Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Hagen a good choice, but new ministry problems huge

VICTORIA - Stan Hagen looks like a good choice for the tough children and families job.
The veteran minister from the Comox Valley wasn't on most peoples' lists of prospects once Christy Clark packed it in.
And there's been some carping since, based mostly on the notion that Hagen is a businessman and former Socred, and thus a suspect choice for a ministry that's all about delivering services to children and adults in tough spots.
But the Socreds - for all their pro-business, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps attitudes - always stayed close to their base in smaller communities across the province. Politically and practically they recognized the importance of helping people who really needed it.
Hagen reflects those values, I'd say. He's seen the difference government can make in an individual's life, and can be engaged in that level. And that's useful in this ministry.
Not that other Liberals are a pack of Snidely Whiplashes, keen to evict the orphans from their homes. But most have shown more ability to see the big picture - like the benefits of tax cuts - than to recognize individual suffering or fears.
Hagen also has experience in more than half-a-dozen ministries to bring to bear on the huge problems facing children and families. He served in succession of ministries in the constantly changing Socred cabinets from 1986 to 1991.
Under the Liberals he managed to handle sustainable resource management with few scars. And he stepped into human resources after the Liberals' mean-spirited and wasteful attempts to cull the welfare rolls and shifted the focus back to finding jobs for people.
Gordon Campbell is likely looking for the same kind of calming effect in children and families, one of the Liberals' larger betrayals and failures. (They promised both more money and stability for the ministry, and instead delivered budget cuts and botched re-organizations.)
It's also a plus that Hagen - already at normal retirement age - doesn't have to care much about what the premier or anyone else in government really thinks about what he's doing. He's not climbing the slippery political ladder, and is in a position to do the job the way he thinks it needs to be done. If his masters don't like it, they can fire him. That's not a freedom that most cabinet ministers feel.
Hagen may turn out to be a caretaker, in the job only until the election next May produces a new cabinet of one kind or another.
But it's a critical six months for the ministry, which has been grossly mismanaged by the Liberals, just as it was by the New Democrats. (Hagen is the seventh minister in the ministry's eight-year life.)
The Liberals' plans to decentralize the ministry and move to regional authorities are stalled after a huge amount of time and energy have been squandered.
And the ministry is struggling to cope with budget cuts this year, and faces budgets that are effectively frozen for the next two years, despite rising costs and rising need. The first test for the new minister will be to win a large share of the surpluses to allow the ministry to really help children and families - to deliver on the promises the Liberals made, and broke.
The rest of the changes in the mini-shuffle are less significant.
Victoria area MLA Susan Brice was promoted to replace Hagen as human resources minister, stepping up from her job as junior minister for mental health and addiction services. It's a boost for her, but the ministry isn't likely to be a hot spot again until after the election. The Liberals have backed off most of their threats to cut people off benefits, and the next crunch won't come until job placement efforts for welfare recipients begin, inevitably, to lag.
Surrey MLA Brenda Locke replaces Brice, and Vancouver MLA Patrick Wong steps into the politically useful but practically insignificant role as junior minister for immigration and multicultural services.
Footnote: Campbell broke the tradition of swearing-in new cabinet members at Government House, shifting the ceremony to Vancouver's Terminal City Club, a posh private business club. The scene was fitting on one level. The club didn't admit women members until the '90s; the cabinet still has women in only seven out of 27 posts.

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