Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Martin's new cabinet good news for B.C.

VICTORIA - Expect a few quiet cheers from the BC Liberals at the news that Victoria MP David Anderson has been dropped from the new federal cabinet.
Followed quickly by groans as they contemplate the prospect of dealing with new federal Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh, their former NDP adversary who once said Gordon Campbell wouldn't know the truth if it hit him the face.
All in all, the new cabinet looks like a gain for B.C.
The huge - perhaps even bloated - cabinet includes five ministers from B.C., the largest number in history. Dosanjh is joined by David Emerson as industry minister and Stephen Owen as minister for western economic development and sport. Raymond Chan gets multiculturalism and Jack Austin gets a seat at the table as the government leader in the Senate.
The numbers are intended to send a signal that B.C. matters. But the test will be what the clutch of ministers are actually able to do for the province on critical issues like the softwood lumber dispute.
Anderson's demotion will please the provincial Liberals on a couple of counts. As environment minister he had been a resolute foe of any plan to allow drilling for offshore oil and gas. Not until all the questions have been answered, he said, but always in a context that made it clear that what he really meant was never.
And during the election campaign he took a number of shots at the Campbell Liberals, blaming their unpopular policies for dragging down the federal party. There was at least some truth to the charges, but it hardly won Anderson points with the Campbell crew.
But Ujjal Dosanjh's emergence as health minister creates at least a couple of problems for the BC Liberals. Harsh words have been spoken in the past, and there's some illwill to be overcome.
And the Liberals will be twitchy about whether Dosanjh's new role will help Carole James in her efforts to paint the NDP as the voice of moderation, a party with more in common with federal Liberal voters than the Campbell government.
That shouldn't be a huge concern for the BC Liberals. The NDP had lots of nasty things to say about Dosanjh's jump to the federal Liberals, and there's illwill to be dealt with there as well.
Practically, Dosanjh should be the kind of health minister B.C. wants as the provinces head into negotiations with Ottawa on a new funding deal. He used to call on the federal government to increase funding; now he has at least a small chance to make that happen. (Small chance because the major health policy changes will be driven by the prime minister's office, not the health ministry.)
The most interesting addition is Emerson, a former top bureaucrat in Bill Bennett's Socred government and most recently head of Canfor. Industry is a big ministry - some 6,000 employees and a $1.4-billion budget - and includes responsibilities for tourism promotion and economic development.
Emerson is also the senior political minister for B.C., supported by Austin, a role that gives him the opportunity to emerge as a major voice for the province. (Though that was also the hope for Owen when he was elected in 2000. It didn't happen.)
It's an interesting time for the province.
Martin has promised to tackle B.C.'s sense of alienation. And with a minority government and facing a likely election within the next 18 months, he's got good political reasons for trying to convince British Columbians to back his party. (The Liberals and NDP were virtually tied for second place in the province in the election last month.)
That should provide opportunities for Gordon Campbell to lobby for increased federal aid, in terms of both money and policy change.
Count up all the pluses and minuses, and this looks like a cabinet with the potential to offer B.C. a stronger voice in Ottawa.
Footnote: Owen does have an opportunity to help B.C. as minister for western economic diversification, now removed from industry and made a stand alone minister. Owen is also responsible for the 2010 Olympics; he and Campbell can talk about the opportunities when they're both at the Athens Games next month.

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