Perfect storm of public anger rattles Charest Liberals
Corruption allegations, student strike in Montreal make it less likely that Premier will call a spring election
By Rhéal Séguin, Globe and Mail, May 3, 2012
The two most controversial issues in the province of Quebec – corruption and the unprecedented student strike – have collided to shake the Charest Liberals and deepen a climate of distrust toward government as a whole.
Further below, column by Chantal Hébert: ‘Federal Tory support dropping while NDP surges’Over the past year, Quebec has been grappling with allegations of corruption, collusion, influence peddling and fraud that include the awarding of government contracts and the financing of political parties – allegations that have crystallized in the past month with a series of arrests. Now, as the corruption issue comes to a head, it competes for front-page headlines with student protests over tuition-fee hikes that have degenerated into violence in the Montreal streets and show no signs of ending.
The double-barrelled discontent has far-reaching implications for the province as a whole and its young people in particular. And in the short term, it has immediate political impact: While Premier Jean Charest once seemed inclined to call an election this spring, his caucus has warned that he could now be headed for disaster at the polls.
The latest sign of trouble was spurred by a news report on Wednesday revealing an embarrassing connection between a Montreal mobster and Education Minister Line Beauchamp’s riding association. Not only does it compound the whiff of corruption, but it has the potential to undermine the very minister who is trying to resolve the student crisis, now in its 12th week.
According to the Montreal daily La Presse, Ms. Beauchamp attended a Liberal Party fundraising breakfast in 2009 where, among the 15 to 20 guests, was notorious Mafia figure Domenico Arcuri. Mr. Arcuri, the newspaper said, donated generously to the minister’s Liberal riding association. Mr. Arcuri’s name was linked to the Rizzuto crime family during the 2006 RCMP crackdown on organized crime known as Operation Colisée.
“I don’t know the individual in question and even today I wouldn’t be able to recognize him,” a shaken Ms. Beauchamp said in the National Assembly after being grilled with questions by the opposition parties.
Regardless of whether Ms. Beauchamp was aware or not that her party was soliciting funds from an underworld figure, the mere fact that an organized crime member was comfortable attending a political event was indicative of the dubious political ties created over time by unscrupulous entrepreneurs.
The fundraising event was organized by the consulting and engineering firm Genivar Inc., known for its close ties to the Liberal Party. Engineering firms have come under close scrutiny after allegations of price fixing and influence peddling in the awarding of lucrative government contracts to construction companies.
At the time, Ms. Beauchamp was minister of the environment and Mr. Arcuri’s company Énergie Carboneutre Inc., which specialized in soil decontamination, was seeking changes to an environmental certificate of authorization to expand its business. The ministry granted the company the new certificate a year later. But Ms. Beauchamp insisted she knew nothing about the deal.
Under repeated questions from the opposition parties, the government was unable to explain why the Liberal Party funding activity had been organized by an engineering firm, and why the minister didn’t notify the anti-corruption squad when she learned in 2010 that Mr. Arcuri’s company obtained a certificate despite having Mafia connections.
While a public inquiry will soon examine the long list of corruption allegations, a number of charges have been laid against organized crime figures, federal tax officials, construction companies and municipal officials. A former provincial minister is under police investigation, and yet another was alleged to have accepted favours from an entrepreneur recently arrested by the province’s anti-corruption unit.
For Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois, the government has been crippled by the revelations, and she wants an election immediately. “Jean Charest said there would be an election when Quebeckers were ready for one,” she said. “They are ready.”
The decision on whether to call an election will likely be debated in the corridors of the Quebec Liberal Party meeting this weekend in Victoriaville. The decision, in the end, may be to wait until late summer – in the hope that, by then, the student protest will be over, the corruption issue will fade and the mood of Quebec voters will improve.
Tory tide hasn’t swept through provinces
Column by Chantal Hébert, Toronto Star, May 3, 2012
MONTREAL—A year after a game-changing federal election, Canada is sporting as much orange but less blue than on the morning after the May 2, 2011 vote.
That trends flies in the face of some of the immediate post-election conventional wisdom. At this time last year, most party insiders expected the Conservatives to have more staying power — at least in the early part of their majority mandate — than the rookie New Democrat official Opposition. It suggests that the quiet revolution Prime Minister Stephen Harper is presiding over on Parliament Hill has little populist momentum. It certainly has failed to spread to the provinces.
A year ago, a common assumption was that the Conservatives — having conquered the federal capital and won over a plurality of voters in every region but Quebec — would go on to paint more provinces deep blue. But when the proposition was put to the test in six provinces, incumbency rather than ideology turned out to be the common thread between the provincial and federal scenes and voters were content to leave most of Harper’s like-minded allies in opposition.
According to the polls, there is more than just a federal-provincial balancing act in the centrist trend of the provincial election outcomes of the past year.
Over that same period, the voters that made a difference between a Harper minority and a majority a year ago have gone missing from the Conservative column. If an election had been held last month, polls suggest the NDP would have had a shot at forming a minority government; its score combined with that of the Liberals would have added up to a majority in the House of Commons.
Looking at the spring’s voting intention data, it seems that the notion of a right-wing tide poised to sweep Canada outside Quebec was not the only morning-after assumption that has failed to sustain the test of time since last May. A year ago, the Quebec orange wave was often depicted as a passing fad. Jack Layton’s untimely death reinforced that narrative. The NDP victory in Quebec was routinely dismissed as just a fling with its popular leader.
A year later, the party is doing as well in Quebec as on election night and its fortunes in other regions of the country have held or improved. Nationally, a Harris-Decima poll published on Wednesday put the NDP at 33 per cent and the Conservatives at 30 per cent.
Eclipsed by the recent student strife over tuition fees, a Quebec realignment away from the traditional sovereigntist-federalist divide and along the progressive/conservative federal front has continued unabated. At a time of unprecedented Quebec estrangement from the federal government, a decisive post-leadership NDP lead over the Bloc Québécois speaks to that reality. For now at least, Quebecers are more interested in changing the federal government than in trying to leave the federation.
On Earth Day, as many as a quarter of a million people took to the streets of Montreal. One has to go back to the 2003 Iraq war debate to find a Quebec demonstration as massively attended.
One of the major policy developments of the first Conservative majority year has been the projected dismantling of large sections of Canada’s environmental infrastructure. A push to develop and market more of the country’s natural resources was the centrepiece of the recent federal budget.
The Conservative approach to the environment is acting as a lightning rod not only in Quebec but also in other areas of the country. And it is hardly the only federal irritant that crosses the Quebec-ROC divide.
On election night 2011, Quebec looked like an isolated orange island in a sea of blue. A year later things are no longer so clear cut. Quebecers have not come around to the Conservatives but looking at the numbers, their negative outlook on Harper’s government is even more widely shared in the rest of Canada today than a year ago.
Indeed, on the first anniversary of the landmark 2011 election, polls suggest that Quebec is closer to the voting mainstream of the rest of Canada than the ruling Conservatives.