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A half hour with George Abbott: the transcript

George Abbott discusses issues including: politics, government, the deficit, set election dates, the HST and its impending referendum, the BC Rail trial and its defense lawyer payouts, merit pay for teachers, Baby Boomers, cannabis laws and more.
Liberal leadership hopeful George Abbott speaks about his platform during a visit to Penticton last week.

Penticton Western News: Why do you want to be premier?

George Abbott: I have been an interested participant in the political processes for a long time. I am from Sicamous and I was involved in local government from the age of 26 until I got elected provincially (in 1996). But I have always been involved in politics right from the time I was a kid. Political science is the thing I would take at university and I am much intrigued by the possibilities for British Columbia. There are some things I think we can do as a government to open up some greater opportunities for British Columbians and that is what I intend to do. And I will bring my Sicamous perspective to doing just that.

Penticton Western News: Boundary-Similkameen MLA John Slater told me one of the many reasons he cast his support behind your candidacy is that it is time for a rural premier of B.C., do you think that it should matter that you are coming from a rural background?

George Abbott: I think it does matter. I think the perspective we bring from our life experiences is an important one. I think growing up in Sicamous and being a real farmer for a portion of my life is an important element in the way that I look at the world. I think at this time, particularly, it is really important that we are able to reach out to grassroots British Columbia and if I have a modest talent for anything it is around the ability to reach out to people, listen to them and build solutions with them. It is what I have been doing for 30 years in elected office in local government and in provincial government. And it is what I intend to do is premier as well.

Penticton Western News: Why would a Premier George Abbott be good for the South Okanagan?

George Abbott: I think a Premier George Abbott will be good because I know the South Okanagan well. I am from just up the road in the Shuswap, that is the area where I was born and grew up in. I had been involved in the agriculture industry for most of my life. I know the challenges of fruit farming, in particularly, but I also know the challenges of dairy and beef very well as well. Tourism is also a very big enterprise in my part of the world and I know it is in the Boundary-Similkameen as well.

I know the resource opportunities well here and that is what I plan to emphasize in government: building our resource opportunities, because it is the traditional resource opportunities like forestry, mines and hydro electric, but also agriculture and tourism which I think are important resource industries for this province. And that is where I want to put our focus as a government by building upon those kinds of opportunities and helping our farmers. I announced a pretty substantial package for agriculture (on Jan. 13) which I believe will be very useful in the sustainability and viability of farming in the South Okanagan and elsewhere.

Penticton Western News: 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?

George Abbott: First of all, your question is on the mark. We have seen voter participation in British Columbia falling steadily. In fact, it fell below the 50 per cent level in the last provincial election, and I think we should all be very concerned about that. The reconnection with voters and getting people excited again about the democratic process is important and I think there is a number of elements involved in it.

One of them I think is the utilization of some of the contemporary social media to reach out to some voters who have been either avoiding or bypassing democratic participation. One of the really great things, I think, about our campaign over these last couple of months is that we have been making extensive use of social media. For reasons that fascinate me, we have captured most of the young Liberal voters in the province. They have come on to my campaign, that wasn't expected, but they have and I'm very flattered by that. But I know they are also intrigued by all of the social media aspects of the Abbott campaign. I know we have got some young folks that are really working very hard on the Twitter end, the Facebook end and the communication through those media and that we have built a substantial campaign around that. So, that is one of the ways.

The other way is by the use of the electronic town halls. I have now connected with 14,000 BC Liberal members through the electronic town hall mechanism. It is a great opportunity that will be there for the future. I am also intrigued by a website that I am going to call: Public Policy BC, where we can tried to engage more British Colombians as we begin the process of working through different legislative initiatives. So, these are all ways that you start to get people interested in public policy again and interested in government again. If people are interested in government they are going to vote but if they have written government off they are apt not to.

Penticton Western News: 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. In the BC Liberals’ case that would be the premier’s office and cabinet. If you become the head of both of those bodies what would you do to make policy development and political decision making in B.C. more of a grassroots affair?

