Forty-five minutes with Adrian Dix: the transcript

  • Feb. 27, 2011 6:00 a.m.

NDP leadership candidate Adrian Dix speaks to the Western News during a visit to Penticton Thursday.

Why do you want to be Premier of British Columbia?

I think after ten years of this government that it is a discredited government and that B.C. desperately needs change. As an opposition critic I achieved results. As children and families critic we forced the government to reestablish an independent children’s representative and forced them to bring back money to the Ministry of Children and Families. I had great success getting results as an opposition MLA and I think in the Premier’s Office I would be able to get the results that people want in British Columbia. So, I am up for the challenge.

 

Why would a Premier Adrian Dix be good for the South Okanagan?

I think on a number of issues but particularly on health care. I think this region of British Columbia has not been well served by the present government, particularly with respect to seniors care, with care at the hospital, with lack of access to acute care beds and lack of access to care in the community. We have tended to push everyone to the most expensive options, so if you are in a small town such as Princeton coming here, your local options have been reduced and everything has been pushed to Penticton Regional Hospital, a facility that is generally full all the time. I know someone at the hospital right now who is very seriously ill and is in a hallway. Surely, that is not good enough. The staff are working very hard but it is not good enough for a level of hospital care and it is not the most efficient way to run a health care system. So, I think on healthcare, on the economy and on agriculture, these key issues, the South Okanagan would be very interested in my candidacy.

Another example, in a general sense, is the economy. The current government’s record on the economy is the worst in my lifetime by their own standards: lower levels of growth, then there were under the NDP, contrary to what they always say. And this region has taken some of the brunt of that. Centralization of government, in general, away from Penticton towards Kelowna and towards Victoria on the one hand and on the other hand difficult economic times overall. So, we have to use the public investments that we have to improve life here and improve the economy here. 

I’ll give you an example. Hospitals tend not to use local food. This is one of the great agricultural areas of British Columbia and they don’t use the local food. And so, we should at least experiment with the idea that we do not truck food in from elsewhere, as they do in other communities. We have high quality food here and when people are sick they should get high-quality food and that should be the case in the Okanagan more than anywhere else.

 

What economic numbers back up your assertion that B.C.’s economy has not been well served under the BC Liberals?

Over 10 years, the average economic growth under the BC Liberals has been two per cent. It was three per cent under the NDP. It was 2.8 per cent under the Social Credit from 1975 to 1991 and so on. This government has the worst record on economic growth since the Great Depression and on top of that B.C. has become a more unequal place and you see why that is the case when you look at some of their direct policies. 

On Jan. 1 the government cut the corporation income tax. On that same date, they also increased (Medical Services Plan) premiums and long-term care fees. That was a direct transfer of money from everyone who pays MSP premiums at the same rate, whether they are a family of four earning $35,000 or a family of two earning $300,000 or the vulnerable senior on long-term care, to the big banks in that tax code arrangement. They thought it was OK to raise MSP premiums by 18 per cent on top of a previous 50 per cent increase. So, it is not just about raising taxes or cutting taxes. They raised taxes on middle-income people in order to cut taxes for big banks and I don’t agree with that.

 

What about the changing demographics and its impact on the province’s, and the country’s, ability to fund health care. How would you fund health care for a retiring baby boom?

First of all, by making smart decisions in the public system such as a prescription drug plan that ensures that British Columbia has the lowest prescription drug costs as possible. Prescription drug costs are the fastest growing part of our healthcare budget. Over 20 years, according to the Canadian Institute of Health Information, those costs increased by 385 per cent and the government, contrary to what they should be doing, is essentially favouring the very pharmaceutical companies that are driving the prices up. What we should be doing is support the Therapeutics Initiative at UBC which saves lives and saves money by giving an independent, non-conflicted view of the value of prescription drugs. We should expand the reference based pricing, a successful means to control the costs of prescription drugs. We should ensure on generic drugs that B.C. pays the same level or amount as Ontario. The current government signed a deal that has prices in B.C. 40 per cent higher than Ontario. I don’t think that is a good thing. We should expand academic detailers who go to doctors and talk about independent information about the prescribing of drugs. There are 600 drug detailers working for pharmaceutical companies in B.C. selling drugs, and two doctors, that tend to be paid for in the public system. You might have seen the film Love and Other Drugs which is a Jake Gyllenhaal film that describes some of that world. All of those things drive up the costs of drugs. 

