Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Charbonneau Commission: when transparency dies

            Writing this blog has been instructive. The ambient cynicism / political passivity has probably insulated me from the important role transparency plays in healthy political, social and economic systems. I am surprised to discover the degree to which democratic societies are hostage to the word. Who controls the word and how it is spun controls (in the short run, at least) the nature of the political game and the power relations among the various players.

            I have come to look for examples of what happens when transparency breaks down, when structures and political actors become opaque, when information does not flow freely, when news is distorted or "spun" to attribute a desired meaning or signification to an event..

             The province of Québec is a "small" society. Demographically and, especially, ethnolinguistically, it is a small island of francophonie in English speaking North America. This status, this mentality, has its advantages and its disadvantages. The relatively lowered mobility of our elites (the language issue) means that our big shots - nos gros légumes - know each other. They inhabit a small world, evolved from the ancestral farming village where you knew your neighbors and were probably related to them. "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" was a survival strategy before the invention of the modern State and insurance policies. Unfortuantely this philosophy, in modern societies, leads all too often to political corruption and the exploitation of unfair advantages: those with money purchase politicians and judges. Québec, as a small society, must therefore constantly be vigilant to eradicate corruption. The seeds of the disease must be extirpated before they have time to spread and infect the entire culture.


                The Charbonneau Commission is investigating corruption in the provincial construction industry. Evidence is coming forth in Montréal that a cartel of ten favored contractors received the lion's share of contracts with the provincial or municipal governments.This favoritism was bought with kickbacks to politicians and "taxes" payed to the Mob (about 3% of project cost in the city of Montréal). Cartel members, in turn, inflated their costs in order to pay for this privilege. And of course, in the final analysis, it is the poor taxpayer who foots the bill. We pay about 30% more for provincial tenders than in the neighboring province of Ontario, for example. How much of that difference is due to political corruption in the construction industry? Perhaps the Charbonneau Commission will shed some light into dark corners. (I suspect a horror movie is coming..)

                 This is what the breakdown of transparency engenders in modern, nominally democratic, societies: public theft, gangsterism, public apathy and cynicism toward the political process. Our declining infrastructure - some shoddily constructed in the first place - has reached the point of posing a physical danger to the public.


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