George Abbott: That is a question that our campaign is in fact focused around. The question goes right to the point which is: there is a disconnect, not only between the grassroots and the government, but also between MLAs on both sides of the house and the processes of government. We have tended to fall into a habit of having a late presentation of legislative initiatives to caucus rather than having caucus included in the development of public policy. So, I have told members of caucus, when I called them about my potential participation in this leadership contest, (three) things:

One, a George Abbott led government will be getting out on a regular basis to a different community in a different region of the province regularly, likely every month. We will be going to the southeast, the northwest, the northeast, Vancouver Island (or) the Southern Interior, trying to get out and connect with different communities on a regular basis. When we go out there, we won't be meeting behind closed doors. We will be talking to people face to face and that is hugely important in terms of reconnecting with town councils, chambers of commerce, regional district boards, health and school board folks and the First Nations who may have an interest in meeting with us. So, that will be important in terms of the reconnection.

Secondly, we can utilize the new web tools to allow people to see early on the kind of stuff we are working on. For instance, the improved water act modernization would be an example of how you can utilize the Web tools. Or the very good process I thought that we used when we were talking about the use of cell phones in cars. That issue was debated on the Internet and it worked out very well. I think it was a good example of how to use the web. So, that is important.

The (third) piece that is central is the relationship between the private member and cabinet ministers. Too often I have seen cabinet ministers come to caucus and say, 'I am going to be introducing this legislation in an hour or two in the legislature,' with caucus members not fully understanding what was occurring with that bill. So, I have committed to engaging structures and processes that will ensure that caucus members get involved in the construction of public policy before it is embodied in a bill. Once it is embodied in a bill then we have all the issues around confidentiality, and so on, because the bill is going to become a law of the province and there is some limitations on how widely you can share that. I want to see caucus members involved when we are still at the conceptual stage of building a bill and making sure that they are feeling like they are part of building legislation in the province.

Penticton Western News: Do you think that process occurred with the creation of the Harmonized Sales Tax?

George Abbott: No, it absolutely did not happen with the HST.

Penticton Western News: John Slater told me he found out about the HST pretty close to when I did.

George Abbott: Yep, he would have and that is unacceptable. The HST, I think, is the most dramatic example of that problem from both ends: From the disconnection between government and the grassroots, and the disconnection between caucus and cabinet and the premier’s office. So, I think the HST is a dramatic example of how we need to do these things better. It was entirely unfortunate the way the HST was introduced. We incurred the anger of the public, and rightfully so, the way that we did it. The big mistake that we made in May and June of 2009 was not sharing the remarkably difficult financial situation that we faced as the government. We should have shared that and we should have shared the ugly choices that we were facing to have to deal with that. Basically, we could have raised taxes; we could have had a bigger deficit; we could have cut services more than we did; or we could have considered this instrument called the HST of which a lot of people did not know a lot about but which came with $1.6 billion in federal transfers.

Penticton Western News: Should your government have been more forthcoming with the growing deficit during the election?

George Abbott: The situation was changing rapidly. If you look back at that period from September or October of 2008 that is when we saw Lehman Brothers collapse in the United States and then we had what is generally characterized as the subprime mortgage crisis. It began in the US. It spread in the US. Then it spread to Europe and then to Canada. So, as we went into that 2009-campaign we knew that there were disturbing things that were occurring in the economy but nobody, literally nobody, knew how deep the recession might be. We didn't know whether were going to have a prompt recovery or a sustained recession. Our best guess going into the campaign was (a deficit of) $495 million. During the campaign, we were busy campaigning, we were not sitting everyday with our finance officials and asking how the deficit was doing. So, we didn't know. But what we should have done in the days after the 2009 election, after the consultation with the financial officials, in late May or early June, is that we should have been much more forthright about what the financial situation was. We had a best guess going into that campaign but, again, you do not have access to financial officials on a regular basis during a campaign like you do when you are in government.

Penticton Western News: Is balanced budget legislation realistic?

