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We All Have a Responsibility to Fight Corruption

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It doesn't seem to want to get better, does it? Montreal has been making headlines lately -- and for all the wrong reasons. First Pastagate, then Turbangate, and then, just before the Charbonneau Commission (and all its shocking revelations) took a little summer break, we watched our interim mayor (the one placed in power because the previous one resigned after allegations of corruption) hauled off in handcuffs this past Tuesday morning, facing 14 corruption-related charges himself.

So now the city is mayorless once again (at least until Tuesday), but the way things have been going, who would argue that to be a bad thing?

I started off following every single detail of the Charbonneau Commission on TV, in print, and on my Twitter feed, but lately I found myself drifting away -- mainly for my own sanity.

At one point, I was so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mess, that I didn't even know where to begin. So I think I just (at least in my head anyway) walked away.

If Montrealers are experiencing a mixture of disbelief, paranoia, cynicism, and nauseating anger these days, no one could blame them. The Charbonneau Commission details revealed are just proving to be plain bad for our collective sanity. While we all knew that dirty dealings were taking place, I still think many of us are shocked at the sheer magnitude of this corruption and the extent to which some construction companies have started looking indistinguishable from the mafia.

It's unfathomable to many of us hard-working, tax-paying citizens to now realize that so many paid-for-by-us-and-for-us civil servants were complicit in this massively orchestrated rip-off. It's insulting to the core.

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That being said, all this hand-wringing and embarrassment has to stop. The average Montrealer has no more to be ashamed of and is no more responsible for this mass-scale corruption than a low-level clerk at Morgan Chase was responsible for defrauding the U.S. public. We had very little to do with any of this.

While that can, perhaps, temporarily ease our minds, it does not, in any way, get us off the hook. As Gloria Steinem once said: "The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Time to move on from the pissed-off "what the hell is going on here?" stage and take some concrete action.

Here's the good news: despite the exposed ugliness and the ensuing embarrassment it's causing us, the Charbonneau Commission is doing its job. It's bringing down the bad guys. It's cleaning house. So many people are getting arrested, that most days, most Montrealers barely blink an eye at the news.

The great news? No one is getting spared. Even the top-level civil servant in municipal politics isn't safe. They're all going down if they had something to do with self-serving corruption and collusion. I don't know about you, but I'm liking this just fine.

Now, after we've cleaned house, it's time to move on to concrete actions that should help prevent corruption in the future. I'm not being naïve. I know that's a tall order, and loopholes will always present themselves to those looking for them, but there are things we can do to make things better.

Quebec's anti-corruption unit (UPAC) is a start, and one we need to support for years to come. We can take our cue from New York City's anti-corruption unit, which has an annual operating budget of $20 million and access to most of the city's administrative system. It investigates over 14,000 complaints and tips a year, and anti-corruption unit officers are permitted by law to access company databases and contracts.
I, of course, understand the implications of abuse from such unprecedented access to company records, but a deterrent like this would make those interested in defrauding the system think twice.

Another thing New York City does differently is that it's not obliged to award a contract to the lowest bidder; something Montreal now does, and which played a big part in the collusion scheme in this town, as the firms involved would purposely not underbid each other, and therefore ensure getting the contract. It's time to put a stop to this, because the potential savings to the taxpayer in choosing the lowest bidder have been grossly eclipsed by the potential loss of public money in abusing this system.

The fact that on July 1 a new law will cut the maximum donation to municipal politicians from $1,000 to $300 is good news. Sure, there will always be ways for those with vested business interests to funnel money (and favour) to political parties, but do we have to make it easy on them?

It's time to demand more transparency. This is our money. We should know how it's being spent. Our duty as voters doesn't end in the ballot booth. We need to demand accountability and a much more open government. Any conflict of interest should be exposed immediately. As the former editor of the NDG Monitor while the Fraser-Hickson Library was closing and the Benny Sports Centre was being debated in the Notre-Dame-de-Grace-Côte-des-Neiges borough, I clearly remember the number of residents upset at Michael Applebaum's lack of transparency and insistence on sitting on the CCU (an urban planning committee) while still working as a real-estate agent; a clear conflict of interest.

And yet, it was allowed.

We need to be privy to the process and be a little more savvy at reading between the lines. Politicians excel at double speak and spinning, but it's up to us to call them out on it. Democracy isn't about trust. Sometimes it's about distrust. It's about questioning what's taking place, so we can make it better. It's only through persistent and relentless civic pressure that municipal, provincial and federal administrations are forced -- willingly, or unwillingly -- to comply with what is in the best interest of the majority and remain responsible stewards of the public's money.

With a new interim mayor this Tuesday and with municipal elections only four months away, it's worth mentioning that Projet Montreal is the only municipal party whose books have always been open, and whose fundraising system has always been transparent. I have no idea how Richard Bergeron would perform as a mayor, but it's worth throwing our support behind a party that has always conducted itself openly -- at least in terms of finances.

It's time for resigned and cynical citizens to get involved. Participation in municipal elections has been abysmal so far. Barely 35 per cent voted in the 2005 municipal elections! If we get the politicians we deserve, than it looks like we got the ones we never even voted for.

Time and time again, while discussing politics, I've heard people say: "But I don't like politics! It bores me! They're all crooks. What's the point? Nothing with change..."

I understand the anger, frustration, confusion, loss of hope, and downright disillusionment over a democratic system that's not only hopelessly flawed, but most days appears to fumble along on the brink of broken. But, what does refraining from our rights -- and ultimately, responsibilities -- actually accomplish, other than feeling momentarily good? You think spoiling your ballot or abstaining from voting sends a message? It sends no message at all!

Nick Homer, Executive Director of Good Citizen, a U.S. non-profit organization that teaches young people how to be good citizens, once exclaimed: "The 'Silent Majority'? There is no 'Silent Majority'. It's an oxymoron. In a democracy, when the majority is silent, they are the minority."

Yes, Montreal has gotten a bit of a bad rap these past few months, and many are - understandably - worried that it will affect our reputation. As Willie Stark said in All the King's Men (a classic, if there ever was, on politics and corruption) "Dirt's a funny thing. Some of it rubs off on everybody."

But I'm not really worried about our reputation. Some cities are better than the people who run them. Some cities manage to rise above the corruption scandals and the messy politics of division; impervious to the ugly. It's in the day-to-day stuff, in the day-to-day interactions that you realize that despite the stench of corruption and constant linguistic bickering, despite the screw-ups, the shady dealings, and the small-mindedness that sometimes rears its ugly head, there's just something undeniably sweet about this town. Montreal's international reputation will be fine, because the good (nay, the amazing!) will always outweigh the bad here. By a mile.

No, the thing that worries me the most is that this ubiquitous dirt will rub off even on the ones who are clean. Pervasive, massive corruption of this magnitude saps people's confidence in politics and public officials. If the assumption is that nothing is on the level, nothing is what it seems, then citizen involvement becomes a game for fools and there's no point in trying to stay involved, trying to run as a viable candidate, or become invested in anything. That, in itself, would be the saddest -- and most dangerous -- of all repercussions revolving this corruption scandal. If people simply stopped caring...

That, right now, is the one thing we can't afford to do.