Smiling Charest in court of public opinion

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Sun Media, Friday, September 24, 2010

Itís not because people donít believe Quebec Premier Jean Charest that heís so unpopular, itís because heís so unpopular that people donít believe him.

This was Charestís dilemma yesterday as he testified before the Bastarache Commission into whether Liberal fundraisers had influenced the appointment of three provincial judges shortly after Charest took office in 2003.

The accuser is Marc Bellemare who was briefly justice minister in the first Charest government before his sudden resignation in early 2004. Bellemare first made his explosive allegations in the spring, leading Charest to sue him for libel, which provoked a countersuit from Bellemare.

The charges, that the premier directly ordered Bellemare to appoint judges recommended by Liberal bagmen, also led to Charestís appointment of former Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache to lead an inquiry. The televised hearings over the last five weeks have turned into a soap opera that is the talk of Quebec. Not to put too fine a point on it, it has become a star chamber and a media circus.

Bastarache needs to get a grip on a commission that has become an audition hall full of lawyers posturing for the cameras.

Yesterday, Bastarache finally lost all patience with Bellemareís preening lawyer, Jean-Francois Bertrand. ďStop arguing with me,Ē Bastarache snapped at one point. ďIíve made my ruling.Ē

In a Leger poll for QMI agency last week, only 14% of respondents believed Charestís side of the story, while 58% sided with Bellemare. For Charest, the qualified good news is that 41% of Quebecers said they might change their minds after hearing his testimony.

Only one of them, Charest or Bellemare, can be telling the truth. But itís clear that Charestís credibility numbers have been driven into the ground by his low approval ratings. Or rather, his high dissatisfaction numbers, running around 80%, compared to a satisfaction rate of 50% only a year ago.

What has happened is that Charest, who successfully campaigned for re-election in 2008 on a slogan of having a steady hand on the wheel, has seen the Quebec economy safely through the recession, but has been sideswiped by ethical issues and the collateral damage from an unpopular budget. Just this week, his finance minister abandoned his wildly unpopular plan for a $25-a-head user fee in the health-care system. An election is still nearly three years away, but Charestís government is dangerously adrift.

In the end, while Charest could be completely vindicated by Bastarache, his political fortunes may be irreversible. In any event, he certainly needed a persuasive and bullet-proof appearance before Bastarache yesterday afternoon, with a second appearance today.

There are two Charests, the smiling one and the scowling one, and it was the one with the light touch who showed up yesterday and made his best connection with voters since the last election.

On why he became a courtroom lawyer himself: ďWhen I was young, I used to watch Perry Mason, and I thought he was pretty good.Ē

On what he was doing on election night in 2003: ďThe phone doesnít stop ringing, especially when you win. When you lose, itís quieter.Ē

And on his facts on judicial and other appointments, he was in complete command. This is the Charest his friends know, who sometimes disappears during classes, only to ace the exam. Itís about time he showed up.

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