The Charbonneau Commission’s Underappreciated Contributions to Fighting Corruption in Quebec

This past November, the four-year saga of the Charbonneau Commission finally drew to a close. Established in 2011, the commission had three main goals: to examine collusion and corruption in Quebec’s construction industry, to identify the ways in which the industry has been infiltrated by organized crime, and to find possible strategies to reduce and prevent corruption and collusion in public contracts. The two thousand page final report (available only in French) was the product of 263 days of testimony from over 300 witnesses, ranging from union bosses to prominent politicians, low-level public servants, and even members of organized criminal syndicates. While the commission had the makings of a potential political bombshell, the final report was met with little acclaim, and commentators have been quick to dismiss the inquiry as an expensive disappointment and a failed mission.

Since the release of the final report, the validity of its findings has even been called into question, with the media seizing on apparent disagreements and infighting between the commissioners. One of the two remaining commissioners (the third had died of lung cancer in 2014), actually dissented from the part of the findings that claimed a link between political party financing and public contracts. Emails subsequently unearthed indicate that the disagreement between the two commissioners on this issue goes beyond simple factual disagreement, with suggestions that the dissenting commissioner had objected to unfavorable portrayals of prominent members of the governing Liberal party. Some sources report that the two commissioners were not even on speaking terms by the conclusion of the inquiry. In light of their fundamental disagreements on such a prominent issue, some critics have called the commission at best dysfunctional, or at worst tainted by political interference.

Given the generally negative coverage of the commission, it would be easy to write off the Charbonneau Commission as yet another failed attempt to stymie corruption. In my view, however, to dismiss the commission entirely would be unreasonable. Certainly, the commission was not perfect, but it did offer meaningful contributions to the promotion of good governance, and there is much that can be learned from it.

In addition to speculation over political interference, and doubts over the infighting between the two commissioners, the principal criticisms of the commission are as follows:

  • First, the final report failed to adequately pursue leads, and is thus short on blame. For instance, though the commission heard testimony from a former construction manager that Mafia bosses would act as arbitrators between various contractors to inflate the price of contracts, and take a cut for themselves, the matter was not pursued further and no individual was found guilty of such a scheme. As one reporter claimed, “Those looking for scorched earth instead got only singed soil.”
  • Second, there was a fundamental failure to properly pursue high-profile politicians. According to some allegations, the commission had initially considered naming several high profile politicians with wrongdoing, including former Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay and former provincial premier Pauline Marois. In the end, however, none of these high profile figures were named in the final report. Further, the Commission did not even call to bar seemingly obvious witnesses like former premier Jean Charest, or the husband of Pauline Marois who were both referenced by other witnesses.
  • Third, and relatedly, some have commented that the commission missed the mark in focusing on corruption rather than on cronyism in Quebec’s politics. As previously mentioned, the two commissioners disagreed on the link between corruption and political financing, but this was only a small fraction of the Commission’s overall focus. As a result, some have argued that its recommendations only address one aspect of a much broader and more nefarious problem.
  • Fourth, the commission cost taxpayers roughly $45 million, and given its lack of high profile arrests or bombshell findings, it may be dismissed as yet another ineffective inquiry into Canadian corruption.

Though these concerns are certainly valid, the commission was still a necessary and valuable contribution to the promotion of good governance in Quebec. Indeed, the commission and its report made three important contributions:

  • First, the commission alerted public to the true scale of corruption in the province. While there had always been suspicions of corruption, especially in the province’s construction industry, the full extent of the problem had never been systematically nor publicly analyzed. While it may have been an elephant in the room before, given the extensive media coverage of the commission for the last four years, average Quebecers are now well aware of the mafia’s role in the province’s public contracts.
  • Second, the commission reaffirmed that politicians are not immune to prosecution, and that there can be meaningful repercussions for their wrongdoing. In Laval alone (a corruption-ridden suburb of Montreal), 30 people, including former mayor Gilles Vaillancourt, are now awaiting trial due to the commission’s findings.
  • Third, the commission generated 60 recommendations to promote the integrity of public contracts, and though many of them seem dull and technical, they have already led to meaningful changes. For example, Quebec has established a permanent anticorruption task force, set new rules for public contracts, and improved scrutiny over these contracts. Reflecting these positive developments, after the commission began its hearings, the cost of public construction contracts in Montreal decreased by some 20-30 percent.

In failing to highlight these positive developments, critics of the Charbonneau Commission have missed the mark. Many of these critics were hoping for prominent culprits and sensational revelations, rather than the duller reforms that the final report produced. However, had the commission aggressively pursued prominent politicians, it is plausible that they would have served as scapegoats, and the province at large might avoid making the more pressing inquiries into the roots and more mundane causes of corruption in public contracts.

As the Globe and Mail rightly editorialized, large public contracts always present a criminal opportunity, and by recognizing a problem and reaffirming the province’s commitment to bettering the existing system, this commission should be praised as a success for the anticorruption community. At its core, the commission was as any good anticorruption commission should be—public, thorough, amply tasked with resources, and given real authority to call and compel witnesses to testify. Despite its flaws, and the inevitable continuation of some corrupt practices in the public sector in Quebec, the Charbonneau Commission demonstrated a commitment to good governance and transparency that should be lauded.

One thought on “The Charbonneau Commission’s Underappreciated Contributions to Fighting Corruption in Quebec

  1. I agree with you Daniel. The Commission made some very valuable recommendations that are applicable to policy reform initiatives and transferable across provinces and countries.

    We actually have Sonia Le Bel, the Chief Prosecutor of the Charbonneau Commission, as the keynote speaker at an “Integrity in Local Government” conference in Vancouver (and webinar) next month. Program link here: http://www.cvent.com/events/integrity-in-local-governments-mitigating-the-risk-of-conflict-of-interest-fraud-corruption/event-summary-2e673023b64f4eb1b255f3873ef303da.aspx

    Thanks again for the article.

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