QUEBEC — A defiant Quebec Premier Jean Charest tried to shift the focus to the economy on Sunday after months of intense criticism for his handling of an inquiry into the province’s construction industry.
Charest avoided the controversy during his closing speech at the Quebec Liberal party convention.
Instead, he focused on his plan to grow the economy and declared his job far from done. And he hinted an election may not be far off.
“We will, on Dec. 8, celebrate the third anniversary of our election, and we’re moving inevitably towards an election campaign,” Charest, who was first elected in 2003, told reporters.
“When? Frankly, I don’t know. We have two years in front of us, so we’ll determine when that happens.”
Charest yielded to widespread public pressure on Friday and expanded the potential powers of the upcoming inquiry, headed by Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau.
Witnesses can now be forced to testify and will be granted legal immunity, making them more likely to talk.
Charest further clarified on the situation Sunday, saying he would allow for a full inquiry under the province’s public inquiries act should Charbonneau make that request.
“For us, that’s not an issue,” Charest said. “If that’s what she would require, certainly we’d look at that and we’d approve it.”
The original ground rules for the corruption probe announced last week were met with near-unanimous condemnation in Quebec, including by the provincial bar association.
The premier originally said the probe would not have the power to force witnesses to testify and rejected the possibility of granting immunity.
Charest had argued against such conditions on the grounds that they would undermine police criminal investigations.
Until last week, Charest had steadfastly refused to launch an inquiry.
There have been widespread allegations of corruption tying the Quebec’s multibillion-dollar construction industry to crime groups like the Mafia, and to political parties.