Touching up Quebec's Cabinet contingent

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National Post, Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Stephen Harper had five Quebec ministers in his past Cabinet. Only one of them, Michael Fortier, was defeated in last week's election. That leaves four --Lawrence Cannon (Transport), Josee Verner (Heritage), Jean-Pierre Blackburn (Labour) and Christian Paradis (Public Works) -- among the 10 Conservatives elected from Quebec (the same number as in 2006).

What is Harper to do with them, and who, if anyone, will he bring forward to replace Trade Minister Fortier, who'd been appointed to the Senate and served as minister responsible for the Montreal region, before last week's defeat?

If the Prime Minister is to be taken at his own word, he will not appoint anyone else to Cabinet from the Senate. How, then, to staff the Montreal-region portfolio? Since all of his Quebec ministers and MPs come from outside the Montreal region -- Cannon from the Gatineau riding of Pontiac and the others from the party's 418 stronghold around Quebec City -- this will be interesting. The Montreal region represents half the population and at least half the economy of Quebec, so it's an important call.

The obvious choice is Cannon, who as Harper's Quebec lieutenant and Minister of Transport, has a network in Montreal and a policy affinity with a city built on transportation, from the port of Montreal to the aerospace industry. Cannon has an unruffled, urbane style that goes down well in Montreal's CEO community, where he's on good terms with, for example, Laurent and Pierre Beaudoin of Bombardier. He's equally on excellent terms with Premier Jean Charest and his office, with whom Harper needs to get back on a positive footing. Cannon is a former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister from the Bourassa years, moreover, and his network in the Quebec Liberal party is deep.

This being said, there's one other possibility for a minister for Montreal-- Maxime Bernier.

Don't laugh. Though his roots are very much in the Beauce, Bernier's professional network is in the city, from his days as an insurance executive to his time as executive vice-president of the Montreal Economic Institute, to his tenure as industry minister.

There is, of course, the slight matter of his resignation as foreign affairs minister last spring, where he failed to do his homework in a demanding portfolio, to say nothing of his inappropriate choice of company in Julie Couillard. Her kiss-and-tell memoir, published during the campaign, quotes him as saying Stephen Harper is an overweight junk-food addict who drinks Pepsi (actually, it's Coke and Harper has since shed about 35 pounds).

The voters of Beauce made their own decision last week, re-electing Bernier with a majority of 25,000 votes, easily the largest in the province. In the Westminster tradition, they have given him a clean slate and it's up to Harper to determine whether he deserves a second chance and whether he'd be vulnerable to a Commons committee circus over documents left at Julie's place.

Beyond that, Harper's got problems with two Quebec ministers in their current portfolios -- Verner at Heritage and Blackburn in his capacity as Minister for Regional Economic Development. It's hard to determine which one of them annoyed Quebecers more, Verner with the cuts to cultural funding or Blackburn with endless delays and haggling over cutting regional development cheques.

Verner's problems are well known and were a major factor in the Conservatives' disappointing showing in Quebec last week. Blackburn's constant run-ins with municipalities and provincial legislators were more the chatter of the political class, but there isn't a mayor from Gatineau to the Gaspe who isn't annoyed at him, and Charest's office has given up trying to do business with him.

This is just one provincial piece of the PM's Cabinet-making puzzle. Next week, when the expected shuffle comes, we'll see what the completed picture looks like.

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