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Rob Shaw: Mandate letters hint at premier's priorities – and his cabinet's long to-do list

Premier David Eby’s mandate letters to his new cabinet are mostly vague by design, but they do offer a few clues on the near-term direction his government will take to address some top-of-mind issues.

Premier David Eby’s mandate letters to his new cabinet are mostly vague by design, but they do offer a few clues on the near-term direction his government will take to address some top-of-mind issues.

Eby gave Transportation Minister Rob Fleming orders to find some new transit projects that will “reduce commute times for fast-growing urban areas.” Among them, he’s supposed to work to “advance” the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain project, as well as the UBC SkyTrain extension.

The mandate letter doesn’t say so explicitly, but you can expect the UBC SkyTrain project to get the green light under an Eby government – after all, the premier lives at UBC, and he sees first-hand every day the need to link the campus of the province’s largest university to Metro Vancouver’s main transit line. It just makes sense.

Fleming’s mandate letter is heavy on advancing public transit across the province, as part of B.C.’s climate goals.

Speaking of climate, the file has been spread out across four ministries, including Bowinn Ma’s new Emergency Management and Climate Readiness portfolio, which will apply the lessons learned from past wildfires and floods to community preparedness.

Environmental groups seemed pleased at what Eby has written, including new legislation for B.C. to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and a renewed focus on pollution reduction targets for 2030 and 2040.

“This government has sent a clear signal through the cabinet’s new mandate letters that B.C. intends to accelerate the pace of climate action and expand clean energy development across the province,” said Pembina Institute executive director Chris Severson-Baker.

That praise extended to the new “climate-aligned energy framework” in Eby’s mandate letter to Energy Minister Josie Osborne, who environmentalists believe will fundamentally overhaul the province’s approach to that sector.

The Ancient Forest Alliance said Eby’s mandate letters to new Forest Minister Bruce Ralston, as well as Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Minister Nathan Cullen, commit B.C. to doubling the legislative protection of areas to 30 per cent by 2030, as well as to provide new conservation financing.

On the big files, Health Minister Adrian Dix is told to keep going on his initiatives to hire more doctors and decrease wait times, and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth is encouraged to build out more civilian response teams for mental health and addictions to free up police resources to fight crime. Both goals have been repeatedly articulated by the premier in the past.

New Attorney General Niki Sharma’s orders call upon her to modernize courts, increase First Nations justice and tackle repeat offenders on city streets.

Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon not only has to implement all of Eby’s housing promises from his leadership campaign (provincewide legalization of secondary suites, automatic upzoning of density on single-family lots in urban areas, a two-year anti-flipping tax and more), he also has to take over and solve Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, build out new housing supply, push municipalities to speed up housing approvals and eliminate tent encampments on city streets.

On paper, it reads like an impossible to-do list. But Kahlon is one of the most competent ministers in government, and if anyone can meet Eby’s expectations, it will be him.

In the area of child care, the premier asked Grace Lore, his new Minister of State for Child Care, to “as a next step, expand our child care fee reductions to all licensed before and after school care spaces, so more parents see savings in their monthly budgets.”

Lore has to push the $10-a-day childcare promise over the finish line in the next couple of years. To do so, Eby suggested “development of a capital plan for child care to keep increasing the number of child care spaces, and leverage opportunities to build spaces on public land, including at hospitals, medical centres, government offices and post-secondary institutions.”

It raises the fascinating prospect that, in addition to running most of the $10-a-day child care sites, the government may end up co-locating them at schools, hospitals and university sites on land it already owns.

On mental health and addictions, new minister Jennifer Whiteside is believed to have the premier’s backing to take what has been described in the past as the “ministry of air” and actually craft a meaningful budget and policy plan that turns years of scrambled one-off announcements on beds and treatment programs and coalesces them into something resembling an actual system during an overdose crisis.

Eby has tasked her with figuring out a “seamless care” model where people can go from the hospital through the siloed systems of detox, stabalization, treatment and housing, without falling through the gaps.

Missing from Whiteside’s mandate letter is anything about Eby’s promise to implement involuntary care for those who repeatedly overdose, and his vision to reopen a provincial mental health institution like Riverview.

The only hint is a vague paragraph to “expand supports for people who are causing detrimental harm to themselves and others as a result of mental health or substance use, to increase safety and improve health outcomes while upholding the rights of all British Columbians.”

Finally, there is Finance Minister Katrine Conroy, whose mandate letter calls upon her to strengthen the speculation tax – though it’s not clear if that means expanding the currently limited geographic area, or the tax rate.

She’s also asked to deliver more cost-of-living affordability supports, though it will be the premier’s ultimate call on whether to implement them and how to spend the almost $10 billion in free cash over the next few months.

Eby tasked Conroy with working to deliver a renter’s rebate first promised by the NDP in the 2017 provincial election – an immensely expensive program to provide $400 a year to renters that will have little impact on affordability but will make for a great campaign slogan in 2024, or whenever the premier finds himself on the campaign trail in the next election.

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.

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