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Premier Christy Clark’s new cabinet highlights changes from Campbell’s regime

15 March 2011 | Email This Post Email This Post | Print This Post Print This Post

Focus on families and job creation reflected in new lineup of committees


For TheCommentary.ca

Christy Clark won the B.C. Liberal Party leadership by promising major changes from the Gordon Campbell era and with her installation as Premier and simultaneous cabinet shuffle on Monday (March 14) she began delivering those changes in a variety of obvious and subtle ways.

The overall look and feel of Premier Clark’s new cabinet probably is a lot more popular, successful and even clever than her opponents expected or wanted because it involves a surprisingly deft balancing of old and new, of Liberals and Tories, of women and men, urban and rural and of other such traditional B.C. dichotomies, even of religion and ethnicities.

In fact the tone of the religious content in the swearing-in ceremony at Government House was a subtle but still quite interesting example of the changes insofar as it was a return to mainstream traditional Christianity after a series of sometimes lukewarm Christian and multicultural non-Christian themes in recent decades. The invocation that Clark apparently helped structure was respectful of other cultures but closed with what Very Rev. Peter Elliott of Vancouver’s Christ Church Cathedral described as a prayer from the Christian tradition attributed to St. Francis of Assisi which probably was reflective of Ms Clark’s own devout Anglicanism. (The prayer begins “Lord make us instruments of your peace . . . “)

Probably only a few observers would have noticed that subtle change, a revival of some personal religiosity of a traditional Christian variety, because few people attend or watch more than a few swearing-in ceremonies and so few can make such comparisons and fewer still pay much attention to the varying degrees of religiosity in them.

There were in fact many such signs of changes in Clark’s many personnel moves and restructuring of the Ministries and agencies but perhaps the most obvious – by design – was the sudden ouster of numerous people seen as Campbell loyalists, apologists and appointees and their replacement with new people who are generally younger, brighter, more moderate, more pleasant, more talented and more female.

The most notable ouster, after Campbell himself, was of Finance Minister and Deputy Premier Colin Hansen, who drops to the backbench and apparently takes the blame for having botched the introduction of the now-hated Harmonized Sales Tax, though interestingly he does retain a seat on Treasury Board, which will usefully give the Clark regime some corporate memory. Interestingly Hansen seemed to recognize and support the view that he needed to leave in order to help sell Clark’s claims of bringing in major changes, in order to help her and the Liberals try to win the next election.

Also notable was the apparent firing of Martyn Brown as deputy minister of Tourism, where Campbell had tried to transplant him after he served more than 10 years as Campbell’s political deputy and chief of staff, where he became somewhat widely reviled as a control freak (as revealed in the Basi-Virk trial evidence). That similarly was the fate of Lesley du Toit as deputy minister of the troubled Ministry of Children and Families, and the earlier departures of lawyer Allan Seckel as deputy minister to the Premier, Ron Norman as head of the Public Affairs Bureau and Graham Whitmarsh as deputy minister of Finance, along with numerous other staff changes in the Premier’s Office and around the government. The new Chief of Staff, for example, is Mike McDonald, a long-time political organizer and associate of Clark’s who under Campbell had been somewhat edged out, and the new Press Secretary will be Chris Olsen, a widely-respected journalist who for several years has been the consumer affairs specialist for CTV News in Vancouver.

But nonetheless Clark was still careful to build a cabinet that keeps social and fiscal conservatives at the helms of key ministries and committees so as to not provoke the federal Conservatives into entering provincial politics against her in the next election, which is due in May 2013 but which could happen sooner under a number of pretexts and evolutions of events, such as Clark feeling she must deal with her present lack of a seat in the Legislature. (She had been planning to run in Point Grey when it is vacated by Campbell but recent polls may suggest that it could be winnable for the NDP and thus too risky for Clark.)

The most important new appointment by far is Kevin Falcon as Minister of Finance and Deputy Premier, where his first priority will be to try to win the province-wide referendum on the HST now scheduled for Sept. 24, though events and negotiations might cause it to be held sooner, with Clark favoring a date in June. Falcon, a small-c and fiscal conservative, only narrowly lost the contorted leadership contest to Clark in a three-ballot gerrymandered showdown but rather than be petulant he apparently has chosen to be a constructive part of what is obviously a coalition designed for one over-arching purpose: stop the New Democratic Party from ever again winning a provincial election in B.C.

