No sooner had Premier Jean Charest appointed a commission of inquiry into collusion and fraud into the construction industry than critics were calling it a toothless tiger that will do little to unravel a complex system of corruption linked to government contracts.
The inquiry will have limited powers, and commissioners will not be able to subpoena witnesses and force them to testify or order the search and seizure of evidence, according to the decree adopted by cabinet on Wednesday. Witnesses will appear voluntarily without receiving immunity, and their testimony may be used against them in future criminal cases.
Mr. Charest explained that he didn't want to hold an inquiry where criminals could testify under immunity from prosecution and avoid criminal charges.
"Jurisprudence clearly indicates that individuals who testify in front of an inquiry under constraint, evidence cannot be used against them in a criminal proceeding," Mr. Charest said. "We've come with these recommendations to protect the police inquiries so they'll be able to proceed with the work."
But when asked to name a case where criminals used a public inquiry to avoid prosecution, Mr. Charest was unable to give an example.
"We've consulted lawyers, we've consulted police forces, and this is the recommendation to which we've come. We are not going to set up a situation where people can get immunity from prosecution," Mr. Charest said.
The vast majority of Quebeckers have been demanding a public inquiry for more than two years, but will likely be disappointed with the model of inquiry presented by Mr. Charest.
Bernard Roy, who was chief prosecutor during the Gomery Commission into the federal sponsorship scandal, said the type of inquiry presented by the Premier does not have the powers to get to the bottom of a system of corruption.
"Lacking the power to subpoena witnesses would have seriously compromised the [Gomery]commission's ability to do its work and would have compromised our ability to bring witnesses to testify," Mr. Roy said in a Radio-Canada interview.
In the province where the sponsorship inquiry became a cathartic exercise in collective justice, and a top-rated television program, the construction inquiry promises to be far less satisfying.
Allegations of corruption, from small municipal snow-removal contracts to billion-dollar highway deals, have created an image that has spread across Canada that the province may be rotten.
The probe will hold closed-door sessions to gather information and then hold public hearings to hear experts. There likely will be no opportunity for the public to hear from those who are at the heart of the system of collusion and corruption so eloquently described in the report tabled last month by Jacques Duchesneau, the head of the anti-collusion squad.
Anything less than a full airing could easily fail to meet public expectations and cause considerable political damage to Mr. Charest. The opposition parties are determined to show that the Liberals have a great deal to hide in the way construction companies, engineering firms and individuals with ties to organized crime contributed heavily to the party in return for lucrative government contracts.
"The organization that is being protected here is the Quebec Liberal Party," Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois said.
The inquiry will be headed by Quebec Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau, who will sit with two other commissioners. She was chosen by the court's Chief Justice, François Rolland.
Judge Charbonneau may be uniquely suited to give the inquiry some heft. Named to the bench in 2004, she rose to national prominence as the Crown lawyer who fearlessly prosecuted Hells Angels' leader Maurice (Mom) Boucher for murder. Mr. Boucher is serving a life sentence.
The probe's mandate covers the collusion and corruption in the construction industry over the past 15 years, meaning it will include the era when the Parti Québécois was in power.
The commission will have two years to complete its work, likely tabling a final report with serious political implications after the next election has already been held.