Charest should change Michaud rule

Affaire Michaud 2000-2011

Premier Jean Charest vows to create a leaner, and dare we predict meaner, government. To thicken the stately wallet enough to deliver a $1-billion income-tax cut, we'll be emptying our own by paying more for electricity, drug insurance and day care. This is what he calls "reinventing Quebec."
In the world according to Charest, there will be no big government. But the government is already smaller than it used to be - so much so that both the quality and the quantity of our public services have gone down since 1996, when the zero-deficit policy cut through most government departments like a chainsaw massacre.
But before the premier gets too busy with his own chainsaw, there is one thing that could stand a little reinventing. That would be to change the rules of the National Assembly to curtail even further the future adoption of what we call motions of blame, or motions to condemn statements made by citizens.
I know, I know. That means digging up the infamous Yves Michaud affair. But it isn't going away. And neither is Michaud. This Monday, the Solidarité Yves Michaud committee had a full house when it met in Montreal to find ways to remedy what happened almost three years ago.
You remember the story, don't you? On a cold winter morning, Dec. 14, 2000, MNAs voted unanimously to condemn the "unacceptable statements" Michaud allegedly had made "regarding ethnic communities, and in particular, the Jewish community." MNAs voted under pressure from their leaders. Worst of all, they voted without even knowing what Michaud had said.
In the following days and weeks, open-line radio shows and newspaper opinion pages were filled with outrage from Quebecers, sovereignists and federalists alike. Whether or not they agreed with Michaud's statements - which by then had been finally reported verbatim by most media - people were shocked to see the National Assembly use its full weight to condemn the words of a nonelected citizen.
As many saw this motion of blame as a frontal attack against the freedom of speech of citizens, public opinion turned against then-premier Lucien Bouchard who, by the way, had used this motion to try to get rid of Michaud, who wanted to run for the Parti Québécois in the riding of Mercier.
One month later, Bouchard resigned, using the Michaud affair as his one-way ticket out of the party he had grown to loathe. Doing his usual holier-than-thou number, he painted himself as tolerance incarnate, whereas Michaud and PQ members were portrayed as a bunch of xenophobes with whom he didn't want to play anymore.
Then came Bernard Landry. Most people - first and foremost PQ members and Michaud himself - thought the new premier would change the National Assembly rules and right the wrong that had been done to Michaud. But he never did, at least, not completely.
At first, he pointed to the Liberals who were refusing to support the change. Since parliamentary rules are usually modified with a unanimous vote, he argued he was stuck.
When it became known there had been instances where some rules had been changed without unanimity, he told his party that his cabinet was divided on the issue and that he just couldn't force it. He refused to exercise the kind of leadership that would have put this issue to rest, once and for all.
As time passed, it became evident Landry, who had remained close to Bouchard, didn't want to break so clearly with his predecessor's era. So the rule was changed, but only partially, making it more difficult to adopt a motion of blame but leaving it still possible.
Today, with a new government in place, Michaud is trying again. He sent a letter recently to Michel Bissonnet, speaker of the National Assembly, asking the Assembly cover legal costs so he can ask the Superior Court to rule on the constitutional legality of motions of blame. This means Michaud would look to nonelected judges to exercise the kind of courage elected party leaders appear to be lacking as they have yet to remedy the Michaud affair.
But whatever means Michaud decides to use, none would be as efficient as having the new premier show the kind of leadership that Landry lacked. Surely, Charest must see that this is a question of principle, not of partisanship.
For most of all, this issue has nothing to do with Michaud himself, who comes across as a pompous, egocentric character who takes endless delight in listening to the sound of his own voice.
It has everything to do with the freedom of Quebec citizens to express themselves without having to fear they might suffer a public blame from the men and women whom they elected.

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