Premier Christy Clark says the new cabinet she will introduce Friday includes ministers responsible for driving her government's plans to develop British Columbia's natural gas industry and oversee what she's calling a line-by-line review of government spending.
Clark says the Liberals were elected last month because British Columbians want to see economic growth in the province and tight government spending controls, and her new cabinet will reflect that, but also includes what some may consider surprising choices for ministers.
Clark said she expects politicians to return to the Legislature shortly to debate and pass the budget, which was the topic of much debate during the election campaign with the Liberals saying their government will post a surplus next year and the Opposition New Democrats saying the budget carries a deficit of $800-million.
Clark said she wants to get back to the Legislature as soon as possible, even though she may not be able to attend every debate because she will be campaigning in the Westside-Kelowna by-election. Clark lost her seat in Vancouver-Point Grey, but former Westside-Kelowna MLA Ben Stewart stepped aside to allow Clark to run in a by-election, which is expected to be called for sometime next month.
"I want to get on with business," she said Thursday evening. "I want to get this budget discussion under way. We have a mandate for this budget. I don't know if there's ever been a budget that's been more [debated] in any election campaign than ours was. We have a mandate to pass this budget."
Clark would not reveal the name of the minister who will run the new ministry responsible for natural gas, but she said she considers it a massive port folio that includes facets of the ministries of advanced education, Aboriginal relations, jobs, energy and resource operations.
Prior to Friday's cabinet announcement, Rich Coleman was the minister for energy, mines and natural gas. He was also the minister responsible for housing and deputy premier.
"We were elected in large part on the promise to build a brand new industry in British Columbia," Clark said. "It's how we're going to make British Columbia debt-free in 15 years. It's how we're going to grow 100,000 jobs. So, we're going to give it absolute laser focus."
Clark's Liberals say the development of natural gas and the export of the gas in the form of liquefied natural gas to Asia represents a trillion-dollar economic opportunity that will wipe out the province's debt – currently at more than $60-billion – within 15 years and drastically cut and perhaps eliminate the seven-per-cent provincial sales tax.
But Andrew Weaver, B.C.'s first elected Green Party MLA, called Clark's natural gas plans a pipe dream that could cost taxpayers who will end up subsidizing energy companies. Weaver said following his swearing-in ceremony at the legislature Thursday that B.C. faces stiff competition from Russia, Australia, the United States and China when it comes to cashing in on natural gas.
Clark's Liberals acknowledge that B.C. must act quickly to secure its place in the world LNG markets, while energy experts suggest there is ample room for several energy exporters in Asia because the continent's needs are vast.
Clark said she will also appoint a minister responsible to conduct a core review of government spending and programs as part of her new cabinet. She said a full, government-wide review hasn't been done since 2001 and it's time to examine everything.
"We are going to go through, line-by-line, every ministry," she said. "We are going to find out what government can be doing better, how, and, maybe there are things government shouldn't be doing at all."
Clark said she has met with all 49 members of the Liberal caucus during her cabinet deliberations. She said some people were left out of cabinet who are cabinet material. Not everybody gets in, but there are ways to prepare future cabinet ministers.
Clark said she tried to match people's characters and work habits with ministries and parliamentary secretary posts as opposed to their professional skills. She said just because somebody is a mayor or municipal councillor doesn't mean they'll end up a community or municipal minister.
Liberal advisers suggested Clark's cabinet could include up to three newly elected MLAs and see several current ministers dropped from the front bench.
The election defeats of two ministers – Margaret MacDiarmid and Ida Chong – and the retirement of Pat Bell leave openings in the health, jobs and aboriginal relations ministries.
Stewart's decision to offer his seat to Clark in the by-election also leaves open citizens' services and open government.
Of the 85 available seats in the B.C. legislature, the Liberals elected 25 new members of their total of 49 MLAs.
Potential cabinet ministers among the newly elected Liberals are: Langley mayor Peter Fassbender; Olympic wheelchair champion Michelle Stilwell; former deputy minister Andrew Wilkinson; and Richmond businesswoman Teresa Wat.
Other cabinet possibilities among the newly elected Liberal MLA's are: Penticton mayor Dan Ashton; former Reform adviser Laurie Throness; Dawson Creek mayor Mike Bernier and criminologist Darryl Plecas.