Yesterday, in the middle of mounting scandals at city hall and stories of alleged conflicts of interests in his government, Jean Charest promised there would be a code of ethics for MNAs and ministers as well as an independent ethics commissioner.
But since he made the same promise in 2003, voters will believe this one when they actually see it adopted and applied to municipalities across the province. But the scandals at city hall amply demonstrate that such a code should also apply to public administrators.
That means that we need what the federal government and some other provinces already have: Provincial legislation that would protect "whistle-blowers" - civil servants at both the municipal and provincial levels who reveal grave instances of conflict of interest, corruption, or mismanagement of public funds.
One additional way to reduce conflicts of interest is to cut down on the growing use of private-sector firms in the government's contract tendering processes. As shown by city hall's controversial $355-million waterworks contract, it might be ethically risky for private firms to pick other firms for hefty government contracts. This must become the public administration's job once again.
An ethics commissioner is also needed because the premier has just created a disturbing precedent by allowing a cabinet minister to own or be a partner in a company that does business with the government or even his own ministry. This runs against the basic principle that one should not benefit directly or indirectly from holding an elected office.
A commissioner's needed because of the growing number of former elected officials and high civil servants who quickly move to well-paid jobs in private firms that are regular recipients of big government contracts, especially the handful of influential engineering firms who play a central role in huge infrastructure projects.
As an example, Le Soleil reported in 2008 that as the government keeps increasing its public-private partnerships, a number of senior civil servants, including deputy ministers, left the department of transport to join such firms: Jean-Louis Cournoyer to Roche, André Bossé to GENIVAR, Yvon Tourigny to BPR, and so on. Former Liberal minister Jean-Marc Fournier was recently hired by SNC-Lavalin. At city hall, former executive-council chairman Frank Zampino went to Dessau; Yves Provost, the civil servant responsible for the water file, went to BPR; etc. This "revolving-door" syndrome needs to be managed through an independent code of ethics.
Now comes the story of the FIERs - 44 multi-million dollar funds created by the Charest government for regional development and funded two-thirds by public funds. In the Boréal 02 FIER in Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean, administrators and investors include Pietro Perrino, former chief organizer for the Liberal campaign of 1994 and the No campaign of 1995; Valier Boivin, Liberal contributor; and Gilbert Grimard, a former Liberal vice-president. PeRrino's and Boivin's companies have also allegedly received funds from this FIER as well as two others.
Then there's the board of Investissement Québec-FIER that oversees the activities of the FIERs where formerLiberal minister Liza Frulla sits with Jean-Sébastien Lamoureux, the former Anjou Liberal MNA who quit his seat in 2001 after members of his organization were found to have committed electoral fraud.
Not to say that any of these nice folks did anything illegal, but the proximity of so many Liberals to so much public cash being distributed as risk capital by a Liberal government does raise questions - especially when the finance minister repeatedly describes the system as "very complex." Too complex to be fully transparent, perhaps? When it comes to government ethics and the management of public funds, transparency is a must.
These folks might well have followed the government's rules. But the problem might be the rules themselves in that they created a subsidy system that's so complex and decentralized that it gets awfully hard to figure out how and why the folks who sit on those individual FIER "investment committees" pick this or that project.
When you add the presence of so many Liberals, it creates the impression that this system fails to guarantee that there's no potential for conflict of interest or favouritism and that no one benefits from belonging to the political family that's in power.
No more delay - Quebec needs a code of ethics for public officials
Government also needs to pass legislation protecting whistle-blowers