On the front page of La Presse today, more bad news for Premier Jean Charest - and more bad news for federalists.
In the latest Angus Reid on-line poll, more than half of Quebeckers say they believe former justice minister Marc Bellemare's allegations concerning political influence in the appointment of judges in Quebec; only 17 per cent believe Mr. Charest's denials. A full 56 per cent want him to resign as premier; only 24 per cent of Quebeckers want Mr. Charest to stay. And, if an election were held today, the PQ would form a majority government with 40 per cent of the vote, as against 26 per cent for the Liberals - a drop of 5 points since August.
The poll, conducted after Mr. Charest completed his testimony before the much-watched Bastarache commission, shows some improvement since April in his credibility relative to Mr. Bellemare's. Still, only 15 per cent of Quebeckers judged him to be more credible after his testimony, while 27 per cent view him as less credible (for 43 per cent, nothing changed).
Mr. Bellemare maintains (in his most explosive allegation) that, at a private meeting with Mr. Charest, he was instructed to appoint three judges at the behest of Liberal party bagmen. An allegation Mr. Charest unequivocally denied in his testimony last week.
I watched that testimony, as well as the cross-examination by Mr. Bellemare's lawyer, who scarcely challenged the Premier on the principal point. And I concur with the assessment of Le Devoir columnist Michel David - no friend of the current Quebec government - that the meeting likely never occurred:
"It's very difficult to believe that Mr. Charest and Mr. Bellemare were left totally on their own, as the former minister contends. Sometimes, a premier can shake off his security detail, but they never desert him."
That said, I found Mr. Charest's testimony last week to be totally incredible.
I worked closely with Jean Charest in Ottawa, when he was given the task of saving the Meech Lake accord. (Indeed, it's been reported - no doubt in error - that it was I who gave him his marching orders: "Jean, don't f*** this one up".)
Watching his testimony last week, I was struck at how the slightly nervous and unsure MP I had known but had not seen in twenty years - other than in short news clips - had morphed into a clone of Brian Mulroney. The same polished and smooth delivery. The same white shirt and well-cut suit. The same interjections of humour at critical points. The same outward calm in the face of disastrous polls. But, most of all, the same incredible explanations that Canadian got to see for themselves at the Oliphant commission looking into Mr. Mulroney's dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber.
If Mr. Charest is to be believed, there's been no partisanship at play in judicial appointments in Quebec. There was nothing askance in party bagmen frequenting his office to help identify worthy candidates. There's no problem in the official in his office responsible for appointments, who happened once to have been a Liberal candidate, having access to the short list of candidates for judicial positions. Or for the premier to be giving his views as to who should get the job before the justice minister made a recommendation to cabinet.
Mr. Charest professed ignorance at whether this was the same process previous governments of Quebec - Liberal and PQ - had followed (it wasn't). It was all in the interest of promoting women and multicultural candidates. Besides, as Mr. Charest repeatedly repeated, in its first year in office the Liberal government had re-appointed 65 per cent of those whose appointments had expired. Which, all-in-all, is precisely the kind of explanation Mr. Charest's mentor, Brian Mulroney, would have given in similar circumstances.