In other areas of healthcare: Here in Penticton I recently did a press conference on nurse practitioners and the fact that we have trained a lot of nurse practitioners — I give the province credit for that — who can provide access to primary care in many cases less expensively and more effectively than the current system. We have trained a couple hundred of them but many of them are not employed as nurse practitioners. But that is a way to address the lack of primary care health care in some regions in a more efficient and less expensive way. So, we have to do that on the one hand and on the other hand, we have to find the solutions in our public system. The government has rationed in every health authority, including this one, (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) access so that people are forced to go to more expensive private MRI’s that they have to pay for themselves. And often the savings that they have made in healthcare are paid for by patients who have to travel longer distances and that is a major issue in this region.

 

Do think the health care system has some fat that can be cut at the top? Is it top heavy management-wise?

I think you can address some of those issues, absolutely. But where the fat has really been is in the shift to more expensive for-profit healthcare. If we pay some money on administration then we can save some money on administration and I have made repeated suggestions on how we can do that in the Canadian healthcare system. But compared to the American system and compared to shifting things off to for-profit care, the level of administrative costs is relatively low in Canada and it is why healthcare is way less expensive in Canada and why health outcomes are much better in Canada than they are in the United States. If we elect Christy Clark the American shift in B.C. healthcare will continue. 

Christy Clark, by the way, has proposed $500 million in cuts to health care in British Columbia. She says she’s going to cap health-care spending at the rate of economic growth. So, this year I think that would be in the neighbourhood of $541 million of money that she would have to cut out of health care. Now, $541 million, if you take the community care budget in the (Interior Health Authority) and the mental health budget that is the equivalent of what she would have to cut, for example. Or more than half of the hospitals in the IHA. That is what you would have to do if you want to cut $500 million. And so, the fairly juvenile suggestions that have come from Liberal candidates are not the answer to health care. You have to support the public system, which is more efficient, and you have got to use best practices to get to the right solutions. And that is what I have been proposing.

 

What about the increasing costs of wages and benefits for public sector union workers? Is there a problem funding those salaries? I have heard from people in the private sector unions that there might be a split now between private unions and public unions.

First of all, the BC Liberals have been in government for 10 years. They introduced legislation on a Friday and passed it on a Sunday to strip healthcare workers of their human and labor rights. They cut their salaries, in many cases, by 50 per cent by privatizing their jobs.

 

They have been elected twice since doing that.

They have but they have also been found to have acted illegally in the Supreme Court of Canada and those were very close elections. So, I think that most people would define that practice as irresponsible. They have been in power for 10 years and they have been the ones that have been negotiating those contracts. The last two year contracts everywhere were zero and zero and that is less than the rate of inflation and that is less, in some cases, then private sector contracts. I agree with people in the private sector that it is tough out there for them. There is no question about that. You’ve got the HST that the BC Liberals brought in. You have got increased MSP premiums that they brought in. You have got other things that they brought in that are negatively affecting the private sector economy. We have got to address some of those. But I think if people have concerns about that, it is the BC Liberals’ record and how they have preformed that is in question.

 

What would an NDP record look like in 10 years if you were to run the province for a decade?

I think you have to treat the people who work for you with respect if you want to achieve the goals that you have. But you have to negotiate collective agreements and that is what we would do. For example with teachers, right now we have a possible situation where the government has legislated a teacher’s settlement in 2005 after a very difficult strike. And now, teachers aren’t allowed to negotiate class sizes and class composition arrangement. They are not able to negotiate conditions of work or improve the learning conditions of students in the collective bargaining process and that means it’s almost impossible to bargain. So, I propose that we get rid of those provisions and that we allow the (BC Teachers Federation) to negotiate. And of course, when we negotiate we have to discuss how much money is available and those negotiations are between management and labour. And when it is an NDP government, the NDP government will be the management and so there will be negotiations and discussions. But we are going to treat people with respect and we are going to work together to improve public services and that is what I think people expect. They don’t want us to be in an adversarial relationship with labour, business or anyone else.