George Abbott: I think it is a broad term. So, we certainly have a challenge now every year that we are not in balance. We are currently seeing small deficits, I (mean) from (a governmental) perspective they are small. The first deficit was approximately $1.8 billion. It is a little less now and we will get to a balanced budget in a year or two. And we are certainly going to try to maintain that. What I would like to do in terms of the future is ensure that we get our resource industries operating as optimally as we can and hopefully see economic expansion and diversification. We need to start, I think, building a nest egg for the future along the lines of Norway so that as we see the full flowering of the great demographic shift that we are going to see with our aged society, that we have a nest egg for those very challenging years ahead. That is why we need to have a growing economy to deal with that, not only for the jobs and investment that is produced by those changes, but also for the future. Norway strikes me as one jurisdiction that is doing a good job of that and you can contrast that with the challenges that Iceland, Ireland, Spain, Greece and other's are going through right now. So, we want to be more like Norway than some of the other European jurisdictions.

Penticton Western News: Should people in the next generation like me be mad at Baby Boomers for leaving us huge debts and deficits?

George Abbott (tongue in cheek): No, you should be happy that Baby Boomers like me produce children like you so that you had an opportunity to live and experience life.

Penticton Western News: Most appreciated.

George Abbott: You know we have done a pretty good job in British Columbia of dealing with deficits. Were it not for this remarkable situation that grew out of the subprime mortgage crisis in the US, (the recession would not have occurred the way that it did). This current recession was not one born out of B.C. or even out of Canada. It was born in the US because some quite irresponsible policies that the American government had in relation to loans to homeowners that had absolutely no security behind them. The whole world has paid a price for the careless way that the Americans had their subprime mortgage policies constructed.

Penticton Western News: Getting back to the HST. You have said that you would move up the date of the referendum on the HST to June,. How much damage is being done to the province's economy right now by having this guillotine hanging over certain industries for what, if the referendum is held in September, will be close to a year?

George Abbott: I think there is at least a modest price being paid for the uncertainty around the future of whether we are going to keep the HST or move back to the PST/GST. It would be difficult, I think, to determine with precision what that price is but we know, for example, in the development area condominiums and houses over $525,000 are very difficult to move these days because under the old PST model there wasn't that seven per cent tax. And when you get into properties that are $600,000 plus, it is a very substantial tax penalty with the HST. So, we know that that is a challenge. I do hope that we can move the referendum up. We’ll see when we get through all the leadership stuff whether that can happen. But getting the HST referendum behind us a little sooner I think would benefit us from a certainty perspective.

It may also, I hope, improve the opportunity to see the referendum be successful from an HST perspective. I think it will be difficult to engage British Columbians in the middle of summer culminating in a September referendum. I know summertime in Sicamous and the Shuswap is a busy time for vacations, the beach and boats and all of those kinds of things so it may be very difficult to engage the public. And I suspect the same is true here in Penticton.

Penticton Western News: What about having set election dates? Is that something you are going to stick by or are you open to the possibility of calling an early election, perhaps to acquire a mandate as a new premier?

George Abbott: No, I am going to stick by the fixed election date. I have said recently that we are going to stick with the May 2013 election date as per the set election calendar. If the government caucus and the opposition caucus agree that it would be better to have the election in the fall, I would be prepared to move it to the fall of 2013, but only with all party agreement on that point. I think our government has an enormous amount of work to do in relation to reconnecting with the grassroots. I think that the way that we have conducted government over the last couple of years has fundamentally undermined public confidence, faith and respect for our government. So, I think that we have lots of work to do to persuade British Colombians that they should vote for us again in 2013. I don't believe that any sort of trick shot announcement out of Vancouver or Victoria is going to turn around how people look at our government. I think we have to get out and do a lot of hard work in a lot of communities in this province to rebuild confidence and trust in our government.

Penticton Western News: Is there somewhat of a criticism of Gordon Campbell in what you just said?

George Abbott: There is somewhat of a criticism of George Abbott as well. I am part of a team and I'm going to be man enough to step up and take the criticism and blows that come with being part of a government that is currently, I think, pretty unpopular. And we are unpopular because of the way we have undertaken our decisions. We have not shared problems with the public. We have not made people part of the decision-making process. And I am is responsible for that as anyone else. So, that is why I'm committing to change the way we do business.

