10/17/2011 03:57 EDT | Updated 12/17/2011 05:12 EST

Quebec on standby for possible corruption inquiry; Charest calls caucus meeting

QUEBEC - Quebec politics is abuzz with speculation that Premier Jean Charest may finally call a corruption inquiry after two years of sustained pressure to do so.

A special meeting of his Liberal caucus has been convened for Tuesday morning in Quebec City.

The move would come after a succession of scandals involving cost overruns in the construction industry and allegations of illicit ties linking that sector to organized crime and political parties.

Charest has consistently brushed off demands for an inquiry.

He has instead created a provincial anti-corruption investigation unit and introduced reforms to political financing and municipal contracting.

But the changes have not quelled the political furor.

Charest's government has not only become deeply unpopular with the general public but it also faces a growing backlash within its ranks.

The premier's own speechwriter recently quit, saying he could no longer justify the absence of an inquiry. Five members of a riding association resigned near Montreal, and a Gatineau-area organizer also quit.

Now the governing Liberals are staring down a party convention next weekend where the demand for an inquiry is expected to be a hot, divisive discussion topic.

An inquiry announcement now could pre-empt such a family feud.

But the opposition said Monday that, at this stage, it isn't expecting much from Charest. One opposition member said he suspects the premier will simply come up with some diversionary tactic — a "thingamajig" — aimed at pacifying the public.

"I'm not expecting a public inquiry to be announced," said Parti Quebecois public security critic Stephane Bergeron.

Demands for an inquiry began two years ago, amid the province's municipal elections. There were reports at the time not only of rampant corruption in the construction industry but also of illegal political contributions from well-connected businessmen.

The scandals reached the provincial level with reports of illegal party donations from engineering firms.

That's when Charest introduced several reforms. But the calls for an inquiry continued growing — especially as the Liberal government became embroiled in allegations of favouritism and influence-peddling.

Charest's minister responsible for family policy was accused of favouring friends with contracts to run publicly subsidized daycares.

Then that minister, Tony Tomassi, was forced to resign in 2010 after reports he was using a personal credit card supplied by a private company that had received government money.

Now Tomassi faces criminal charges.

The controversies had shown some sign of abating in recent months — but that was before an explosive report was leaked from the provincial anti-corruption unit was leaked to the media.

A senior figure in that unit, Jacques Duchesneau, has since suggested a two-stage inquiry. The first half, to be held behind closed doors, would hear evidence; the latter half, to be held in public, would focus on finding policy solutions to the current problems.

Duchesneau says that approach would get witnesses talking more freely, while allowing ongoing police investigations to proceed uninterrupted.

Members of the Charest government welcomed the proposals from the ex-Montreal police chief; in recent weeks, they suddenly softened their tone on an inquiry and said they were studying Duchesneau's proposal.