 

Will the BCTF find a Premier Adrian Dix just as tough at the negotiating table as he has been in the legislature?

What I wouldn’t do is what the current government did which is bring in legislation on a Friday to teachers, as well, and pass it on a Sunday without talking to them. I am pro-education. That is why I got into politics. I was working in education immediately before I became involved in politics for five years. So, I would hope that teachers in British Columbia and teachers in Penticton would be supportive of a government that addresses issues of class size and class composition. And that they would be supportive of a government that addresses issues of child poverty. I think on those key issues that teachers, parents and students would be very supportive of improvements in our public education system. There are 12,000 classrooms that don’t meet the current government’s class size limits right now. They have passed a law that says there is a limit but there are 12,000 classrooms beyond it. So, I think we can do better.

 

Is that a more bees with honey than with vinegar policy you are describing?

I think it is more bees with a good education policy than vinegar policy.

 

Voting rates in B.C. and across the country are pretty low, and with youth voters they are even lower, what are some of the things you would do to encourage more participation in the democratic process and get those numbers up?

I think you have to address issues of concern with youth to youth. In my view, you have got to re-validate the political process in an important way. For instance, when a government campaigns against the HST and for 15 years it’s the position of the government that it is against the HST and then the day after the election they implement the HST that creates cynicism in the political process which is bad for all voters. But if you only voted in that one election or you have only voted in two elections, it is even worse. I think there is a sense amongst young people that what happens at the ballot box doesn’t have enough influence in what follows from that and therefore takes away from the importance of voting. When people in this region can’t get hospital services; their classrooms are overcrowded; their tuition fees are way up; and the government is spending money putting a new roof on BC Place Stadium at $600 million, we have got to address some of those issues. We have got to say what we are going to do and then do it. When you do that and when it is an inspiring message I think that will inspire people to vote more in the future.

On the key issues for youth, I think you have to address environmental issues and that is what I am trying to do in my campaign. In my constituency, I sponsored climate change reforms with a huge response from young people. They get it more than my generation. So, when I say we are going to use the carbon tax in Penticton to help fund more transit then young people respond to that because they know that is a thing that you can do to address climate change and address inequality. When I say that we should reverse the tax cuts that were given to the banks in order to restore the student grants and have a zero interest rate on student loans that essentially paid for that tax cut to the banks. I think that would be appealing to students. When we address issues of access to postsecondary education, I think that will appeal to them too. When we say we are going to raise the minimum wage, which hasn’t been raised in 10 years, and get rid of the training wage, or when we say that we are going to enforce employment standards, those are all things that are of interest to young people. I think when the political process reflects the aspirations of young people, I think we will see a rise in voting rates. But it will not happen tomorrow. It is going to take time.

 

There have been comments made by MLAs in both the BC NDP and the BC Liberals, and indeed from other governmental organizations and the public, that there has been too much power centralized in the leadership of the political parties. If you become the head of your party, its caucus and then perhaps the provincial government what would you do to make policy development and political decision making in B.C. more of a grass-routes affair?

That is partly the reflection of 10 years of the Campbell government which I think is being extremely centralized in the Premier’s office. You (saw) that in their leadership candidates who (seemed) not to be able to distinguish themselves at all from Gordon Campbell and who (made) no serious policy proposals really in the campaign. They have been small to say the least. So, partly it is a reflection of that and I think that is an important consideration. 

But I think the answer is what I have been doing: I have been in the Okanagan as health critic probably 30 times. I have been to Penticton and Kelowna several times. I think what you have to do as a politician is leave Victoria and spend time in communities so you understand the real aspirations of people in the communities and engage them. You have to give people a sense that they have real input in the process and that it reflects back in government decisions from that input. You have to create formal processes that put power in the political parties. 

