Former B.C. Liberal cabinet ministers reacted with shock — and worry that the party’s free-enterprise coalition could be at risk — at the abrupt policy turnarounds outlined in Premier Christy Clark’s throne speech Thursday.
Bill Bennett, a former mining and energy minister who represented Kootenay East for the Liberals, said Friday the abrupt changes will put pressure on the free-enterprise coalition of centre-left liberals and right-wing conservatives.
“I think there’s likely to be some real angst today on the part of business and fiscal conservatives,” said Bennett, who held his seat from 2001 to 2017, and chose not to run in the May election.
Clark’s government — which campaigned on job creation and fiscally prudent government — borrowed heavily for the throne speech from the NDP and Green platforms, promising to roll out a $1-billion daycare program, to ban union and corporate donations to political parties, to increase welfare payments and to create a separate ministry for mental health and addiction.
In total, there were more than two dozen policy reversals and new policies not in the Liberals’ election platform.
In many cases, the Clark government adopted policies and positions that they had argued were fiscally irresponsible. For example, Finance Minister Mike de Jong had said removing tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges would jeopardize the province’s credit rating.
The B.C. Liberals said an unexpectedly high budget surplus indicates B.C. has the money for the new spending.
The policy turnarounds were couched as measures to show the Liberals have listened to the voters and to potentially allow the Liberals to lead a minority government. But NDP Leader John Horgan and Green Leader Andrew Weaver say they still intend to bring down the government in a non-confidence vote next week and then call on Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon to let them form a government with their slim one-seat majority alliance.
Bennett said the resource sector is likely to be particularly concerned about increasing the carbon tax by $5 a tonne starting in 2019, although the promise to offset it with provincial sales tax cuts may help. The Liberals had campaigned on a freeze until 2021.
The challenge will be to deliver the new promises while not compromising the basic principle to balance the budget, pay down debt and maintain the province’s AAA credit rating, said Bennett. That is going to be a tall order given some of the new commitments, he said.
Blair Lekstrom, who held a seat for the Liberals in the Peace River region from 2001 to 2013, said he was surprised by the policy turnarounds.
While he said he has no doubt the policy adoptions are well-meaning, the question is whether they are affordable.
“I’m not sure that’s the case,” said Lekstrom, a former energy and mining minister and now a business consultant.
Lekstrom said the government can’t count on large budget surpluses to continue every year.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark speaks with colleagues before the speech from throne in Victoria on Thursday, June 22, 2017.
He said he had little doubt the policy turnabouts would be viewed with cynicism by the public.
Former cabinet minister Kevin Falcon, who held a seat in Surrey from 2001 to 2013 and is now a real estate-development executive, said he has strong views but would not comment Friday on the throne speech specifics because he was still in shock.
Falcon, who held transportation and finance cabinet posts, said he wanted to look deeper in the implications of the spending that would underlie the new policies.
“I’m still trying to deal with the magnitude of the shifts, said Falcon, who lost the Liberal leadership race to Clark in 2011.
Asked if he would consider attempting to lead the Liberal party, which has now shifted so radically from the business-friendly, small government policies that Clark ran on, Falcon said: “That’s easy. No.”
Max Cameron, a University of B.C. political scientist, said Friday it’s clear that on one level the sweeping realignment by Clark is a cynical move made for political gain, meant to rattle the NDP-Green alliance and set the Liberals up for the next election.
But the “bald-faced” turnaround could have major consequences if it signals a move of the B.C. Liberals to the centre, or centre-left, where they would join the NDP and Greens on the political spectrum, said Cameron.
It is now almost impossible for the Liberals to fight the next election on its earlier platform, said Cameron.
Either Clark transforms her party, or it will be her undoing, as there is a reassertion from within the party of the centre-right, free-enterprise coalition, noted Cameron.
“I don’t know which of those will happen,” he said.
However, Liberal MLA Darryl Plecas said Friday that the sudden spending on social issues has been building inside the Liberal caucus for some time.
Plecas, parliamentary secretary for mental health, told supporters in his riding of Abbotsford South on election night that the Liberals needed to do more to help those in need and to do more on mental health and housing affordability, including increased spending.
The throne speech finally reflected that, he said Friday in an interview.
The business community had a muted response Friday to the abrupt policy changes — and tax implications — in the throne speech.
Chris Gardner of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of British Columbia said his group was pleased to see Clark’s re-commitment to construction of the $7.9-billion Site C hydroelectric project, as well as new promises for large-scale spending projects that would create construction jobs.
But he said no one in business is expecting Clark’s throne speech vision to survive more than a week.
The Business Council of B.C. said no official was available Friday to comment.
Teck Resources, the Liberal’s largest political donor, declined to comment Friday.