Quebec Premier Jean Charest made an about-face and placed the probe into corruption and collusion in the construction industry under the Public Inquiry Commissions Act, which grants it full constraining powers to conduct its investigation.
Madam Justice France Charbonneau of Quebec Superior Court, appointed three weeks ago to head the inquiry, on Monday requested full powers under the act, which will allow her to subpoena witnesses, offer immunity and seize documents "as appear necessary for arriving at the truth."
In accepting the request, the government approved Judge Charbonneau's recommendation to appoint provincial auditor Renaud Lachance and McGill University constitutional law professor Roderick Macdonald as co-commissioners to assist her in the two-year probe, which will also examine the ties between the awarding of government contracts and the funding of political parties. Mr. Lachance, who was also approached to become auditor-general of Canada, will quit his position later this month.
For more than two years Mr. Charest resisted pressure to hold a full public inquiry into allegations of influence peddling, kickbacks and infiltration by organized crime in the awarding of government construction contracts.
The government refused to comply, saying such a probe could undermine police investigations, a concern it continued to express on Wednesday after agreeing to give Judge Charbonneau full powers under the law.
"The commission will be careful not to compromise the investigation currently being conducted by the permanent anti-corruption squad," Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier told a news conference.
Mr. Fournier called the government's retreat an "evolution" in its efforts to protect the public's interests.
When the government created the commission it granted the inquiry limited powers and came under attack from the Quebec Bar Association and other groups concerned that the probe would amount to a toothless tiger. At first the government refused to give the commission full powers to summon witnesses and grant immunity from prosecution for their testimony.
The criticism forced Mr. Charest's hand and he announced two days after creating the commission that if requested the necessary powers would be granted to Judge Charbonneau. But the government refused to place the commission under the Public Inquiry Commissions Act, leaving it open to criticism that Judge Charbonneau would be leading a "bogus" probe.
For the opposition parties, the government's about-face is evidence that they were right all along in demanding a full public inquiry. They insisted that the probe needed to be above partisan politics in order be credible in the eyes of the public.
"He [Mr. Charest]had no choice. It was just unbearable. It was unbearable for Judge Charbonneau. It was unbearable for the government," said Parti Québécois justice critic Véronique Hivon, who compared the government's retreat to a perfect figure skating back flip. "Finally what had to be done from the start is finally done. But this is not without consequences. The Minister of Justice from now on lacks any credibility."
The opposition parties said they would accept that some of the deliberations be conducted behind closed doors to ensure that the probe does not contaminate the ongoing police investigation. However, they insisted on the need for witnesses to appear in public.
"The credibility of the commission and the entire exercise requires that it be public," said Action Démocratique du Québec House Leader Sylvie Roy.
The two newly appointed co-commissioners will begin working at the end of the month, at which point Judge Charbonneau is expected to indicate how she plans to carry out her mandate.