Jérôme-Forget kept a firm grip on the public purse

Quebec's handbag lady cast a long shadow

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The Gazette, Saturday, April 11, 2009

She was known as the handbag lady, "la dame a la sacoche." As the keeper of Quebec's public purse, Monique Jérôme-Forget was fond of saying she treated it as she would her own - with great care.

And when she stepped down as Jean Charest's finance minister this week, she didn't leave shoes to be filled so much as the legacy of the purse. Her successor, Raymond Bachand, popped out of one of her trademark designer handbags in a cartoon by Serge Chapleau in La Presse.

Everyone on the Grande Allée knew last month's budget was her last one, and it was entirely in character for her to leave now, rather than putting in another three months until the end of the session in June. That's Monique: I'm done, I'm outta here. She's got a husband, Claude Forget, himself one of the outstanding public-policy advocates of his generation. They've got grandchildren. They've got a place on the beach in Mexico.

She will be missed. She had style and substance, and you don't see that every day in politics. The style was evident not just in her purses and power outfits - all white or all red. She had a way of arriving in a room. And she had a manner at the podium that said, Listen up. She was a woman who could stand in there with the boys, absolutely on her own terms, and deliver a message.

The message invariably came back to la sacoche. For most of the last six years she was responsible for raising money as finance minister, or spending it as president of the Treasury Board, or both. Every nickel, on in the way in, and the way out, went through her. Each job is enough for any minister. Monique was very comfortable doing both. Charest called her "the boss."

In last fall's election, which restored the Liberals to a majority, she was the key figure in the Liberal campaign, other than Charest himself. If Charest promised a steady hand on the wheel, she was in the passenger seat, giving directions.

The metaphor of the campaign was the coming economic storm, and her role was to provide a certain amount of reassurance, especially to female voters worried about their families' incomes and jobs.

It was also her role to skate the opposition into the boards - fending off concerns about a deficit in a recession, as well as the vociferous warnings of Pauline Marois that the Caisse de dépôt, the province's pension plan, was heading into big trouble.

On that file, Marois has won serious I-told-you-so points, although she overplayed her hand in demanding both Charest and Jérôme-Forget be called on the carpet before a committee of the legislature. When Jérôme-Forget finally appeared last month, she made it very clear she was on to the opposition's game, and made no effort at all to conceal her annoyance. At that, she appeared only at the insistence of the premier's office, and made no effort to conceal her annoyance over that, either.

This led to stories of a falling out between the premier and the finance minister, when the two are always supposed to be on the same page. Moreover, she was initially reported to be miffed that she wasn't properly consulted, as the minister with nominal oversight on the Caisse, on the appointment of Michael Sabia as its new CEO. In fact, while she might have had some reservations initially, she became an enthusiastic supporter of the appointment, which while it was made by the Caisse's board, came from Charest's office.

The Caisse's 26-per-cent decline last year - Honey, I shrunk the pension plan - is not something that can be laid at her door. She wasn't the one buying asset-backed commercial paper, and the stock market did lose a third of its value in last fall's crash.

As for going into a deficit in her last budget, it is obviously not the handbag lady's preferred outcome. But every province with the exception of Saskatchewan is in deficit territory. Even oil-rich Alberta. It's no mystery, government revenues are down - Quebec's went off a cliff, down 19 per cent in January alone, as Jérôme-Forget said worriedly at the time. Welfare claims and other entitlements are up. And there is the stimulus spending, as in, we are all Keynesians now. But her deficit amounts to about one per cent of GDP, compared with two per cent for Jim Flaherty in Ottawa, and a staggering 12 per cent in Barack Obama's U.S. budget. Relatively speaking, Quebec is in good shape.

It will be years before the handbag lady's legacy can be fully appreciated. But in the pantheon of Quebec finance ministers, she already casts a long shadow.

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