Until now, the debate over what to do about corruption and collusion in Quebec has largely polarized around the question of whether a police probe will suffice or whether a public inquiry is also necessary. But those are just two options. Aren't there other ideas worth considering?
To get an insider's view, I approached a public official deeply involved in Quebec's drive against corruption. I offered him anonymity in exchange for candour. He delivered.
First off, he says a public inquiry into organized crime is "desperately needed." The inquiry should include but not be restricted to the construction industry -which is "key to (organized crime's) money-laundering activities." He estimates that fewer than 200 people are at the core of "the beast."
Premier Jean Charest, however, has a Gibraltar-like resistance to calls for an inquiry. So, what other steps could the government take?
The senior official bats aside the idea of civil suits even though they require less stringent proof than do criminal trials. The transport ministry, he points out, already sues unscrupulous contractors. "The process is too long, easily circumvented and not a deterrent for those who are very well criminally organized." He adds that some contractors got new contracts after being found guilty.
The federal Competition Bureau will also always be ineffectual -"It's difficult to build a solid case for the courts."
But the thrust of this official's critique is constructive. He suggests three main ideas.
-¦ Better co-ordination. "I have seen a lot of well-intended people working on collusion and corruption in many departments and institutions -the Surete du Quebec, the transport ministry, Revenue Quebec, the Commission de la construction du Quebec, the Competition Bureau, just to name a few. Unfortunately, there are a lot of musicians but no director.
"We need a better co-ordination of the efforts put forward by our governments. This is not done at the moment and it only serves the interests of the people we are supposed to pursue. In dealing with collusion and corruption, I argue that a quick fix would be to make sure the already existing organizations have enough resources available and that their powers and functions are adapted to today's reality. This calls for a framework for planning, resourcing and reviewing the anti-corruption and anti-collusion efforts on a permanent basis."
-¦Better training. "Too few people in government are knowledgeable about the criminal organizations that have taken over Quebec's construction industry. To prepare them for this new challenge, we need to give better training on corruption prevention to those front-line civil servants who deal daily with contractors and engineers.
"They all know what's going on, but they just don't know whom they should tell."
-¦ Anti-corruption commission. "Instead of constantly reinventing the wheel, there should also be focused research done on best practices (elsewhere in the world) for fighting collusion and corruption.
"Australia, the Netherlands, and the U.K. have created permanent watchdog agencies that examine activities both internal and external to government. Internally, this would improve the conduct and decision-making of government employees, making them much more accountable. Externally, it would make sure we get the best bang for our buck by reducing opportunities for corruption.
"Many countries have set up long-term anti-corruption or contract-integrity commissions, and the results are simply staggering. Quebec could quickly establish such a proactive, prevention-focused unit. The main goal would not be to prosecute people but to make sure we don't get robbed."
More teamwork, more training and a special agency -these are all sensible recommendations. Inexpensive, too. Granted, a new anticorruption agency would be an extra cost for Canada's most debt-ridden province, but such a body could pay for itself many times over by keeping down the price of contracts. Overpricing of many provincial and municipal contracts has often been in the neighbourhood of 30 per cent -although this year, thanks to the firestorm of publicity, this "corruption surcharge" is down.
Here are two other reasons these proposals ought to be attractive to the government. First, unlike a public inquiry, they'd cause no political embarrassment. And, second, they'd also remain in place long after the heat from the current police investigations cools.
Crime in the construction industry is no passing trend. Quebec must have lasting vigilance against it.