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It's 'David versus Goliath' at the Bastarache inquiry

Premier Jean Charest looks on during a news conference at the National Assembly in Quebec City on Aug. 24, 2010.


There's nothing like a good-old-fashioned public inquiry to rouse Quebec pundits from their summer slumber. The Bastarache probe into alleged influence peddling in judicial nominations began last week with two days of testimony from former provincial justice minister Marc Bellemare. Earlier this year, Mr. Bellemare dropped a bombshell when he said Liberal Party fundraisers had undue influence on the appointment of judges in the province.

During his testimony last week, the former cabinet minister said Premier Jean Charest told him that party fundraiser Franco Fava was "a personal friend" and that if he told Mr. Bellemare to name certain people as judges, he should follow his advice. Mr. Charest, who has continuously denied having had such a conversation with Mr. Bellemare wasted no time reacting to the testimony. In a news conference convened less than an hour after Mr. Bellemare's testimony concluded Mr. Charest again denied all of Mr. Bellemare's allegations.

In a province where public inquiries are becoming de rigueur , the Bastarache commission is quickly emerging as the "he said, he said" battle of the season complete with a steady stream of colour commentary and breathless combat metaphors from Quebec political observers.

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Mr. Bellemare has been widely characterized as the underdog in the fight against his former boss and a poll published last week found that 53 per cent of Quebeckers consider him " credible," while only 12 per cent were willing to say the same about Mr. Charest and his government. Le Soleil's Francois Bourque described the fight as a " David versus Goliath" scenario and his colleague, Pierre-Paul Noreau declared Mr. Bellemare a "white knight."

In a La Presse column published Saturday, Stéphane Laporte opined that many Quebeckers were more willing to trust Mr. Bellemare over Mr. Charest "because we know Mr. Charest better. We are always more willing to believe the person we don't know as well." Mr. Laporte went on to applaud Mr. Bellemare's "calm tone" and the inquiry's fairly "civilized" proceedings so far. He concluded, however, that Mr. Bellemare's lack of hard evidence to back up his claims about what was said during conversations with Mr. Charest means that, "after one period, it's hard to say what the score is."

La Presse's Yves Boisvert was similarly impressed with Mr. Bellemare's calm demeanour in the opening days of the inquiry, especially since "lawyers are rarely good witnesses." He contended that from "a judicial point of view, there was nothing lethal" in Mr. Bellemare's testimony. But from a political point of view "Jean Charest is dying," he wrote. "We'll wait and see how this commission evolves," Mr. Boisvert wrote, "but up until this point, Marc Bellemare's version of events does not seem too far fetched."

In a column titled "The slow death of Jean Charest" in the weekend edition of Le Devoir, Gil Courtemanche echoed Mr. Boisvert's death knell for the beleaguered Premier. Mr. Courtemanche accused Mr. Charest of " digging his own grave" by repeatedly allowing scandal and lingering allegations of corruption to destroy his credibility. "We are now ready to believe the worst of Jean Charest," he wrote. Mr. Bellemare, on the other hand, seems like a "modest, reserved and simple man, who is not motivated by political ambition" and who "is impossible to imagine as a dishonest person," Mr. Courtemanche opined.

In his column for La Presse, Vincent Marissal contended that Mr. Charest's lack of credibility with the public means that the only viable course of action is to launch an "aggressive and well-documented counter-attack" against Mr. Bellemare.

That effort began in earnest earlier this week when lawyers representing Mr. Charest and the government cross-examined Mr. Bellemare. La Presse called Mr. Bellemare's first round of cross-examination on Monday "a difficult day" for the former minister. In her assessment of Mr. Bellemare's performance on Monday, La Presse's Ariane Krol opined, "anyone else would have been quite shaken up by the contradictions and incongruities he had to face yesterday during [cross-examination] But he held up well." Ms. Krol attributed Mr. Bellemare's relative ease to his experience as a lawyer. "Imagine the preparation that he has undergone before going in front of this commission," she added. "If the lawyers for the government, Jean Charest and the Liberal Party want to destabilize him, they are going to have to come up with something very strong. Because their lawyer tricks aren't going to work on this witness."

On Tuesday morning, a headline in the Journal de Montreal declared that Mr. Bellemare was " still standing" but on "shakier ground" after a difficult day of cross-examination. Le Journal's Richard Martineau, who had written a column last week in which he said he was inclined to believe Mr. Bellemare's version of events, found himself wavering this week. Mr. Martineau had originally considered Mr. Bellemare to be quite "credible," but he had come to suspect that the former minister had "a hidden agenda." He was particularly concerned about Mr. Bellemare's chronology of events and "his difficulty specifying certain dates."

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Twitter feed of the week

Public inquiry junkies can get their up-to-the-minute fix from Le Devoir's Antoine Robitaille, who is tweeting live from the hearings.

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