Every dollar counts for Quebec political parties

Anti-corruption promises indicate how acutely sensitive politicians are to the fact that integrity, and concerns of waste in the public administration, are at top of mind for voters.

Government spending of your money thrust into spotlight like never before

All of the main political parties are highlighting their promises to clean up the system, with new legislation to reform the awarding of public contracts and political party financing. (CBC)

Quebecers are putting the issues of corruption, integrity, and governance among their top concerns in this election.

As a result, all the main political parties are showcasing promises to clean up the system with new legislation, and stricter rules overseeing the awarding of large public contracts, as well as the financing of political parties.

The very first piece of content in the Parti Québécois’s election platform is entitled "Acting With Honesty".

Since 2003, the program says, citizens have lost confidence in their political institutions. The proposal to reverse this erosion is to reduce legal political donations to $100 a year.

Currently the limit is $1,000, which the Charest government lowered from $3,000 with legislation in 2010.

The PQ would also move to limit premiers to two terms in power, and broaden the powers of the province’s auditor general.

The Coalition Avenir Québec is urging voters to choose "change", in the form of a CAQ government that would do a "sweeping cleanup" to rid the system of corruption.

Leader François Legault is promising a broad-ranging piece of legislation, Bill 1, which would also drop maximum political donations to $100, and create an integrity commissioner to audit government behaviour.

Liberal Leader Jean Charest made waves when he gave himself an eight out of 10 for his government’s efforts fighting corruption.

In fact, it was that remark Jacques Duchesneau claims drove him to leap into the political arena, with his anti-collusion credentials, and run for the CAQ.

Yet, despite that lofty, self-assigned grade, the Liberals on the campaign trail are feeling pressure to do more.

So, even they say they would tighten the rules surrounding the awarding of roadwork contracts, disqualifying any company with a major stakeholder even suspected of having broken the rules in the past from entering the bidding process.

What all these anti-corruption promises indicate is how acutely sensitive politicians are to the fact that integrity, and concerns of waste in the public administration, are at top of mind for voters.

These are the same voters who over the years have been exposed to a series of media reports, as well as testimony at both the Bastarache and Charbonneau commissions, that point to the systematic and widespread misuse of public funds in the form of alleged influence peddling when government contracts are tendered. 

At the same time, they look around, and see roads and highways which are often riddled with potholes, and tax rates which continue to be among the highest in North America.

Candid cocktail admission unthinkable now

A few months after the Liberals took power in the election of 2003, I attended an informal cocktail for politicians and journalists at the National Assembly.

It was to mark the end of the autumn session, which had been a raucous one. Charest’s new government had already raised the ire of unions and other groups with Liberal austerity measures cleverly branded "Re-engineering the State". 

Strikingly similar to some of the CAQ promises in the current campaign, the Liberals 10 years ago made the promise to significantly reduce the size of the civil service as a way to save money.

The eventual savings would be passed on in the form of $1 billion in tax cuts every year for five years.

After a series of showdowns with Quebec’s public sector unions, the process of "re-engineering" was reduced to a pared-down attrition strategy. Since then, the size of Quebec’s civil service has actually grown larger than ever before.

For the most part, promises to make the "machine" more efficient through reorganization, and modernization, never happened. And, of course, those $5 billion in personal income tax cuts never saw the light of day. 

But the attempt brought on significant turmoil and a very public showdown between the Liberal government, and the unions which represent civil servants. 

At the party, I found myself chatting with a prominent PQ MNA who had been part of Bernard Landry’s cabinet until just a few months before.

Glass of wine in hand, head shaking like a disapproving teacher, the former minister leaned in to me and whispered, "You know, the thing about governing – you have to keep groups happy. If that means sprinkling a few million here and a few million there, then that’s what you do to keep the peace. It’s a drop in the bucket." 

Almost 10 years on, in the current climate of deficit-slaying, under the shadow of alleged corruption, that old PQ minister’s remark would be unthinkable, even in a private conversation – especially with a reporter.

It’s not because governments don’t spend their way out of their problems. They do. But, saying so in such a nonchalant way would be a travesty now.

Liberal message shift comes as little surprise

Overt corruption is, of course, a different matter from spendthrift government.

But the sensitivity toward overall governance, and the way the province uses your money has been thrust into the spotlight in a way not seen in any recent election.

Experts are divided on what can actually be done to fix the problem.

Most agree the solution begins with clearly identifying what has been going on, and who is responsible. All parties are vowing to see the Charbonneau Commission through to that end.

All parties are promising to act on the inquiry’s ultimate recommendations.

But before all that, the CAQ and the PQ especially are promising a series of measures to crack down.

Only a few months ago, the Liberal premier wouldn’t stop repeating his belief that a public inquiry wasn’t necessary. Charest insisted a special police task force would be enough to stop cheats from obtaining bloated contracts, and put an end to any other untoward practices.

Now, the Liberals are proposing tougher legislation of their own.

Given the growing concern over governance and corruption, that shift doesn’t really come as a surprise, does it?