"You picked a fine time to leave me, Monique." If Jean Charest knows any country music, he might today be sub-vocalizing that revised version of Kenny Rogers's mournful lyric.
The premier lost a bulwark of his cabinet yesterday with the departure of Finance Minister Monique Jérôme-Forget, who announced her immediate resignation from cabinet and as member of the National Assembly for Marguerite-Bourgeoys, the district better known as LaSalle.
Jérôme-Forget is so well-known and well-regarded that it's hard to believe she has been finance minister for only two years. Before that she spent four as president of the Treasury Board, a post with a lower profile but virtually as much influence. She got into electoral politics in 1998, after a varied and distinguished career - as a federal civil servant, a psychologist, an official at Concordia University, and even as a newspaper columnist. In the Assembly she quickly became a key member of Charest's front bench.
At Treasury Board and at Finance, Jérôme-Forget presided over affluent times. Revenue was pouring in, and spending could be increased without much difficulty, even as taxes were reduced somewhat. It was a good time to be a finance minister.
But that was then. Faced with a far more difficult challenge this year, Jérôme-Forget could do no miracles: We're back in deficit, the sales tax will be going up, the Caisse lost a fortune, and some unpleasant choices will have to be made once the "stimulus" hangover sets in. No wonder she decided to leave - and no wonder Charest will have been less than pleased by her decision, although only the timing was a surprise.
No wonder, either, that he moved quickly to replace her. This is no time to be without a finance minister: in mid-recession, in a province with plenty of structural budget problems.
Raymond Bachand, sworn in yesterday afternoon, is certainly capable. He is also said to have leadership ambitions, and so might be taking the daunting job with mixed emotions. The bank account is low, so is the government's popularity, and who knows when recovery might begin?
The change leaves Charest one female minister short of the cabinet gender parity of which he has been so proud. There was an indication that an additional minister might be named soon, but for now Bachand will retain responsibility for economic development, innovation, and export trade. He also continues as minister for Montreal.
Meanwhile many in the anglophone and allophone communities will be sniffing around safely Liberal Marguerite-Bourgeoys. A quarter of the the riding's residents are anglophones and many of the rest are members of the Italian and other ethnic communities. Francophones constitute a minority. We trust that the Liberal machine will consider the riding's demographics in choosing a candidate.
Jérôme-Forget left in great good humour yesterday, smiling and joking. She has earned the right to be remembered positively; we hope that someday we'll be able to say as much for the new finance minister.