Politics

BC Premier David Eby’s control may play a role in cabinet resignations

Vaughn Palmer: Resignations of three ministers this week was a surprise, because of the timing and because two had said they’d run again

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VICTORIA — NDP cabinet ministers Bruce Ralston, Harry Bains and Rob Fleming announced their retirements this week, inviting speculation about their timing and reasons.

The announcements came just 15 weeks before the election scheduled for Oct. 19, which is later than usual in the electoral cycle for incumbent ministers to be heading for the exit.

Two other NDP ministers and five backbenchers who’ve announced their retirements did so before the legislature adjourned in mid-May. The timing allowed them to deliver farewell speeches on the floor of the house and it gave the party more time to line up replacements.

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The three ministers who announced this week gave personal reasons for not wanting to commit to another four-year term and each expressed confidence in the NDP winning the election.

Forests Minister Ralston had said as recently as the spring session that he intended to seek another term as MLA for Surrey-Whalley. Upon reflection, he had second thoughts.

“I’ve been at it almost 20 years, so I decided that it’s time for the next phase of my life,” Ralston told reporter Tom Zytaruk of the Surrey Now-Leader.

He’s a lawyer and has kept up his certifications to practice. But he readily conceded to the reporter that, “I don’t really expect to return to the practice of law, no.”

Ralston’s service to the NDP includes a five-year stint as party president in the 1990s, a troubled period when the NDP changed premiers three times in five years, ending in a crushing defeat in 2001.

Labour Minister Bains had earlier told Premier David Eby that he intended to seek another term as MLA for Surrey-Newton.

But last week Bains told Rob Shaw of CHEK news that his wife didn’t want him to run again and that he wants to spend more time with his grandchildren.

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Now he says, “it’s time for someone else to continue the work we’ve begun.” For Bains, a former trade union official, that work includes a significant rebalancing of provincial laws and regulations in favour of organized labour.

Bains is 72, Ralston 71. Indigenous Relations Minister Murray Rankin, who announced retirement a month ago, is 74. Not surprising that a septuagenarian cohort would be thinking of retirement and reluctant to commit to another four years.

The other cabinet member who announced his plans this week, Transportation Minister Rob Fleming, is just 52.

But he’s been in office for more than half his life, starting with two terms on Victoria city council and then going on 20 years in the legislature representing Victoria-Swan Lake.

Fleming is ending a busy term in transportation, having presided over the astonishingly quick rebuilding of the Coquihalla Highway after its destruction by floods in 2021.

In this week’s news release, he thanked the B.C. Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association, a group that has seldom been on such a cosy footing with the NDP.

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Fleming, like Bains, wants to spend more time with family. In an interview with Cindy Harnett of the Victoria Times Colonist, he ruled out seeking electoral office at any other level.

Rather, he is expected to resurface in an industry-related posting or the government relations field.

This week’s departing ministers, Ralston, Bains and Fleming, were first elected to the legislature in 2005 and they have served continuously since then. As a result, they’ve maxed out or are close to maxing their entitlement under the rules governing the MLA pension plan.

Their departure leaves only three NDP MLAs who’ve served continuously since 2005: Health Minister Adrian Dix, Speaker of the legislature Raj Chouhan and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth. (Farnworth is the grand old man of the caucus, having served since 1991 with a one-term interruption from 2001-05.)

Despite the somewhat belated announcements from this week’s trio, the New Democrats professed not to be worried. Their seats have not been open for a long time and each is regarded as safe for the NDP.

In the last close-fought provincial election in 2017, Ralston won Whalley with 59 per cent of the vote, Bains took Newton with 57 per cent, and Fleming captured Swan Lake with 54 per cent.

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Already there’s jockeying for position. Lisa Helps, the former Victoria mayor, now an adviser to Premier David Eby, is reputedly on the short list to succeed Fleming in Victoria-Swan Lake.

Still, for all the insistence in NDP circles that there’s no story here — apart from weary ministers seeking retirement and fresh faces entering the field — the narrative has changed in the governing party.

At the outset of the year, reporters were told not to expect a lot of retirements at the cabinet level because — well, why would ministers leave when another term at the cabinet table was pretty much guaranteed?

Today re-election is not as certain.

Moreover, there’s more grumbling in government circles about the centralized control from the premier’s office. Eby is far less given to delegating than John Horgan.

Though the odds still favour an NDP win, the prospect of four more years under the thumb of this premier’s office probably made it easier for cabinet veterans to see the virtues of retirement.

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