Script hobbles finance minister’s bid to reach out to Vancouver business leaders

It was a rather small turnout for a rather large speech.

The B.C. finance minister, Carole James, had a lot on the line as she graced the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade economic update breakfast last Friday.

On somewhat short notice for the event, the ballroom was somewhat short on invested tables and intrigued business leaders. This was surprising, given what’s at stake.

More significantly, more mistakenly, the speech written for James was little more than her budget lockup presentation for business and media a week-and-a-half earlier (save one element, which we will explore later). This was also surprising, given what’s at stake.

The delivery was a blue-plate special for a blue-ribbon audience that James and her government need to court. Whoever crafted the presentation muffed it.

James, as anyone who knows her can attest, is a well-briefed and warm communicator. She has spent the time in opposition as a leader and a front-bencher as a worthy owner of the titles of deputy premier and finance minister.

She can articulate policy with the smoothest of them and get her elbows up with the most vigorous of them, too – she apologized to the crowd for a voice raspy from the raucous exchanges already in the legislature’s first couple of weeks.

It was strange, then, for her aides to not give James the chance to put her best foot forward with a crowd that was curious and in some ways dubious.

Few politicians are best on script – Donald Trump an exception, unless you’re looking for entertainment value. James only became herself when she took opportunities to digress from the pages in front of her or in her subsequent onstage conversation with Bill Good.

In those instances, James got to assert her power and desert PowerPoint, and it was the minister the business community needs to see, hear and understand.

It was also newsworthy: LNG will come if it’s a good deal, even if Andrew Weaver doesn’t like it; the federal small business tax changes are posing unintended consequences, so she thinks there are “shifts” afoot; and any transit funding the provinces approve for Metro Vancouver won’t be subjected to a plebiscite (this drew a smattering of applause, even if it was an affirmed campaign pledge).

Her ministerial bearing came to light in the conversation, and if there are going to be other public offerings of her vision for the job, they can’t be straitjacketed in slide presentations.

That said, there was one addition to the deck on display that wasn’t in the earlier economic update: the all-too-imminent negotiations with the provincial public service.

If you’ll recall, it was another Carole in that finance job – Ms. Taylor – who brought about a decade of seeming labour peace. Her successor, Mike de Jong, then inked a batch of pacts that snagged a half-decade of enduring serenity.

But that was then, this is now, they were them and these are us, the labour leaders will think. James was curt but conceding that we need to get ready to gulp in 2019 for compensation improvements that might be more than meagre. It is a possible economic headwind, to be certain.

What’s increasingly evident is that the party isn’t working toward a spring election, no matter that skeptical Liberals believe they’ll be thrust into a race once its own leadership race concludes. No, it appears the NDP wants to govern and govern and govern, not campaign and campaign and campaign.

It seems prepared to absorb the hectoring of the Greens, so long as it’s an annoyance and not an annulment. It wants to reward the Greens with a chance at proportional representation, then reward the labour movement with its own economic milestone – even if some see it as an economic millstone.