Quebec, Ink — Villains or village idiots?

In this week’s Quebec, Ink, Peter Wheeland looks at political donations, influence-peddling and the need for real reform in campaign financing and spending caps.

According to Lino Zambito, former construction magnate and the biggest star so far of season one of the Charbonneau Chronicles, when it comes to corruption, “80 per cent of politicians don’t know what’s going on.”

Wow. I can’t figure out if that’s good news or bad news.

Speaking on the popular Radio-Canada talk show Tout le monde en parle on Sunday, Zambito hesitated when asked whether he thought  then-Quebec premier Jean Charest or Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay were aware of the corruption that, according to Zambito’s testimony, permeated Transport Quebec and Montreal city hall. He instead pointed to the “entourage” that surrounds people in those positions, a not-so-subtle acknowledgment that politicians stay clean by surrounding themselves with filters.

Well, if the filters are always filthy, maybe it’s time to clear the air.

* * *

The current political political system is constructed on a platform of plausible deniability. Fundraisers are mostly mysterious, well-connected backroom characters who collect and clean the cash and pass on the requests for zoning changes, patronage appointments and the like. They rarely meet with elected leaders but relay the message to political aides and other party hacks. Indeed, one of the interesting revelations in the Bastarache inquiry two years ago was how easily Charest distanced himself from a prominent Quebec City Liberal who had been raising major money for the party for years.

Former justice minister Marc Bellemare had described the bagman, Franco Fava, as a “close friend” of the premier, but Charest told reporters “that is false. I’m not close to Mr. Fava. I know Mr. Fava, but I’ve never let him in my office and he doesn’t have privileged access to the premier.”

Of course not. Fava — a local construction magnate whose family businesses received more than $780 million in contracts from Hydro-Quebec since 2002 — didn’t need to meet with the premier. Like fellow Liberal Party of Quebec fundraiser Charles Rondeau, who met virtually every second week with Charest aide Chantal Landry in 2003, he had easy access to the premier’s entourage.

* * *

There’s been a lot of talk lately about corruption and reform.  Even Tremblay’s Union Montreal has risen from its torpor this week and made a series of reform proposals in an effort that City Hall opposition leader Louise Harel has aptly described as “too little, too late.” Among the UM suggestions is that the maximum annual contribution to political parties in Montreal be capped at $200 per person, rather than the current limit of $1,000.

Even the 80 per cent of politicians Zambito described as “not knowing what’s going on” know at least this: contributions are routinely laundered to get around the law. Whether the cap is $200 or $2,000, deep-pocketed supporters will just pass the cash to their friends and employees who, in turn, will write cheques to the party. That’s as integral to Quebec politics as polling and “pointage.” So is Tremblay the political equivalent of the village idiot, or is he laughing at Montrealers by proposing this pointless reform?

The Coalition Avenir Québec, on the other hand, has proposed cutting the campaign spending limit for provincial parties from $11 million to $4 million. That, at least, is a huge step in the right direction. The less money a party needs to raise, the fewer opportunities there are for corruption or influence-peddling.

Unfortunately, though, public faith in the political system has eroded to the point where only radical reform can restore it. We can no longer trust political parties to manage their own funds. We must eliminate the need for bagmen and brown paper envelopes.

Whatever reforms are adopted, Quebec should create an agency that will be the only group authorized to collect and distribute political donations. The agency would verify that funds are coming from real taxpayers and would monitor party expenses. That alone should go a long way to rid the province of the disease of the professional political fundraiser. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear at least once a week in this space. You can follow him on Twitter or find out about his upcoming stand-up performances here.

Leave a Reply