Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Why Collins quit, and what comes next

VICTORIA - So why did Gary Collins pack it in after less than one term in government, giving up the finance minister's job to run a fledgling airline?
To start with, Collins will easily triple his income. Cabinet ministers are paid about $110,000; airline CEOs get more, and have a chance at big bonuses and stock options. For a middle-aged man with a two-year-old son and another child due in February - and no pension plan - that's tough to resist. (And while he will continue to work long hours, his home and office will at least be in the same city.)
For another, Collins has also been in provincial politics for 13 years now, a long time to have the same demanding and somewhat weird job.
Even two weeks ago, when Collins unveiled the second quarter financial report predicting a record surplus, he seemed somewhat detached, to the point that a reporter asked if he would be running in the next election. (Of course, Collins said.)
He's a good catch for his new employer, Harmony Airways. The two-year-old business has been without a CEO for two months. So far, it's flown some routes within Canada, and to Mexico and Hawaii and Las Vegas.
But company owner David Ho has his sights set on a much bigger prize. He wants Harmony to win the right, along with Air Canada, to fly into China, targeting several booming cities.
That will require a major effort in lobbying the federal government. Collins, with good federal Liberal ties and support from the B.C. government, is a good choice to make that happen.
What struck me at the second quarter presentation was a sense that Collins may have thought his work here was done. Taxes were cut, the budget was balanced, the government had made a plan and executed it. It's a good record for a finance minister.
Collins isn't noted as a policy or issues guy. You can't go back into Hansard from the days when the Liberals were in opposition and find him speaking passionately about health, or education or forestry. He had no apparent agenda for the second term.
What does it mean politically?
A bit of scrambling, for sure. Collins was the Liberal campaign co-chair, and he's a close advisor to the premier. That's a loss.
His departure also gives a boost to NDP star candidate Gregor Robertson, running in Collins' riding of Vancouver-Fairview. His election chances have just soared.
But the Liberals score some big benefits too.
Collins did the work that left more than 60 per cent of British Columbians convinced the Liberals balanced the budget on the back of the poor and vulnerable.
Now Colin Hansen, the new finance minister, can bring a kinder, gentler face to the job. At the Collins' resignation press conference, Hansen was already talking about the importance of health and education and social services. "For me, government is about providing services to people," he said.
And in turn, new health minister Shirley Bond can bring a new face to that job.
Hansen has done a good job in the challenging health ministry, but the bitter battle with HEU and other tough issues from the first three years still hang over him.
Now the appointment of Shirley Bond as the new health minister gives the Liberals a fresh start there as well. Health is the top issue for voters, who also think the New Democrats would do a better job of managing health care than the Liberals. Bond's considerable challenge - as well as guiding the system - is changing that perception. It would have been an impossible task for Hansen, in the five months left before the election; Bond at least has a shot.
Collins should leave with head held high. For three years he directed the preparation of a financial plan, and the government hit its targets.
And ultimately, that's the test of the finance minister.
Footnote: I - like most journalists - will miss Collins. He was prickly and partisan, but never shied away from an interview and always had command of the facts and numbers. If he said you were wrong about something, you almost certainly were.


Life in Victorola said...

Adios Gary and oh yeah, the tax cuts paid for themselves. Revisionist B$. Continue to cut social programs despite the probable knowledge that transfer payments and windfall oil and gas royalites would make a tax subsidized deficit look good. Just before your own "mayday, mayday" electoral 'core review' you bail out and outsource yourself. Would the rest of the illiberal FI crazies do the same. Long live the pirate sector. Let's hope for some evidenced based voting next time.

Anonymous said...

As a former constituent of Gary Collins I can say his office was hard to find and never open. He never answered a telephone call or an email. Perhaps he was to busy massaging the press to bother with mere voters.

The owner Harmony Air should be very worried. In three years he'll have triple his current debt, seen seat prices soar with less customer benefits, and have a restive labor force.

If Collins seemed distracted, it's a safe bet it wasn't because he thought he'd done his job but rather because he's trying to figure out how he'll respond the inevetible subpeonas for the Basi trial.