Premier Charest has nothing to lose by standing firm

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The Gazette, Monday, November 22, 2010

There will either be a commission of inquiry into the Quebec construction industry, or an election. So says Pauline Marois, the opposition leader, who has called a non-confidence motion for Wednesday.

Normally, with his 65 Liberal seats in the National Assembly, that wouldn't be a problem for Jean Charest. With 124 seats and one vacant in the 125-seat legislature, the magic number is 63.

The problem is that Charest and two cabinet ministers were scheduled to be out of the country on Wednesday in Paris, on an official mission. That would have required herding all the Liberal cats, with none of them being ill, to survive a full-court press from the 59 PQ, ADQ, Independent and Quebec solidaire MNAs, who will all vote with Marois.

Given the possibilities of the flu, or the prospect of a Christmas election, Premier Charest wisely decided to pass up dinner in Paris for takeout at the premier's apartment in Quebec City.

Marois's threat was blatant political blackmail: Call an inquiry, or I'll force an election. Charest should tell her to shove it.

Marois has joined a howling mob of the media -particularly La Presse and Radio-Canada -who have been creating a frenzy over ethics issues. First, the construction industry, where both media outlets allege companies have mob connections.

In the wake of the killing of mob patriarch Nicolo Rizzuto, ADQ leader Gerard Deltell called Charest "the Godfather," and refused to recant when Charest foolishly threatened to sue over this disgraceful slur.

Then Radio-Canada reported that Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt twice offered envelopes stuffed with illegal cash to two Laval MNA-candidates, the PQ's Serge Menard in 1993, and Liberal Vincent Auclair in 2002. Meanwhile, over at the Union des municipalites du Quebec, mayors on the executive are falling like 10-pins over ethical allegations.

Radio-Canada also ran a three-minute report last Tuesday on the online petition for Charest to resign or call an inquiry into the construction industry. The report was complete with a ticking telethon clock showing the number of signatures rising by the second. There is never a Bernard Derome around when you need one.

Meanwhile, over at La Presse, Friday's headline screamed Le Quebec en crise. Why must Quebec always be in crisis?

At this point, Charest has nothing left to lose in standing firm against appointing a full inquiry into the construction industry. The only benefit a government ever gets from naming an inquiry is on the first day. After that, the nature of inquiries being what it is, governments lose control of where they go, how much they cost, when they report and what they say.

You can look this up under the Gomery Commission, which Paul Martin appointed with much fanfare as part of his mad-as-hell tour in 2004, only to see his government fall as a result in 2005. Six years on, the Liberal brand is still hobbled in Quebec, and the biggest beneficiary of Gomery has been the Bloc Quebecois.

You can also look it up under the Cliche Commission into the construction industry in 1974-75, which led to the defeat of Robert Bourassa's Liberal government in 1976.

In those days, there were no cable news channels and no Internet, but the sensational hearings brought Bourassa's government low, even as it made a future prime minister of Canada, commissioner Brian Mulroney, and a future premier of Quebec, chief counsel Lucien Bouchard.

As if Bourassa didn't have enough to worry about the hits he took from the Cliche Commission, there was also the crime probe, famously headed by provincial judge Jean (Bulldog) Dutil.

"Who are we talking about today?" I once asked the chief counsel in the commission press room at the Parthenais St. headquartersof theprovincial police.

"Italians," he replied.

This is exactly the kind of circus that Charest would be unleashing with a Cliche II commission into the construction industry.

The police are already empowered, under Operation Hammer, to arrest whomever they want, and to recommend prosecutions to the justice minister. As for the legislature, it can hold as many parliamentary commissions and hearings as it wants into whatever it wants. That's the sovereign nature of parliament, and that's where this belongs. Christmas election? Ben voyons-donc!

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