The Bizarre World of BC Politics

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posted June 11, 2001

Last week the newly elected Premier of British Columbia made two dramatic announcements. One regarding the selection of cabinet and the second regarding major reductions in personal income taxes. The divergence in the nature of the two announcements underscores the unique and often bizarre character of BC politics.

Last Wednesday the BC Liberals fulfilled their campaign promise to enact “dramatic tax cuts”. They announced a 25 percent across the board rate cut implemented over 2001 and 2002. By January of next year, BC will have the lowest personal income tax rate for low-income earners and one of the lowest top marginal tax rates in the country. The tax cut announcement signalled a major change in policy in Lotusland from the previous decade.

The second announcement, regarding cabinet, seems to run contrary to the nature of the tax reduction announcement in that it greatly expands the size of the cabinet. Gordon Campbell’s cabinet of 28—including himself—is one of the largest in the history of the province and has 7 more members than the previous NDP government.

Of the total 77 Liberal MLAs elected, 28 received cabinet posts, representing roughly 36 percent of the Liberals elected. For comparison, if the federal Liberals had a cabinet of 36 percent of its MPs, its cabinet would be 57 people, 20 more than it currently has.

Looking at the size of the cabinet slightly differently, 35 percent of all the seats in the BC legislature are in cabinet. This is one of the highest proportions of ministers to seats in the country. Even Alberta’s inflated cabinet of 24 ministers comprises only 29 percent of the total number of seats in the province. Ontario, the largest province in the county manages to survive with just 25 ministers, representing 24 percent of the total seats. And the federal Liberals manage with 37 ministers, representing 12 percent of the total number of seats.

However, one has to wonder how big is too big. It’s wise to remind leaders that Tony Blair’s Labour Party has only 22 ministers, comprising 3 percent of the total seats in the House of Commons. He had 418 worthy candidates for the cabinet positions and managed to have fewer than each of the Alberta, BC, Ontario and the Canadian governments. If Tony Blair used the BC formula of 35 percent, he would have no fewer than 231 cabinet ministers.

Beyond simply the number of cabinet members, which is overwhelming, the fact that a number of portfolios seemed to have been made up is equally as perplexing, if not downright worrisome. For instance, there are several new portfolios whose duties are difficult to discern like what the heck does the Minister of State for Community Charter do?

A number of portfolios have also been divided up amongst more than one minister. How many cabinet ministers does it take to fumble the health portfolio? In BC it takes four! That’s right, four members of cabinet to manage one portfolio. One person will plan health care, another will manage services, another will focus on the state of mental health—presumably of patients and not taxpayers footing the bill—and another to deal with intermediate, long-term, and home care issues. Does anyone else agree that too many cooks spoil the soup?

This breaking up of portfolios isn’t limited to health. There are no less than five portfolios dealing with natural resources: (1) agriculture, food, and fisheries, (2) energy and mines, (3) forests, (4) sustainable resource management, and (5) water, land, and air
protection, and three or possibly four dealing with finance: (1) finance, (2) provincial revenue, (3) management services, and (4) human resources.

Of course one of the reasons for such a large cabinet is that the BC Liberals won a huge majority. Doling out cabinet positions is one of the many ways premiers maintain discipline. Canadian governments in recent years have had a tendency to award elected-members in large governments by increasing the size of government. As government majorities get larger, so does the cabinet. Rather than worrying about how to reward MLAs who just won their seats, premiers would better spend their time reflecting on what is the appropriate role and size of government. The tax cuts in BC signal one direction and the size of the cabinet the exact opposite.

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