One of the reasons that I go to Penticton and Kelowna a lot is that I think within the NDP the ridings in the areas that we are strong in have way more influence than the ridings in the areas that we don’t represent. And so, I have tried as a MLA, not in theory, but in practice to engaged regions like the Okanagan region and I think this region, in particular, is in need of that kind of representation. I think the BC Liberals take this region for granted. In the last three elections they have won every seat from Salmon Arm to the Boundary and so they take the region for granted. They haven’t responded to issues of healthcare in Vernon, Penticton or Kelowna. The region itself is desperate for social services because we see the driving of services into the emergency room because people who need services have nowhere else to go. The area has been neglected by the government because they don’t think they will ever lose. Well, I have a message for them: We are going to win seats here. I think we can win Penticton. We can win the Boundary. I think we can win the Lake Country seat, the Vernon seat and the Shuswap seat. These are all seats that I think we have to win because I think in the Okanagan one party politics has not work for the region.

 

This is not verbatim but NDP political icon Tommy Douglas apparently quipped that from time to time British Columbians consider  electing an NDP government, but the party out there keeps talking them out if it. Was it wise for the BC NDP to dispose of its leader when the party was leading in the polls?

I supported Carole James. I supported her when she ran for the leadership. I supported her right through. I had very high hopes to serve in a government led by Carole James. Circumstances changed and the consequences of that was the loss of a 20 point lead in public opinion where we are now essentially tied in the polls. I think the Douglas quote is apt because you saw a little bit of a compare and contrast between the parties. The Liberals clearly had a coup d’état against the premier. One day he was announcing 15 per cent tax cuts and the next day he was gone.

 

Which partly helped to facilitate the change in polling numbers?

Well, we will see about that. But the political media at that time was dominated by a very public issue that everybody in the NDP, and I will take my own share of the responsibility for it, let emerge and dominate the news. The reason that we were ahead of the Liberals was that people agreed with us on education and on healthcare, and that they were appalled that the Liberals lied to people in the campaign about the HST, the deficit and health care. That is the reason. But then we stopped focusing on the things that mattered to people and had a bit of a public internal dispute. I think the way to deal with that is to return and focus on those issues. We need to run a leadership campaign of respect. I like all the people that I’m running against. I have worked with them for a long time. John Horgan was the emcee at my wedding and I ran Mike Farnworth’s campaign 20 years ago. I have known both of them for 25 years. I think it is an unusual race in that regard. So, the good news for us is that we have got people who respect each other, who have slightly different perspectives and who are going to go out and sell the NDP. And I think we are going to do a good job of bringing the thing together. The only way, in my view, to get over a sensitive division is to do things and work together and that is what I would do.

 

Was the centralization of power in the leader’s office of the BC NDP, one of the reasons why people wanted James to step down?

I think clearly there was a disagreement about that. But I would say, for me anyway, I was critic for children and families. I was critic for health. All I can say is that during that entire time Carole was incredibly supportive. She allowed me to do my job. I would caller if there were something controversial they came up but she gave me the freedom as a critic to do a wide range of issues and I think she was very generous in that regard. And I didn’t know Carole before I got to the legislature. I had only met her a few times but I didn’t really know her. I think that in general she gave people a lot of room to operate and to do their job. 

But look, it is a challenge and here is what the challenge is: We have had six NDP leaders in the last seven elections. The federal Liberal party had Paul Martin until he lost and then he was gone the day of. They had Stéphane Dion until he lost and then he was gone the day of. You have Ignatieff now and everybody knows if he loses, he will be gone. And this isn’t such a bad thing, I think. The British conservative party has about three or four former leaders in the cabinet. So, they lost but stayed on as MP’s and they are now cabinet ministers. So, I think it is important who the leader is but it is just as important that we all work together. So, if we lost those elections it was a common responsibility. Carole’s legacy is that we were at 21 per cent when she started; we were at 42 per cent in the last election that we led; we barely lost those elections; she won two election debates; she led a caucus that has forced the government to back down on children and families issues; and she had a huge number of successes as opposition leader. And I am hoping she will be in politics for a long time.

 

Should there be an adjustment in the way the BC NDP is structured?

For me, I think the leader of the NDP isn’t just the leader of the parliamentary caucus, they have to be the leader of the whole party. They have to be engaged with everybody. They have to demand accountability but they also have to be accountable. That is what I hope to be as leader. I think that we have a very strong caucus and that we need everybody. The BC NDP won three elections in the 20th century and so far we haven’t won any in the 21st. So, we can’t leave anyone off the bus. We need everybody’s talents and strengths and I will be working with everybody in caucus to make sure we succeed.