Falcon served with distinction under Campbell, handling deregulation, transportation, megaprojects and finally Health but he somewhat broke ranks over the HST, notably being critical of its terrible implementation process and advocating that its PST portion be lowered from 7% to 5%. He is argumentative to a fault and so should be well able to field questions in the Legislature for the government in the event that Clark serves a somewhat extended period without a seat (which is unusual but legal).

Perhaps the most important change will prove to be what Clark is trying to sell as a new way of governing, one that she claims will be more open, consultative and collegial, which is reflected in the increased number and variety of cabinet committees with backbench MLAs on them, and in a proliferation of newly-targetted Parliamentary Secretaries. (A 52-page package of such details can be downloaded from www.gov.bc.ca or directly at here.

“Under my leadership every [Liberal] MLA will make significant contributions . . . real meaningful contributions,” Clark told a media scrum, trying somewhat to assuage the hurt feelings and reduced incomes of some nine MLAs who were demoted from Campbell’s upper ranks as well as of some talented backbenchers who were notably passed over, such as leadership candidate Dr. Moira Stilwell, who finished a distant fifth despite having emerged as a bright creative thinker.

Clark defended the symbolic and practical merits of having slashed the size of cabinet from 24 to 18, such as her wanting to appear more frugal than the previous (bloated) regime, but still the new cabinet also appears to have become more focussed on her top policy priorities: putting families first and helping to create more jobs to support them.

“Together, we will focus on creating jobs and building a strong economy because that is the single most important thing we can do to support families and ensure we can invest in critical services like health and education,” she said in the government’s main news release.

Clark moved to accomplish that feat by merging several functions into the new Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation to be headed by former forests minister Pat Bell of Prince George and be focussed on job creation, and adding three new cabinet committees: the Committee on Families First (to be chaired by new Minister of Children and Family Development Mary McNeil), the Committee on Jobs and Economic Growth (chaired by Bell but including numerous strong ministers and MLAs), and the Committee on Open Government and Engagement (chaired by Labour, Citizens’ Services and Open Government Minister Stephanie Cadieux).

Another notable move was to keep the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and its minister, Kelowna-based Steve Thomson, but to partially roll back Campbell’s massive and arguably over-reaching reorganization of the so-called “dirt” ministries by returning the oversight of working mines to the venerable Ministry of Energy and Mines, now headed by long-serving Rich Coleman, who gives up Public Safety and Solicitor-General and loses the troubled gaming industry oversight role but keeps his Housing shtick.

That may seem like a demotion for the tough ex-cop but in fact he emerges as arguably the most powerful minister in Victoria because he also becomes Government House Leader and vice-chair (beneath Clark) of the powerful Priorities and Planning Committee, vice-chair (beneath Penner) of the integral Legislative Review Committee (which clears all of the Bills before they are introduced in the House) and a member of both the Committee on Jobs and Economic Growth and Environment and Land Use Committee (ELUC).

The general retention of Natural Resource Operations is also one of the most important moves because it means that the Clark government will try to make workable the streamlining of resource-project approvals intended somewhat clumsily and too secretively by Campbell but perhaps it will henceforth be done in a more transparent and consultative manner.

A good test case will be Taseko’s proposed Prosperity Mine in the Cariboo, which the Province under Campbell approved but which the federal Conservatives nixed because it would have destroyed a fish-bearing lake important to local natives, to which Clark during the campaign expressed some outrage; since then Taseko has revised its development plan in a way that would save the lake, ostensibly because higher commodity prices now enable a more expensive plan, but it appears the Campbell approach was too lenient towards such industrial development impacts and now one wonders what Clark will really change, if anything.

Also notable was the appointment of Blair Lekstrom as Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure, which is not only a major post but also marks the popular Lekstrom’s return to the fold after resigning as Campbell’s Minister of Energy in protest of the way the HST was imposed. That’s significant because if Lekstrom had wanted to do he could have easily fractured the coalition by becoming leader of a new political party and splitting the anti-NDP votes.

