Quebec's Premier is locking horns with his former justice minister, launching a libel lawsuit and appointing a former Supreme Court judge to head an inquiry into allegations that influential party fundraisers contaminated the judicial appointment process.
In turn, Marc Bellemare, the former justice minister, filed a formal complaint on Wednesday asking the Sûreté du Québec to investigate the Liberal party over allegations of kickbacks and influence peddling. Mr. Bellemare said earlier this week that influential party donors asked him to appoint particular people as judges, and that he saw construction entrepreneurs give huge amounts of cash to Liberal officials to get around legal limits on the size of donations. Mr. Bellemare said he told Premier Jean Charest about the irregularities five times while he was justice minister from April, 2003, to April, 2004, but nothing was done.
When Mr. Bellemare refused to retract his accusations yesterday, Mr. Charest followed through with his threat to launch a personal lawsuit against Mr. Bellemare, demanding $700,000 in damages "for false, malicious and defamatory remarks."
By calling on Michel Bastarache, a former Supreme Court of Canada judge from New Brunswick, to look into the serious allegations, Mr. Charest is following in the footsteps of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who turned to a respected former Supreme Court justice, Frank Iacobucci, in an attempt to address public concerns over the handling of Afghan detainees.
Before Mr. Bellemare stepped forward this week with his explosive charges, Mr. Charest's government was already facing allegations of favouritism and bid rigging involving the construction industry, the awarding of daycare permits and information technology contracts. The Premier had resisted calls for an inquiry but had to act when the integrity of the justice system was brought into question.
"It's an exceptional step on our part to put together a commission of inquiry because the allegations of someone who was a minister of justice do affect the credibility of our justice system," Mr. Charest said. "The mandate will touch on the allegations made by Mr. Bellemare on the way judges were named."
Mr. Bastarache's mandate will be restricted to judicial appointments. He will be able to call witnesses, offer them immunity and will hold "far-reaching powers," Mr. Charest said. Mr. Bastarache has been asked to complete his inquiry and make recommendations by October.
In interviews yesterday, Mr. Bastarache said he will not try to redefine his mandate to include Liberal party financing.
During his time on the bench Mr. Bastarache was considered a moderate conservative. Always a staunch federalist, Mr. Bastarache campaigned for the Charlottetown constitutional accord in the 1992 referendum before being appointed to the Supreme Court in 1997 by prime minister Jean Chrétien. He was a colleague of Mr. Chrétien in the law firm of Lang Michener before his appointment to the New Brunswick Court of Appeal in 1995. Because he comes from outside Quebec, he is an ideal choice, Mr. Charest said.
"He has no vested direct personal interest in the way the judicial system operates in Quebec," Mr. Charest said. "The fact that he has not sat on a Quebec court is good."
Mr. Bastarache works in Ottawa for the law firm Heenan Blaikie and sits on the board of directors of the Trudeau Foundation along with Paul Desmarais Jr., one of Mr. Charest's closest business and political allies.
The opposition parties expressed respect for Mr. Bastarache's judicial credentials, but argued that the inquiry's mandate fails to address the real issue of political corruption in Quebec.
"When you're the accused, you don't choose your judge and choose the charges to be laid against you," said PQ House Leader Stéphane Bédard. "Mr. Charest no longer has the moral authority and the legitimacy to refuse Quebeckers a wider public inquiry."