Winnipegers have a mighty comedown ahead of them when they finally see what the Thrashers look like on the ice, but kudos to them for having seemingly landed a reincarnation of the Jets without making fools of themselves in the process. Because that’s an apparently rare way to go about dealing with the NHL. In Quebec City, for instance, the Nordiques saga has officially crossed over to the surreal.
Before we get into this, I should make something clear: those of you who know me may have occasionnally (okay, repeatedly) heard me say people get the government they deserve. And it’s certainly true that I’m a firm believer in the idea. But I can’t for the life of me figure out what my fellow Quebecers could possibly have done to earn the politicians they’ve got.
The latest twist in the sorry Nordiques gong show started earlier this month, when a former city manager for Quebec City announced he would mount a legal challenge to the legitimacy of the sweetheart deal the municipal government negotiated with Quebecor. Under the agreement, the media conglomerate secured the exclusive rights to manage the NHL arena, which the city and province have already said they will build with public funds, in exchange for a pittance in rent. Denis de Belleval claims the agreement amounts to an “illegal” subsidy worth $40 million a year to Quebecor. (I haven’t seen de Belleval’s figures, but my own back-of-the-envelope calculations put the total investment by both governments at more than $500 million over 25 years, not including borrowing costs, so we’re in the same ballpark.) And the province, as it were, agreed with him, at least initially.
Laurent Lessard, the province’s municipal affairs minister, announced this week that government lawyers had ruled the contract illegal. That should have sent everyone back to the drawing board, but Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume, who has staked his reputation on bringing an NHL franchise back to the city, would have none of it. He’d seen this hurdle coming as long ago as March, when he asked the province to make changes to the law. (The province refused.) So when the inevitable happened, Labeaume did the next best thing: he started looking for politicians gullible enough to help him pass a private bill that would exempt the contract from legal challenges.
Amazingly—or perhaps not—it wasn’t hard to find one. The bill drafted by Labeaume has been put forward by Parti Québécois MNA Agnès Maltais. The measure would permanently bar judges from ever ruling on the deal if it’s put before them by people like de Belleval, i.e., the people Labeaume thinks should pay for Pierre Karl Péladeau’s $400 million rink.
For Labeaume’s bill to even get a hearing in the National Assembly, it needed the approval of all 125 provincial MNAs. That should have ensured its demise. It’s hard enough to get a bill passed by the legislature as it is, never mind getting unanimous consent. But a funny thing happened on the way back to sanity: politicians started getting cold feet and no one wanted to that guy or that gal responsible for bursting the Nordiques bubble.
Within the span of no more than a few hours, all the bill’s opponents changed their tune. Eric Caire, an independent MNA from the Quebec City area, said on Thursday the bill was a non-starter, that he wouldn’t discuss protecting “a deal that was struck illegally.” But later that afternoon, Caire agreed to hear the bill. The ADQ made the same crass political calculation—that standing in Labeaume’s way would make them the mayor’s whipping boys. And after a meeting with Labeaume, Québec solidaire’s Amir Khadir came away similarly enlightened and dropped his objection.
Even Labeaume hadn’t expected such a dramatic turnaround. He was in the process of telling reporters how those who’d objected to the bill had made a “grave mistake” that would “hurt the region” when he found out everyone caved. “Bravo!” he said.
So where does all this leave us? The bill exempting the contract between Quebecor and the city from legal challenges still has to be approved by unanimous consent of the National Assembly. But its opponents better cross their fingers something even more outrageous about the contract comes out during the hearings because the idea of it—the very notion of putting a dodgy contract above the law precisely because it’s legally dubious—is apparently not a valid reason to toss it out at first sight. If it had been, the debate would never have gotten this far.
The title of this post is a reference to Johnny Rotten’s final words at the last-ever gig by the original Sex Pistols. The cynicism he’d been trading in had by then become all-consuming and was, in his own words, “no fun.” So he quit. Here’s hoping Labeaume, Maltais, et al. have the decency to do the same.