Quebec Premier Jean Charest refused to answer questions Sunday about the judicial nomination process in Quebec, saying the matter should be left in the hands of former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache, who was appointed last week by the Premier to head a public inquiry into the scandal.
Mr. Charest has had a politically damaging week attempting to appease public concerns over allegations of political interference in the appointment of judges.
"The best place to deal with this in an orderly way and to get to the bottom of thing is the Bastarache commission," Mr. Charest told reporters during a news conference. "The best thing for you and I, and in the interest of Quebeckers, is that Mr. Bastarache do his work and be allowed to answer all these questions."
Mr. Bastarache was appointed after explosive allegations were made last week by Marc Bellemare. The former justice minister, who quit politics in 2004 after only a year in cabinet, said he not only witnessed cash donations to party officials in violation of party financing laws but that he was also pressured by influential Liberal fundraisers to appoint certain judges.
It was confirmed last week that Marc Bisson was appointed to the Quebec court in 2003 after his father, prominent Liberal organizer Guy Bisson, approached junior Transport Minister Norm MacMillan, who was then party whip, in order to boost his son's candidacy. His son was under consideration at the time by Mr. Bellemare.
Mr. Bellemare said he told Mr. Charest on several occasions about the alleged influence peddling and irregular party financing practices, but nothing was done to stop it. In fact, more troubling revelations over the weekend appeared to corroborate suspicions of political interference.
On Friday, Justice Minister Kathleen Weil, who had defended the confidential and non-partisan process in nominating Quebec judges, acknowledged consulting with Mr. Charest regarding at least five separate judicial appointments. Mr. Charest saw no problem with Ms. Weil discussing judicial appointments with him before they were approved by cabinet. He insisted that it didn't forsake the independence of the nomination process.
"It's only normal," an embarrassed Mr. Charest said on Friday. "It is obvious that the Premier of Quebec, who prepares cabinet meetings, has the responsibility to make sure that the work is done."
Mr. Bastarache expressed concerns when he was asked to comment whether it was a problem for the Premier of Quebec to have access to the list of names of potential judicial appointments.
"It always causes a problem if [the Premier]doesn't follow the established system," Mr. Bastarache told the Montreal daily La Presse.
Ms. Weil was nowhere to be seen during a weekend Liberal party meeting attended by her cabinet colleagues. It became clear that party strategists believed Ms. Weil's frank comments about judicial appointments had done enough to embarrass the party Leader who was attempting to divert debate from the political damage caused by Mr. Bellemare's remarks.
At the conclusion of the meeting on Sunday, Mr. Charest reassured his loyal supporters that, despite being the target last week of harsh criticism, he was proud to be Premier of Quebec and that he would be around for some time yet to complete the mandate he was given.
"I was reminded this week, the reason why I'm the Premier of Quebec and the reason why I lead this government is to address the issue of the economy," Mr. Charest said in a news conference Sunday. "It's been that kind of a week and, believe me, I'm not going to take my eyes off the ball."