POLITICS
10/21/2011 06:41 EDT | Updated 12/21/2011 05:12 EST

Quebec Premier Jean Charest Yields To Pressure And Expands Corruption Inquiry's Powers

QUEBEC - Quebec Premier Jean Charest has yielded to intense public pressure and expanded the potential powers of Quebec's upcoming corruption inquiry to compel witnesses to testify.

The premier completed a 48-hour about face Friday night, announcing in a speech to a Liberal party convention that if the inquiry headed by Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau demands the power to subpoena any witness, his government will grant it.

"We have done plenty of listening on this issue. It's important for the future of Quebec," Charest told party members.

"The cleanup will be conducted."

Witnesses who are forced to testify will be granted legal immunity, making them more likely to talk.

Charest's initial ground rules for the corruption probe announced earlier this week prompted widespread condemnation in Quebec and were criticized by authorities, including the provincial bar association.

He indicated the probe would not have the power to force witnesses to testify and rejected the idea of granting immunity.

Charest had argued against such conditions on the grounds that they would undermine police criminal investigations.

People compelled to testify cannot have their testimony later used against them in a court of law.

The premier's critics called that a weak excuse for creating a powerless probe.

Charest's move to limit the inquiry's powers also generated grumbling from within his usually disciplined party __ one member had even announced plans to seek a leadership-review vote this weekend.

Charest was expected to face some unrest at this weekend's convention. The premier's speechwriter recently quit over his dissatisfaction with the handling of the corruption allegations and several other Liberal party members have quit in recent months.

Charest's U-turn appears to have pleased his troops. His announcement prompted a standing ovation from Liberal delegates.

Members of Charest's cabinet lauded their leader afterward.

"I think he listened to the public, to the commentary, to what the bar association said," Culture Minister Christine St-Pierre said.

"But at the same time he's listening to police and protecting evidence, protecting witnesses and, above all else, protecting the victims."

Another prominent Liberal, Pierre Reid, insisted it wasn't an about-face from the premier but a "continuation" of his announcement earlier in the week.

Martin Drapeau, the man who had threatened to try to force a leadership review this weekend, grudgingly said his concerns have been satisfied.

"He could have said all of this in one shot and there wouldn't have been any controversy," grumbled Drapeau, who lives in the riding of Groulx north of Montreal.

Quebec has been awash in allegations of widespread corruption tying the province's multibillion-dollar construction industry to crime groups like the Mafia, and to political parties.

Charest had repeatedly resisted calls to launch an inquiry until this week.