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British Columbia BC Liberals unveil urban-minded agenda as Clark prepares for likely defeat in House

B.C. Premier Christy Clark talks with media after being sworn-in as Premier following a ceremony at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on June 8, 2017.

CHAD HIPOLITO/THE CANADIAN PRESS

B.C. Premier Christy Clark says she is ready to present a new urban-minded agenda for her government as she prepares for a likely defeat in the House later this month – including measures that promise to end a long-running feud with Metro Vancouver mayors over transit funding.

Ms. Clark unveiled a new cabinet on Monday, acknowledging her appointments may be short-lived if her government loses a vote of confidence expected in the legislature near the end of June.

The Liberals lost a net total of six seats across Metro Vancouver in the May 9 election, costing them their majority.

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Ms. Clark said on Monday she has absorbed a message from voters who turned away from her party: "We're investing in supporting an urban agenda that's going to make our cities the most livable in the world. You'll see that in the Throne Speech, that's the government's chance to set out for British Columbians where we want to take the province."

With 43 seats in the House and an NDP-Green alliance holding the other 44, the Throne Speech Ms. Clark is drafting now is expected to be more of a blueprint for the next election campaign than a forecast of the coming year in B.C. politics. However, the Premier said: "Politics is a business where the unexpected always happens." Even if she loses the vote of confidence, the NDP does not automatically form government. Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon could send British Columbians back to the polls.

Sam Sullivan, a former Vancouver mayor, is the new minister responsible for Metro Vancouver's transit authority, TransLink. He told reporters his first act, if the Liberals survive a confidence vote, would be to try to reset the relationship with Metro Vancouver mayors by abandoning his government's long-standing requirement for a referendum on any new taxation powers to fund transit initiatives in the region.

"Reflecting on the message we heard from the voters in the campaign … we need to have a better working relationship [with the mayors]," he said. "It is a priority for me as a former mayor of Vancouver. That's why, if we earn the confidence of the House, we will move quickly to scrap the requirement to have another regional referendum on funding transit."

He said it is important transit projects can move ahead without delay, although he added that the funding solution should not burden families with heavier taxes.

Mr. Sullivan, who had previously been passed over for cabinet, said he understands his appointment may last only a few weeks. "I realize this may be short term, but what we are signalling to the public is there is a change here, and we'll have a really good program to offer – whenever the next opportunity comes around."

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, vice-chair of the Mayors' Council on Regional Transportation, the governing board of Translink, welcomed the Liberals' change of heart. "Wow," she said. "I don't think I would be speaking out of turn to say everyone out of the mayors' council would be happy to hear about the referendum. … It's at least refreshing to hear they may have learned a lesson."

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The mayors' council last week announced the creation of a commission to look at how to fund new transportation infrastructure. Given the conflict over the government's demand for a referendum – after the last bid to change the tax structure failed – the mayors were openly welcoming the prospect of a new NDP government that might break the deadlock.

The commission is looking at mobility pricing – fees and charges for using everyday transportation services – including tolls, fuel sales tax, or vehicle permit and insurance fees. Many of those proposals would be subject to a referendum under the Liberals' current policy, but Mr. Sullivan said nothing is off the table now. "We need innovation," he said.

Ms. Hepner called that a positive change. "We had a lot of things taken off of our table, maybe now we can put those things back on," she said. "I'm happy to hear the province is open to having those discussions."

Mr. Sullivan said the new direction is informed by the Liberals' losses in urban British Columbia, which left the party's base firmly in rural B.C. "We did well in the north and the interior. It's very clear we did not connect with voters in the urban areas, we did not reflect their aspirations." He said the Liberals now have to prove to urban voters that they do understand their concerns around affordability.

The new B.C. cabinet offered few dramatic changes. The ceremony was low-key, with few guests, in the Drawing Room at Government House rather than the grand ballroom. Ms. Clark filled five cabinet vacancies and left the rest of the ministers in place. Most senior remain.

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