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Friday, July 01, 2005

New Cabinet signals Campbell's shift to the political centre

On June 16, 2005 Her Honour Iona Campagnolo, the Lieutenant Governor of BC, swore in Premier Gordon Campbell’s new cabinet. The new 23-member cabinet signaled a dramatic move back towards the centre of BC’s political spectrum.

As I have mentioned in this column before, the social conservatives whispering in Gordon Campbell’s ear very nearly succeeded in electing an NDP government. The courting of controversial Surrey School Board chair and former Christian Heritage Party member Mary Polak, the lack of attention paid to the grass roots membership and the resignations of such high profile cabinet ministers as Christy Clark, Gary Collins and Geoff Plant all served to lend credence to NDP Leader Carole James’ message “that politics in BC has never been more polarized.”

However after the unexpected by-election loss in Surrey, Premier Campbell recognized that he had to regain the middle ground in order to obtain a second term. Thus came the political courting of Justice Wally Oppal and Carole Taylor.

With his new 23-member cabinet Campbell further cemented his claim on the political centre ground by appointing Taylor as Minister of Finance and Wally Oppal as Attorney General. But in perhaps the most dramatic break with his first term in office was the creation of the BC Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation.

You might recall that Campbell had started his first term with both a legally and politically ill-advised referendum, which far from “putting natives in their place” as one or two key staffers in the Premier’s Office had ignorantly hoped, instead served only to hamstring provincial treaty negotiators and strengthen the legal arguments being put forward in various court actions by First Nations leaders.

Once again Premier Campbell deserves full marks for having the courage to recognize that his government needed to do an about face with regards to working with First Nations. In addition to “recognizing the contributions and importance of British Columbia’s First Nations” the Premier in re-establishing a stand alone ministry governing Aboriginal issues also had the following to say:

“In every ministry and every sector we will foster new working partnerships with first nations that will move us beyond the barriers of the past, to new horizons of hope for every British Columbian. The future will belong to all British Columbians, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, alike, as we light the way together for Canada.” Premier Gordon Campbell

Okay a little flowery but certainly a step in the right direction. Another step in the right direction was the appointment of Okanagan-Vernon MLA Tom Christensen as the new Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation.

Tom Christensen, who was first elected in 2001, is an extremely likeable and decent individual. He has a law degree and from first hand experience I can tell you that he has a keen interest in aboriginal issues. For example in December of last year both Tom Christensen and Shuswap MLA George Abbott, who is now the new Minister of Health, took time out of their hectic schedules to tour the Round Lake Treatment Centre which is a nationally renowned aboriginal run facility helping people coping with drug and alcohol addiction.

But besides Minister Christensen’s good will, a couple of other fundamental changes are required if treaty negotiations are to go anywhere in BC. The first is dropping the current 8 and 12 tax formula that has served to defeat every treaty ratification vote since Nisga’a. This formula calls for those First Nations ratifying a treaty to give up their sales tax exemption within 8 years and their income tax exemption within 12. Needless to say that provision generally goes over like a lead balloon with the band membership and inevitably the treaty deal goes down to defeat.

Even if this 8 and 12 provision were not fatal to treaty making, which it is, it would serve only to provide a mish mash of Indian Bands of which some had tax-exempt status and some that didn’t. Clearly the only sane recourse is to drop the 8 and 12 provision and if one day Canada wants to remove the tax-exempt status for First Nations people living on reserve then all it would take is a simple change to one a section of the Income Tax Act.

As one federal treaty negotiator said to me a few years ago, he would be very surprised if the tax-exempt status remains in place for more than another 25 years. Which serves to only strengthen my argument for dropping the 8 and 12 formula that is serving only to waste billions of dollars in treaty negotiations that so far have gone absolutely no where.

The other advice I would provide to Minister Christensen is to separate self-government negotiations from the Treaty process. Both the Sechelt and West Bank First Nations successfully negotiated self-government agreements and did so outside of the treaty process.

Another key advantage is by making self-government a separate agreement it means their governance structures are not forever locked into a treaty that can never be amended. Instead the way in which these First Nations govern themselves can change over time. It also allows First Nations that are not ready for self-government but desperately want an expanded land and revenue base to proceed ahead with a treaty and negotiate the terms of self-government later. Or as was the case with Sechelt and West Bank, those First Nations that require self-government can proceed ahead and focus on treaty negotiations at a later date.

Although there were some individuals and even candidates within both the NDP and Liberals who supported STV, by and large both parties were terrified that it might actually pass. In fact it came damn close missing by only the narrowest of margins in terms of the overall requirement of a province wide 60% yes vote.

Such strong support speaks as to the frustration a solid majority of voters felt at being asked to chose between an opposition that was seen by many as fiscally and economically irresponsible (the NDP) and another that seemed to be arrogant and callous (the BC Liberals). Obviously Campbell is taking significant steps to be seen as less aloof and more caring.

So expect to see in term two a kinder gentler Campbell government that each year will continue to spend more on health care, education and social services. All in the hopes that when the 2010 Olympics comes around it will be Gordon Campbell who will be presiding over the Winter Games as Premier of BC.

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