Premier John Horgan’s new cabinet focused on pandemic recovery

Premier John Horgan, faced with record-setting daily COVID-19 infections, chose to not dramatically expand his new cabinet Thursday. Instead, he refreshed about half the portfolios while leaving stalwart Adrian Dix in charge of the government’s health response.

Horgan’s picked 20 ministers, about the same size cabinet he had before winning last month’s provincial election.

His choice to leave Dix in health care indicates he’s staying the course on his government’s health response to the crisis, even as he warns the outbreak will likely get worse.

“These are extraordinarily difficult times for all of us,” said Horgan. “Families across British Columbia are struggling with the burdens of pandemic, now in its ninth month with little chance of that it is receding in the short term.

“We are buoyed by the good news of vaccines on the way, but until then we have to continue to do our level best to keep the second wave of COVID-19 under control and prepare for the new year.”

The premier’s cabinet selection does indicate change in two other areas.

Horgan named Jennifer Whiteside, who quit last month as secretary-business manager of the Hospital Employees’ Union to run for the NDP in New Westminster, as the new education minister.

Whiteside’s strong union connections are seen as key to re-establishing a relationship with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, which has been sharply critical of government’s refusal to lower class sizes and undertake certain safety measures upon reopening schools during COVID-19.

Horgan said he was “very proud” of the work done by former Education Minister Rob Fleming, whom he moved to transportation.

“I’m very excited about what Jennifer Whiteside is going to bring to the table with her understanding, coming from the health sector, operating a large organization with diverse stakeholders, which is very much like our K-12 system,” said Horgan.

Horgan also for the first time named a minister responsible for rebuilding the economy after closures, bankruptcies and layoffs caused by COVID-19. The premier tapped Ravi Kahlon, MLA for Delta North and a former Olympic athlete, as the new minister of jobs, economic recovery and innovation.

“Mr. Kahlon is taking on an enormous responsibility,” he said. “The recovery initiatives that we announced in September will now be overseen by Ravi. We have had a cross-government approach to recovery from the beginning, but Ravi will be the point person.”

Selina Robinson, a former Coquitlam councillor and most recently the minister of housing and municipal affairs, received the biggest promotion as the minister of finance. Horgan cited Robinson’s work ethic in engaging with municipalities as the previous municipal affairs minister.

“Her understanding of the people of British Columbia is unmatched. I’m very confident that she will be an upstanding finance minister.”

Robinson replaced Carole James, who has retired but who Horgan announced Thursday is staying on as a special adviser with a salary of $1 a year.

Seven key ministers went unmoved by the premier, including Attorney General David Eby; Agriculture, Food and Fisheries Minister Lana Popham; Energy Minister Bruce Ralston; Environment Minister George Heyman (who also added responsibility for TransLink); Labour Minister Harry Bains; Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth and Health Minister Dix.

However, Eby, who has been overseeing dramatic change to no-fault insurance at ICBC, was relieved of the Crown auto agency, lottery and much of gaming enforcement in exchange for new responsibilities on housing and homelessness.

Former federal NDP MP Murray Rankin was named minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation. Rankin had been under contract with the B.C. government to help mediate the dispute with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs over the Coastal GasLink Pipeline.

“He’s a noted scholar, a professor of laws, he understands these issues intimately,” said Horgan.

Then there were new faces tapped for the first time to Horgn’s front bench.

Four-term NDP MLA Nicholas Simons, of Powell River-Sunshine Coast, became minister of social development and poverty reduction.

Horgan appointed three Vancouver Island MLAs to their first cabinet portfolios: Mitzi Dean as minister of children and family development; Josie Osborne, formerly mayor of Tofino, as minister of municipal affairs; and Sheila Malcolmson, Nanaimo MLA and former NDP MP, as minister of mental health and addictions.

Horgan defended the stand-alone Mental Health and Addictions Ministry, even though overdose deaths remain at record levels and the ministry is widely criticized as being ineffective.

The new cabinet was gender balanced, with a mix of MLAs from the North, Interior, Coast, Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island.

“I was surprised that nobody from the Fraser Valley was appointed to cabinet,” said Hamish Telford, a political-science professor at the University of the Fraser Valley.

“Five historic wins in the valley, two in Langley, two in Chilliwack, one in Mission, and none of them made cabinet. … The valley is taking a chance on the NDP and I would have thought they’d get some reward.”

Others ministers moved laterally, such as Lisa Beare from tourism to citizens’ services; Katrine Conroy from children and families to forestry; Melanie Mark from advanced education to tourism; and Anne Kang from citizens’ services to advanced education.

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