In Quebec, fighting corruption means fighting austerity

Neoliberal policies are the kindling which fuels misconduct
David Bernans

On May 17, UPAC showed up at the offices of Premier Philippe Couillard, search warrants in hand.

The UPAC in question was not Quebec’s permanent anti-corruption unit, the Unité permanente anticorruption, charged with rooting out political corruption. It was the Unité professionnelle en attente de convention (the professionals waiting-for-an-agreement unit), an elite group of activists formed by my union to seek out the good faith needed to bring the bargaining process to a successful conclusion. UPAC will be on the heels of Quebec government ministers, search warrants in hand, every time a minister shows up to give a speech or make a public appearance.

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The (real) anti-corruption unit made headlines recently when it arrested former deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau on corruption charges. The UPAC put in place by the SPGQ, the union of professional government employees, will not be making any arrests, but it is very much engaged in the fight against corruption.

The SPGQ represents professionals in the public service, in a number of Québec Cégeps, at Revenu Québec and in various other parapublic bodies. Our members have been without a collective agreement for over a year. We started bargaining at the same time as the Common Front, which reached an agreement in December of last year. We recently formed UPAC to draw attention to our bargaining process and its importance to the fight against government corruption.

Cutting public service jobs doesn’t save the government any money in the long run.

The government claims it wants to implement the Charbonneau commission’s recommendation to develop public in-house expertise to avoid over reliance on external private suppliers. It was the government’s dependence on external expertise that opened the door to corruption under former premier Jean Charest and the Liberals.

The Charbonneau commission gave us a glimpse into the scope of the problem by revealing how a lack of internal expertise led the Transport ministry to hire private firms to oversee the construction work of other private firms. When you put the fox in charge of guarding the henhouse, you’re asking for trouble.

Austerity and corruption are intimately connected.

Similar problems exist in the information technology sector, which is why groups are calling for a Charbonneau-style inquiry into the IT industry. Cutting public service jobs is part of the austerity agenda, but it doesn’t save the government any money in the long run. Outsourcing is generally more expensive and can lead to significant extra costs by opening the door to corruption.

Cuts to our public service will lead to lucrative deals for private firms that will cost more in the long run and create an alleged need for further cuts. Austerity and corruption are intimately connected. Public sector unions like mine are really fighting a two-headed austerity-corruption beast.

The Quebec government needs to hire more experts to meet its promise to implement the Charbonneau commission’s recommendation to develop in-house expertise. How can the government meet this objective without increasing the remuneration of its professionals? According to the government’s own statistics, there is an 18 per cent gap between the total compensation of Québec government professionals and that of unionized professionals in the private sector and a 22 per cent gap when it comes to professionals at other levels of government.

Quebec government professionals ensure the quality of our water, our air, our roads, the education of our youth and so much more. Do you want to trust private firms with the job?

UPAC is looking out for your best interest by making sure the government has the internal expertise it needs to fight corruption.

David Bernans is the fourth vice-president of the Syndicat de professionnelles et professionnels du gouvernement du Québec (SPGQ), responsible for membership mobilization.

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