Penticton Western News: You have called for an investigation into why the defendants who pled guilty in the BC Rail trial after dragging their feet for years had about $6 million worth of legal fees paid for, but is that the only question you feel needs to be answered regarding the whole affair? Why not call a public inquiry?

George Abbott: A public inquiry would occupy years of public and government attention and it would take our eye off the ball of what we need to do right now which I think is economic expansion and diversification. I think secondly the BC Rail trial was prompted by charges against three individuals with respect to breach of trust and other issues. Those were resolved in a court approved settlement that came out of the BC Rail trial. I have said that I believe, and I know many people in the public believe, that there are a lot of questions around why there was a $6 million settlement on legal fees when the defendants ultimately pled guilty to the charges. We have a policy in government that says that we will pick up the legal costs for public servants or members of the government where they are found not guilty. So, to me we need to learn from this experience and ask, 'Was this the right settlement? Was the taxpayer adequately protected in the processes that led up to this settlement?' Those are the questions I believe the public wants answered. We have no intention in the review by the eminent official, likely a retired judge, of reopening the case itself because the case itself was dealt with by the courts and it is not in our purview or our prerogative to reopen that. That is something that the courts have exclusive dominion on. But (regarding) the $6 million settlement, we do have some questions about that and I think they are legitimate questions. Having a independent respected third-party looking at this and bringing us recommendations is something that I think the taxpayers would welcome.

Penticton Western News: But you are not ruling out calling a public inquiry?

George Abbott: I have not ruled it out but what I have said is, ‘I don't see the evidence base right now to warrant us to spend millions of dollars of tax payers money.' As soon as you go into an inquiry everybody that is even remotely connected with this thing will lawyer-up, as we say, and those lawyers will demand standing and they will also demand that the province fund their participation in it. We are talking years, undoubtably, of inquiry time and we are talking millions and millions of dollars of taxpayer money. And so, I do not see the argument or evidence for that kind of expenditure right now. I have not close the door on it though.

Penticton Western News: Christy Clark has made similar cost saving arguments for why she would like to cancel the HST referendum. Would bringing the HST back into the legislature put BC Liberal MLAs in an awkward position forcing them to have to vote for a tax that they agree with in principle but that perhaps the majority of their constituents would not want them to vote for?

George Abbott: I think Christy has a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Recall Initiative Act works and how, I suppose, the legislature works. All BC Liberal MLAs, including me, have voted in favour of the Harmonized Sales Tax. And I have spoken on it at least that many times in the legislature as well. Nobody wipped me into doing that. It was a vote that I freely gave and I know for every other BC Liberal member of the legislature, they also freely supported that legislation. So, we now have a situation — and again, it relates to the very poor way we introduced it in many respects — where utilizing the Recall Initiative Act, the anti-HST proponents have succeeded in raising their support to the threshold that produces a referendum. We are going to have a referendum. We may be able to move that up earlier but we are going to have a referendum whether it's in September or June. It is certainly not going to be later than September, but if all parties agree, we can move it up to June. So, we are going to have a referendum.

I don't know why we should be frightened of having the electorate give us a definitive answer about whether they wish the HST to continue or not. There is arguments both ways around its continuation. I think the public should hear that and have an opportunity to make an informed choice about it.

Penticton Western News: Would Kevin Falcon’s idea that valuable teachers be rewarded with merit pay be good public policy?

George Abbott: The answer to that question depends in part on how you phrase the question. And I have had the opportunity and the honour to be British Columbia's education minister for about a month before the Premier announced his departure and this leadership campaign that is underway. If the question is: Do I support merit pay for teachers? The answer would be: No. It would be difficult and I think that it would be inappropriate public policy to try and develop a merit pay proposal that somehow reflected what occurs in classrooms. I do, however, as part of a broader plan for improving British Columbia's education system, support master teachers as a proposal. I do support teacher mentors where those master teachers assist their colleagues in improving their quality of teaching. And I do agree that we should put in mechanisms to ensure that there is ongoing consideration of how well teachers are teaching and then look to see how we can help them improve both their teaching and the results from their teaching. But trying to do it through a merit based pay approach I do not believe will be successful. But master teacher has, I think, a role in the future of education.

