Critical year lies ahead for Charest

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Sun Media, Friday, January 21, 2011

Jean Charest has been vindicated by the findings of the Bastarache inquiry into Quebec's judicial appointment process, but in political terms the damage to his brand has already been done, and may have passed a tipping point.

Former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache found that Charest's accuser, Marc Bellemare, was not credible in his testimony that Liberal party bagmen tried to influence appointments to the provincial court while he briefly served as justice minister in Charest's first year in office in 2003-04.

Bellemare's sensational accusations triggered Charest's appointment of Bastarache last spring, and the televised hearings in the fall were a ratings sensation on the Frenchlanguage news channels. At the beginning of the hockey season, more people were watching the hearings than watching the Habs!

In his testimony, Bellemare told of a meeting in September 2003 where the premier ordered him to appoint two judges recommended by party bagman Franco Fava. Bellemare testified Charest told him: "Franco told you to name (them), name them."

Except that Charest denies the meeting ever took place, nor is there any record of such a meeting in the premier's diaries or agenda. He is suing Bellemare over the accusations, and Bellemare is countersuing. Only one of them can be telling the truth, and while Bastarache didn't want to comment on a case before the courts, he shredded Bellemare's credibility in his fact-finding.

I've known Charest for more than 25 years, and he simply doesn't speak in such a peremptory tone of voice, yelling at colleagues and giving orders. Moreover, early in his career he paid a price for intervening in the judicial process, resigning from the Mulroney cabinet after calling a judge. He learned that lesson well.

But in the fevered political climate of the moment, Quebecers were inclined to believe Bellemare's version of events. In push-polling splashed across the Quebec media, Quebecers said they believed Bellemare over Charest by margins of at least 3-1.

While this was only a reflection of Charest's negative approval rating--between 70% and 80% of Quebecers currently disapprove--the headlines further undermined his integrity.

The Bastarache commission also rolled out amid calls for an inquiry into the construction industry, where bid rigging and questionable political donations are rampant. For example, it costs 30% more to build a road in Quebec than it does in Ontario.

The mainstream Quebec media have sometimes egged on a howling mob of public opinion, and many voters will still prefer Bellemare's version of events. But as Andre Pratte noted Thursday in La Presse: "That wouldn't be the first time the crowd preferred a lynching over justice."

This will be a critical year for Charest, in terms of reversing his run of bad fortune. Bastarache absolving him of any wrongdoing was an important first step. Charest has already said he accepts Bastarache's recommendations for more transparency and stakeholder participation in judicial appointments.

For the rest, Charest needs to change the channel from ethics to the economy, a historic strength of the Liberal brand. Charest has a good narrative there, with lower unemployment in Quebec than in both Ontario and the U.S.

An election window opens in the fall of 2012. And elections in Quebec are different from other provinces in one important sense. Only in Quebec is the future of the country at stake.

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