National Column: Quebec corruption inquiry losing its way

There were high hopes at the time of its creation that a public inquiry into collusion and corruption in the province’s construction industry would provide Quebecers with a comprehensive picture of the situation.

Three-and-a-half years later, those hopes have mostly given way to curiosity as to how the commission presided by Justice France Charbonneau will manage to weave a tapestry worth showing out of the pile of loose threads it has
collected over its lengthy hearings.

By all indications, Charbonneau is struggling. This week she signalled that her commission would miss her April 15 deadline for completing her work. She asked for a seven-month extension to put together her final report.

If only because of the poor optics of shutting down a politically sensitive inquiry before it has reported, Premier Philippe Couillard is likely bound to grant her wish but only grudgingly.

At Charbonneau’s request, the previous Parti QuÈbÈcois government extended the life of the commission for an extra 18 months shortly after its arrival in office in 2012.

The exercise has already run longer than for any previous Quebec public inquiry, overlapping with the tenure of three successive premiers from two different parties.

It is not only with the provincial government that the Charbonneau commission is wearing out its welcome. More than a few of its initial supporters have been wondering for months whether it has lost its way.

By the time the inquiry concluded its hearings last fall, even the closest observers were at a loss to find a pattern to the testimony that had been put forward. Sometimes the inquiry just seemed to be running on empty. In the end it turned out to be much better at digging up leads than at substantiating them.

A lot of Quebecers saw the 2004 federal commission appointed by then-prime minister Paul Martin to look into the sponsorship program as the template for the Charbonneau inquiry.

Having seen past and present prime ministers called to the witness bar of the inquiry headed by justice John Gomery, many expected former premier Jean Charest to be called to testify at the current inquiry about his decade in power.

That did not happen. In the end much of the public work of the commission focused on municipal politics and involved administrations that were either swept out of office in local elections in 2013 or else were caught in the net of ongoing police investigations.

Still, at year’s end, the commission formally served notice on Charest that he stood to be blamed for some of the ethical breaches that took place on his watch. The former premier has the right to present the commission with a rebuttal before its conclusions are made public. But one way or another, Charbonneau can’t be sure she will have the last word.

When Gomery similarly blamed former prime minister Jean ChrÈtien and chief of staff Jean Pelletier for the sponsorship program going off the rails, they appealed the finding in Federal Court and it was set aside – with compensation – to each of them.

A decade ago the Gomery commission scorched the Quebec earth for the federal Liberals. Its report – even as it cleared Martin of involvement in the troubled sponsorship saga – did little to help his party emerge from the debris of the scandal in Quebec in the 2006 federal election.

There is no doubt that part of the rationale for the opposition parties in the national assembly to clamour for what eventually became the Charbonneau inquiry was based on the expectation that its work would likewise salt the electoral ground for the provincial Liberals for a generation.

Instead, last year, the party was re-elected to power with a majority after only 18 months in opposition.

Over its 40 months of existence the Charbonneau inquiry has lost a sizeable chunk of its initially large audience.

The testimony that it heard did not always pass the test of relevance.

Some of the more devastating accounts that it elicited were based on a single source, at least as far as the public hearings were concerned. Just this week one of the commission’s star witnesses was arrested for perjury.

Nothing short of a bulletproof final report – whenever it finally does come – will shore up its battered credibility.

Chantal HÈbert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

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