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Lysiane Gagnon
Lysiane Gagnon

Lysiane Gagnon

Jean Charest, under siege Add to ...

The storm that hit Quebec's Charest government has the same magnitude, politically speaking, as Iceland's volcanic eruption. Quite suddenly, a government that was not much liked, yet palatable for most citizens, was hit by a huge wave of hatred and contempt.

The numbers are astonishing. All the polls show similar results: As much as three-quarters of Quebeckers want to get rid of the Liberal government - one they re-elected, with a majority to boot, just a year and a half ago. Six out of 10 Quebeckers now believe the totally unproven allegations that Premier Jean Charest is guilty of influence peddling and that the Quebec Liberal Party's bagmen are virtually running the government, especially when it comes to appointing judges.

Never mind that the man at the centre of this storm is a cantankerous former cabinet minister and a political gadfly who's been considered for years a loose cannon with an axe to grind against the political establishment. For most Quebeckers, Marc Bellemare is more credible than Mr. Charest, a man they chose as premier three times since 2003.

There's a background to this wave of anger that's reaching such a proportion that one wonders whether the Charest government will be able to complete a three- or four-year mandate. The first sign of voters' distrust came last fall, when the media unearthed a series of allegations of corruption in the construction industry.

These allegations were serious, and Quebeckers wanted a public inquiry. But Mr. Charest refused, raising suspicions that he had something to hide and that any investigation would taint the Liberal Party, which is traditionally closer to the big contractors that benefit from public contracts. (Indeed, as opposed to the Parti Québécois, whose clientele is mostly teachers, artists, civil servants and small-town people, the Liberals have close links with the private sector and the business community, from which they receive large financial contributions. It's their proximity to the business world that makes them more vulnerable to suspicions of collusion with "dirty money.")

Resentment against the government's refusal to set up a public inquiry grew with successive revelations. A cabinet minister acknowledged that he, as well as his colleagues and the Premier himself, must collect $100,000 a year for the party through activities such as cocktail parties and golf tournaments. The PQ then raised the old story of Mr. Charest's being paid $75,000 a year by the Liberal Party to supplement his salary; it also accused the government of favouring its party donors when awarding licences for subsidized daycare spots.

The last straw was the budget, with its controversial - and almost unanimously hated - provisions on health care: a user fee of $25 for each medical visit, and a "dedicated contribution" (a tax hike, in other words) of $200 a year to the health-care system, regardless of the taxpayer's income. In the days after these announcements, 77 per cent of Quebeckers told pollsters they were unsatisfied with the government.

So the climate was ripe for Mr. Bellemare's "revelation" that the whole system of appointing judges has been corrupted by Liberal fundraisers under the approving eye of Mr. Charest - a wildly exaggerated charge that will be easy to refute. Mr. Charest appointed Michel Bastarache, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, to look into these allegations, but it was too little too late: What Quebeckers want is an inquiry with a much larger mandate on the construction industry, political corruption and party financing.

The PQ's popularity rose from 34 per cent in February to 41 per cent last week, 18 points ahead of the Liberals. For the first time, PQ Leader Pauline Marois, who's never been particularly popular, overtakes Mr. Charest as "best premier" by as much as 10 points. There's more blowback to come from this volcanic eruption.

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