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Online Platform to Shine a Light on Scandal-Scalded Montreal Politics

BY Elisabeth Fraser | Friday, May 31 2013

Montreal (credit: S. Lacasse/Wikimedia Commons)

As the scandal-weary residents of Quebec, Canada's Francophone province, head into a new round of municipal elections this November, one open-data group is working on a new project designed to raise awareness about transparency amongst candidates and voters.

“Really, the tool is designed to mobilize citizens to vote for politicians who are committed to transparency,” says Jonathan Brun, of the non-partisan group Montréal Ouvert (Open Montreal), the municipal chapter of larger provincial group Québec Ouvert (Open Québec).

The “tool” is set to launch June 12. Montréal Ouvert promises that it will link municipal candidates who commit to a transparent government to concerned citizens who want change.

Montréal Ouvert wants full transparency in the awarding of municipal contracts and spending of public money, and would like cities to publish a list of all the data they have on file — amongst other things. Other wish list items include the public spending records of all elected officials and listings of whom city councillors meet with.

Brun says the wish list came together based on consultation with open data groups.

“This was also inspired by other campaigns that have happened elsewhere in North America and Europe," he said, "and some questions were based on our own experiences in trying to get access to data that wasn’t available.”

A province rocked by corruption

The question of government transparency in “La belle province” is certainly a timely one. Quebec has been rocked by a series of revelations regarding long-rumoured ties between government officials, the construction industry, and organized crime, as highlighted by the ongoing Charbonneau Commission, a commission of inquiry headed by Judge France Charbonneau. The commission’s near-daily airing of dirty laundry and sordid secrets has become must-see TV for many of the province’s residents.

Amongst the seemingly endless revelations before the committee are tales of intimidation, bid-rigging, phony billing, and a widespread kickback scheme when it came to awarding city contracts. The whole messy situation has led to major shakeups at the municipal level in Montreal and surrounding municipalities. Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay was forced to resign after damning allegations suggested he willfully turned a blind eye to corruption at City Hall. And Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt of nearby Laval, to the north of Montreal, has been arrested and charged with gangsterism, amongst other things.

The stench has spread from the municipal level to the provincial level, with allegations the Liberal government of former premier Jean Charest, who ordered the Charbonneau inquiry, was part of the dirty dealings with the province’s construction industry. And most recently, the current governing Parti Québécois was also dragged into the mud, leading Québec Première Pauline Marois to not-so-subtly lean on the Commission.

Recently, the Charbonneau allegations have even reached the federal government, with the former vice-president of engineering firm Dessau Inc. saying his company routinely paid off parties at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels. And Thomas Mulcair, leader of Canada’s New Democrats, who form the Official Opposition at the federal level, was left with some explaining to do after saying he was once offered an envelope he suspected to be stuffed with cash by disgraced Mayor Vaillancourt. Mulcair says he refused the envelope and ended the meeting. He subsequently reported the incident to the police … 17 years later.

Raising awareness, encouraging voter turnout

So how can a transparency test help matters? “We have several goals,” says Brun, “and one of them is to increase voter turnout. The voter turnout in municipal elections (in Québec) is quite low, as it is in many places.” Brun also says he hopes the test will make politicians and voters consider transparency in more detail, and help make it an election issue.

Guy Lachapelle is a Professor of Political Science at Montreal’s Concordia University, and is the longstanding Secretary General of the International Political Science Association, which is based at Concordia. He looked at a draft version of the project two weeks prior to its launch. Lachapelle agrees that Montréal Ouvert's project is an effective tool in increasing awareness about government transparency. “I think candidates should be able to understand that integrity is a key element of their success,” adding, “hopefully, it will also work for civil servants in public administrations.”

However, Lachapelle remains skeptical about the authenticity of the results it will produce. “This type of test is more on the side of wishful behavior that we hope candidates will follow after being elected. Before an election, they will be all for virtue!”

And Lachapelle is unsure results will do much to increase voter confidence in the current political climate. “We hope that cynicism will fade away, but I don't think these types of questions will increase the public’s scrutiny over their administrations.”

The evaluation of candidates will be based on two kinds of questions: multiple choice — i.e., “Are you in favour X?” with answers like "Yes," "No," "Unsure," I need to research it further, and “free form” questions, which ask things such as, “What actions have you taken in your previous administrations, companies or organizations to improve transparency and accountability?” While the former questions will be answered by computer program according to a pre-set formula, the latter will be graded by the project team according to human discretion. “We are still working that part out,” says Brun. The team says they have not yet finalized their methodology and are still working with survey experts to try and address some of the challenges in conducting this exercise.

