Cabinet rookies handed hot files

Newcomers have some of the thorniest assignments in the B.C. government, and this is the time for unpopular moves

Transportation Minister Todd Stone takes oath of office from Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone takes oath of office from Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon.

VICTORIA – There are nine new faces in Premier Christy Clark’s cabinet, seven of them elected to the B.C. legislature for the first time on May 14.

They have been handed some of the hottest problems, and Clark’s marching orders in “mandate letters” for each ministry. And this is the start of a four-year term, when unpopular reforms are attempted.

Take Amrik Virk, the former RCMP inspector from Surrey who’s suddenly in charge of advanced education. His mandate includes: “Review the student loan program to make recommendations for improvement to ensure the loan program is meeting the needs of today’s students.”

Virk must also set targets to “match the skills we need with the skills we are graduating” and require post-secondary schools to “ensure student seats are being filled.”

B.C. can’t afford to keep cranking out university grads with $50,000 in debt and no job prospects in a system that’s subsidized 65 per cent.

Virk will be working closely with Education Minister Peter Fassbender, who must “ensure seamless transitions” from high school to the workforce for post-secondary trades and apprenticeships.

In his spare time, Fassbender is to overhaul the school district bargaining agency and achieve a 10-year peace with the teachers’ union.

Justice Minister Suzanne Anton has worked as a Crown prosecutor, so she’ll have some insight into the system that still grapples with Stanley Cup rioters from two summers ago.

Her orders are to get traffic tickets and other administrative penalties out of the courts, keep working on integrating police fiefdoms and generally treat the constipation that afflicts law enforcement today.

Oh, and get that new Okanagan prison built, to relieve a system that has inmates living in tents. And examine whether to spin off the Liquor Distribution Branch into a Crown corporation, a possible prelude to selling it.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone’s first test was a grilling by the Vancouver media. Yup, this Kamloops hayseed has been to the Big Smoke a few times, ridden that fancy SkyTrain and taken the odd ferry, too.

Now he has to impose the ferry route reductions that have been worked on by two previous ministers, and push Metro Vancouver through a referendum on ways to fund its own transit. If more tolls or taxes are going to be implemented, now is the time.

Coralee Oakes has made a political leap from Quesnel city hall to the Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development. One of her key tasks is to invent a framework for a “rural dividend” from liquefied natural gas development in northwestern B.C.

Oakes has to figure out how to “better provide provincial support” to sport and cultural organizations, but do it with no new money. All ministers have strict instructions to balance their lean budgets and take part in the latest “core review” to identify government functions that can be sold, delegated or shut down.

New Minister of International Trade Richmond’s Teresa Wat has to find a way to continue the growth of lumber and other exports to China, India and elsewhere on the Pacific Rim.

On top of that, the always-delicate softwood lumber agreement with the U.S. expires in three years. The last major eruption on that front was in 2009, when B.C. cut stumpage rates for remote coastal areas to give communities much-needed employment. The Americans were livid, just as they were with our beetle-kill harvesting efforts. And of course, the U.S.-directed environmental movement continues to target Canadian industries.

Third-term MLA John Rustad gets aboriginal relations, with specific instructions to deal with gas and perhaps oil pipelines through his Nechako Lakes constituency.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com

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