November 21, 2013 7:00 am
Updated: November 21, 2013 10:26 am

Maxime Bernier says Canada-EU trade deal will help fight corruption in Quebec

Maxime Bernier, Minister of State for Small Business and Tourism, speaks to reporters at the Conservative convention in Calgary, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
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OTTAWA – Quebec junior minister Maxime Bernier says the Canada-European trade deal will help fight corruption in his province because it will open up more competition in the construction industry.

“There’s an important part that nobody speaks about,” the Conservative MP for Beauce, Que. said during a wide-ranging interview in his Parliament Hill office this week. “There’s a part concerning the corruption in Quebec in the industry sector.”

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The minister of state small business, tourism and agriculture was referring to a line in the political agreement between Canada and the EU that opens up bids to European companies on construction services worth more than $7.8 million for all three levels of government.

“You’ll have more competition, you’ll have lower prices, and that is good news for the Quebec taxpayers,” said Bernier.

“The solution to the corruption in this industry, it’s more competition.”

The agreement, which removes 99 per cent of tariffs between the two economies, also extends to Canadian companies who wish to bid on equivalent European projects.

When asked if his comments might upset Quebec companies, Bernier replied: “So what? Like I said, I believe in freedom, I believe in competition.”

“The Quebec government agreed on that. Every province agreed on that,” he said.

Melanie Malenfant, spokeswoman for Quebec Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau, didn’t want to comment specifically on Bernier’s remarks, but said $7.8 million “is the right number” to bid on contracts.

“I understand that in the market when you have more competition in a sector, it’s always good to fight against corruption,” she said.

A spokesman for the city of Montreal said European companies will be treated the same as local companies.

“As the fight against corruption is top priority at the Ville de Montréal, these concerns will certainly be addressed by our negotiators during the final steps of the talks,” François Goneau wrote in an email.

Goneau said Montreal is installing an inspector general with “extraordinary powers” to fight corruption in the city.

Eric Cote, a spokesman for the Association of Quebec Construction, said European companies will not be able to bid on all projects and he doesn’t believe the trade agreement will change much about how business operates in the province.

“We want the system to be clean and we’re working for the honest entrepreneurs and we’re not defending the others,” said Cote, nothing the association is present at the Charbonneau commission into construction corruption.

“We’ve seen companies in Europe that were accused of corruption also, so the problem is on both sides of the ocean.”

Reassuring ‘the milk guys’

Bernier, recently handed the junior agriculture portfolio, also said he doesn’t believe the majority of dairy farmers operating in Ontario and Quebec will need to be compensated as a result of the trade deal, which the government has said it will work out with the industry.

“I know that the program will be there, but I think that nobody will use it because they won’t lose any money,” said Bernier.

He said the agreement only opens up four per cent of the market to Europe, about 17,000 tonnes, and 92 per cent of the market will still be reserved for Canadian producers.

There are some 12,500 dairy farmers in Canada, about 10,000 of them operating in Ontario and Quebec.

The cheese market is growing by one to two per cent a year, Bernier said, and European imports will eat up even less of the market by the time the effects of the deal are felt.

“The milk guys are a little bit more concerned about that, but I’m going to tell them that they don’t have to be concerned, everything in that deal is good,” he said.

Bernier added that the supply management system – which protects Canadian farmers from market fluctuation – is still in place and he doesn’t see it going anywhere “in the short term.”

While he previously opposed the system, Bernier said he respects his party’s position to keep it in place.

“If I want to change that, I’m going to push inside the party to change that,” he said.

Ron Versteeg, vice president of the Dairy Farmers of Canada, said he hopes there won’t be a loss as a result of the EU trade deal but pointed out the amount of European cheese set to enter the Canadian market is set to double.

“For us that represents a loss of future growth,” he said.

Versteeg said that it will especially impact fine cheese producers, and predicts European cheeses will dominate about two-thirds of that market.

“We’re looking at options to maybe mitigate instead of compensation, because if there was compensation that could be a long time down the road, and the effects of this trade deal will begin to be felt in about two years,” said Versteeg.

“We would rather prevent some of this damage rather than compensate it after the fact.”

He wouldn’t go into details about what the mitigating factors could be.

Bernier, who has the definition for “Liberte” painted onto his office wall, recently resurfaced in the news when he called for a national referendum on the Senate.

“We must ask Canadians what to do with the Senate, because people in my riding, they want to be part of the decision. They want to express their point of view on that,” he said.

He said his priority is still to lower taxes, and he proposed a resolution at the Conservative convention last month to freeze the operating budget at $300 billion a year once the budget is balanced.

It didn’t make it to the voting floor, but received about 75 per cent support, Bernier said.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty recently predicted a $3.7-billion surplus in 2015.

“When we will balance that budget, we’ll be able to lower taxes, and I will fight for ideas about that,” Bernier said.

The 50-year-old completed a 107-km “ultra-marathon” in late September that raised some $165,000 for a food bank in his riding.

The night after the race, “I was crying because I was emotional, I was happy. It’s a great feeling,” he said.

He admits to being “down” a few years ago, when he quit cabinet as foreign minister in 2008 after leaving classified documents at his former girlfriend Julie Couillard’s apartment.

“Yes that was a tough time. But I learned from that. I learned a lot,” said Bernier.

“After that, I said, ‘Why am I in politics?’ I questioned myself during that time. Do you want to quit or stay in politics? And I decided to stay in politics to fight the next election, because I’m there for more freedom and less government and I believe in that.

“So I decided to stay.”

© 2013 Shaw Media

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