Newly minted Finance Minister said he’ll draw on his frugal habits – such as driving a 20-year-old car – and respect for taxpayers as guiding principles in managing the province’s money.
“The government should not spend more than what it receives from the taxpayer, and that will guide me and the government in the preparation of the forthcoming budget,” said de Jong, who replaces Kevin Falcon after he stepped down from the finance post last week and said he won’t seek re-election.
Premier Christy Clark appointed the five-term Abbotsford West MLA to the power position of finance minister on Wednesday, when she revamped her cabinet. De Jong was also named government house leader, a position he’s held before.
De Jong said later he was honoured to serve in the capacity. He intends to table a balanced budget in February, even though that may mean some tough choices.
However, when Clark named her new cabinet, she suggested that her government will explore ways to make life more affordable for families.
“The levers by which we do that are fairly constant: through tax policy, by finding some tax relief. The other way is doing everything we can to encourage private sector investment and job creation in B.C.,” said de Jong.
Whether or not that would mean allowing controversial oil pipelines across the province, he wouldn’t say, but stressed that securing diverse international markets for B.C. resources such as liquid natural gas were crucial.
De Jong said that B.C.’s economy can’t be buffered from global economic conditions, and pointed out how the drop in natural gas prices also meant a significant drop in provincial revenues.
Looking ahead to the labour horizon with that in mind, de Jong said that while he has “tremendous amount of respect for public service workers” and wants to recognize their contributions, “the money we negotiate with are dollars that belong to taxpayers and they are limited.”
He said he hopes that talks with the B.C. Government Employees Union will resume soon, “with that context in mind.”
De Jong was the Minister of Health for the last year and a half, and he also ran for the B.C. Liberal Party leadership against Clark. He has served as Attorney General, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, Minister of Labour and Citizens’ Services, and Minister of Forests.
A lawyer by trade and a former Abbotsford school trustee, de Jong was first elected as an MLA in a 1994 by-election, defeating then Social Credit Party leader Grace McCarthy.
The shuffle was expected after a dozen Liberals including several ministers announced their retirement from politics in recent weeks, but it heralds a renewal of the party, said Abbotsford-Mission MLA Randy Hawes.
“It’s all good. As people leave, we will have a strong new slate of candidates,” he said. “People who were angry at us over the last few years should look at this as the party refreshing itself. The old guard is gone for the most part.”
The finance ministry requires leadership and years of experience, “and de Jong certainly has that,” he said.
Hawes said he was “thrilled” see to Moira Stilwell, also a former leadership contender, in cabinet as Minister of Social Development.
A radiologist who’s worked at the Abbotsford Regional Hospital recently, he said “she’s a brilliant, brilliant lady with great ideas.”
Hawes also praised the choice of Ralph Sultan, 79, who was elected in 2001 but never assigned a cabinet post, named minister of state for seniors.
“He was an economics professor at Harvard, a former chief economist for the Royal Bank of Canada, and the guy’s brilliant,” said Hawes.
Hamish Telford, University of the Fraser Valley political science professor, didn’t view Clark’s cabinet shuffle so much of a planned renewal but rather a move by a leader doing the best she could with the people she had left, a forced re-assignment after several key players announced their retirement.
“The cabinet shuffle should have happened first, [and] not have one minister after another leave. It’s not clear to me she really knows what her team is doing,” he doing.
Telford noted, however, that Clark made a focused effort to offer political balance to the electorate.
“De Jong is certainly a fiscal conservative and may be more comfortable in finance than in health, which is a big-spending ministry. He’ll be well received by the business community. I know de Jong will be tight with the purse strings,” he said.
Also on the conservative side is Rich Coleman, now deputy premier and who kept his post as Minister of Energy and Mines, a position that oversees a growth sector in B.C. and which is important to the business community.
Others like former B.C. Medical Association president and family doctor Margaret MacDiarmid as the Minister of Health, and former teacher Don McRae in the Ministry of Education, may appease the more moderate liberal flank of the party, Telford said.
What’s crucial now for the B.C. Liberals is that they show stability and performance in the eight months left before the next provincial election, he said.
“People will be watching to see if there’s going to be another Harry Bloy,” and if any more senior party members will quit, he said.
Abbotsford South MLA and B.C. Conservative Party member John van Dongen said the cabinet reassignments show the Liberals are struggling.
“Anytime a government is in trouble you’ll see a revolving door of ministers. And significantly, quite a lot of quality people have decided not to run again,” he said, noting that popular Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom waited till 5 p.m. the day before the shuffle to make his announcement.
Van Dongen didn’t think the cabinet revamp would restore the public’s trust in the party.
“People have learned you can’t trust this government,” he said.
Van Dongen noted that Forum Research poll numbers on Tuesday show B.C. Liberals with 23 per cent support, compared to B.C. Conservatives with 20 and the NDP with 45 per cent, figures that “clearly” show the government doesn’t have the respect of the electorate.
As for his future, the three-term MLA Hawes, now 65, was coy but hinted broadly on Wednesday that he would not be running again.
On Wednesday Clark assigned nine parliamentary secretaries of state, but Hawes, who was the secretary of state for mines, is no longer among them. He was also dropped from the 10-member Treasury Board.
“People who are running rightly should be in cabinet and those who are not should make way,” he said. “The aim of the B.C. Liberals is to form the next government, and the ministers who are running should be ready and up to speed to take on the job the day after the election.”
Hawes said he will announce his decision on Monday.