Premier Jean Charest is responding to allegations of abuse in the political donation system by calling a public inquiry into how judges are appointed in Quebec.

He made the announcement during a lunch-hour news conference in Quebec City, saying his former Justice Minister Marc Bellemare has made serious accusations.

"I'm doing this because as Premier of Quebec, I think it's important that we address this issue of the integrity of the justice system in Quebec," said Charest.

The move comes one day after Bellemare went on TVA and Radio-Canada to make specific allegations against the Liberal party, allegations that party "moneymen" were accepting cash from donors, then making demands about who should be picked as a judge.

Bellemare said there were two or three times during his 2003-2004 tenure as Justice Minister when contributors influenced him to choose their candidate as judge that he did not favour.

"There are people with concerns that are essentially financial who want to push for certain candidates," Bellemare told TVA. "It has nothing to do with the process which normally applies."

He went on to add "it is effective because I have a premier leading me to believe that this is the way it works."

Michel David, former president of the National Assembly press gallery and columnist for Le Devoir, said this will cause major damage to Charest and his government.

"These are very, very serious allegations," said David. "Clearly neither Mr. Charest neither his government needed that."

Pierre Chagnon, president of the Quebec Bar Association, said a public inquiry is necessary to clear the air, given that the accusations put the integrity of the judicial system into question.

"I was very, very troubled" by the allegations, he said.

Charest calling for retraction

Charest is denying accusations that any money changed hands to influence who sits on the bench, and is demanding Bellemare retract the accusations or face a lawsuit.

Charest also said that at no time did he talk to Bellemare about political donations.

Yet at the same time, he is calling for the inquiry.

There is no idea at this point when it would start, how broad its mandate would be, or who would head the investigation.

"In this particular case, Mr. Bellemare has made allegations about the nomination of judges that are serious," said Charest. "He was a minister of justice, and for that reason I'm going to put together a commission of inquiry that will look into these allegations and get to the bottom of it, and determine what it is exactly that he's speaking of."

The opposition is calling for a National Assembly committee, which could be set up much faster than an inquiry.

"We think it's the best forum for this discussion," said ADQ leader Gerald Deltell.

"As we've been demanding for the past year, we want an inquiry into the construction industry, and now we want another inquiry... specifically into the influence of financing within the Liberal party."

"The reputation of Quebec is at stake," said Deltell.

Previous accusations

Bellemare has made vague accusations in the past, but never before have they been this serious, or specific.

When earlier accusations were made, Charest and the Liberals told Bellemare he should take his complaints to the Chief Electoral Officer, but Bellemare has said he wants to testify before a political committee or judicial inquiry, where he would have some sort of immunity from prosecution.

Political impact

David does not think Charest is likely to resign under the latest accusations, but does think Bellemare's latest salvo makes the Premier's third term difficult.

"For weeks he's been under pressure, for all sorts of things ethics matters, corruption matters and the industry of construction," said David.

"Few days ago you saw tens of thousands of people angry about the last budget, and just two days ago Le Devoir released a poll showing that 77% of Quebecers are dissatisfied with the government."

David expects that Charest will continue to fight for his legacy, but may not run in another election.

"Already Charest's credibility is very low, so people are now ready to believe anything and everything about Mr. Charest. Politically speaking, the damage is already done." he said.

Meanwhile, Antonia Maioni of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, said Bellemare is also facing a challenge.

"The accusations against Charest are quite substantial, but the burden of proof on Bellemare is even more substantial. He has to prove it happened, and he has to prove Charest knew about it," Maioni said.