December 15, 2004
NDP to counter B.C. Liberal plans to soften image
By DIRK MEISSNER
VICTORIA (CP) - B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell will use the surprise resignation of former finance minister Gary Collins to soften his government's image just before the May election, a veteran political watcher predicted Wednesday.
But a spokesman for the Opposition New Democrats said they are already planning a pointed attack to remind voters they were forced to endure three years of pain caused by the Liberal government, not just Collins.
Collins, 41, who quit politics Tuesday to head a Vancouver-based airline, was known as the tough, no-nonsense administrator of the Campbell government's three-year cost-cutting regime.
He took the province from a projected $4-billion deficit shortly after the 2001 election to next year's forecast $2-billion budget surplus.
But the financial recovery plan called for budget cuts averaging 25 per cent through all ministries except Health and Education and a reduction of the civil service by about one-third, about 7,000 positions.
Campbell moved quickly to appoint a successor to Collins, using his resignation news conference to announce a mini cabinet shuffle.
Vancouver MLA Colin Hansen was handed the Finance portfolio. Prince George MLA Shirley Bond was moved from Advanced Education into Hansen's old job as health services minister.
Victoria member Ida Chong was moved from Women's and Seniors' Services to Advanced Education and backbench Revelstoke MLA Wendy McMahon was promoted to Women's and Seniors' Services.
Labour Minister Graham Bruce assumes Collins' old position as Liberal house leader.
The appointment of Hansen, a longtime B.C. Liberal, gives the government the opportunity to shed Collins's tough-guy image without losing financial credibility, says Norman Ruff of the University of Victoria.
"If there is a silver lining in this, it will make them a little more credible with Collins gone," he said. "It makes their attempt to rebrand themselves a little more credible with the electorate."
Hansen's political style is more measured than Collins's take-no-prisoners approach and that may appeal to voters who have been scared away by some of the difficult cuts the Liberals made to rural communities, seniors and families, Ruff said.
"Hansen's centre right, with the emphasis on the centre," he said.
An NDP strategist said the opposition will remind voters that waiting lists at B.C. hospitals grew by 30 per cent under Hansen's watch and the use of private clinics continued to expand.
"They've been trying to re-position on the social side for months and they keep booting it," said the New Democrat, who didn't want to be named.
Bond will also be in for attacks from the opposition.
Under her watch, university fees skyrocketed and spaces for B.C. students were reduced, the NDP said.
"B.C. universities are now less accessible," said the New Democrat.
Hansen's promotion to the Finance Ministry will take the edge off the government's hard-hitting fiscal reputation, but the move still doesn't soften the blow Collins's resignation hands the government just months before an election, said Ruff.
"These Liberals are not a group known for their street smarts and this is something Collins brought to the table," said Ruff. "That's a huge hole for them."
His presence will also be missed in the legislature, where Collins was known as a fierce debater and a strategist who used his duties as house leader to wring every ounce of potential out of the government.
"He handles this place really well on a strategic sense," said the New Democrat. "They are really going to miss him on house management."
A sketch of new B.C. Finance Minister Colin Hansen:
Politics: Appointed minister of finance Dec. 14, 2004. Appointed health services minister in June 2001. Previously served as Opposition health critic. First elected MLA for Vancouver Quilchena 1996; re-elected 2001.
Career: Ran a small business with his wife. Former vice-president of finance and administration for Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.
Education:Bachelor of arts in political science from University of Victoria.
Family:Married, two children.
Quote: "One of the things I bring into this responsibility is a pretty good understanding of how 43 per cent of the budget gets spent. I know that health care, going forward, is probably going to still be the biggest pressure on our budgets."
A sketch of new B.C. Health Services Minister Shirley Bond:
Politics: Appointed health services minister Dec. 14, 2004. Appointed minister of advanced education, deputy premier, September 2004. First elected MLA for Prince George-Mount Robson May 2001.
Education:Arts and science diploma from College of New Caledonia; political science, University of Northern B.C.
Family: Married, two grown children.
Quote: "Make no mistake about it, there are challenges but I'm very proud of the work the government has done. My priority will be keeping the course we've set. Our focus will be on patient care I'm continuing to making that the No. 1 priority."