Overzealous partisanship is threatening the possibility that Quebecers will find out why and how the Caisse de dépôt et placement lost a staggering $39.8 billion last year.
Although some experts agree that this loss signals that the Caisse needs a serious overhaul of both its mission and governance, the unhealthy atmosphere among the three parties risks turning this essential exercise into an impossible mission.
Despite the seriousness of the situation, it took only a few hours for Premier Jean Charest to accuse the Parti Québécois of politicizing the issue. Although ADQ leader Mario Dumont estimated correctly last fall that the Caisse had lost at least $30 billion, Finance Minister Monique Jérôme-Forget brushed off the charges then.
Talks among the three parties on a special parliamentary commission quickly hit a wall. But given this atmosphere, the commission would likely have turned into a partisan circus anyway.
The result is that Quebecers are witnessing a crude political spectacle when the situation calls for a spirit of trans-partisan collaboration and transparency.
Instead, Quebecers are seeing a government very much in a hurry to move past this controversy as fast as possible. That's why we are seeing the government's steadfast refusal to accept responsibility and its aggressive attacks. The rest, you could put under the general heading of damage control.
This includes the government's refusal to hand this file over to the auditor-general or an independent inquiry. Instead, amid inter-party bickering, it is attempting to go for a quick parliamentary commission sure to be unable to dig up what really happened. There's also talk that the government could table its budget as early as March 12 to regain control of the political agenda.
Already blamed for failing to warn Quebecers during the election campaign that they faced a recession and a deficit, the premier appears worried that this latest bad economic news could hurt Liberal support in the next polls.
While more extended polls will tell the real story, a quick poll by Léger Marketing on Wednesday shows 90 per cent of respondents consider the government at least partly responsible for what happened at the Caisse.
This isn't good news for a premier who said the economy was his justification for calling an election. Heading into the next parliamentary session carrying this unholy trinity of recession, deficit and the Caisse's losses could prove to be politically costly.
It is also bad news for the Liberal Party itself, whose credibility and branding since Robert Bourassa has been the economy.
The government is setting itself up for failure if it chooses to remain on the offensive. It has already eroded voters' trust with its recent jovial refrain of "no recession, no deficit." Partisan games on the Caisse story could hurt it more.
The Caisse was created in 1965 in the hope it would become a pivotal institution in Quebec's economy. It did to the point that it's now Canada's largest manager of pension funds and an object of pride for Quebecers. That's why it's important that this review be seized as an opportunity to clean up the Caisse's act and return it to a mission that combines prudent investing with a productive role in Quebec's economy.
But for this to happen, it's essential to find out how the Caisse was mismanaged, who is responsible, and whether the government bears some responsibility for these losses. Case in point: In November 2007, former Caisse CEO Henri-Paul Rousseau told a National Assembly commission that the financial health of the Caisse was "very good."
"The current problems of asset-backed commercial paper in Canada won't change this," he added. Then this: "I'd like to remind you that commercial papers are a financial product of quality." Which raises the question: Was Rousseau telling the whole story?
Still, because of what the Caisse is and what it stands for, this crisis calls for non-partisan politics. But that sure isn't what Quebecers are getting now.
Partisan politics is hurting Caisse probe
Quebecers need to get to the bottom of the pension-fund woes