A Radical New Plan: Can Jean Charest Survive?
If by some chance you arrived at the Quebec LIBERAL PARTY convention last weekend after having lived under a rock for several weeks, you'd be forgiven for thinking things were peachy for the provincial party. The mere mention of Premier Jean CHAREST's name evoked whistles and cheers from the 600 or so partisans. Wearing a perpetual half-smirk, Charest studded both of his boisterous, campaign-style speeches with cheery statistics: roads built, jobs created, money saved, dollars spent. For one weekend, at least, the Hôtel des Seigneurs in St. Hyacinthe, a town better known for the quality of its chocolate than its support of anything remotely federalist, gleamed Quebec Liberal red-and-blue.
Yet it is quite a different story beyond the partisan fold. Less than 18 months after securing a third term, Charest and the Liberals are more unpopular than they've ever been. A recent poll suggested 77 per cent of Quebecers are unsatisfied with the government, while a mere 17 per cent believe Charest is fit to lead the province. The poll, which came out shortly after a budget replete with tax, tuition and electricity rate hikes, not to mention the introduction of user fees for health care, represents a dubious honour for Charest: he is even less popular now than he was in 2004, the previous benchmark for unpopularity in modern Quebec politics - and, not coincidentally, the last time Charest attempted major changes to Quebec's traditional social democratic model. In response to the more recent changes, some 50,000 Quebecers took to the streets (on a Sunday, no less) to protest the tax hikes, christening Quebec's own version of the Tea Party movement. "It's unprecedented," pollster Christian Bourque told Le Devoir recently.
Then there are the allegations of government favouritism, bribery and influence-peddling within the party. The public security minister and government house leader, Jacques Dupuis - who has been the public face of the government - has taken to barging out of press scrums headfirst, practically, when the subject comes up. Clearly, he isn't enjoying the attention. "I'm not giving any interviews, thank you," Dupuis said when Maclean's approached him, shoving a reporter's chair away with his foot as partisans looked on.
Charest's declining popularity levels can't only be chalked up to his recent budget - which, unpopular as it may be, is a concrete attempt to rein in expenditures and increase revenues of Canada's most indebted provinces. (Several pro-business groups, as well as the right-of-centre lucide class, endorsed it.) The real damage was caused by Marc Bellemare, Charest's former justice minister, who recently said that throughout its seven years in power Charest's government has meddled in the selection of judges and has been beholden to both its own fundraisers and the province's powerful and demonstrably corrupt construction industry.
This comes on the heels of a recent interview with current Justice Minister Kathleen Weil on a popular political television program, in which she said that she regularly consults with Charest when nominating judges - a claim Charest himself quickly denied. Following Bellemare's accusations, Charest at once announced a public inquiry into the nomination of judges in Quebec, and sued his former justice minister for libel, to the tune of $700,000.
Bellemare has taken six years to speak, and according to several Liberal sources, there is a palpable sense of unease among Liberal ministers about what, exactly, he knows - and what it will mean for the premier, and the party, if and when he says it.
There is a certain symmetry in the fact that Marc Bellemare was at one time Charest's hand-picked justice minister, brought in as part of a team that was meant to remake the province when the premier first took office seven years ago. Charest appointed him shortly after the 2003 election, largely on the merit of Bellemare's opposition to Quebec's no-fault insurance law. Altering the province's insurance scheme, along with thawing the freeze on university tuition rates and decreasing the clout of Quebec's unions, was the sort of sacred-cow-slaying concept the Liberals were committed to at the time.
In the face of public outrage, however, the Liberal government backed off its proposed changes to the Quebec state. Suddenly Bellemare's pet project, which would have allowed victims of road accidents to sue insurance companies for damages, was no longer a priority. Incensed at how he was treated, Bellemare left his position barely a year later, returned to his Quebec City law practice and, though he said he was done with politics, twice ran unsuccessfully for mayor of that city.
