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Quebec Premier Jean Charest responds to Opposition questions Thursday March 18, 2010 at the Quebec legislature. (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Quebec Premier Jean Charest responds to Opposition questions Thursday March 18, 2010 at the Quebec legislature. (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

Jean Charest's welcome public inquiry Add to ...

Complicity in influence peddling; illegal fundraising - the allegations against the Quebec Liberal Party are grave and reach the highest offices in Quebec. Jean Charest, Quebec's Premier, was right to announce he would hold a public inquiry into the claims; it is the only correct response when the integrity of the province's justice system has been cast in such doubt.

Marc Bellemare, the justice minister who served for less than a year in Mr. Charest's first government, is now crying scandal. He says he saw large, unregistered cash and cheque donations made by construction industry leaders to party fundraisers. Fundraisers would then try to influence Mr. Bellemare in the naming of judges, and Mr. Bellemare acquiesced on three occasions. Moreover, he alleges, Mr. Charest knew about all of this, and did nothing.

There are questions to be raised about Mr. Bellemare's revelations. That he made them in a radio interview, several years after the incidents he says he witnessed, named only Mr. Charest as a culpable party, and produced no corroborating evidence is troubling. The kind of explicit political pressure he describes today is serious enough to have merited immediate disclosure, and a minister's resignation. And indeed Mr. Bellemare did resign his cabinet post and National Assembly seat in 2004, but over a dispute with the Premier around the province's auto insurance reforms; at that time, he never mentioned influence peddling.

Mr. Charest has been having a rough go; his necessarily austere budget has roused diffuse public anger, and suggestions that the construction industry has an outsized political influence, and benefits accordingly, have already been raised (leading opposition parties to opportunistically seek an inquiry into the entire construction industry).

Under political attack, Mr. Charest could have buckled down. But he chose well. The charges are sweeping and suggestive of criminal wrongdoing. When a justice system's basic tenets are questioned by a former justice minister, public confidence in the system is necessarily shaken; even the appearance of malfeasance must be addressed.

The inquiry should be a complete truth-seeking exercise around Mr. Bellemare's allegations, and on issues related to the intersection of political fundraising and judicial nominations. Mr. Bellemare has opened up a hornet's nest. The former justice minister still has some explaining to do. Many other parties, including judges now on the bench, may be called to testify and produce evidence. And one of those parties is Mr. Charest, who deserves an opportunity to answer his accuser on a level playing field, with all facts on the table. Justice demands no less.

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