Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Public Accountability Not an Important Issue in Quebec

Today's editorial in La Presse, by André Pratte defending Thierry Vandal and Hydro Quebec for the $250,000 donation to a private Montreal high school, is indicative of the very different standard of public accountability that this province operates under.
If Quebec's leading editorialist can excuse a public servant for funneling taxpayer money to his alma mater, an institution where he serves as the chairman of the board of directors, is it any wonder that abuses abound?
"Un faux pas n'efface pas des années de travail au service du Québec."
("A mistake doesn't erase the years of service to Quebec")
Nobody can deny that Quebec marches to a different political and social beat, but our propensity to forgive public servants the most egregious of gaffes and outright abuses of power is a characteristic that not only reflects badly on us all, but hurts our collective pocketbook.
It isn't fair to blame the politicians, the civil servants or the mandarins of our government corporations, for not taking responsibility for their misdeeds. The reason we don't have public accountability is, quite simply, because the public doesn't demand it.

Years ago, I rented an apartment for the winter in Florida. One evening a spry gray-haired senior, knocked on my door and asked if I'd be joining the tax protest down at city hall. I explained that as a renter, it didn't much concern me, to which she replied;
"Then you're an idiot. Don't you know that taxes are part of your rent. If you don't protest then you're agreeing to the increase. That's fine if that's your position, but if you don't agree, it's your duty as a citizen to protest!"
Wow! She told me!

I have to admit she was right. It made me think of how apathetic and removed Quebeckers are from the public decisions that affect our lives.
Faced with conduct like that of Mr. Vandal, instead of sustained outrage and pressure that leads to action, we collectively shrug our shoulders and lean on the old slogan of losers- "What can you do?"

Most western democratic societies live by the important principle that has evolved from the Parliamentary system of government that makes senior officials responsible not only for their own conduct, but that of their employees. Any serious breech of conduct, one that causes embarrassment for the government is met with a immediate resignation or firing.

With responsibility goes accountability, but not in Quebec.

In Ontario, a scandal
recently erupted amid revelations that the provincial agency 'Ehealth' awarded lucrative contracts to consultants without competitive tenders. The agency boss, Sarah Kramer resigned abruptly in June along with former chair Alan Hudson.

Last week an Israeli general was forced from the army for loaning a military car to his wife and lying about it to a superior, this after a thirty year career.

Maxime Lapierre, Quebec federal member of Parliament was forced to resign from cabinet for the unpardonable sin of accidentally leaving a confidential document at his girlfriend's house.

Too harsh? Unfair?

It is sometimes sad to have a long and successful career come to an end over a seemingly trivial affair, but it does serve an important purpose as a warning to others that only the highest level of ethical behavior is acceptable when entrusted with the public purse.

Quebec has sadly abandoned, or in fact never embraced the principle of true accountability.

Miscreants are allowed to remain in position after grudging apologies or outright stonewalling as demonstrated by Mr. Vandal.

Instead of being fired on the spot, abusers of the public purse are allowed to finish their mandates rather than face the sack or worse still, as in the case of Jean-Guy Chaput who's lavish expenses as head of SODEC (Quebec film agency) included a $1300 a night hotel at the Cannes film festival, get paid for doing nothing. He was told that because of his unacceptable spending spree, his services were no longer required, but instead of being fired, was paid over $100,000 to do nothing while finishing out his term.

One of the very few instances whereby a resignation was triggered by a scandal was that of the chairman of the board of the SAQ, Raymond Boucher, Quebec's liquor monopoly which was exposed in a price fixing scandal that artificially raised the cost of alcohol to Quebec consumers. Quebeckers were so offended that they did manage to force his resignation. It was the exception that proved the rule.
That being said, it remains a mystery as to how those involved on both side of the conspiracy, (SAQ executives and the producers) avoided criminal prosecution. To date none of the producers have been held accountable or even named. None have been required to refund the ill-gotten gains.

Why no class action suit to recover money, if not from the SAQ, then from the producers involved?

Sociologists can argue why Quebeckers are so docile, but the fact remains that we get the performance from our public servants that we demand.

Let them steal - and they will steal.
Let them pad expenses - and they will pad expenses.
Let them abuse their position - and they will abuse their position.

On the other hand if we demand better, we will get better, it's strictly up to us.

By the way one other point in Mr. Pratte's editorial begs comment;
"Cela dit, il est abusif de parler ici d'un conflit d'intérêts; M. Vandal n'avait absolument rien à gagner, personnellement, de cette subvention."

("That said, it's abusive to talk of a conflict of interest, Mr. Vandal had nothing to gain personally from this donation.")
What? He didn't gain personally? Nonsense!
Just because the money didn't end up in his pocket doesn't mean that he didn't benefit. Surely bringing in such an substantial donation would garner him honor and respect, an important consideration for a man in his position. If Mr. Vandal sent the money to his sister instead of the school, it would also be alright, according to Mr. Pratte, as 'he didn't benefit personally.' Bah!

Mr Vandal is one more example of those who's sense of entitlement offends our sense of justice. He is unrepentant and arrogant, refusing to face the media and hiding behind a statement that says the public utility considers the case closed.

He is the poster boy of a cynical, arrogant and elitist cadre of public officials who populate the higher echelons of Quebec public service and it's agencies.

When the story first broke,the opposition clamoured for Mr. Vandal's resignation.

How did the government react?
Stall. The silence is deafening, as the Premier waits to see how public opinion plays out.
If things get too hot, Mr Vandal will walk the plank, otherwise he will ride out the storm.

Quebeckers have no one to blame but themselves for the Thierry Vandals, the Henri-Paul Rousseaus and the Raymond Bouchers who scoff at our lazy stupidity.

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