MONTREAL - Quebec Premier Jean Charest tried to downplay the effect that anti-corruption whistleblower Jacques Duchesneau could have on the provincial election on Saturday, saying his government had already taken steps to tackle corruption in the construction industry.
There have been multiple reports that the former police chief has agreed to run for the new Coalition for Quebec's Future, giving the third-place party a huge boost as it tries to make the Liberal government's track record on corruption a key issue in the campaign.
The party is expected to confirm his candidacy as early as Sunday morning.
Duchesneau was hired by the Liberals in 2010 to investigate allegations of corruption and collusion in the construction industry. His report, which he leaked to the media because he felt the government would ignore it, claimed the construction industry was bilking the public purse and using some of its cash to illegally fund political parties.
News of his anticipated candidacy has thrust corruption to the forefront of the election campaign, something Charest tried to avoid as he presented his party as the choice of stability and economic growth.
Charest took pains Saturday to show he wasn't concerned about suggestions Duchesneau could shift the electoral landscape.
"It's an election campaign and during an election campaign there will be opponents," he said at a news conference north of Montreal.
The premier defended his government's record, sticking to an earlier assessment that gave his government eight-out-ten in its efforts to tackle corruption.
"I have no hesitation in saying that this is the grade we get, that the work we did is substantial," he said, adding that Duchesneau's work was part of a much larger team effort in his government's fight against corruption.
Charest said his government followed through on many of Duchesneau's recommendations, including setting up an inquiry into the construction industry.
Meanwhile, the Parti Quebecois confirmed a high-profile candidate of its own on Saturday.
Jean-Francois Lisee, a popular columnist and onetime adviser to former PQ premiers Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, called for anyone opposed to the Liberals to unite behind the PQ banner.
A key player in the 1995 referendum, Lisee wouldn't commit to holding another in the early stages of a PQ mandate. But he said the Harper government's policies were helping to promote the cause.
"I think there will be a time when Quebecers will say, 'enough is enough, it's time to go,'" he said in Montreal.
"If the Liberals or the Coalition are in power they will not have that choice. If the PQ is in power, they will have that choice."
For his part, Coalition leader Francois Legault also courted the sovereigntist vote on Saturday as he promised more funding for the arts.
Legault, a former PQ minister who promises to shelve the nationalist question for ten years, said he would make sure to preserve Quebec culture and urged sovereigntists to vote for his party.
"You don't need to be a sovereigntist to love our culture and want to promote our culture," Legault said in Quebec City.
"I also invite those who were separatists and those who still are to ask: 'Wouldn't it be better to concentrate on promoting our culture rather than waiting for sovereignty's big night?'"
Key Quebec Election Issues
As Quebec begins a provincial election campaign, with a vote scheduled for Sept. 4, here are some key issues and the stated positions, so far, of the three largest parties: the Liberals, the Parti Quebecois and the Coalition for Quebec's Future.<br><br><em>With files from CP</em>
Liberals say their $254-a-year, seven-year tuition increases will improve universities while expanded loans and bursaries programs will actually leave the poorest students better off. Liberals have mostly refused to budge in face of protests, although their original proposal was for $325-a-year increases over five years. Their controversial Bill 78 would reopen classes in mid-August for one-third of students still on strike, while setting out severe fines for anyone blocking schools.<br><br>PQ has been more supportive of protesters and would cancel the hikes, propose smaller increases pegged to inflation and hold provincial summit on university funding.<br><br>The Coalition has positioned itself to occupy the middle ground, proposing more modest annual tuition increases of $200 a year over five years. Party originally voted for Bill 78 but now says it created unnecessary tension and wants some provisions suspended.
After two years of intense pressure, Charest Liberals called a corruption inquiry that is now probing malfeasance in construction industry and its ties to political parties and organized crime. Before that, they had announced plans to hire more oversight officials at Transport Department; tougher fines for engineering firms; stricter political fundraising laws; new rules for public-works tendering; and new anti-corruption squad that has since made numerous arrests.<br><br>PQ making ethics central plank of platform. It wants tougher legislation preventing companies guilty of tax evasion from winning public contracts. It also proposes new measures to combat voter cynicism including: citizen-initiated referendums, fixed election dates, political donations limited to $100 a year, and the right to vote at age 16.<br><br>The Coalition wants new integrity commissioner to oversee government contracts, and new powers for prosecutors, as part of a "big cleanup." It also promises fixed election dates.
Liberals will tout Plan Nord, a sweeping plan that sets out $80 billion in public and private investments in mining, energy, infrastructure and conservation projects over a quarter-century.<br><br>PQ accuses Liberals of selling off Quebec's natural wealth at cut-rate prices and is calling for a 30 per cent surtax on profits from non-renewable resources.<br><br>The Coalition has also taken aim at the signature plan, alleging windfall will primarily benefit foreign companies and Quebec mining firms cosy with Liberals.
Liberals have long stood as the major federalist option in Quebec. Party is frequently accused by opponents of being subservient to Ottawa. However, it has clashed publicly with federal government over issues like long-gun registry, omnibus crime bill and changes to health transfers.<br><br>PQ is offering no timetable for third referendum on independence. Instead, party plans to pick fights with Ottawa in seeking more power over immigration, environment, agriculture and revenue collection. PQ hopes such battles will generate support for independence. Eventually, Quebecers themselves could initiate referendum, under plan to allow California-style plebiscites. People would need to collect 850,000 signatures to hold provincial vote on a given topic.<br><br>The Coalition, led by former PQ minister Francois Legault, vows to shelve any referendum on independence for 10 years to focus on building economy. But many federalists remain wary of the once-passionate sovereigntist.