Former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt says he understands the balancing act that John Horgan is facing as he is set to introduce his NDP government’s new cabinet Thursday during a pandemic that’s threatening lives and the economy.
When he was putting together a cabinet almost 30 years ago after the New Democrats won a majority government, Harcourt said the province was soon plunged into the so-called war in the woods between forest companies and environmentalists in Clayoquot Sound.
After Horgan won 57 of 87 seats in last month’s B.C. election, the pandemic and its impact on people’s health and the economy will be the constant focus of the new cabinet, said Harcourt.
“John has some very positive but challenging choices to make,” he said in an interview. “We had some big challenges to deal with, just like now with the challenges of COVID-19 and the recovery to come to grips with.”
Harcourt said he expects the cabinet will be larger than the premier and 22 members in place before the election was called in September.
Seven former NDP cabinet ministers didn’t seek re-election, creating vacancies in several high-profile portfolios including forests, energy, transportation, poverty reduction, mental health and addictions, and Indigenous relations.
Among the former ministers Horgan must replace is Carole James, his finance minister and deputy premier.
“You can’t replace Carole James,” Harcourt said. “She’s a gem. She’s going to be impossible to replace but I think he’s got good people there who have proven themselves as pretty capable ministers.”
Among the newcomers who could be in line for cabinet jobs are three former members of Parliament: Nathan Cullen, Fin Donnelly and Murray Rankin. NDP backbenchers Bowinn Ma and Sheila Malcolmson are also potential new ministers.
“He’s in a good spot,” Harcourt said. “He’s got seven slots there and he’s going to increase another three or so, that’s 10, and then you’ve got the parliamentary secretaries he can appoint. He’s got lots of flexibility there and lots of talent to choose from.”
While the people appointed to cabinet is intriguing, their duties will also signal the government’s approach to the pandemic and economic recovery, said Prof. Kim Speers, a Canadian politics expert at the University of Victoria.
“I’m interested in the people but I’m also interested in how he is going to organize the next government,” she said. “What is the structure going to look like for the different ministries? What are they going to be called? Is there going to be a ministry that just deals with the pandemic recovery?”
Speers said the government has already forecast record budget deficits during the pandemic, but she’s looking for a cabinet that keeps its focus on the bottom line.
“We should be planning and managing for recovery that also takes into account future generations,” she said.
Indigenous leader Cheryl Casimer said First Nations are looking for a major presence at the cabinet table.
“It’s going to be important to have somebody who has a strong voice and is able to speak on issues and to be able to solicit change,” said Casimer, a political executive at the First Nations Summit.
B.C. became the first province in Canada to pass legislation last year to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Judy Darcy, the former minister of mental health and addictions, said the pandemic exacerbated the issues of affordability, housing and addiction, which the government had been grappling with since the 2017 election.
The new cabinet will continue to face those challenges, said Darcy, who didn’t seek re-election.
“The team is going to have a major focus on keeping people safe, healthy and secure both through the pandemic and beyond,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any question that there will be an even greater focus on the pandemic and the economic recovery.”
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press
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