Raymond Bachand isn't waiting for the auditor-general. Yesterday, Quebec's finance minister - he's also minister of regional development - announced that he's setting up his own working group to look into the operating rules for Quebec's Fonds d'intervention économique régional, known as FIERs. That doesn't go nearly far enough.
His announcement came just one day after he called in Quebec's auditor-general to look at the FIERs, subject of a long string of revelations this spring about apparent contortions of the rules governing these bodies and how they invest a combination of taxpayers' and private-sector money. Revelations have touched on money spent outside certain FIERs' designated regions, well-placed Liberals involved in the administration of these funds, apparent conflicts of interest ...
The auditor-general, along with the government agency Investissement Quebec, will look into how money has already been spent, but won't report before fall. To his credit, Bachand wants to change the rules sooner than that, and his advisory group, which he has given an admirably non-Liberal line-up, is supposed to report to him within about a month.
It was certainly necessary for the government to do something about the distinctly over-ripe odour emanating from the whole FIER system. Bachand's admission yesterday that "people are asking questions" about how the FIERs operate is the blandest of under-statements.
The problem is that neither Auditor-General Renaud Lachance nor Bachand's new advisory group will go nearly far enough. Certainly we need to know what's been going on in these poorly-policed little regional pots of money. And surely we need better rules if we're going to persist in meddling in markets and playing favourites this way.
But should we persist? That's the question hardly anyone is asking - yet. Do the FIERs actually accomplish anything for the money they cost us all? Couldn't we just scrap these temptations to abuse, and lower taxes correspondingly? Do the FIERS, in short, do any good?
Investissement Quebec claims some FIER success stories, and boasts of 1,900 jobs created and another 4,900 maintained. But we'd like to see the methodology behind those numbers.
And before Quebec dumps this year's $60 million into these regional boondoggles, taxpayers need a full examination of both the theory and practice. So far, we have little to be proud of in the FIERs.