Penticton Western News: Comedian Tommy Chong has joined the BC NDP and is supporting 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?

George Abbott: I do generally speaking support federal laws regarding cannabis. Any change reflecting the public’s opportunity to possess or cultivate marijuana due rest with the federal government and I know that they periodically think about that important issue and sometimes make modest adjustments in it. So, I do support those federal laws.

Penticton Western News: The BC Liberals are a big-tent coalition party, what would you do to make sure you keep that big tent together?

George Abbott: It is absolutely critical that the big-tent be kept together, particularly as we move forward for the next two and half years and into the May 2013 election. It is absolutely critical. The historical experience around the fragmentation of the big-tent is that inevitably in those circumstances the NDP win power in the province. We have seen this experience in 1972. We saw it again in 1991 and we saw it again in 1995. Whenever there is a fragmentation of the coalition of the reasonable to the right of the NDP, we know how the movie ends. Not to give the end of the movie away and spoil it for you but it becomes, from an economic perspective, a horror movie and a disaster movie. And the star of the movie has the initials N.D.P. and we should avoid that if we possibly can.

Penticton Western News: When NDP MLA Norm McDonald was in Penticton he said that Gordon Campbell didn't spend enough time in the legislature answering questions during question period. And then when Kevin Falcon was here I put that observation to him and Kevin Falcon said that he loves question period and that if he is chosen to be premier he would be in the legislature for question period as much as possible, as long as it doesn't interfere with some of the activities and commitments that a premier must attend to. Is that a commitment you are prepared to make as well?

George Abbott: Yes, absolutely. I am also in that small club of people who love question period and I know Kevin is also in that club. Kevin and I sit beside one another and probably reinforce some of the occasionally inappropriate behaviours that occur in the legislature. But yes, I quite enjoy question period in the legislature and I certainly will be there whenever I can as well. If you go back to when I was health minister, I used to take questions on a regular basis, in fact I think I might hold the record for the cabinet minister who had the most 30-minute blocks of entire question periods. So, I got to know question period pretty well as health minister. I enjoyed it and it is a great opportunity to have some pretty sharp exchanges with the opposition.

Penticton Western News: Lastly, you have talked a lot about changing the way BC Liberals under your leadership would run government; how you as a premier would run government and the kind of person and politician that you are. But leadership can change people. If you are chosen as leader, elected as premier and then enjoyed the same 10 years of power that your predecessor did, what would you do to ensure that you will be the same George Abbott that you say you are now in 10 years?

George Abbott: I think the best thing that people can do if they want to be reassured about how people conduct themselves when they are in a different position is to look at how they conducted themselves in previous positions. So, as a chair of the regional district for over a decade, this is the way I did business: I always worked with people well and I tried to bring out the best in people. That is the way I was as a regional district director and chair. When I was Minister Responsible for Local Government from 2001 to 2004, I had a great relationship with the (Union of British Columbia Municipalities). In fact, they gave me an honorary life membership in that organization at the end of it and I was proud of that. When I was in sustainable resource management, I won an award from the League of Conservation voters for having an open door and working with them intensively on their issues.

When I was in the Ministry of Health, even people like (BC Nurses Union president) Deb McPherson will acknowledge that I worked very intensively with them towards a three-year nursing degree and other ways that we tried to improve the working life of nurses in the province. That is the way I do business. In aboriginal relations that is the way I did business. In education, where I was just there for short time, I was building a great relationship with the Teachers Federation, the principals, the vice principals and the parent advisory councils. This is the way I have always done business and it will be the way I continue to do business.

I have been in politics for a long time. I am a deeply experienced politician. This is the way I do business and this is the way I would do business as premier. I don't stand on a lot on flash and glitz. I don't stand on pomp and circumstance. I am a plainspoken guy from Sicamous and that is the way I am going to continue to be as premier.

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