A premier’s first cabinet is an amalgam of reward, distance and ego.
Translation: Reward for the supporters, distance from the ancien regime and ego on what will be micro-managed from his office.
For newly minted Premier David Eby, this mixture poses three complications.
First, at least for the time being, there are too few rewards for too many recipients. Usually a premier bestows posts on his most loyal clutch of supporters. But in Eby’s caucus’ case, they’re most everyone, everywhere. He was acclaimed leader after his camp persuaded the party to dash the candidacy of Anjali Appadurai. Prospective leadership rivals – Ravi Kahlon, Selina Robinson, perhaps even Adrian Dix – had already chosen not to challenge him, so it was a coronation. With no opponents, he has in effect everyone expecting something sooner or later.
Second, the government with which he might wish to build some distance has been pretty popular, in large measure because of his predecessor, John Horgan. Cognizant of his tough act to follow, Eby has hit the ground galloping with announcements that signalled not everything Horgan did met with his approval. He indicates he’ll be tough on crime, tough-loving those with serious mental illness and more lovingly helping people diagnosed with autism. He will pursue his mission under Horgan, via his new housing minister Kahlon, to be the overlord on how municipalities develop and yield more attainable housing. His administration has been blessed, no less, with a one-time Canada Revenue Agency tiding to help burn through these initiatives. Distance, yes; detachment, no.
And all this action almost offers an opportunity to call an election.
Well, not quite.
The BC Liberals – er, BC United – are in temporary debt, so this might be an opening.
Well, not so fast.
He insists and insists and insists he won’t call an early election. He insists he needs time for his seeds to bear fruit.
Well, stuff happens.
Two things negate the early call: Economists suggest last week’s Bank of Canada rate rise is the last one of seven because inflation is easing and any ensuing recession is limp, so there is no spectre of financial misery to beat to the punch by taking to the polls.
Even in this flip-flopping era, there are only so many times even a politician can lie about things they always intended.
And third, in seeing who has benefited and who has not with the cabinet appointments, it is also clear who will operate under his thumb. In the image of a six-foot-seven leader, his presence will be triple-extra-large-sized and his shadow will cast significantly. In some cases, he can’t afford not to hover.
The personnel in the Eby cabinet are mainly shuffled from the Horgan era; no caucus is so deep as to permit its leader to clean house. Only two, George Chow and Nicholas Simons, were dropped. The cabinet has enlarged, women occupy 15 of the 27 posts and there are seven persons of colour. These are all positive signs of renewal a half-decade into NDP office.
But there are three appointments that deserve long-lasting head-shakes.
First, on the reward track, why would Kahlon, deemed Eby’s most serious rival when Horgan stepped down, argue for the housing ministry? People close to him say he did, but how in heaven is that an improvement on a portfolio that included jobs, innovation and economic recovery? If Eby didn’t see eye-to-eye with Selina Robinson in finance, why wouldn’t his most able ally be her successor?
Second, on the issue of distancing, why would he retain Mitzi Dean in the children and family development ministry? Mere days earlier, Eby was announcing a reversal in policy on the province’s strategy for those contending with autism. Dean wasn’t even invited to the announcement. Why did he bring her back?
And, yes, while Dix earned national props in the early stages of the pandemic, eventually we came to understand that some of the restrictions he endorsed were excessive and that the system he didn’t build but did oversee is flat-out busted. Who is really being held accountable when the minister stays put? What is the message to British Columbians? Where was the distance when every poll about health care suggests it was needed?
And when we talk about ego in the context of cabinet, that’s where Katrine Conroy enters, someone with no evident credentials made the most powerful minister. Her Wikipedia entry could have been written in 30 seconds. As minister of forestry, she brought forward an industry policy that utterly alienated the sector. Eby describes her as “rural tough,” as if in recessionary threat we need a bad cop.
The appointments of Conroy and Dean suggest the premier has them exactly where he can control them. Neither one will freelance.
The appointments of Dix and Kahlon indicate a trusted servitude to the premier, who recognizes the importance of the portfolios but needs experienced hands upon them to deliver upon his priorities of health-care reform and housing.
He will instead need to endure the uncertainty of the years to come on a two-year leash to the next election, perhaps shouldering a shuddering economy. He is taking a risk in banking on the economy ahead, on British Columbians tiring of NDP reign and on his own wonkish image growing into that of a retail politician.
John Horgan was the premier you wanted to meet for a drink. David Eby doesn’t want to be the premier you need a drink after you’ve met.
Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.