Forty-five minutes with Mike Farnworth: the transcript

  • Mar. 4, 2011 8:00 p.m.

Why do you want to be Premier of British Columbia?

Because I think I have what it takes to bring our party together and to expand on our base support, which is what I think we have to do as a party, by being relevant to people on issues that matter to them. We our very good in the NDP with talking to people about health care and education. People know that we are good at that and they trust us on those issues. But I think in order to win an election we’ve got to broaden our base of support. There are a lot of people that should be supporting us but don’t and I think that is why we have to talk about not just health and education but a whole range of issues such as the economy, public safety and the environment. We have to talk about those things in the terms that people view these things because that is what matters to them and their family. And I think if we do that and have a positive alternative in the next election with a platform that speaks to people about the things they care about we can win the next election. We can be more than just an opposition party. We can in fact become a governing party and that is what I want to do.


Economist say the imminent generational change in demographics will have a significant effect on the government’s ability to fund health care and other services? How would you plan to fund health care with a retiring baby boom?

I think there is a number of things that are taking place. That change in demographic has actually been taking place for quite some time and it is going to continue over the next 20 or 30 years or so. So, that is something we are going to have to get used to. I think we have to be investing in primary and preventative care at the front end of healthcare. For example, a lot of that is lifestyle. Healthy eating and healthy living approaches for kids are crucial because we are seeing really increasing rates of childhood obesity which has a significant impact on our health care system. We need to look at seniors and, in particular, seniors care and the fact that we have seniors that are in hospital occupying acute care beds when that is not where they should be. They should either be in long-term care beds or benefiting from assisted-living or programs in the community that allow seniors to stay in their own homes.

We are going to need a continuum of care right from someone who needs someone popping by once or twice a week to see that everything is fine to people who need constant care and attention or long-term care. One of the criticisms I have of the government is that they said they would provide 5,000 long-term care beds and they didn’t. They said that they would create assistant living spaces but assisted living spaces are not long-term care spaces. We need to get back to ensuring that if we say we are going to do long-term care then government follows through on that.

I think it means being more innovative in terms of our long-term health care system dealing with costs. We need to recognize that in rural B.C. there are some real challenges. We need to make better use of Licensed Practical Nurses, for example. We need to look at more salary physicians as a way keeping doctors in some of the smaller centres in British Columbia. We need to do a better job of identifying where the key shortages are going to be in our health care system in terms of where the professionals are going to be required.

A lot of specialist are going to be retiring over the next 10 or 15 years, so, we have got to be training more people. And at the same time we have to make sure that we are recognizing that some people when they retire from other jurisdictions and then move to B.C., will not want to work 60 hours a week but they might be quite happy to work 15 or 20 hours a week. Basically, we need to have new talent coming in and we need to make the best use of the talent we have already or that is coming here from other jurisdictions, including dealing with some of the issues around foreign credentials.

We also have to recognized that some of the important cost drivers around healthcare are things such as drug and pharmaceutical costs. So, for example, therapeutic initiative and reference based pricing for generic drugs are ways in which we can control costs around drugs. We now do almost more noninvasive procedures than we do invasive procedures. We are treating more and more diseases with the use of pharmaceuticals as opposed to surgical procedures. So, there is a lot that we can be doing because healthcare is going to continue to be the largest item in the provincial budget. And that is not just here, that is in every jurisdiction across Canada. It’s a fact of life.


What about the costs of wages and benefits for public sector union workers compared to their private sector union brethren. I have heard from members in private sector unions who say they are tired of paying, through their taxes, for the higher compensation of public sector union workers. Is there a split there that in the decade to come could manifest in decreased support for the BC NDP?

I think what we have to do is have to have a strong growing economy. I think we have to have a thriving private sector and a recognition of the significant value of the public sector contributions. In terms of healthcare, on the wage issue, the government literally gutted and tore up the collective agreements which they said they wouldn’t do and cut the (Hospital Employees’ Union) workers wages by 50 per cent. I think that was a pretty harsh and brutal thing to do. In health care a lot of the wages are going to people like nurses, doctors and other highly skilled trained professionals. I think that most people would be hard-pressed to say that nurses are overpaid or that doctors are overpaid considering what we asked them to do and their level of skill and training. I think the real concern for many people in the private sector is the rapid increase in wages that have gone to the upper management on a lot of the boards and crown corporations in B.C. and I think that is what frustrates a lot of people in the private sector.


