Free rein to save the economy

The least we can say is that the Legault government did not go hand in hand with Bill 61 aimed at reviving the Quebec economy through the acceleration of projects public infrastructure. The powers he has given himself are enormous and legislative provisions will be arbitrarily suspended.

During question period on Thursday, Prime Minister François Legault wanted to be soothing. “Let us reduce these delays without reducing the requirements for the benefit of Quebecers,” he said.

Explaining his bill, the President of the Conseil du trésor, Christian Dubé, argued that the government “will not go against laws or regulations”. If that is the case, why does he expressly give himself the right to do so, one wonders.

The government will be able to derogate as it pleases from the Act respecting contracting by public bodies for two years; he will not have to comply with the lowest bidder rule, may conclude over-the-counter contracts without restrictions or make any other change he deems useful to the provisions of this law.

Based on those of the Metropolitan Express Network (REM), the expropriation rules will limit legal challenges. The government will be able to make parts of the Planning and Town Planning Act inapplicable and ignore municipal planning schemes.

In addition, the government intends to waive provisions of the Environment Quality Act. It may arbitrarily determine the financial compensation to be paid for destroying wetlands or harming species at risk.

Bill 61 will allow 202 projects, already included in the Quebec Infrastructure Plan (PQI), to benefit from “acceleration measures” – that is the end of the legislative text. We will not quibble too much on the list of projects where there are many projects for the health network, including 38 homes for seniors, as well as schools. It lists road projects, which displeases environmental groups, but also major public transport projects such as the tram on the South Shore (Montreal) or the extension of the REM and the blue metro line. The president of the Conseil du trésor presented this list as a reassuring element: one would thus know to what these exceptional powers are limited.

However, the emergency measures may extend, if the government so wishes, to any other public infrastructure project. There is clearly a clear desire in this bill to have both a belt and suspenders.

Opposition parties are in a particularly uncomfortable situation, especially since Bill 61 must be rushed through by June 12. On the one hand, they cannot be against virtue: the government’s goal is to stimulate the economy to prevent the downturn from turning into a recession. Public infrastructure projects must compensate for the abandonment of several private sector projects. Opposition parties certainly do not want to expose themselves to stigma by delaying necessary investments. On the other hand, they are faced with a bill that sanctifies government arbitrariness without an effective control or counterweight mechanism. The government only undertakes to table annually in the National Assembly a report on the progress of each of the projects and their effects on the economy of Quebec.

The bill was introduced when Quebec’s Auditor General (VG) Guylaine Leclerc noted the persistent weakness of the expertise of officials in the Department of Transport and his use of private firms to fill its gaps.

Who will monitor the government and the departments involved? What will we know about contracts awarded by mutual agreement? Who will make sure that costs are not inflated? François Legault accepted the opposition’s suggestion that the AG appear in a parliamentary committee on Thursday in the National Assembly. We should ask him what control this acceleration should be subjected to.

The Legault government wants to give itself carte blanche; of the population and the opposition parties, he expects an act of faith. Led by an economic elite that wants to be enlightened, even benevolent, it must however be accountable. In the face of government arbitrariness, blind confidence always turns out to be harmful.

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