Democracy - Internet style

In a virtual version of mob rule, thousands of Quebecers have signed a crackpot petition saying Charest should go - and the media treat it like it is serious news

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The Gazette, Wednesday, November 17, 2010

In the Internet version of mob rule, some 46,000 people signed an online petition within 24 hours of it being posted, calling for Premier Jean Charest to resign over his refusal to appoint an inquiry into the construction industry, and the government's decision to develop shale-gas deposits in Quebec.

The petition - which hit 100,000 names by mid-day yesterday - was posted at the National Assembly website on the home page of Quebec solidaire MNA Amir Khadir.

This is how democracy works in the empowered world of cyberspace. People vote with their fingers instead of their feet. If you don't like something, just put up a page on Facebook and your friends will give it up a thumbs up.

What makes this news is not 100,000-plus people signing a crackpot petition, it's the mainstream media reporting it as serious news. CBC Radio reported this out of Quebec City yesterday, saying the petition had "gone viral."

The renewed calls for an inquiry into the construction industry, in which connections with the mob are widely alleged, followed closely on the murder of the last Montreal godfather, 86-year-old Nicolo Rizzuto, killed by a single bullet shot by a sniper through his kitchen window, and accorded a funeral in the grand style. Mario Puzo couldn't have made it up, but it must be said that Montreal has the best mob shootings of any city in North America.

Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois sanctimoniously lectured Charest on his duty to appoint an inquiry. Not to be outdone, ADQ leader Gerard Deltell called Charest "the Godfather," implying his government was either married to, or run by, the Mafia.

Since Deltell did not say this on the floor of the legislature, but at an ADQ meeting, he had no legal immunity, and a furious Charest immediately demanded a retraction. When Deltell instead repeated it, Charest put him on legal notice, threatening to sue if he didn't retract the comments by 5 p.m. yesterday.

This would be the second person Charest has threatened to sue this year, and the premier actually followed up and sued his own former justice minister, Marc Bellemare, for $700,000 for his crazy comments that judicial appointments were rigged by Liberal bagmen. While he was at it, Charest also appointed Michel Bastarache to head an inquiry into Bellemare's allegations.

This quickly turned into the lawyers' ball, with more than 20 attorneys appearing before the one-man commission, which sadly degenerated into a complete farce. This was the only commission of inquiry where newspaper stories, complete with anonymous quotes, were read into the record as evidence.

But, hey, the televised hearings had higher ratings than Canadiens hockey, at least before the real Carey Price finally showed up. And never mind that Charest was clearly telling the truth before Bastarache, and Bellemare was obviously delusional, three times as many people believed the former minister's version of events.

Which is just another way of saying Charest is unpopular and, sure enough, the latest Leger poll for The Gazette confirms what we already know. The PQ leads the Liberals province-wide by four points. And Pauline Marois, whom Quebecers really don't like, is preferred by voters over Charest by 39 to 28 per cent as best premier. The level of dissatisfaction with the Charest government clocks in at an astonishing 78 per cent, which means that even many Liberal voters are unhappy with Charest. This is a very bad number for Charest, since the tipping point for a government's dissatisfaction rate going into an election is usually 60 per cent. And this is a government that, only a year ago, had a satisfaction rate in the 50s.

It's a government that, as Charest pointed out the other day, has steered Quebec safely through the Great Recession and come out of it with a lower unemployment rate than Ontario or the United States. When was the last time a Quebec premier was able to make that claim after a recession? Never.

Quebec's unemployment rate of eight per cent in October was just above the national rate of 7.9 per cent. But in September, at 7.7 per cent, Quebec's jobless rate was actually below the national average of eight per cent. Meantime, Ontario's unemployment rate was still 8.6 per cent last month, while in the U.S. the unemployment remained near double digits at 9.6 per cent. Nearly 15 million Americans are out of work and millions more have given up trying, which tells you all you need to know about what Barack Obama himself called his "shellacking" in the midterm elections.

Charest is trying to change the conversation from ethics to the economy.

It's symptomatic of his problems in changing the channel that the mainstream media report petitions from cyberspace as serious news. In a democracy the only petition that counts is on election day, and in Quebec that's still more than two years away.

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