In paying tribute to Monique Jérôme-Forget yesterday, Premier Jean Charest said she had been Treasury Board chair, the minister responsible for controlling all the government's spending, longer than anyone else.
He was mistaken. Jérôme-Forget held that thankless portfolio for 68 months, from Charest's taking office in April 2003 until last December, when Monique Gagnon-Tremblay took over. That's one month less than Daniel Johnson in Robert Bourassa's Liberal government from 1988 to 1994.
But it was an understandable mistake, so strong was the impression Jérôme-Forget left as the "iron lady" of spending restraint in Charest's government.
And when Charest mentioned the highlight of each of her three budgets, it was a reminder that while it might have seemed she had always been his finance minister, in fact she held the portfolio for only two years.
Since the Treasury Board portfolio was created in 1981, she was only the second minister to hold that major portfolio and finance at the same time. The first was Jacques Parizeau of the Parti Québécois; Jérôme-Forget was of comparable importance in the Charest government.
Jérôme-Forget, who is in her late 60s, had wanted to retire after her last term in the National Assembly, her third, but Charest persuaded her to run again in the general election last Dec. 8.
Maybe it was one election too many. Her reputation has suffered because of the likelihood that she helped conceal the losses at the Caisse de dépôt until after the election. And for the fiscal conservative she was, her political career ended with a couple of disappointments.
Her last budget was the first in 11 years to announce an official deficit (as opposed to a hidden one). And while she could boast that her sharp eye on what she called "my handbag" had kept spending growth below the average for all the provinces, Quebec still spends proportionately more on its programs than almost all the other provinces.
So now a second pillar of Charest's government has been removed, the first being Philippe Couillard, who quit active politics last year after more than five years in the health portfolio. And Charest faces the difficult task of shuffling his cabinet only four months after he formed it.
The vacancy in finance was quickly filled with Raymond Bachand, who, at least for the time being, remains minister of economic development. It had been expected that he would be replaced in the latter portfolio by Pierre Arcand, who is minister of international relations.
But that leaves Charest, who deserves credit for giving women unprecedented influence and visibility in his cabinets, with one less female minister in a major portfolio.
It also leaves him one woman short of the gender parity among cabinet ministers that he first achieved in 2007, and which, he said last December at the swearing-in of his new government, he hopes to make a tradition.
He could restore parity by promoting one of the nine female Liberal MNAs who isn't already in the cabinet. Or he could recruit a cabinet-qualified woman from outside the Assembly to run in the by-election to fill the vacancy left by Jérôme-Forget, as he brought in Yves Bolduc to replace Couillard last year.
Jérôme-Forget's resignation allows Charest to call the by-election in the safe Liberal seat of Marguerite-Bourgeoys at the same time as the one to replace Mario Dumont, former leader of Action démocratique du Québec. This would ensure the Liberals of at least a split in the two.
The premier has six months from Dumont's resignation March 6 to call the by-election in Rivière-du-Loup. But the longer he waits to clear up any uncertainty about his future cabinet lineup, the more he risks undermining the authority of his present ministers. There's already enough uncertainty in Quebec City concerning Charest's own future.
Charest's Iron Lady says goodbye
Jérôme-Forget was champion of the balanced budget - until her last