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The Globe and Mail

New finance minister unexpected, but not underrated

Mike De Jong speaks during a public forum in Vancouver, B.C., on Jan. 12, 2011.

JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

B.C's new Finance Minister has a wry reply for those surprised that Premier Christy Clark named him to the post, as she shuffled her cabinet after more than a dozen MLAs decided not to seek re-election.

"Better get a rebate on your crystal ball," Mike de Jong quipped Wednesday in an interview after Ms. Clark announced, as part of a wider shuffle, that the long-time Attorney-General and Government House Leader would be switching to Finance after an 18-month stint as Health Minister.

The betting was that Energy Minister Rich Coleman would get the job. Arriving for a post-swearing-in news conference, Mr. de Jong said "Surprise" to the media present. He later explained that he used the word because he could see the astonishment on their faces that he would be the one taking questions on the $40-billion budget.

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"He's never been in a portfolio we had a strong interest in," said John Winter, president of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce – one among many stakeholders Mr. de Jong will be reaching out to ahead of tabling a balanced budget next year. That will occur just months before the embattled Liberals, far behind the B.C. New Democrats in the polls, seek a fourth term.

But Mr. Winter makes a point, echoed by others, that Mr. de Jong, an Abbotsford-area MLA for 18 years, is hard-working and well-known in political circles, qualities they are betting will allow him to hunker down for some thorny challenges.

"I am excited at the prospect of taking on this role," said Mr. de Jong. "The government has got a big job ahead of it in terms of rebuilding our trust and relationship with British Columbians. The budget will play an important role in that exercise."

Mr. de Jong said he is not ruling out tax cuts or some relief in provincial fees for the budget, but that it was too early to offer specifics.

"I still enjoy the work. I enjoy the opportunity to meet and listen to British Columbians from all walks of life, and will have an opportunity, in a different context now, to bring whatever talents I have acquired as an MLA and minister to bear on this role. I am looking forward to that."

He noted that his predecessor, Kevin Falcon, also moved from Health, which takes up almost half the B.C. budget, to Finance.

Political scientist Hamish Telford of the University of the Fraser Valley says Mr. de Jong – "a lawyer by training; a politician by trade" – falls on the conservative side of the party, so may have been appealing to Ms. Clark, who is trying to hold together the B.C. Liberals' traditional centre-right coalition.

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"He brings a very steady hand. He's a very experienced politician who goes back to the beginning with [former premier] Gordon Campbell. He has proven himself over the years to be a steady performer. You want a steady hand, particularly in Finance, for a government that is swinging in the balance."

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