s recent reporting of a major Republican consultant on the last small-government Republican administration: «I thought we would get more done before becoming completely corrupt!»)
Then there is the «booty» paradigm. Here Quebec’s incessant requests combine with Canada’s victimisation as the benevolent provider faced with ingrates. Pierre Trudeau can be thanked for having conceived then fed this narrative. In 1950 he wrote that Quebeckers «are turning into a disgusting bunch of blackmailers». Ripping into the Meech accord 42 years hence, he revisited the quote, in Maclean’s: «Things have changed since then, but for the worse.»
The «bidding war» tenet is now entrenched into the Canadian psyche. It will stay there, I am sure. But let me explain why it is wrong. Equalisation: yes, Quebec gets more in the aggregate – and less per person – than any other province. But newsflash: for decades we told Ottawa that we would rather have jobs than dole. And we tired of explaining that if the federal investment in the economy (capital, purchases, research, grants) were distributed in proportion to the population, Québec would instantaneously knock off one point of unemployment off the chart, more so over the years, and get less equalisation.
Take energy. According to Stephane Dion’s count, the federal purse sank 40 billion dollars in Alberta’s tar sands industry. Fourteen of these billions came from Quebec. Add the billions for Ontario’s Candus and Newfoundland’s sweet deal on Hibernia and you get quite a tab, a quarter of which paid by the booty-hunters. Now let’s compare with federal investment in Quebec’s hydro-power in the last, say, hundred years. The answer is zilch. (But we got Mirabel. Don’t get me started.)
There is an impact on Quebec. Call it blowback. According to a recent university study (not from a Quebec university) the loonie’s overvaluation, driven by oil gushing from Alberta and Newfoudland, has destroyed 55 000 jobs in Quebec manufacturing in just five years. A sign of things to come. But, not to worry, equalisation growth has been capped for the future, so future oil damage to Quebec (and Ontario’s) manufacturing base will hardly be offset anymore.