Opposition parties at the National Assembly are voicing their concerns over Bill 61, known as an “Act to restart Quebec’s economy and to mitigate the consequences of the public health emergency” due to the COVID-19 crisis.
The bill was unveiled by the government on Wednesday.
As part of the plan, the government wants to accelerate the construction of schools, seniors’ homes, roads and public transit systems. If passed, the bill will allow some projects to be fast-tracked without all the regular procedures in place.
And that is cause for worry, according Liberal MNA Gaetan Barrette.
“Bill 61 is basically a discretionary bill that will give maybe too much power to government in the way the process will be undertaken,” Barrette said.
The fear is that safeguards put in place following Quebec’s four-year anti-corruption inquiry led by Justice France Charbonneau, will be left by the wayside.
“What this bill says is that whatever rules that we have put in place after Charbonneau’s hearing we can modify?” he said.
“Whatever was put in place, we can modify and we don’t know exactly how it will be modified, but it can be modified.”
The Charbonneau Commission looked at corruption and collusion in Quebec’s construction industry and ended in 2015 with a 1,700-page report.
At the time, Charbonneau said that even she was stunned by the depth and breadth of the corruption she uncovered.
Among the recommendations included in the report were calls to create a new law to protect whistleblowers in the province, to form a new body to oversee public contracts, and to place new restrictions on where and when politicians can talk about upcoming construction projects.
Both the Quebec Liberal party and Québec Solidaire are worried that the new bill, by modifying certain rules, could lead to inflated prices leaving Quebecers to foot the bill.
“We think it is possible to kickstart the economy but we think it’s possible to do it right without endangering the people’s money, because we have to remember that all those rules that we have put in place in Québec to make sure that money is well spent, those are not useless rules,” said Québec solidaire co-spokesperon Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.
“Those are rules to make sure that when people pay taxes, that money goes at the right place, not in the pockets of crooks.”
“Every expert in the field, including the auditor general, is saying that if you do that, you are putting public finances at risk,” he said. “And what do we do when we do that? It is you and I who will pay the bill.”
Nadeau-Dubois further criticized the bill, saying it is a huge step back as far as the environment is concerned. He explained that by being granted exceptional powers, the government could decide, for example, to fund a highway, even if it runs through a provincial park.
“This bill represents this old-fashioned way of seeing economic development, which is, ‘Oh! You know, we need jobs, so let’s cut the corners on environment,'” he said.
The government insists the bill isn’t about sidestepping rules, but speeding up the process.
“Our objective, it is not to reduce the requirements, it is to reduce the deadlines,” Legault said. “To go faster, to put Quebecers to work as quickly as possible.”
Justice Minister Sonia Lebel, who was chief prosecutor of the Charbonneau Commission, said she understands that the opposition is raising red flags, saying it’s part of the job.
“They are allowed to wave those red flags, but everybody has to understand that we are aware of that within the government and we are working within those parameters,” she said.
Lebel also directly addressed the issue of cost overruns, explaining that they could happen due to current economic circumstances brought on by the pandemic, not the new legislation.
Certain building materials for example could be more expensive or harder to come by, there could be delays in shipping, etc…
“We will take time to do those projects properly, make sure the rules are followed and that we’re not vulnerable,” she said.
— With files from Global’s Raquel Fletcher and Kalina Laframboise