As the B.C. government considered its plan for the province’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, cabinet fired the top public servant in the environment ministry.
Mark Zacharias had been the deputy minister of environment and climate change strategy since 2017, appointed when the NDP formed government with support from the BC Green Party. A B.C. government employee since the mid-1990s, as deputy minister he sat on the Climate Solutions Council and was the main link between the advisory body and the government.
On April 23, cabinet made a rare change to the senior civil service when it rescinded the order-in-council appointing Zacharias and promoted Kevin Jardine from associate deputy minister to replace him. Jardine is also a long-time government employee for 20 years.
Premier John Horgan said this week that while he can’t comment directly on a personnel issue, the change in the ministry does not reflect a shift in the government’s priorities.
“Human resource matters have no bearing on the direction of the government,” he said. “Cabinet makes those decisions and the cabinet is virtually the same as it was in 2017.”
Zacharias is in his early 50s and was widely, if not universally, liked both inside and outside the ministry. He was paid $259,000 last year.
People in the ministry received little explanation for the sudden departure and sources say the decision to fire him was made in the premier’s office against the wishes of Environment Minister George Heyman, who could not be reached for comment.
According to one account, Zacharias was involved in preparing a plan for a green recovery for Heyman to take to cabinet, work he continued after the premier’s office instructed him to stop, leading to his dismissal.
The decision came as tensions built around how the B.C. government will spend $1.5 billion earmarked for economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic and whether the Climate Solutions Council will be superseded by a newly appointed Economic Recovery Task Force. The task force includes people representing heavy industry but lacks representation from groups or ministries likely to champion building a lower-carbon, more resilient economy.
Horgan said he’s been clear that CleanBC, the province’s 2018 plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, remains key to the government’s direction.
“When I announced our restart plan, I made it abundantly clear that the foundation of that plan was CleanBC,” he said. The government worked on it with opposition members, including former Green Party leader Andrew Weaver who is now an independent MLA, to make sure it was “unassailable” as a plan to fight climate change, Horgan said.
“We repeatedly say there’s no difference between the economy and the environment, they are the same thing, and we need to make sure as we come out of COVID-19 we’re focused on building a clean, green, reduced-carbon economy,” he said. “That’s been our objective since we were sworn in as a government and that will continue to be our objective going forward.”
Under the leadership of Horgan’s deputy Don Wright, few changes have been made to the senior civil service. After forming government, the NDP kept many of the people it inherited from the previous government, including former Fraser Institute director Fazil Mihlar.
Even when Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources deputy Dave Nikolejsin criticized the government’s policies at a 2018 oil and gas industry event, he kept his job. Carbon taxes, changes to environmental assessments, implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and updating the labour code would all affect competitiveness, he was quoted saying. “You start to stack them up, and which straw breaks the camel’s back? That’s what I want to know.”
That the premier’s office has kept on some deputies who appear to be out of step with its stated policies has some observers wondering why Zacharias needed to go and what exactly constitutes a firing offence in the Horgan government.