As I write this evening, September 14, Radio-Canada and La Presse are reporting that a secret report by Quebec’s so-called Anti-Collusion Unit has confirmed a system of rampant corruption, political kickbacks and cost inflation in public road construction in the province.
Like most folks here, I’m quite ready to believe this. I’ve been conditioned for years by media reports to accept this with little question. Even though, at this point, the material reported by Radio-Canada tonight contains no specific allegations – no names, dates, numbers, documents or testimony – much less anything else sharp-eyed viewers of Law and Order repeats would consider to be evidence of the open-and-shut-you’re-guilty variety.
I am also pretty sure about is that this story will inevitably be turned around to blame the people who actually do the work. You know, the fat cat union members so often caricatured in our mainstream media. Meanwhile, the folks who really profit from construction industry corruption will for the most part go nameless, free to continue the age-old scams that help keep the political wheels greased in Quebec.
The leaked report says that the crooked practices are so widespread that they threaten to completely subvert parts of the provincial and some municipal governments.
“If the influence peddling intensifies in the political sphere, we would not be talking only of marginal criminal activities or even parallel ones, we could suspect an infiltration and even the takeover of certain functions in the government or municipalities,” the report is quoted as saying.
Police found organized crime groups and biker gangs conspired with engineering and construction firms to pad road-building contracts. Part of the excess profits would be paid under the table to the company’s employees, who would each contribute the maximum allowed to the party in power since, under Quebec’s political financing laws, only individuals may make political contributions, and this, to a maximum of $3000 a year. So, for example, for a construction firm like the giant Axor, which was found guilty by Quebec’s Director General of Elections of illegally giving $150,000 to the Liberals recently, that meant at least 50 employees or family members were in on the scam.
That’s not the only reason road construction is so much more expensive here in Quebec, and it’s not because of those unionized workers the columnists and talking heads love to despise; the report notes that cartels have been formed in various construction sectors. For instance, there are only two asphalt companies supplying the entire Montreal region, making it easy for them to inflate their prices. Would-be competitors are easily scared out of the marketplace by evening visits by portly gentlemen riding Harley-Davidsons.
As the head of the anti-collusion unit, former Montreal Police Chief Jacques Duscheneau, wrote in the report’s preamble noted, “The suspicions are persistent to the point that a criminal empire was on the verge of being consolidated in the area of road construction.”
While Duscheneau does not name names in this report, he made it clear that we’re not just talking about the governing Quebec Liberal Party; that illegal donations are also making their way to the Parti Québécois and even the Alliance Démocratique du Québec (ADQ). It’s more than enough to trigger the ambient cynicism toward the provincial power structure, especially on the rightwing side of the spectrum.
What few commentators are picking up on is that the Charest government’s vaunted practice of engaging in public-private partnerships – the so-called PPPs – are at the heart of the scandal. Because the government routinely contracts out its construction surveillance function to engineering firms, it has no expertise and no way of knowing if the job is truly being completed in an efficient, cost-effective manner. The engineering firms, or course, are either in on the scam or have been effectively intimidated by the mobbed-up construction companies from denouncing the corruption.
All this comes at a time that our transportation infrastructure is seriously degraded, long overdue for renewal. There are hundreds of billions of dollars to be spent on rebuilding roads, bridges and tunnels throughout the province over the next decade, so the stakes are extremely high. They’re also high for Quebec’s reputation. Already the rightwing press loves to ramp up the Quebec bashing, and this story will be so much more fuel for the fire.
So it’s time the appropriate authorities started naming names: which bureaucrats, politicians, business owners, engineers, mobsters and bikers are bilking us? And why aren’t they already in prison?