Premier Christy Clark said her cabinet shuffle this week was a "renewal." But in one respect, it looks much like politics as usual, with titles and, in many cases, extra pay for MLAs willing to seek re-election next May.
Already, 16 MLAs have announced their retirements. That leaves 30, and in this week's shuffle, 27 of them got posts that bring money on top of MLAs' $102,000 base pay.
There are 16 ministers, who get $51,000 extra each. Two junior ministers, who are paid $36,000 extra. And nine parliamentary secretaries who each get $15,000 on top of their base pay. (Only three Liberal MLAs - Colin Hansen, Randy Hawes and John Slater - were left out. It's safe to assume they will not run.) That's a lot of people and extra salaries, and raises the issue of whether MLAs need to be paid extra for such assignments.
There were positive moves in the shuffle. Comox Valley MLA Don McRae is the new education minister. His inexperience sometimes showed in his previous role as agriculture minister. But he is a former teacher, which might help in the education job - both in understanding teachers' legitimate concerns, and pointing out when they place their own interests ahead of students.
Dr. Margaret MacDiarmid is the new health minister. Traditionally, doctors haven't been given the post, for fear of real or perceived bias in favour of the medical profession in managing health priorities. Clark has little to lose with a bolder experiment.
Mike de Jong is, given the candidates, a good choice for finance. He has the experience to lead the effort to produce a credible pre-election budget.
The shuffle is also a reminder of how erratic government has been in this province since 2009. Responsibility for ICBC, for example, has changed 11 times in four years. Community Living B.C., which went badly wrong, has its fifth minister in two years.
The widespread instability is bad for government, stakeholders and the public. Fiscal policy has been equally erratic. The government promised no HST, introduced the tax, and then went through a slow-motion withdrawal. Former premier Gordon Campbell announced a 15 per cent personal-income tax cut, and then it was abandoned.
Deficit forecasts were wildly inaccurate.
Investors and businesses need stability. The B.C. government has failed to provide it.
The government needs to show a clear direction. And ministers have to figure out what they can accomplish in the seven months before the election campaign begins.
There will be little money for initiatives, based on former finance minister Kevin Falcon's forecasts. Clark hinted this week at cuts in fees or taxes in the budget to "make life more affordable" for British Columbians, which also reduces revenues for new programs.
And legislative change is also unlikely. Clark has refused to say whether the legislature, scheduled to return Oct. 1, will actually sit this fall. The budget debate will consume much of the limited time in the spring preelection session.
But ministers can still make a difference. Bill Bennett, returned to cabinet as community development minister, has pledged to take action on a municipal election reform report presented in 2010, and largely ignored. Changes - especially around the Wild West system of unlimited campaign donations - would be positive.
That should be the challenge for all ministers. The Liberals have spent a lot of time warning voters about the perils of an NDP government. Poll results suggest that has not worked. Clark and her government need to outline an agenda and demonstrate an ability to govern in order to recapture the confidence of British Columbians.
That, ultimately, is the main challenge for this pre-election cabinet.
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