The appointment of backbencher Harry Bloy as Minister of Social Development and Minister responsible for multiculturalism is notable because Bloy was literally the only MLA who supported Clark’s leadership bid and now he will be responsible for maintaining good relations with some of the ethnic groups that helped her, especially Indo-Canadians and other Asians.

A big surprise was the appointment of Mike de Jong as Minister of Health, which is a big departure for the lawyer and former Attorney-General who finished a somewhat distant fourth in the leadership contest. Meanwhile Clark chose to retain Barry Penner as Attorney General, who only got the job when de Jong resigned to enter the leadership contest. Penner, a lawyer, was for a time Minister of Environment but not necessarily a fan of Campbell; like Falcon he has a family with a relatively young child.

The newcomers include Don McRae of Comox as Minister of Agriculture and veterinarian Terry Lake of Kamloops as Minister of Environment – both of whom are in the midst of fighting against formal recall campaigns.

The most powerful and senior woman is Shirley Bond of Prince George as Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General but two or three other women could gain profile by doing well in tough new assignments, such as Naomi Yamamoto in Advanced Education and Mary Polak in Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation.

Finally, leadership hopeful George Abbott, who finished a roughed-up third in the leadership after being critical of both Campbell and Clark, nonetheless got rewarded with a return to Minister of Education where before the leadership he had been developing improved relations with school trustees and the B.C. Teachers Federation in the run-up to a difficult new round of collective bargaining. Clearly Clark is hoping he will be able to deliver a peaceful settlement so the government can focus on other challenges.

While she didn’t play up the women in power angle, Clark was obviously proud of including seven women, which is a proportional increase from Campbell’s cabinets though only roughly the same proportion as in the Mike Harcourt NDP regime of 1991.

Several early news reports focussed on the apparently increased role for women, especially with Clark being only the second female Premier in B.C. history but also because other women were also given some senior portfolios, and that was portrayed and generally seen to have been based more on merit and talent than on gender quotas.

That’s notable because during the leadership campaign polls revealed that Clark would do better than anyone else at pulling some female votes away from the NDP and thereby giving her the best chance of defeating the NDP in the next election.

The NDP’s interim leader, Dawn Black, responded to the new lineup by astutely urging Clark to quickly act on behalf of families by moving to limit the sharp fee increases pending against families in Medical Services Plan premiums, B.C. Ferries fares and B.C. Hydro rates, which also reflects the reality that while Clark may have developed some momentum she still must make some substantive deliveries if she is to have much hope of winning the next election.

And it shouldn’t be overlooked that there were still a few questionable appointments in Clark’s new lineup too, with trouble-plagued former minister John Les of Chilliwack now installed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier, and even more troubled former minister Kash Heed of Vancouver appointed a member of the Environment and Land Use Committee even though he could be facing criminal charges over Election rules infractions.

Still, Clark has accomplished quite a turnaround from only six months ago when Campbell had an opinion poll approval rating of only 12 per cent, lower than any other Canadian Premier and even lower than George Bush and Richard Nixon at their nadirs. More recently the Liberals’ support had jumped back up to 41 per cent while the New Democrats, facing their own leadership problems, had fallen to 38 per cent.

A lot remains to be seen before the next election, including the NDP leadership vote on April 17 and pending leadership selections for the B.C. Conservative Party and the B.C. First Party, but you have to give the 45-year-old Christy Clark, a single mother with a nine-year-old son, a lot of credit for bringing her party back so quickly from its brink of destruction.

For those who may be interested, this is an internet version of the prayer read at Clark’s swearing-in ceremony:

St. Francis of Assisi Wedding Prayer
Lord, make us instruments of your peace
Where there is hatred, let us sow love
Where there is injury, let us bring the spirit of forgiveness
Where there is discord, let us bring harmony
Where there is doubt, let us bring faith
Where there is despair, let us bring hope
Where there is darkness, let us bring light
Where there is sadness, let us bring joy
For it is in giving that we receive
It is in forgiving that we are forgiven
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Based on the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi

  • John Twigg (www.johntwigg.com) is an independent journalist, former press secretary to premier Dave Barrett and former interim leader of the BC Refederation Party.