‘The system is sick and corrupted’: Quebec’s political house of cards comes crumbling down

*This article originally appeared on Rabble.ca.

So I guess now we know what former premier Jean Charest was so worried about. Speculation ran rampant this summer that the curious timing of Quebec’s provincial election was forced by the fear of what would come out as the Charbonneau commission resumed hearings into corruption in the construction industry in mid-September.

It turns out that pre-election bombshell revelations from the likes of Jacques Duscheneau, who alleged that over 70 per cent of political contributions in Quebec consisted of illegal ‘dark money’, were simply the tip of the iceberg.

Over the last several weeks former construction magnate Lino Zambito has blown the lid off of a system which is rotten to its very core. In testimony before the commission he has alleged that Montreal and surrounding municipalities are “closed markets”, where participation in a corrupt system of bid rigging and payoffs is required for anyone seeking municipal contracts.

According to his testimony, the Mafia worked hand in hand with Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay’s Union Montreal party to defraud taxpayers and profit off of an elaborate system of fraud and bid rigging. The Mafia would take 2.5 per cent off the top of all public works contracts in exchange for operating the system which favoured a select group of contractors. For their part, Union Montreal would take another 3 per cent off the top of each contract.

Tremblay denies the allegations, but at this point is there anyone left in the city who believes a word he says?

To the surprise of few, the rot doesn’t stop at City Hall. Zambito alleged that the same type of collusion and corruption funds political parties at the provincial level, most notably the Quebec Liberal Party. He testified to personally having arranged hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal donations to the Liberals, as well as smaller amounts to the PQ and ADQ (the predecessor of the CAQ). He testified to handing over envelopes stuffed with cash, falsifying the source of supposedly legal donations, and organizing fundraisers that brazenly violated election financing law.

“I fixed contracts, I financed political parties, I corrupted officials,” Zambito testified. “But the system was constructed such that you had no choice … the system is sick and corrupted.”

As usual, the Montreal Gazette‘s Monique Muise is doing a tremendous job of covering all the sordid details in English, so I recommend her archive for blow by blow coverage of the commission’s work.

These new details, predictably enough, have Quebec’s political class in a tizzy. Everyone is shocked, they tell you, shocked and appalled by these terrible things of which they had absolutely no knowledge.

Liberals are huffing and puffing about their besmirched honour, while their provincial rivals seem to be adopting an attitude of, okay, so we did a little bit of this, but the Liberals did more so let’s not sweat (our) small stuff okay?

Meanwhile, Mayor Tremblay looks like he’s living through a nightmare of his own making as he pleads with the populace to ignore the overwhelming evidence that he is a corrupt sleazeball, and take him at his word when he flatly denies involvement in any type of corruption.

Everyone is promising to get to the bottom of things, and clean up the rotten system, but it couldn’t be more clear that all they want to do is slap a band-aid on the problem and sweep it right back under the rug.

At the municipal level, it’s hard to understand how Tremblay hasn’t resigned yet. If there was ever a question that he would stand for re-election in 2013, it has now been answered. As media and citizens alike howl for his head, he seems to be staying on in some vain quest to clear his name, a fool’s errand if ever there was one.

His party looks unlikely to recover from this scandal, and Liberal MP Denis Coderre seems to have delusions of himself as some white knight who will swoop in and be elected mayor. One assumes he’s banking on Quebeckers losing sight of the more distant federal Liberal sponsorship scandal in the haze of pervasive corruption at the municipal and provincial level. It should also be mentioned that Coderre was one of only two opposition MPs to vote with Harper’s Conservatives for a bill which would make it an offence punishable by up to ten years in prison to wear a mask at a protest. Something tells me that’ll come up in this city of civil society and protest.

Vision Montreal leader Louise Harel has taken to the hustings to denounce the scandalous behaviour of her colleagues in Union Montreal, but her denunciations ring a little hollow given that Vision has a track record of corruption almost as sordid. Her former deputy leader Benoit Labonte admitted to taking a $100,000 bribe from crook-extraordinaire Tony Accurso in 2008. After his downfall he alleged that 80 per cent of city hall was controlled by the Mafia, and alleged widespread corruption in his party as well as that of the Mayor.

The one party as yet unbesmirched by corruption allegations is Projet Montreal. Running against corruption and with a bill of ethical health from Justice John Gomery in 2009, they went from one seat to ten and picked up several borough mayoralties. Since that election they have welcomed a number of defectors from Vision Montreal, and now look to be the prime challenger to Coderre’s ascenscion to the mayor’s post.

At the provincial level, I have little confidence in the PQ to clean up this mess, and less still in the Liberals or CAQ. The truth is, without constant pressure and agitation from the population this whole mess will get a new coat of paint and be allowed to continue draining the public purse.

So don’t let this slip your mind. Keep the pressure on the PQ government to do whatever it takes to rebuild trust in our political insitutions. For my money, that starts with a total overhaul of political financing, preferably along a public funding model where all expenses run through the office of the Chief Electoral Officer.

At the municipal level, Tremblay must resign. What does it say about us if we allow a demonstrably corrupt fraudster who has been robbing us blind to continue claiming to represent us?

Write letters to the papers. Call the radio stations. Howl your outrage to the skies. Don’t let him slink off into the sunset, force him out now. Together, we have the power to do just that.

And when it comes time to vote next year, shake up the old patterns. There’s no excuse to vote for Union, and little more to do so for Vision. Our political leaders cannot and will not clean up this mess. Only sustained public pressure will make a dent in this sick and corrupted system.

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