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Rob Shaw: Unpacking Eby’s cabinet of compromises

Premier David Eby’s first cabinet on Wednesday was a perplexing affair.
Photo credit: Province of BC/Flickr

Premier David Eby’s first cabinet on Wednesday was a perplexing affair.

On the one hand, the new premier carried through with an expected generational change in his front bench, elevating young professionals like Vancouver lawyer Niki Sharma to attorney general, and North Vancouver’s Bowinn Ma to Emergency Management and Climate Readiness.

On the other hand, he not only left in cabinet almost all the other ministers, he also promoted 17-year veteran Katrine Conroy to the second-most important job in government, as minister of finance.

And in a true head-scratcher, Eby kept in place beleaguered Children’s Minister Mitzi Dean, whose bungled changes to autism funding were so badly implemented, and so politically unpopular, that Eby himself had to immediately intervene and reverse them upon taking office last month.

Together, it appears to be a cabinet of compromise – not exactly a new premier’s bold attempt to reshape the government in his image, and more a move to give as many people as possible jobs and then run the really important stuff directly from the premier’s office anyway.

First, the highlights.

Sharma’s move from the backbench to AG was an inspiring and emotional choice. She’s the first South Asian woman to hold the post, and described in emotional terms how much of a signal it is to women who are still fighting sexism and discrimination. She’s a skilled lawyer, specializing in First Nations issues, and she proved herself an able parliamentarian as chair of the recent all-party overdose committee.

Likewise, Eby will earn accolades for appointing Bowinn Ma to a new Emergency Management and Climate Readiness ministry that prepares communities for floods, fires and other climate emergencies. Rachna Singh to the education portfolio, Ravi Kahlon to a new powerful housing ministry, Brenda Bailey (a tech executive) to the jobs file, and former Abbotsford mayor Pam Alexis to the agriculture ministry are also excellent choices.

But many were surprised by Conroy’s sudden elevation to finance. New Democrats took great pains to emphasize how widely respected Conroy is within caucus, but the more honest assessment is that she would have been on very few people’s top 10 lists for the job.

“She is rural tough,” said Eby, referencing her decades as a cattle rancher in the Kootenays. “British Columbians want someone like her on their side.”

Conroy brings a unique rural perspective to the cabinet table. But she’s also a minister of few words, who, while handling the old growth file within the forests ministry, often gave the distinct impression she’d rather not be talking publicly about her portfolio at all.

Her challenge as finance minister will be to reach out and empathize with British Columbians struggling with cost-of-living increases. But she’s an odd match to woo the young Metro Vancouver urbanites who make up the NDP’s power base and are worried about their household budgets.

Then there is Mitzi Dean.

Stupifying is barely a strong enough term to describe Eby’s decision to leave her in the Ministry of Children and Family Development, given that her signature year-long reform to the ministry, in the form of changes to autism funding, was a spectacular disaster.

Eby spent several minutes trying to explain his decision, arguing Dean acted “courageously” in her ministry, tried to tackle change head-on and worked “fearlessly” to help children. It was unpersuasive, at best.

When asked, Dean repeated Eby’s talking points about rolling back her changes, saying “we didn’t want the issue of individualized funding to be getting in the way” of ongoing work.

Dean said she was “honoured” at Eby’s confidence and “we’re going to be engaging in very deep engagement with a variety of stakeholders” on her future decisions.

But many stakeholders online were quick to say they want nothing to do with Dean anymore, having suffered through a year of her denying her reforms were problematic. Can she win them back and repair her credibility? Eby seems to think so.

The Dean appointment signals there are some things we still don’t understand about the thought process of Premier Eby.

The same holds true to a lesser extent for Conroy, though New Democrats will try their best in coming weeks to make anyone confused about that appointment feel like they don’t understand politics.

Eby, meanwhile, says he intends to push this large new cabinet forward at a high rate of speed.

“Health care, affordability, public safety, reconciliation, building strong lean economy and so much more,” he said. “I'm going to continue to ask a lot of our cabinet and of myself, because British Columbians are counting on us to deliver for them every single day. And I look at this team that we have here today and I'm confident that they are ready for it.”

We will see.

Correction: This column was updated Dec. 10, 2022 to reflect that Pam Alexis is the former mayor of Abbotsford and not a farmer.

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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