Before a week ago, Benoit Labonté liked the attention.
But then, journalists started to discover things about him.
The timing wasn't a coincidence. According to anonymous sources that came forward, Labonté's constant criticism of Mayor Gérald Tremblay and his Union Montreal party as being corrupt was a hypocrisy too outrageous not to be challenged.
When reports by Rue Frontenac's Fabrice de Pierrebourg (confirmed by Radio-Canada but ignored by TVA) and TVA's Paul Laroque came out that Labonté asked for and received large cash contributions from city contractors (including the water-meter-infamous Tony Accurso) while he was running for the leadership of Vision Montreal in 2008, Labonté's first reaction was from the standard politician playbook: deny, deny, deny.
It's a no-brainer. Either he's telling the truth that this is a smear campaign against him, or he's lying. But if he's lying, then the crime will destroy his political career and nobody will care about the coverup.
When Labonté said he would step down, supposedly to prevent being a distraction to his party, it was pretty obvious to everyone he was guilty. Innocent people don't resign during an election campaign because of false charges.
But the media had to play along. Without absolute proof of his guilt, they couldn't report what they were all thinking privately.
When Louise Harel accused Rue Frontenac and others of outright lying, as if these news organizations would all risk their reputations on such a serious accusation without conclusive evidence, nobody could say that was bullshit. When she blamed Union Montreal for making up a story, the media had to assume that was a possibility. (Of course, Union Montreal could very well have had a hand in this story, but they certainly didn't make it up.)
And so everyone had to act surprised when, a day later, Harel announced she asked Labonté to resign as a candidate for Vision Montreal. (Because the nomination period has ended, Harel could not replace Labonté on the ballot. So the Ste. Marie district of Ville-Marie will have no Vision Montreal city councillor to vote for.)
During her press conference, Harel made it a point to "saluer" the work of investigative journalists, supposedly the same ones she had called liars the day before. She offered no apology for attacking their reputations the day before.
Neither did Labonté, who went tell-all in an interview with Radio-Canada television four days later.
I'm sure Rue Frontenac, TVA and Radio-Canada won't lose any sleep over it. But Harel and Labonté called them liars. They threatened to sue. They attacked the integrity of these organizations. Even though Labonté still denies taking money, it's clear he attacked them to save his own skin. Don't they deserve an apology?
They didn't get one that I could see, even though Labonté did his interview ostensibly to save his reputation.
Only a politician would think he could save his reputation while at the same time admitting he outright lied to people about his integrity.
And yet, journalists are treating his two-hour interview (which Radio-Canada has decided to show excerpts of but not air or put online in its entirety yet) as if he's come clean and can be trusted. Even though this interview contains such hard-to-believe statements as he lied to protect his party. So all the accusations he's levelled against Gérald Tremblay suddenly have a new air of trustworthiness to them.
I certainly wouldn't take Labonté's accusations against Tremblay at face value, even now that he really has nothing to lose by finally being honest with us. Nor do I take the statements of disgruntled former Vision Montrealers that they warned Harel about Labonté with anything other than a giant grain of salt. But Labonté's statement (supposedly quoting Tremblay) that this kind of corruption is what municipal politics is all about, that makes a lot of sense.
So now that we know the problem, what do we do? Gérald Tremblay thinks he can clean up city hall, an absurd statement if I've ever heard one. Louise Harel still thinks she can sweep up the corruption, even though she was clueless about her right-hand man.
And Richard Bergeron, whose party hasn't been touched by a corruption scandal yet (notably because he's the only member of that party who's ever been elected) sees his numbers slowly climb in the polls.
I don't think Gérald Tremblay is corrupt. Nor Louise Harel. Nor Richard Bergeron. But if the past few weeks and months have shown us anything, it's that leaders can't always account for the actions of members of their parties.
Both Tremblay and Harel were let down by high-ranking politicians. If they can't trust them, how can they trust all 102 people running as city and borough councillors? Can any of the three parties really vouch for the integrity of that many people?
In Quebec City, the grandstanding is just as theatrical. Pauline Marois is calling for a public inquiry with a kind of urgency that suggests it can't wait until after the elections. Jean Charest wants to wait for police investigations to end first, and hasn't committed to anything.
The Everything Inquiry
We need a public inquiry. But it needs to be about more than municipal corruption, and it needs to be about more than Montreal. We need an inquiry into the whole system of municipal politics.
It's clear from the actions of politicians of late that they simply can't be trusted. We need to, from now on, work under a system that simply assumes that they are corrupt. Rather than punish people when the truth eventually comes out (because in many cases it doesn't), we need a system that has roadblocks in place to stop every step of this.
I was under the impression such a system was already in place. There's a reason that donations to politicians can't be made by giving that politician money. Instead, all funds must go through the "agent officiel", who keeps track of it. If such a system isn't in place for leadership campaigns, or for parties in general outside of election periods, then it needs to be.
According to Vision Montreal's website, the party has raised $300,000 from 1,180 donors. Union Montreal has raised about $105,000 from 297 donors (though that list hasn't been updated in two weeks). I don't know if that's enough to run an election in a city this size (even if you're not putting up posters). It's $1,000-$3,000 per candidate.
Not only do I not know if I can trust that this represents all the money going into party coffers, I can't trust that all this money really originates from the people named in those lists. And I don't know who those people are. I don't have time to call 1,000 people and ask if they have any connections with the construction industry.
This inquiry also needs to look to the other side of the equation. If politicians are getting money off the books, how can they spend this money without arising suspicion? Is the money being laundered somehow? Are they buying things outside the official party structure? If so, measures need to be in place to stop it.
We also need to take a step back and ask ourselves if the party system in general makes sense in municipal politics. We need to ask if political parties should be able to accept donations or if they should be entirely funded by the government (presumably based on how many votes they got the last time). We need to look at the way construction contracts are assigned. We need to ask if the contracting of construction work (rather than doing things in-house) makes sense.
In short, we need to look at everything.
Nine days before the election, it's too late to start now. But starting Nov. 2, the file needs to be opened. The problem is too systemic for whoever is elected mayor to fix it from the inside, no matter their honourable intentions. And you can bet it's in a lot more places than Montreal.
Of course, there's no need to take my word for it. The Gazette's City Eye blog is developing a top 10 list of things to do to combat corruption, taking suggestions from the audience and talking to experts. #1 on the list is the public inquiry, but other items are worthy of note.