 

Carol James suggested that once initiated, the HST would be a difficult and costly deal for B.C. to wiggle out of. If voters take your advice and reject the HST in the upcoming referendum what steps would you prescribe the government take in order to minimize the impact of the transition?

Look, there is no question that we have to get rid of the HST. It is bad for the economy of B.C. The uncertainty that has been created by this long delay is bad for the economy of the province and we have to get rid of it. Of course your job as Premier of B.C. is to defend the provinces interests. So, we would have to talk to Ottawa about both the quote: “incentive” or bribe money they sent out to convince the government to make that decision. And would also have to talk to them about the practical fact that we would be reinstating the PST and not harmonizing with the GST. So, we would talk to them but we would be proceeding, if I were premier, to get rid of the HST and the institute the PST as soon as possible.

 

How quickly is as soon as possible?

I don’t know but it would be soon. I think it would be wrong to set that it would be this many weeks or months but it certainly wouldn’t be anything more than months.

 

Would it be a difficult process?

Yes and no. We have collected the PST for decades in B.C. We know how to do it. So, it would be difficult in the sense that by misleading people, making a terrible economic decision and causing all this disruption, the BC Liberals have caused the economy a lot of problems. Unwinding that disastrous process will be a challenge but we will do it.

 

Are you for axing the carbon tax?

I think that we need to keep the carbon tax and invest the money in environmental initiatives. We talked about youth involvement in politics. One of the challenges of taxation today is the sense that people have that taxes don’t go to the public services they support. So, in the case of a carbon tax I think we should keep it and use it to not only fund public services but environmental initiatives, such as transit here in Penticton. But you can’t spend the same money twice. There is $950 million in revenue from the carbon tax this year but the BC Liberals cut taxes related to that by more than $950 million. So they have spent all the money and largely they spent it on business tax cuts. They didn’t spend it on transit. They didn’t spend it on green infrastructure or green industries. They spent it on tax cuts. So, what I have suggested on my campaign is that we roll back three of those tax cuts related to the carbon tax just for big business or corporate income tax. Those would be the ones on: July 1, 2008; Jan.1, 2010; and Jan. 1 2011. I would use those revenues for the purposes that I think most people want them to be used for.

 

What about B.C.’s continued involvement in the Western Climate Initiative, given that many western states have now pulled out?

I think we have to be willing to partner with anybody who will help pursue our joint goals of addressing climate change but we can’t depend on everyone. I think one of the weaknesses of what the Campbell government did was that they never seemed to press Ottawa to take action or look for a pan-Canadian action whether it was on the carbon tax or any other issue. So, we need to address and show leadership on these issues here in B.C. and I would do so. I would partner with anyone who is willing to support that initiative. So, we want to be part of that initiative but that is not all dependant on us. However, I think British Columbians are insisting that we take action on climate change regardless.

 

As I am sure you know, you have a fellow NDP member in comedian Tommy Chong who joined the BC NDP to support Dana Larsen for his leadership bid. Illegal marijuana production is a large revenue driver in rural communities throughout British Columbia, do you support federal laws regarding cannabis?

Remember this is a provincial election, but the NDP has a position on decriminalization and I support that position. But I would say this, when I answer this question in high school a lot, I always say the same thing: I think that elements of this have been extremely costly and unnecessary. Now, the industry if it were a legal industry would not look like it looks today. If it were a legal industry it might not be centred in a whole bunch of small production centres as most legal industries in recent times have been centralized. So, you have too be careful about what conclusions you draw regarding the rural economy. But that is not before us. The federal government is clearly not in favour of the change in our drug laws. If anything the federal government is going in the other direction. The other thing I would say to people is: Don’t use drugs. I believe strongly that we need to have drug laws that make sense. I believe strongly that we have to invest more in rehabilitation of people who have issues with drugs. We all know people who have issues with drugs. I strongly support the safe injection site in Vancouver as health critic and I believe we have to be as progressive and as dynamic as possible to address people’s drug issues. I believe in decriminalization of marijuana. I think it is a good policy for all kinds of good reasons but I’m not advocating drug use, quite the contrary. We all know too many people, just in a general sense, who suffered because they abused drugs and alcohol. And we should be careful in our advocacy of better laws that it is not advocacy for the use of alcohol or drugs.

