After decades in politics, Bill Barisoff is finally stepping out of the provincial spotlight.
Speaking from his home in Oliver Sunday afternoon, the Penticton MLA and Speaker of the House announced that he would not be running for re-election in 2013, putting an end to months of rumour and speculation about the possibility.
Calling his time as a member of the legislative assembly “an incredible journey,” Barisoff said there is a time when the journey must come to an end, and it was time to pass the torch to the next generation of leaders.
“A lot of people have asked me to stay on,” said Barisoff, adding that he had made the decision a long time ago. “This has been in the works since the last election. I knew when I ran for the last one it would be my last term.”
Barisoff’s intention had been to retire before the last election. But as 2009 neared, he felt that too many projects were still on the table and needing his support, including the Okanagan College expansion and the Penticton pool project. Okanagan Falls had an important sewer expansion and the Skaha Bluffs Provincial Park was still only an idea in progress.
“With so many important pending projects on the go, I made the decision to run in the 2009 provincial general election that unfortunately became the nastiest of my entire political career,” he said. Those unfinished projects are all now a reality, including the Centre of Excellence at Okanagan College, which he said is one of his proudest achievements to have helped along.
Barisoff said at one point people thought the local campus would disappear, in the wake of splitting up Okanagan University College into UBC Okanagan and Okanagan College.
“Now we have one the best facilities in the province,” he said, citing gains for students who are able to stay local to receive an advanced education and the economic benefits for the entire South Okanagan.
Rick Thorpe, who retired as MLA before the 2009 election, praised Barisoff, calling him “a solid person, very principled.” While they were both in office, Barisoff and Thorpe worked together effectively to bring many benefits to the South Okanagan.
“We not only worked together, we lived together for 13 years,” said Thorpe, referring to the apartment they shared in Victoria. Now, Thorpe is trying to help Barisoff acclimatize to the idea of retirement and even took him golfing last week.
“I wanted to show him there is life after public office,” Thorpe said. After golfing in the morning, Barisoff, who was returning to the office for an afternoon of work, asked Thorpe what he planned to do.
“He said he was going home for a nap. He told me, ‘That’s what you get to do when you’re retired,’” said Barisoff.
After next spring’s election, when he is officially out of office, Barisoff said he would like to get some more golfing and fishing in, and spend more time with his wife Edna, his children and especially his grandchildren.
“I adore them to death,” he said. “Every day there is something new.”
Born and raised in Oliver, Barisoff owned a trucking firm before entering provincial politics. He also served as a school trustee for 18 years, including eight as chair of the Southern Okanagan school board, was a volunteer firefighter in Oliver for over 25 years and sat on the Okanagan Labour Relations Council. He was also chair of the Oliver Recreation Commission for one year.
The shift to provincial politics came after meeting Gordon Campbell when he was speaking at a luncheon. The decision to go provincial was made when Campbell contacted him later, asking him whether he would run in Boundary Similkameen. That was in 1996 and the election was a close one, with Barisoff winning by a narrow margin over incumbent Bill Barlee.
Though riding boundaries have changed since he was first elected, Barisoff has held a South Okanagan riding for the B.C. Liberal Party ever since. Barisoff was re-elected in the Liberal sweep of 2001, then again in 2005 and 2009.
“If a person makes a commitment to doing what they can in the riding … the people reward you for it,” said Barisoff.
As a member of the ruling Liberals, Barisoff served as minister of provincial revenue and minister of water, land and air protection before taking over as Speaker of the House in 2005, a position he has held since.
But it was as Speaker that Barisoff found himself at the centre of a controversy, after a recent auditor-general’s report exposed huge problems with finances and accounting for the legislature’s budget. Calls were made for his resignation at the time, but Barisoff said that had nothing to do with his decision to step down, and that work had begun to correct the problems a year before the report came down.
The race to replace Barisoff has already begun, with two hopefuls already declaring themselves this week. The local Liberal riding association will gather in a private meeting on Oct. 20 to vote on the nominees.