Does the health care system have some fat that can be cut at the top? Is it top heavy management-wise?

I think clearly we need to be making sure that we get the best use possible out of every health care dollar we spend to provide services to people. I don’t believe that healthcare dollars should be going to fund spin machines such as the communication departments that are busy churning out brochures telling us how great our system is. Health care dollars should be going to provide healthcare. We have a public healthcare system that is evolving constantly because things change: technology changes, new drugs come onto the market, new ways of treating illnesses or improved ways of doing surgery. We have to ensure that we evolve as those things happen and that we are able to be innovative and flexible so that we are getting the best use of the public money that is going into the system.


Would you ban the use of government PR departments to promote government policy?

I’ll put it this way: The public affairs bureau in Victoria, that I think is over 200 people, would definitely be on the carving block, so to speak.


All of it?

It would be dramatically restructured, changed and downsized. I think governments both at the federal and provincial levels are going too much into image control and image management as oppose to ensuring what I think their primary focus should be which is good public policy and the delivery of good-quality public services. And that is my priority.


Do you think sometimes when politicians get into office they become afraid of speaking their minds because they are afraid of gaffs?

I think there’s too much attention given to image and style over policy. I think there’s too much attention given to trying to make the government look good or too goals that are short sighted instead of to long-term objectives and goals that are in the best interest of the province. I think far too much attention has been paid to that in the past and I think that is a mistake.

To me, what we have to get back to is getting government to work with communities. We have got to get government back to working with the different regions of the province and with people. For too long we have been driven from a top-down premier’s office approach and I think that has to change. I think Victoria doesn’t have all the answers and that for a lot of the challenges that we face as a province, the answers to those challenges are found in the communities of B.C. They are found in different regions of B.C. I will give you two examples. In the Kootenays in the 1990s there was a real concern about the fact that they generate significant amounts of wealth for British Columbia and yet they didn’t feel like they were getting enough back. So, the Columbia Basin Trust was set up to ensure some of that wealth stayed there and that wealth was reinvested back into the communities for the benefit of those communities. I think that was a very successful model.

Likewise, in the Peace River country they have a burgeoning oil/natural gas industry that was placing significant pressures on local infrastructure, such that the local communities could not keep up with that pressure and they needed additional revenue. They couldn’t get it from their own residents, plus it wouldn’t have been fair because the residents were not the ones causing the demand. So (the NDP government) sat down and worked out an agreement with them called a Fair Share Agreement which resulted in somewhat additional revenue staying in the Peace River country to go to the infrastructure priorities in Dawson Creek, Fort St. John and Taylor to help them cope with the changes that were happening. That is an example of a locally designed solution to a local problem and I think that is what government has to get back to doing: working with the communities to figure out what the problem is, how we can come up with a solution and how can we make it work.

One of the things I have gotten to do in this leadership campaign is visit places I wouldn’t have normally gotten to see. For instance, for the first time I drove from Prince Rupert to Terrace and Highway 16 along the Skeena River is just amazing. The scenery was just incredible. The Skeena River is just an amazingly huge river and I was driving along there just thinking to myself, ‘More people in this province need to see this. We need to get more British Colombians out traveling in B.C. and driving along here seeing what a perfect place we have got.’ Because what we have got there is a special place and we need to encourage people to enjoy it. And so in a place like Smithers they are talking about trying to increase tourism and what you realize is that each community is trying to do its own thing but what government should be doing is helping them together in a cooperative fashion. So that when somebody drives to Prince Rupert and they are passing through all these other great places along their route, government has worked with all the other communities (to create a tourist trail) so that each community is not working in isolation. Everyone is facing the same challenges so let’s work together to figure out how we can increase tourism. Or to increase economic development by investing in the land base. There is a whole host of ideas that we could be initiating and that don’t necessarily have to cost a lot of money that would significantly improve the local economies in many parts of the province.


There have been comments made by MLAs in both the BC NDP and the BC Liberals, at pretty much the same time, that there has been too much power centralized in the leadership offices of the two parties. Was the centralization of power one of the reasons why scarf-less NDP caucus members wanted Carole James to step down?

I think each leader brings their own style and way of doing things to the leadership role. To me, what I have seen over the last 10 years has been power concentrated in the Premier’s Office and decisions being made that are sprung on a caucus and that are sprung on a province and to me that is the wrong approach. We fell into that trap in the late 1990s and in 2000 and 2001 and that is one of the key reasons why we lost in 2001. I see the current government making the same mistakes. I believe that we need to get away from that model. That is why I said that Victoria doesn’t have all the answers and that they lie out in the communities of the regions. But I also think that we need to engage MLAs more in the legislative process and in the public policymaking process so that they feel involved; they feel ownership of what is taking place; and they are not surprised.

