Gender parity will rank as one of Charest's greatest achievements

It will be hard for any future cabinet not to have equal numbers of men and women

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Sunday, December 21, 2008

It is far too early, at the beginning of his third term as premier, to be calling Jean Charest a lame duck. Nevertheless, he is beginning a third consecutive term in office, the first such milepost since Maurice Duplessis half a century ago, and it is quite likely to be Charest's last.

His successor, some time after he crosses eight years in office at mid-mandate in 2011, will likely come from among the 26 cabinet members he introduced in Quebec City on Thursday.

Cabinet-making is all about striking a balance - regional balance, linguistic balance and, above all in Charest's universe, gender balance.

Actually, gender parity. His previous cabinet, with nine women among 18 ministers, was the first provincial, state or national government in North America to achieve gender parity.

What Charest established as a laudable precedent has now become established as practice. It will be difficult for Charest's successor, from either the Liberal Party or the Parti Québécois, to depart from this practice. When the history of the Charest years is written, gender parity in cabinet, and other provincial appointments, will be recorded among his signal achievements. And of course, the prospect of equal opportunity for advancement will, in and of itself, attract more women to political life.

In the last Charest cabinet, women were its most effective and visible members - notably Monique Jérôme-Forget at finance, Michelle Courchesne in education, Line Beauchamp at environment and deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau. All have been held over in their previous portfolios, although Jérôme-Forget has relinquished the second and taxing portfolio of Treasury Board, which Charest has given to another woman, Monique Gagnon-Tremblay, a personal favourite of the premier. Two women now control the purse strings of the Quebec family budget, how much comes in and how it goes out.

Among the four other women elevated to cabinet, there are two notables from the Montreal area, Kathleen Weil at Justice and Nicole Ménard at tourism. Ménard brings regional representation from the suburban south shore, and a business background as a former vice-president at the Bank of Montreal. When she was passed over for cabinet in 2007, some observers noted that everyone is a VP at a bank. But not everyone has such a line on their resumé. She will now get an opportunity to prove her mettle at a challenging time for tourism. People tend to travel less during recessions.

Weil's appointment to justice is a major development, and highly unusual for a freshman member of the National Assembly. A law graduate of McGill and a former adviser to Alliance Quebec, she has lately been CEO of the charitable Foundation for Greater Montreal. She has worked at the staff level of cabinet and her senior officials will find her convivial and whip smart. Her husband, Michael Novak, is an executive vice-president of SNC-Lavalin, the consulting engineering giant. They could become one of the new power couples around Montreal, except there isn't a less pretentious or more united couple in town.

Weil obviously represents a degree of linguistic balance. In the previous cabinet, Yolande James was the only anglophone and in the minor portfolio of cultural communities, so Weil makes two. This is an improvement over a single seat at the table for such an important core Liberal constituency. Yet it is short of the normal representation of three angophones in a larger cabinet (Robert Bourassa had four in his 1985 cabinet). This is another crushing disappointment for Geoff Kelley, a team player who stayed on board after his demotion from cabinet in 2007. There is a consolation prize for the Jewish community in that Lawrence Bergman has been named caucus chairperson, which gives him a seat at the cabinet table.

Among the men in cabinet, the most influential is obviously Outremont's Raymond Bachand, responsible for economic development, innovation and trade, big-ticket policy responsibilities in good times and bad, There's one notable new guy at the table, Mount Royal's Pierre Arcand, from the Corus radio family, who was passed over last time but now gets International Relations and la Francophonie.

At this point, there is no evident dauphin to Charest. He is only 50, and in no obvious hurry to move on. But at 50, he has also been in politics half his life, and a lucrative business career awaits him at some point. Talk of Charest recrossing the Ottawa River, and eventually succeeding Stephen Harper as Conservative leader, is so much wishful thinking.

Only Jean Lesage, before Charest, has ever crossed that river coming this way. No one has ever crossed it in both directions. Charest represents the interests of Quebec now. That's the path he has chosen, but it has also become his destiny.

 
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