Amid the stench of cronyism, Charest strikes a lousy deal with Jewish schools

The cynical side of Jean Charest has to be loving this controversy about the presence of French at the Olympics. It’s such an easy play for someone in his position: weigh in just enough to look concerned, but not enough to look like a grouch. Leave the heavy lifting to people like Réjean Tremblay, who was annoyed at the lack of French even before the Olympics started and who has since cranked up the outrage-o-meter to eleventy-billion, and Pauline Marois, who somehow imagines joining a three-day-old pile-on that’s doing perfectly fine without her is good politics.

But make no mistake—Charest needs this controversy more than anyone else, if only for the distraction it provides. The past two weeks have exposed a potentially devastating fact about his government: it is incapable of learning from crises. Nowhere is this more evident than in the special rules the Quebec government recently implemented to make life easier for ultra-religious private Jewish schools that openly flout the province’s education guidelines.

A handful of these schools have been on the government’s radar for years because they spend too much time teaching religion and too little on core subjects like French and math and science. So what does the province do about it? Rather than cut off their funding—yes, ‘private’ schools in Quebec get government funding—and enforce provincial standards, the government is changing its rules to allow the delinquent schools to hold classes on Sundays. It seems the problem of schools failing to live up to their most fundamental responsibility (teaching the curriculum), all while collecting government money, is really one of scheduling. Just three years removed from the hue-and-cry over reasonable accommodations that nearly consumed him, Charest is telling Quebecers his government is both unwilling and incapable of enforcing standards in what’s arguably the province’s most important jurisdiction.

That the Jewish schools struck their sweetheart deal with the help of a lobbyist with long-standing connections to the Quebec Liberals raises another troubling issue: the stench of cronyism surrounding the Charest government is still lingering long after the controversy over construction contracts reached its apogee during last year’s mayoral election in Montreal.

We’re just six weeks into the New Year and already two members of the Liberal caucus have been implicated in ethics controversies. Jean D’Amour, the Liberal MLA for Rivière-du-Loup, pleaded guilty earlier this month to charges he illegally lobbied on behalf of an engineering firm looking to obtain contracts with the municipal government in Rivière-du-Loup. (He was fined $500, but kept his job as MLA.) Meanwhile, the province’s minister of family, Montreal MLA Tony Tomassi, has been accused of using his influence to secure government funding for daycares run by Liberal party donors. According to the PQ, since 2008, 1,600 government-subsidized daycare spots have been allocated to 32 people whose donations to the Liberals since 2003 total $112,000. (Tomassi responded by accusing the PQ of hating Italians.)

Charest is perhaps as resilient a politician as there is in Canada. His three consecutive election victories, despite facing some of the harshest criticism of any premier in recent history, attest to that toughness. But while it’d be premature to assume these are the crises that will undo him, Charest is increasingly being tasked with a most exhausting responsibility—to spend every day defending the patently indefensible.