If I become premier you will never see me on TV making an announcement about a $600 million tax cut one day and then a couple weeks later cancelling it. That is not fiscal prudence. That is not fiscal responsibility. That is fiscal idiocy and the people of this province expect better. What I want is a government that respects the institution of the legislature and that, for example, follows a legislative calendar. I want a government that respects the role of MLAs and recognizes that they have talents and strengths to contribute and that is why they are there. So, I would make better use of our committee systems and put legislation out for public input as opposed to what we have right now which is the government saying, ‘We don’t want to sit in the spring sessions so we are just going to ram these bills through in the last eight days of the spring session and if they are not dealt with we will just invoke closure.’ I think that has to change because I think that sends a message that government doesn’t care about the institution. It sends a message of arrogance. And it sends a message that MLAs are viewed as not mattering because the Premier’s Offices has decided and that is how it is going to be. And that is just not how I believe government should function or operate. I think history shows in this province when you have a government that actually does good public policy based on sound ideas and based on sound policy work  government is successful, and the things that it accomplishes stands the test of time. So, I would take a very different approach.


Are there specific structural adjustments you would make to the manner in which policy is developed in the BC NDP?

First off, in the (BC NDP) we develop policy for our policy platform. Then, when we are in government, we implement the policy. There are changes that come up through the bureaucracy of legislation that need to be renewed and reviewed. And then government itself is dealing with issues that need to be dealt with and may require a legislative change, a regulatory change or a policy change. And I think what we have to do is recognize that we can come in with the top-down, this-is-what-I-have-decided approach or we can start to take a more longer-term approach and say, ‘We have some challenges in these areas. We are going to have to do some changes so let’s go work with the public.” We could send our standing committee on, for example, rural economic development out into the province to hear from people, come back with ideas that will form part of the legislative change and get it into the bureaucracy when it comes back as part of the bill or as part of legislation.

You could hold hearings. Ottawa does that. I know some people may laugh but in many ways they are slightly more sophisticated than we are when it comes to how we do these things. So, we could hold public hearings and adapt the changes from what we hear. That way we would come up with better legislation and better public policy. I think that is the way we have to deal with things. I don’t believe that any one party has a monopoly on good ideas. I don’t believe in saying no to something just because I didn’t come up with it or my party didn’t come up with it. The approach that I think you have to take is that we have more in common than divides us. I am about finding common ground and finding what works and what doesn’t because bringing people together is a much more effective way of developing public policy as opposed to trying to pit one group of British Colombians against another. Or pit one region against another region. I think that is one of the things that has been holding us back for too long.


Was the Axe-the-(carbon)-Tax a good example of your party campaigning against something simply because it wasn’t your idea?

No, I think there was a real sense, at that time, that the public was against that and so it was a decision that was made to campaign against the (carbon) tax. We lost the election and now that tax is there. What it says to me is that I think we need to be much more engaged with the public on a lot of issues in terms of the position and policy that we develop on that issue than we have in the past. I really think that it comes back to bringing in a system where you are working with people much more proactively and identifying issues that actually deliver what we want as a party but also what the public wants.


Would you axe the tax now?

The last election was fought on that. The government won so the tax is in place. What I have said is that it should be extended to the large industrial polluters. I think there is a sense that right now it is not fair and people are saying, ‘Hey, I am paying it so why are others being exempted.’ So, I think that is the type of issue we have to address because I think one of the things that people are concerned about is the issue of fairness. They want to have a sense that no one is being treated differently. That we are all in this together and people want to see that everyone is paying their fair share.


Carole 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?

First, I think the public is going to make that decision in a referendum either on June 24 or in September. So, for me the key thing is that the government commits to implementing the decision that the public makes. If they vote to get rid of the HST then the referendum is pretty clear that we go back to the old PST system. I think one of the things the government will have to do is let Ottawa know that we want to sit down and negotiate with them on how we do this. I think the federal government must bear some responsibility by the fact that it is their tax as much as it is the provincial government that initiated it so that British Colombians get the best deal in a way that does not impact them. People in this province should not be punished for exercising their democratic right to say no to something, particularly when 700,000 people went out and did what nobody thought they could do which was get the question on a referendum ballot. But I know the federal finance minister (Jim Flaherty) has indicated a willingness to sit down with British Columbia. So, my message would be that British Columbia wants to negotiate an agreement in the best interest of the people of British Columbia that has as little impact as possible on them, as individuals, and on the business community.