“I don't think that (the mixed grading system) will compromise the integrity of the test,” says Lachapelle. “Again, it will work more as a platform for candidates to say loudly that they will be better than their opponents.” Lachapelle nevertheless sees value in the project, for candidates who chose to participate. “It is beneficial for candidates (and not their press attachés!) to respond to these questions,” he says, predicting, “most candidates will certainly do it.”

A bloated municipal structure

Montreal’s current municipal scene is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. To begin with, the city’s municipal structure is incredibly bloated, following a failed “mega-merger” in 2002, followed by a partial de-merger in 2006, the result of which has been the city has over 100 elected municipal representatives — more than any other city in North America.

Montreal also has parties at the municipal level, making Quebec one of only two Canadian provinces to indulge in this proliferation of political options (the other is British Columbia).

Prior to the Charbonneau Commission, things were relatively stable at Montreal City Hall: Mayor Gérald Termblay’s Union Montréal party held the balance of power, while Vision Montréal, headed by Louise Harel (the architect of the city’s mergers in her previous life as a provincial cabinet minister) formed the Official Opposition. Upstart Projet Montréal, headed by colourful urban planner Richard Bergeron (who has mused about 9/11 conspiracy theories in his writings), was the last-ranked party.

But, post-Charbonneau, the once stable scene at City Hall is in chaos. Following Mayor Tremblay’s resignation, many Union councillors jumped ship to sit as independents, resulting in Montreal having its first Anglophone mayor in over 100 years — and its first-ever Jewish mayor. Remaining Union Montréal councillors quietly put the party out of its misery earlier this month to sit as independents.

Projet Montreal continues to struggle with image problems surrounding its leader’s credibility. The only borough that voted in Projet Montreal is the Plateau Mount-Royal, a trendy area similar to Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, but the party's administration has been controversial. Their traffic calming measures have upset some residents, and many of the artists and merchants who live in the Plateau have expressed their discontent. At one point, Plateau Mayor Luc Ferrandez (known to be hot headed) almost came to blows with the head of a local merchant’s association in the foyer of City Hall.

Vision Montreal also appears to be struggling with significant debt,. The party is losing elected officials as they defect to a new, high-profile arrival to the mayoral race.

Which brings us to Denis Coderre, a well-known federal politician and former Liberal cabinet minister who has held office for the riding of Bourassa since 1997. Coderre is known to be a showman (he is often referred to as, “Kid Coderre,” a play on the French term “Kid Kodak”, referring to someone who loves the camera). The prolific tweeter (@DenisCoderre) and media personality revealed the worst-kept secret in Montreal when he finally announced his run for Mayor at a May 16 press conference, ending months of coyly hinting at his intentions.

Exactly how many candidates will participate in the project remains to be seen. For this article, techPresident.com sent out an email about the project to current elected Montreal city officials, using a list provided by City Hall. Only two responded directly. Loyola City Councillor Susan Clarke and Saint-Laurent borough Mayor Alan deSouza (both former Union Montreal members who now sit as independents) expressed interest in the project, but did not respond prior to this article’s deadline. A spokesperson for Anie Samson, borough Mayor for Villeray – Saint-Michel-Parc Extension (who has joined Team Coderre), also responded to techPresident’s request, but did not follow up by press time. In fairness to sitting officials who responded, techPresident’s request came during a very busy period at City Hall, and many cited time constraints.

When asked what he thought of the project, de Souza responded, “Any efforts made by citizens to ensure the proper amount of transparency in public decision making are laudable.” Saying he would like more time to look at the project, de Sousa said of its ultimate effectiveness, “the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.”

A Projet Montreal candidate initially agreed to participate in the Montreal Ouvert initiative for this article, but declined after the party’s central office intervened, saying their platform was not yet ready. Montreal Ouvert say they realize some parties may provide a list of generic responses for their candidates, but plan to factor this into a candidate's results.

Ultimately, whether this project will be enough to increase voter turnout and confidence in this fractured political landscape remains to be seen. “They [Montréal Ouvert] might achieve their objectives, but who will these voters be?” asks Lachapelle. “I am not sure they will constitute a representative sample. People will vote if they think the issues at stake are high ... and I think that the issue of corruption will probably turn people off of voting.”

Elisabeth Fraser is a freelance Canadian journalist. She lives in Montreal.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.