The case against transparency: Public inquires may not be in the public interest

By Dan Delmar on October 26, 2011

Building one kilometre of road in Quebec costs 37 per cent more than it does in the rest of Canada; in urban areas like Montreal, the gap is wider at 46 per cent, according to statistics from one  particuarly troubling Transport Canada study. The numbers speak for themselves. 0 per cent of Quebecers believe that public money is being spent responsibly on infrastructure 100 per cent of the time. The question is: Where is our money going?

Even scratching the surface of that question in Quebec causes a great deal of controversy. There have been persistent calls for Premier Jean Charest to resign because of his reluctance to call a public inquiry into the construction industry. For months he has stubbornly refused to give into the demands of the opposition, nor will he acknowledge polls that show an overwhelming majority of Quebecers (80 per cent) support a public inquiry. Although he may soon bow to pressure, I believe it would be wise to stay the course.  

Proponents of these inquiries typically use variations of the same argument: Transparency. We have the right to know. Populist politicians in opposition are quick to demand transparency because it’s an easy way to curry favour with voters who feel excluded from the political process and increasingly suspicious, rightfully so, that some of their hard-earned money is being stolen. 

Positioning a leader with the goal of successfully arguing against transparency is a challenge so daunting that it’s almost not worth engaging opponents in that argument to begin with. Charest is in a lose-lose situation; call an inquiry and expose potentially damning evidence of malfeasance reaching into one of the government's largest Ministries, or appear as if he’s hiding that same malfeasance from the population. 

The Premier has been flirting with a notion that, on the surface, seems incredibly elitist. He would never say it in such blunt terms, but transparency isn’t always a good thing. Occasionally, the public should not have the right to know. And almost always, commissions of inquiry turn into commissions of inquisition, as former Premier Bernard Landry once famously quipped.

It’s difficult to reconcile my training as a truth-seeking journalist with my belief that the general population does not have an adequate understanding of the workings of government and law to objectively weigh all the salacious information that would result from a public inquiry. I believe this to be particularly true in Quebec,where voters are highly emotional; we elect Members of Parliament who have never visited their ridings and are anxious to vote for political parties that don’t even exist yet.

The trouble with these inquiries is that they quickly degenerate into costly sideshows, with few rules, little consideration for the rule of law and destruction of the reputations of innocent people. This was the case during former Judge John Gomery’s inquiry into the “Sponsorship Scandal,” and there is no reason to believe a construction inquiry would be any different. 

These commissions cost tens of million of dollars; Gomery's budget was almost as large as the amount spent on the Sponsorship program he was charged with investigating. In the end, former Treasury Board Resident Reg Alcock admitted that $80-million had been spent to find $13-million. 

Charges that resulted from the Sponsorship file were the result of separate investigative work by police forces and treated like any other case inside of the traditional  justice system.  This begs the question: What on earth was the point? Was it all just a spectacle, orchestrated by a Prime Minister desperate to seem proactive and a media equally desperate for a dramatic narrative? 

In arguing against transparency – at least for now, until more hard evidence is gathered, charges are laid and suspects are convicted in a court of law – I am undoubtedly going to get flack from others in the truth-seeking business. But there is one lesser-known yet fundamental concept in journalism that is being overlooked in the debate over public inquiries: The Filter. 

Journalists are charged with conveying important information to the public. But how do we choose what information to broadcast (I receive roughly 200 communiqués daily)? Our training, in theory of course, helps us to develop a filtering mechanism which separates the bona fide news from the slander, the spin and the insinuation.

Gomery’s commission gave reporters license to discard their filters. Since witnesses were free to speak their minds without consequence, the media quickly reported on what was said daily. The commission legitimized what would, in any other setting, be considered hearsay. Yes, there was a healthy amount of truth being spoken, but there were also lies, slander, innuendo, gossip and plenty of utter nonsense – like when Gomery described former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien as “small-town cheap.” In a real court of law, a similar comment could provoke a mistrial. In Gomery’s kangaroo court, it had no bearing on the proceedings. Later on, a federal court found Gomery guilt of bias against Chrétien.

His inquiry was essentially an investigation into the federal government’s uninhibited spending on pro-Canada propaganda before the 1995 referendum and the abuses of advertising firms who obtained government contracts to help convince Quebecers to love their country. If the head of l'Unité anticollusion, Jacques Duchesneau, is accurate in his recent assertions, a public inquiry would draw links from members of the Mafia to construction companies, engineering firms and the Transport Ministry. This is an issue that is considerably more serious than the “Sponsorship Scandal.” It needs to be handled delicately and with a level of tact and sophistication that a televised spectacle simply cannot provide. 

Robert Lafrenière, head of l'Unité permanente anticorruption (UPAC) and Duchesneau’s superior, stated recently that a public inquiry would jeopardize ongoing investigations and urged the public to be patient while police do their work. Duchesneau has said that he favours a hybrid public inquiry, where sensitive witnesses could testify behind closed doors, avoiding possible intimidation or contamination from those who would seek to derail the inquiry. 

Both are signaling that good police work is being done and it will eventually bear fruit. It isn’t very exciting to watch, nor does it satisfy those craving transparency, but the Charest government’s handling of the corruption crisis appears to be as close to responsible as it can get under the circumstances. 

Has the Premier  been desperate to avoid a public inquiry for reasons other than his concern for due process? It’s certainly possible. Regardless of the motivation behind his decision, it remains the correct one. In order to uncover precisely where that extra 37 per cent in asphalt money is going, it will require tedious, secretive investigations followed by even more tedious trials and appeals. The courts are anything but expedient, but they are fairer than the court of public opinion.



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