What about your potential relationship with the federal government? Certainly you would agree that former Premier Gordon Campbell’s relationship with the federal government has been considerably less confrontational then former NDP Premier Glen Clark’s was. Do you think you can maintain that relationship and perhaps improve upon it?

I think governments have sometimes had a confrontational relationship with Ottawa. But I would say (the BC Liberal) government in many ways has almost been benign and neglectful in a sense because they have said to themselves, ‘I have a Liberal wing in my party and I have a Conservative wing in my party and I do not want to upset anybody.’ So, I think that British Columbia has punched below its weight for some time in federal/provincial relations and I think that needs to change. I think we need to have a government in this province that stands up for British Colombia and speaks up for British Columbia but does so in a constructive way. We can’t be British Columbian isolationist, which we have seen in the past in this province. We can’t act like a pouting child, which we have seen in the past as well, if we don’t get our way. We can’t behave in that sort of unpredictable way of holding out an olive branch one day and then poking them in the eye with a stick the next. I don’t think that is productive. I think what we have to do as a province is say, ‘Look, we have issues that we are concerned about and we want to work to solve them in a constructive manner.’ British Columbia is the third largest province in this country and we are one of the fastest growing provinces in this country. We are going to be one of the keys to the future of this country and we should play that role. We should signal that we are prepared to take up that role of a constructive major player in confederation and act accordingly. And so, regardless of which party is in power in Ottawa I want to have a solid working relationship that gets things done for B.C. and that is in the best interest of the province and the country.


What do you mean when you say B.C. has “punched below its weight?”

I don’t think we have been playing as constructive or as an important role as we should be playing in this country. I think there is a sense that we sort of let other provinces take the lead on lots of issues and I think that we need to change that. Whether it is on healthcare, education or the environment, I think British Columbia can play a much stronger leading role in confederation than we have in the past. And that is something I would attached considerable importance to if I were to be Premier.


Can you give an example of an initiative?

One of the things I can see coming up on the horizon is the Health Transfers Agreement that was signed by the Paul Martin government which ensures health transfers from Ottawa go up at the rate of six per cent every year. That agreement ends in 2013 and I have heard nothing from this government that they are even remotely aware of this or take it seriously. The fact is if that agreement is not renewed or extended it will mean significant cuts to healthcare in this province and in every other province at a time when health care costs are increasing. So, that is one key area where, particularly if there is a minority government in Ottawa, I think the provinces need to take a strong role in saying this agreement is important to the future of healthcare in this country. We need to be working on getting a continuation of that agreement so that we can continue to provide the public the healthcare that they need. So, on health care that is one of the things where I think leadership needs to be shown by British Columbia in its dealings with Ottawa.


What policies would you initiate to make B.C.’s economy a better one for small and medium sized business owners?

One of the things that I want to ensure is that when it comes to the small business tax rate, we have one of the most competitive ones in the country. I think that is crucial. We need to bring, particularly in rural British Columbia, certainty to the land-base and we need to be investing in the land-base so that we can have a thriving resource industry in this province. We have a coastal forest industry and we have an interior forest industry, and we need to have a thriving mining industry. We need to capitalize on what happened at the Olympics in terms of how the world saw us and invest in tourism. We need to ensure that we are able to take advantage of the opportunities created around the Olympics and that is why I have said we need (government involvement) in rural communities around B.C. It is not that we need to invest a lot of money, we just need to initiate encouragement from the province and work with communities to allow them to take advantage of the tourism potential from Northwest B.C. to the Okanagan to the Kootenays. And so that is the way in which you are going to help small business.

We also need to have a skilled, trained workforce in this province which means investing in education and skills and training so that young people getting out of school can get training because that is going to drive our economy. We need to encourage initiatives in emerging trends in terms of the green economy and the technological industries. We need to build on the successes of some of the things we did in the 1990s. For example, we used targeted tax breaks to stimulate the film industry in this province which went from virtually a small cottage industry to now a major important part of British Columbia’s economy. We need an aggressive rural development or economic strategy that recognizes that there are significant differences between the Interior and the North than the Lower Mainland. Again, it comes back to working with regions and working with communities to identify opportunities where the province can work with them. That kind of commitment encourages small business. It is about creating a framework of stability, predictability and cooperation and I think that is key. At the end of the day, economic success and social success are not separate. They are linked and they need to take place on a foundation of a strong environment. And if you have those things we can create the environment where business is going to thrive.


