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Quebec legislature resumes in shadow of Bastarache inquiry

Quebec Premier Jean Charest responds to Opposition questions Thursday June 10, 2010, at the legislature in Quebec City. The legislature is expected to end its spring session on Friday.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Quebec National Assembly has resumed sitting with a cloud of suspicion hanging over Premier Jean Charest's government.

The Bastarache Commission into allegations of influence peddling in the nomination of judges has seriously crippled voter confidence in Mr. Charest, polls show.

Mr. Charest will have an opportunity on Thursday to rebuild his credibility when he testifies before the public inquiry. Based on Mr. Charest's past statements, he will contradict everything former justice minister Marc Bellemare has told the commission.

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Mr. Bellemare's allegations that party fundraisers exerted "colossal" pressure on him to appoint or promote three judges are at the heart of the public inquiry. Mr. Bellemare, who was justice minister from April, 2003, until he resigned a year later, went public with his allegations last spring.

Mr. Charest has denied any ties between party fundraisers and the nomination of judges. He has also denied Mr. Bellemare told him of influence peddling by party fundraisers.

"There won't be any surprises," Mr. Charest said last week when asked about his testimony. "Don't expect any fireworks."

Liberals are, however, expecting a solid performance from their leader. The party is concerned that anything short of winning back the trust of voters will undermine just about every major issue the government plans to tackle this fall. Some fear, without saying so publicly, that it may even spell the demise of Mr. Charest as party leader.

What has hurt the Liberals most has been the public perception that Mr. Charest governed through patronage and favouritism, a view recently reinforced by the news that former Liberal government aides are now promoting the emerging lucrative shale gas industry in the province.

Similar perceptions were created last spring after revelations that the government had awarded huge contracts to construction and engineering firms with close Liberal ties. Even private daycare permits were being awarded to Liberal supporters, according to documents released by the opposition parties.

Public mistrust towards the government can also be measured on the issue of protecting the French language. Several thousand people attended a rally last weekend to protest against the government bill to allow the children of wealthy francophone and immigrant families to be enrolled in private non-subsidized English language schools for three years to become eligible to attend English-language public schools.

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The legislation to allow so-called bridging schools was the government's response to a Supreme Court of Canada decision in October, 2009, that it is illegal to make children from francophone and immigrant families who had been enrolled in private English-language schools switch in the public system. Under Quebec law, only children of a parent who attended an English language school in Canada can enroll in the province's English-language public-school system.

The bill was criticized as allowing certain groups to buy a constitutional right. Even federal New Democrat MP Thomas Mulcair recently told a National Assembly committee examining the bill that the proposal amounted to a "Google map to bypass the law."

Mr. Charest plans to underscore the province's strong economic recovery from the recession to deflate opposition attacks. But testimony at the Bastarache Commission has overshadowed the government's agenda.

During testimony before the commission on Tuesday, party fundraiser Charles Rondeau acknowledged that, each week for almost six months in 2003 and 2004, he went to Mr. Charest's office to meet with Chantal Landry, who was responsible for government appointments to help pick and choose who was worthy of jobs. Mr Rondeau insisted that the appointments discussed did not include the nomination of judges. But he admitted meeting Mr. Bellemare to speak on behalf of a "friend," Michel Simard, who was later promoted to associate chief justice of the Quebec Court against the former justice minister's wishes.

The testimony at the inquiry has renewed opposition calls for a wider probe into the construction industry and irregularities in party financing.

"This government is stuck in scandals. It has been discredited by its refusal to hold a public inquiry into the construction industry," Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois said in the National Assembly on Tuesday. "Each day brings its lot of new revelations."

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And this allows the PQ to maintain its offensive against an already weakened government.

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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