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Rob Shaw: Ministers' last-minute exodus unlikely to hurt BC NDP fortunes

Retirement trend among senior BC NDP leaders opens the door to new faces ahead crucial electoral period
Veteran B.C. cabinet members headline surprising NDP departures as election looms, shaking up party dynamics.

Labour Minister Harry Bains and Transportation Minister Rob Fleming on Thursday became the latest cabinet ministers to announce their departures in what has been a somewhat surprising last-minute rush of veteran politicians out the door for the BC NDP.

Bains and Fleming joined Forests Minister Bruce Ralston, who announced his retirement last week, in what could charitably be described as the outer fringe of the acceptable timeline to inform the premier they are stepping aside — more than two months before the campaign writ drops.

Finance Minister Katrine Conroy and Indigenous Relations Minister Murray Rankin announced just a few weeks earlier, meaning five senior ministers exited unusually late in the electoral cycle.

In fact, several told Eby they were running again when he canvassed his caucus and asked for their intentions late last year and earlier this year.

“We had this discussion, he wanted to know who was running and who wasn’t running last year, and I said to him that I think I have one more term in me,” said Bains.

But Bains said he reconsidered that after his younger brother passed away, along with a few other family members.

“My wife started to question, what are we doing?” he said. “I thought I better understand her feelings. And I’m glad I did.”

Bains is 72. Rankin, 74. Ralston, 71. They thought about committing to another four-year term and decided retirement with their families was the priority at their age.

It’s a completely legitimate, totally valid, completely understandable argument.

Yet Eby has every right to be mildly miffed at the last-minute timeline. They robbed him of his chance to shuffle the ministers out earlier this year in favour of backbench MLAs who could have used the spring legislative session to grow their public profile and bolster their re-election chances in harder-to-win ridings.

I’m told, however, that Eby is largely nonplussed by the scenario.

Perhaps that’s because New Democrats will have no shortage of strong new candidates vying for the seats, who will all be signing their allegiance to Team Eby. Many top-shelf candidates will want to join a governing party that looks like it has a good chance of winning a third term in power.

The five ridings at play — Victoria-Swan Lake, Kootenay-Monashee, Surrey-Newton, Surrey-Centre and Oak Bay-Gordon Head — were won with healthy margins by the NDP in the last election, though in Kootenay and Surrey the BC Conservatives are trying to mount strong challenges, and in Victoria and Oak Bay the BC Greens will be eyeing their prospects.

Four of the departing MLAs come from the NDP class of 2005, when the party roared back into existence after almost being wiped off the map to only two MLAs in 2001.

They’ve each put almost 20 years of service into the legislature. They’ve survived four leaders. They can mount a viable argument that they are tired, have done their service, and are ready for a new chapter.

“It’s also about renewal,” said Bains. “All parties must look into renewing and bringing some fresh faces and new ideas. That’s the only way we will continue to make progress.”

Still, the departures are a big loss of experience for the New Democrats. The NDP are starting to run short on MLAs who served time in opposition (Rankin served in opposition federally as an MP) — only six remain, including the premier himself.

The best cabinet ministers are often the ones who have also sat on the opposite side of the house first, because they understand the cut and thrust of political debate can also be accompanied by quiet respectful work across party lines in the hallways to help MLAs from other parties solve constituent problems and get funding for local projects.

Renewal is important for parties. But so is experience and maturity. The five ministers leave big shoes to fill, even if their exits could have been timed a little more cleanly.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 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, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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