Montreal's troubles are Premier Charest's troubles, too

Quebec should impose provincial financing rules on municipal politics

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The Gazette, Sunday, October 25, 2009

Premier Jean Charest was speaking at a cocktail for the Canadian American Business Council the other night at the Mount Royal Centre when a bunch of fire trucks, sirens screaming, interrupted his remarks.

"I apologize for the sirens," he said. "We have an election going on in Montreal."

To appreciative laughter, he added: "And that's another story." Is it ever.

Let's put it this way: Usually, if anyone's on the take, it's people in government. But in Montreal, even the opposition is in on the action, according to the stories going around.

It's not just that city hall is open for business, it's the way it is said to do business. Sort of the way it's done in banana republics: Contracts are awarded to companies with friends in high places. Senior officials take trips on yachts owned by construction magnates.

Well, one yacht anyway, the one owned by Tony Accurso, head of Simard-Beaudry, the biggest construction firm in the province, which also was to lead a consortium that won the $355-million water-meter contract, largest in the city's history. One of the guests vacationing on his yacht was Frank Zampino, head of the executive committee and chief operating officer of the city in the Tremblay administration at the time the contract was awarded. (He says he paid his way, and has the receipts to prove it, but still...)

If you believe everything that's being said these days, the construction industry is rotten to the core with bid rigging and has the same best practices as the mob. That's because, according to Radio-Canada, it is almost run by the mob as a cartel.

Quite a lot of cash reportedly went to Benoit Labonté, at a time he was mayor of the downtown borough of Ville Marie, for his, uh, Vision Montreal leadership campaign.

The boys were just doing their part for democracy; they weren't looking for any future considerations from Labonté, although he could have been head of the executive committee in a Vision Montréal administration - except that Vision's mayoral candidate, Louise Harel, unceremoniously dumped him a week ago.

Incredibly, he has done nothing illegal, which isn't to be confused with doing nothing wrong. Cash is legal tender at city hall.

That's because there are no effective rules on campaign finance, no effective limits to what companies as well as individuals can donate, and no ban on cash donations. Welcome to Montreal.

This is trouble, trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with C, and that stands for cash, cold cash in brown envelopes.

It's trouble for Charest, too. Municipalities are constitutionally creatures of the provinces and, on the level of moral leadership, the premier cannot be indifferent to a crisis of governance in the province's most important city, the motor of Quebec's economy.

Doing nothing is not an option, even in the climactic days of a city election campaign dominated by these issues. And Charest clearly understands that. Under pressure to name a commission of inquiry into the construction industry, last Thursday he instead named a police task force, Projet Marteau, with powers like those of the probe into the biker gangs in the last decade. Well, if the cops can break up the bikers, maybe they can take on the construction cartel.

By keeping it with the cops, Charest avoids the lurid possibilities of a royal commission, which can take on a life of its own.

You can look this up under Robert Cliche, whose spectacular inquiry into the Quebec construction industry in 1974-75 made quite a few reputations. One commissioner, Brian Mulroney, became prime minister of Canada. Its chief counsel, Lucien Bouchard, became premier of Quebec.

If the cops want to roll over a few rocks, all they have to do is look at the guest lists for construction-company boxes for hockey games and concerts at the Bell Centre. That will get everyone's attention.

Meanwhile, there is something Charest can do on his own, with a simple stroke of the legislative pen - he can make municipal parties and candidates subject to the same rules of campaign finance that govern Charest himself, under provincial law.

It's a complete no-brainer. All Charest has to do is enact a bill stating that municipalities and municipal parties must play by the same rules as the province and provincial parties.

Bill 2, adopted by the Lévesque government in 1977, bans contributions by companies and trade unions, limits personal donations to $3,000, bans cash donations, and requires full disclosure.

Bang, just like that, no more cash in envelopes.

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