 

Polls show that Mike Farnworth is more popular with the general public, including some left of centre BC Liberals who might consider voting for the NDP with him as leader, should that be a consideration for NDP constituents? 

The most recent poll shows Mike in first place, me in a strong second place and the other candidates behind. I think that it showed that Mike had about 58 percent and that people rank him highly amongst the New Democrat voters and I had 45 per as well. I think the truth is that the voters are getting to know us. They know me as the health critic for the NDP and as someone who has raised those public health issues. They know me as the children’s and families critic. And if they have been really following politics they remember all the things that we have achieved in that area. Right now, they know us as critics but at the end of this campaign is when members will decide who the best candidate is. And so, I feel very good about the response, especially in the Okanagan to my campaign. I think I have more support up and down here more than anyone else. I have been here more. I have raised issues more. I believe that we can win here and I believe that the party needs a broader strategy to do that. I think at the end of the campaign I will be very happy to let the voters decide. I have a lot of support and it has been very positive so far. My strategy is really complicated: I am going to go around to every community, meet all the NDP members, meet with voters beyond the NDP and ask for their support. 

This is an unusual time. Usually leadership campaigns happen after a general election. You have the leadership campaign, and it’s as introspective as you want, you choose the leader, and then you have six and a half years to come together. But I believe there will be an election sooner than that. I believe there could be an election as soon as June or September.

 

Many have said you have done a great job as an opposition critic. Further, B.C. is a place where people can make mistakes; own up to them; accept the consequences and move on with their lives. However, B.C. politics can be a bit of a dirty game, particularly in the days of negative advertising. Despite your recent strong performances in the legislature, would it make more strategic sense for the BC NDP to elect a leader that had not back-dated a memo to protect an at-one-time very unpopular NDP premier? 

My response to that has been the same. I take responsibility for my mistakes and I think people in B.C. respect that. So, it will be up to them but I think I bring real strengths to the job and those strengths have been shown in particular in recent years. I don’t think anybody on the opposition benches has the record of success that I have had: on changing the child protection system; of getting insulin pump coverage for kids; or of saving public schools. And all of these have happened with the same knowledge and (fact) base we have had. I was the executive director of Canadian Parents for French where parents working together transformed French immersion. We had been going down and the number students. We have now gone from 28,000 to 42,000 students. So, people are going to judge me on my record and I’m happy for that.

 

What about Adrian Dix would make him a strong enough leader to win a provincial election?

I think one of the strengths of Stephen Harper, and you hate to say this from an NDP perspective because I think most of his ideas are abhorrent, is that whatever you think of him people know at the end of a campaign the five or six things that he campaigned on. And people would know at the end of my campaign the five or six things that would bring significant change to British Columbia that we intend to implement and I think people will look at that and judge. 

Also, I think it is very difficult for an NDP government when there’s lots of pressure coming from all sides. So, you need someone in the Premier’s office who knows what you campaigned on and is prepared to get those things done and make those changes in society, especially on issues of inequality and climate change. I think I’m the person to do that and that is why I am running. The NDP governments in the 1990’s had many strengths but the first year when they were in office, elected in 1991, they passed 92 bills. The second year they passed 74 bills. In the third year they only passed 54 and in the fourth year I think it was 46. That’s 266 bills in four years and they were all great. But when you do that much and in that expansive an area you have implementation problems and you also will have messaging problems. If you are doing everything, everything appears to be important but nothing particularly important. 

A NDP government would have to deliver on initiatives, not just pass laws. You and I could write a law right here, right now. But what we couldn’t do — and what takes time, effort and focus — is pass a law and see that law implemented with the changes that need to follow for healthcare, education, the economy and the environment. And that is what I have shown I can do as an opposition MLA and as a nonprofit executive director. And that is what I would do as premier.

 

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