Since leaving office, Bellemare's opinion of his former boss has been inconsistent, to say the least. In December 2004, eight months after leaving Charest's government under a cloud and roughly a week before announcing his first mayoral campaign, he wrote an open letter, published in Le Soleil, praising Charest as a man of "immense knowledge" and blessed with a "warm, serene manner." Two years later, though, Bellemare had reverted back: he suggested Charest was forever a stooge of the Fédération des travailleurs du Québec (FTQ), the province's largest construction union.
The comment went largely unnoticed until last March - nearly six years after Bellemare had left office. "I remember, I was at a hockey game, Montreal was playing the Bruins, and I got a call from [Le Soleil journalist] Martin Pelchat, who asked me about what I said in 2007," Bellemare told Maclean's recently. "I told them that I met with Charest when I was still in office to voice my concern about the FTQ's influence within the government." Charest denied Bellemare's allegations, saying he never met with his former justice minister on the subject of the FTQ. "What insulted me was that he said I never talked to him," Bellemare says.
Coaxed back into the spotlight, Bellemare unleashed several other explosive allegations in the last three weeks: that he was pressured into nominating two judges and promoting another, one of whom was the son of a prominent Liberal fundraiser. He did so, he says, at the behest of Franco Fava, another Liberal fundraiser. As well, Bellemare said he regularly saw envelopes of money passed from Liberal organizers to Liberal politicians. He said he met with Charest five times to express his concerns about the influence-peddling in the nomination of judges. In one instance, he remembers approaching the premier at the national assembly cafeteria's salad bar.
Fava, who didn't return calls from Maclean's, denied the former justice minister's allegations, and a Montreal-area Liberal organizer said Bellemare's comments reek of sour grapes. "He was hoping to get enough money from the Liberals to fund his election campaigns, but Fava told him to go to hell," the source told Maclean's recently.
Bellemare is unfazed. "I have an excellent memory," he says. "I have letters from Charest. I have notes. I can back it all up."
The veracity (and timing) of Bellemare's sortie aside, this much remains true: ever since Charest took office, the Liberal Party of Quebec has been an effective and prolific fundraiser. Transport Minister Norman MacMillan said ministers are expected to raise $100,000 a year and, along with two cabinet colleagues, said it was normal for corporations to donate to political parties. (In fact, corporate donations haven't been allowed in Quebec since 1977.) The party raised over $50 million in the last seven years - nearly double the PQ's effort. In 2008, the average Liberal donation, $413, was nearly triple that of the PQ.
In the court of public opinion, it seems Bellemare has already won. According to a poll published in Le Journal de Montréal, nearly seven out of 10 Quebecers believe the former justice minister over the premier. The allegations, and subsequent unfavourable polls, have sent Charest's government into a tailspin.
And yet what seems clearer today is Charest's intent to defy pundits and ride out the storm. By paring down the size of government, hiking artificially low tuition and electricity rates and introducing health care user fees, Charest is in many ways making good on his abandoned promises from 2003.
The opposition invoked Bellemare's name no less than 12 times during a recent question period, the national assembly's daily festival of catcalls and canned outrage. Throughout it all, Charest wore the same half-smirk. Quebec's only three-term premier in five decades is usually at his best when he is mad, and the last few months of relative pre-Bellemare calm had seemed to lull him into lethargy.
"Two weeks ago, I thought he was done and gone. I didn't think he'd finish his term. Now I'm not so sure," says Gérard Deltell, leader of the opposition Action démocratique du Québec. "His career is quite impressive, you have to admit. They've written his obituary about 50 times in his 26 years in politics."
Liberal premier Robert BOURASSA left politics in 1976 "the most hated man in Quebec," in the words of one Liberal MNA, only to return to power 17 years later. Bourassa's mug was pasted everywhere at the Liberal convention last weekend, as if to remind everyone that you can always fight your way back to the top. Jean Charest seems to think he can, anyway.
Maclean's May 3, 2010