The initial public hearings of the Bastarache Commission in Quebec City have caused a political upheaval in Quebec. The political future of Premier Jean Charest, and his governing Liberal party, are now both openly questioned.
Following accusations made by a former Liberal Justice Minister, Marc Bellemare (2003-04), of influence peddling surrounding judgeships, Jean Charest named retired Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache to head up an official commission of inquiry into the judicial nomination process, and into the specific accusations made by Bellemare. Charest also decided to launch a civil suit against Bellemare asking for $700,000 in damages.
Unthinkingly, Charest has broken the first rule of public relations: when things turn bad, do not let yourself become the story. Ask Paul Martin, who initiated the Gomery inquiry to get to the bottom of the sponsorship scandal, and whose government became its major victim. By calling an inquiry, Charest turned the lights on himself, as has become evident before the Bastrache Commission, which opened its public hearings last week with Bellemare as its first witness.
In the spring, Bellemare accused Charest (his former boss) of making three judicial appointments on the recommendations of party fundraisers. One of the fundraisers is Quebec City construction magnate Franco Fava, who is responsible for Liberal fundraising in the construction sector.
In his testimony, Bellemare made it clear that he saw no problem inherent in the judicial nomination process as practiced in Quebec. His problem was with Premier Charest telling him to name judges because they had the support of major Liberal Party fundraisers.
Charest responded to Bellemare’s testimony with an impromptu press conference denying he had ever told Bellemare who to appoint to the bench.
Following the Bellemare appearance before the commission and the rebuttal by the premier, the media framed the question: Who is to be believed, Charest or Bellemare? Public opinion polls last weekend said Bellemare, who got 69 per cent, compared to Charest at 13 per cent.
Halfway into its third term, the Quebec Liberals, who in 2008 won a slender majority with 42 per cent of the vote, look to be losing public support. Problems surrounding political favours and the construction industry have swirled around the Charest government for some time. The opposition has made repeated calls for a full-scale inquiry into wrong-doing.
The opposition parties wanted to know about links between Liberal party financing, and construction contracts, or other favours handed out to party fund raisers. The Charest government stonewalled on holding a public enquiry, saying it was unnecessary.
In subsequently creating the Bastarache Commission, Jean Charest immediately came under heavy criticism. After refusing to investigate improper conduct in the construction industry, Charest named a commission to look into a judicial nomination process that nobody was questioning, said his critics. All it took was for a former justice minister to say to a journalist in an interview that he knew there were links between party financing and judicial appointments, for the premier to create a commission that ignored the issues in the construction industry. Neither party funding nor the construction industry were part of the Bastarache Commission mandate.
Many now assume that Jean Charest is not going to be able to counter the damaging testimony by his former cabinet colleague. The best the Liberal leader (since 1998) and longtime politician (first elected in 1984 as a Federal Conservative) can hope for as an outcome is a tied game, with Bastrache refusing to choose between two versions of events. In this case a tie game means Charest loses, while even without a win, Bellemare gets a moral victory.
While Liberals are certainly looking to see who stands the best chance of taking over from Charest before the expected elections in two years time, the Parti Quebecois program is undergoing close scrutiny. It looks poised to return to government, which raises the question of a third referendum, yes or no. Pauline Marois, the very experienced PQ leader, is also being looked at in the light of a probable return to power.
The weakening of Jean Charest means Ottawa might have to deal with a national unity crisis in couple of years, which may even be good news for the federal Liberals, who in the past benefited in Quebec and nationally from the election of a PQ government.