Rob Shaw: Eby’s autism funding announcement shows he’s not captured by bureaucracy

Premier David Eby provided a telling glimpse into his leadership style Friday, as he reversed controversial changes to child autism funding that he inherited from the previous John Horgan administration.

Eby cancelled plans that would have seen B.C. end individualized autism funding for children in favour of a new hub model in 2025. The change was celebrated by parent advocates who said the vague new hubs represented a cut to services (such as speech and behavioural therapy) they’d already secured for their kids under the per-child funding formula.

“My hope here is that we have a reset, where parents are reassured that they'll get the services for the kids that they need, regardless of that child's diagnosis,” said Eby.

“Those parents that have systems in place that are working for their kids will be able to continue with those programs. We don't want those parents to face any more stress. We've been listening, and government is responding.”

Advocacy groups were thrilled.

“We’re really excited and happy that families will be able to keep their autism funding and service providers that work with their kids and help them in so many different ways,” said Julia Boyle, executive director of AutismBC.

“We’re relieved but a little skeptical as well,” added Elena Lawson, co-founder of the Children’s Autism Federation of BC.

The major reversal signals several things about the new premier.

The first is that he’s not captured by the bureaucracy, including the entire Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), which concocted this hair-brained scheme, launched it to a resounding thud in October 2021, defended it with vague and unconvincing details for the past year, offered no details to parents during repeated stakeholder consultation calls, and then largely refused to engage with or listen to critics of the plan.

No doubt, senior officials from MCFD tried to convince Eby of the plan’s merits during his transition briefings as premier. But Eby is known to push back against the bureaucracy, and he has an uncanny ability to see through the ass-covering that can occur when a policy goes sideways.

It also shows how little baggage Eby is willing to wear from the previous Horgan government out of loyalty to the last boss. Some leaders would have refused to change a decision that the government has defended for more than a year, out of worry backing down looks weak and gives political opponents a win. But Eby doesn’t appear to play that kind of political calculus – at least not yet anyway.

There’s also a lesson here about the focus of the government, and what happens to files that go sideways and become a distraction.

Eby has made clear he’s prioritized a few areas: Affordability, housing, crime, health care and climate change. The autism funding cancellation is a sign of his unwillingness to fight otherwise avoidable side battles on unpopular policy changes, during a time in which he’s trying to make progress on several other large, complicated crises.

Finally, there’s a takeaway here for Eby’s current and future cabinet ministers: If you screw up, the new boss has little patience for your ego or career ambitions.

Mitzi Dean, the minister of children and family development who launched and defended this plan, will likely lose her job over the debacle. Don’t expect her in the post when Eby shuffles his cabinet on Dec. 7. She may not even make his new cabinet at all.

Eby did not include Dean in his snap press conference reversing her plan. Dean should give some serious consideration to resigning her portfolio, because it’s patently obvious she does not have the confidence of the new premier.

Eby used the word “reset” several times when announcing both the reversal of the autism program, and his desire to engage parents in new consultation on how to improve the system going forward.

But it’s not just a reset of that one file. He’s reset the calculus used in political decision-making for the BC NDP government. The autism changes provide a learning opportunity for anyone seeking to understand, and eventually work with, the new premier.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.