Critics condemn construction 'inquiry'
Published Thursday, October 20, 2011 8:03PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, June 20, 2012 10:35AM EDT
Reaction to Premier Jean Charest's announcement of an inquiry into Quebec's construction industry has been swift and severe.
Opposition politicians, engineering groups, and unions of construction workers are among those condemning the inquiry to be led by Justice France Charbonneau as toothless and useless.
Nobody is questioning the decision to pick Justice Charbonneau to lead the investigation, who became noticed when she led the prosecution into the murder trial of Maurice "Mom" Boucher.
However critics say her two-year mandate to examine the past 15 years of the construction industry will not produce any results.
"The premier had a golden opportunity to improve the credibility of the Quebec government," said ADQ leader Gerard Deltell, going on to say the premier failed, and set up a structure that is designed to protect the Liberal party instead of uncovering corruption.
Charest has said repeatedly that he did not want anything to interfere with the ongoing police investigation.
The inquiry that was announced is unlike any other ever created in the province.
For one, it does not fall under Quebec's act regarding public inquiries.
As a result, Justice Charbonneau will not be able to compel anyone to testify, and members of the opposition are wondering just who will end up volunteering to appear.
She will also be unable to grant immunity to anyone who does testify, although she will be able to decide whether hearings will be public or private.
Charest defended his course of action, saying it was chosen after consulting with law enforcement.
"When you speak to people on the ground, who conduct the investigations, who face these situations every day and who must uncover proof ... they give us advice along the lines of our decision," Charest replied.
"That's what this is all about."
But the opposition says most Quebecers aren't celebrating. On the contrary.
"This morning there are people breathing a big sigh of relief," said Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois.
"But it isn't the people of Quebec, who are demanding a public inquiry. The people celebrating are those who opposed one -- those who had something to hide and might have been compelled to testify. They don't even need to destroy the evidence now. Justice Charbonneau can't even ask for it. They're dying of laughter. But Quebecers aren't fooled."
Still, some legal experts backed up Charest's assertion that the lack of witness protection from prosecution will allow the inquiry to work closer with police investigators.
"Contrary to a lot of people, I think there will be positive results from this inquiry," said Sylvain Lussier, a lawyer who represented the federal government during the Gomery Commission into the sponsorship scandal.
"I don't think you get to organized crime through a commission of inquiry. You get to it through police investigations, wire taps, infiltrations -- that kind of surveillance."
Lawyer Simon Potter, a former president of the Canadian Bar Association, said people are rarely prosecuted based on what they tell commissions of inquiry anyway.
Enforcement agencies usually depend on gathering evidence from secondary sources, he said.
Potter predicted that without the power to summon, some witnesses will certainly avoid testifying at the inquiry -- but not all of them.
He said it will be difficult for some people to skip the process because of concerns over their duties to things like their companies, political parties and the public.
"I think the jury's just still out as to whether the commission will get the kinds of witnesses that it needs and wants," said Potter, an attorney with McCarthy Tetrault in Montreal.
"So I think it is just too early to declare that this thing is a writeoff the very morning after it's announced."
Meanwhile, Treasury Board President Michelle Courchesne and Transport Minister Pierre Moreau announced a series of measures to try and insert some checks and balances into the process of awarding government construction contracts.
A big one will be a new rule where winning bidders for contracts will no longer be able to invoice additional costs.
The measures are in part meant to reduce the role of sub-contractors, and so the government will hire 1,000 new engineers over the next five years and additional technicians in order to do the work that is now being contracted out.
It will also build a black list of companies who have been convicted of fraud or other crimes relating to the construction industry.
Courchesne says the new measures – which will be in place by next spring – are in response to the serious concerns raised by the report written last month by Jacques Duchesneau about corruption in the construction industry.
"We want to be realistic, and what we do, we do it well, and that we're able to do exactly the change of culture that we need to do," Courchesne said. "I think that with the efforts of everyone this announcement today is quite significant."
With files from Canadian Press