Win one for The Stephanies

Liberal cabinet makeup is a direct pitch for the female vote

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The Gazette, Friday, April 20, 2007

In the Charest campaign's war room at Quebec Liberal headquarters in Montreal, there stood a life-size cardboard cut-out of a woman and her young daughter.

The cut-out bore a name tag, Stephanie, and had a question framed in a comic-book bubble: "What do you have to say to me today, Mr. Charest?"

"The Stephanies," as the Liberals dubbed them, were the key demographic group targeted by the Liberals in the campaign. The Stephanies were working women, married and single moms, the parents of daycare and school kids.

"Turned out, we didn't have much to say to the Stephanies," one senior Liberal organizer said ruefully after the election that produced Quebec's first minority government in more than a century and a quarter.

The Liberals finished third among francophones, with only 25 per cent of their vote. The Stephanies voted for Mario Dumont, which is how the ADQ won two Liberal seats on the suburban south shore, one at the foot of the Champlain bridge and the other at the end of the Lafontaine tunnel.

On Wednesday, Jean Charest began a serious bid to win back the Stephanies.

In naming nine women to a downsized cabinet of 18 members, Charest became the first head of a Canadian government to achieve gender parity in cabinet.

It's an historic breakthrough from which there can, and should, be no turning back in Quebec, which now becomes the benchmark for gender equality in politics.

The Liberals nominated 44 women in the campaign, and elected 16 - exactly one-third of their caucus in the minority legislature.

Nine out of those female MNAs will now sit around the cabinet table of 18 ministers. It isn't just the numbers that are striking, it's the importance of their cabinet posts, beginning with Monique Jerome-Forget, as finance minister and president of the Treasury Board.

This makes her the chief operating officer of the government in all but name. Charest likes to call her his boss, and he's not really kidding. The finance minister decides how much money to raise, and the treasury board president determines how it's spent. For good measure, she's also minister of government services.

Having achieved pay equity for women in the public service in the last government, she will be the driving force behind Charest's campaign promise that women will comprise half the members of all government boards, corporations and agencies by the end of the next one.

Among six women holdovers in the cabinet, Michelle Courchesne and Line Beauchamp have been given the biggest promotions, to Education and the Environment respectively. Courchesne got her marching orders in Charest's speech of instructions to cabinet - to move ahead with a longer school day and a thaw on Quebec's ridiculous 13-year-old freeze on university tuition fees. Beauchamp gets the climate change and Kyoto files, the hottest media dossiers in town.

And three new female ministers - Christine Saint-Pierre, Marguerite Blais and Yolande James will also be counted on for the ability to stay on message in the portfolios of Culture and Communications, Seniors, and Immigration and Cultural Communities.

The appointment of James, only 29, as the first black member of a Quebec cabinet, is instructive in the kind of choices Charest faced in making this cabinet.

If she was going to be the ninth women in an 18-member cabinet, one of the guys had to go. And since she's a West Island anglophone, Geoff Kelley became the victim of gender as well as geography and language. Equally, there wasn't a place for former revenue minister Lawrence Bergman, leaving the Jewish community without a representative at the cabinet table.

But there was nothing to prevent Charest from naming a 20-member cabinet, with Kelley and former Bank of Montreal VP Nicole Menard, for example, as the 19th and 20th members. In naming the smallest cabinet since Jean Lesage in 1960, Charest is sending a good message on reducing the size of government - there will be seven fewer ministers' offices and seven fewer Chrysler 300s in the government fleet. But in doubling and in some cases tripling the responsibilities of ministers, Charest also runs of the risk of their being overburdened, overworked and stuck in Quebec City when the politics of a minority legislature dictates a permanent campaign.

Kelley did such an admirable in the ever-sensitive aboriginal affairs portfolio that it didn't make any bad news in nearly three years. Charest might yet have reason to recall Kelley, and name another woman, to cabinet at an early opportunity.

For the moment, the main story is gender parity at the big table of government. The Stephanies don't need to ask what Charest has to say to them today.

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