The Habs and the Liberals, both flailing

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The Gazette, Wednesday, October 26, 2011

There's only one organization in Montreal in more trouble with the public than the Charest government. As it happened, the Canadiens were playing Monday night at the Bell Centre, next door to Windsor Station, where Jean Charest was being honoured for his public service at a tribute dinner organized by the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.

Considering the uproar over the inquiry into the construction industry, the timing of the dinner was somewhat inauspicious. Nevertheless, Quebec Inc. turned out in force at $10,000 a table to support the work of the Wilson Centre's Canada Institute.

Under the circumstances, Charest was in pretty good form. "When you're premier of Quebec," he quipped at the top of his speech, "the honours never stop. Week after week, day after day."

When Charest is in a tough spot, he always refers back to his roots - his parents and his hometown, Sherbrooke. It's one thing about him that is completely authentic.

He has often quoted his mother, Rita Leonard, as saying: "Always keep a place at the table for welcome strangers." On Monday night, he quoted her in terms of outcomes: "What have you done with your life?"

His father, Red Charest, was a player in the American Hockey League, which means he never made it to the bigs. Instead, he went into business back in Sherbrooke and discouraged his sons from playing hockey.

"Forget hockey," he told his son, the future premier. "There's no money in hockey."

The audience roared with appreciative laughter. You'd never know, listening to him, that Charest was coming off perhaps the worst week of his 8 years as premier.

Last week, he bowed to intense pressure and named Judge France Charbonneau of the Quebec Superior Court to lead an inquiry into the Quebec construction industry.

After the report and testimony of his own anti-corruption watchdog, Charest didn't have much choice. Former Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau said the mob and biker gangs are involved in money-laundering, and companies donate cash to political parties through employees. Appearing at the National Assembly, Duchesneau called for an inquiry, and said it could be either public or held behind closed doors.

Charest opted for the latter, to allow for witnesses who might otherwise be afraid to appear, but declined to give Charbonneau the power of subpoena.

The Quebec Bar Association was at pains to disagree with the plan. At the Montreal courthouse, many judges were privately of the same view.

By the time Charest got to his party's convention last weekend, he was in full retreat. On Friday, he said Charbonneau will have subpoena power if she asks for it. On Saturday, he sent Transport Minister Pierre Moreau to say: "If she wants more powers, she will have them." On Sunday, Charest said that if Charbonneau thinks an official inquiry "is the vehicle that she needs to do her work, she will ask, and I don't see any reason why I would refuse her."

Two things:

--First, it's not for the judge to go around asking for subpoena powers, grants of immunity or the status of a full public inquiry. It's up to the government to determine the parameters of her mandate, and appoint her.

--And second, the premier can't go around changing his message every day.

This isn't a question of corruption. It's a question of competence, a core attribute of governing. This week the Liberals don't look like a gang; they look like a gang that can't shoot straight.

For more than two years, Charest has been under pressure from the opposition and the news media to appoint an inquiry into the construction industry.

He's resisted for two very good reasons:

--He's old enough to remember another inquiry into the industry, the Cliche Commission, which in 1974-75 created two very public figures, Brian Mulroney and Lucien Bouchard, later prime minister of Canada and premier of Quebec. The sensational hearings essentially brought down the provincial Liberal government of Robert Bourassa. And that was before all-news TV and the Internet.

--And then there was the Gomery Commission into the federal sponsorship scandal in 2004-05. It will take the federal Liberal brand at least another decade to recover from Gomery.

Encountered on his way out of the tribute dinner with his wife, Charest said he is in fighting form.

"The next few months are going to be interesting," he said.

"The Canadiens lost again tonight," he was told. "The inquiry won't be on the front page tomorrow."

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