Quebec legislators adjourned their session this month without taking action on bills to create an independent public contracts watchdog agency in the province and transform an anti-corruption police task force into an independent law enforcement body.
The proposals by the government of Premier Philippe Couillard follow the release last fall of a 1,700-page report by an independent federal panel that details pervasive corruption in the award of public works contracts in the province.
In September, the National Assembly of Quebec will take up the long-awaited legislation, with critics arguing the Couillard government dragged its feet in moving on recommendations of the Charbonneau Commission. Its four-year probe of provincial contract improprieties included testimony from nearly 300 public and private construction witnesses who detailed infractions ranging from contractors infiltrated by the Mafia to public officials steering contracts after receiving gifts and campaign cash.
An entirely new agency, the Autorité des marchés publics, would monitor all contracts awarded by Quebec provincial officials and have the power to audit, investigate and potentially cancel contracts when violations are uncovered, according to a copy of the bill. It would police an array of provincial public works contracts, from new hospitals and schools to roads and bridges. Agency auditors would report to it directly rather than to internal management.
But contracts awarded by municipal governments would not be covered by the new agency, a major issue for legislators given the hundreds of millions of dollars of public works projects managed and planned by the city of Montreal alone. The city has its own inspector general, but the position does not have the same, extensive powers as the proposed new provincial watchdog.
The legislation also would give the planned anti-corruption police force power to initiate and conduct investigations without getting permission, as previously, from local law enforcement authorities.
Fresh allegations of corruption in the provincial contracting process, in particular within Quebec’s powerful transportation ministry, kept the issue front and center this spring. Couillard called for “robust changes” in "deep cultural issues" at the ministry, according to the Montreal Gazette.
Eric Côté, a spokesman for Quebec's contractors association, said that despite the Couillard government’s tougher ethics stance, his organization is pushing for a voluntary, anti-corruption credentialing process for member companies to be overseen by an independent agency. The government proposal "goes far enough, but in many ways we have gone further,” he said. “We know that there needs to be cultural change in the industry in Quebec.”
Meanwhile, the Couillard government also is moving to simplify the environmental permitting process for industrial projects in the province.
On the table for legislators is a plan to create four new categories of project risk that will limit environmental approvals of those projects to just one ministry, instead of multiple ones, as is currently the case. "The system of issuing permits in Quebec has become particularly complex,”Côté said. “An update of the law was long overdue."