Why would a Premier Mike Farnworth be good for the South Okanagan?

Because a Premier Mike Farnworth will recognize that all things do not begin and end in the Premier’s Office in Victoria. That we are one province but we are many regions and many communities with a diverse population and that government needs to pay attention to all regions of British Columbia. That we need to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities we have as a province and that means me being out there traveling around the province listening and working with people to make things better for all of British Columbia and that includes the South Okanagan. And there are a lot of issues here whether it is the environment, healthcare or seniors care or economic activity that we have got to work on. This is a tremendous province with huge potential and I think that if we have a government that wants to work with people and work with communities we can achieve a lot. So, I am very optimistic about things.


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 of your party to dispose of your leader when you were leading in the polls?

I was a strong supporter of Carole James. I had hoped that she would become premier and that I would be part of her cabinet. That is how I saw the universe unfolding but it didn’t work out that way. So, now we are in a leadership race and to me that goes back to why I am running in the first place: We have to have a leader that unites our party and we have to have a leader that can broaden our support base that we have amongst British Colombians. That means not talking ourselves out of an election victory but rather talking to British Colombians about the issues that matter to them and being relevant to what they care about. And if we do that then we will talk ourselves into a victory and that is the goal that I have got.


What happens if you do not talk yourselves into a victory. Will the wounds in the NDP created by James’ undoing, split the party apart should you fail to win the next election?

I am focused on winning the next election and I am confident that we are going to do that. As I have said, no matter who wins this leadership race I will be fully supporting them and I expect that my colleagues will be doing the same thing because at the end of the day there is too much at stake. Too many people want to change this government and if we don’t give them that positive alternative and show that we can win and that we are ready to govern then not only will we be letting down our party members, we will also be letting down hundreds of thousands of people in this province who want a change. I think the Liberals answer to their problems has been for them to just change leaders but I think that the public is two steps ahead of them and that the public’s answer is that it is time to change the government. And that is what I am focusing on.


Should the entire NDP caucus have been notified that Moe Sihota would receive a salary funded by union money before he was elected president of the party?

I’ll put it this way: One of the things I want to make sure we address is that we have much better communication between the caucus and the party. That is something I’m committed to and I will ensure that takes place if I become leader.


Is that a yes?

What it is is that I said, ‘Look we should have had better communication so that we know what is going on.’ I would have liked to have known. I know the caucus members would have liked to have known and that is why I think that if we have a better system of good communication between the party and the caucus, we will avoid issues like this in the future.


Polls show that you are more popular with the general public, including some left of centre BC Liberals who might consider voting for the NDP , than some of the other leadership contenders, is that something NDP members should consider when choosing their leader?

I think what NDP members have to do is look at who can unite the party, because that is key, but also look at who can speak to British Colombians about a positive alternative that will broaden our base of support. And if they do that, I think we can win the next election. Those are things I have been focusing on and those are things I want to do. And I believe those are two of the reasons why I am the best choice. At the end of the day, the only poll that matters is the one on April 17. The leadership race is like an election: there are all kinds of polls and there is all kinds of speculation but all that matters is what happens on election day because that settles the speculation once and for all.


NDP MLA Norm McDonald said that Gordon Campbell didn’t spend enough time in the legislature answering questions during question period, if you become premier how committed would you be to being in the legislature to answer questions?

One of the things I have said is that we have to respect the institution more. That means that we follow a legislative calendar. At the end of the day the Premier is the one that is accountable and so if I am Premier I would expect to be held accountable to British Columbians 365 days a year. So, I am quite sure that I will be in the legislature answering questions on a regular basis. But let me put it this way: It wouldn’t take much for any leader to actually be in the house more than Premier Campbell was.


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

I think we would have a more stable province. We would have a fairer province. We would have a province where people have more confidence in government and in our institutions. We would have a province with a better healthcare system, a better education system and a better environment. I think people would have a sense of having a government for 10 years that has actually tried to go and work with people and that has listened to what people have to say. A government that has said what it is going to do and then went and did it. And that it was not a government that dropped surprises on people.

Do governments make mistakes? Of course, they make mistakes; nobody is perfect. But my desire would be for people to look at my government and say, ‘You know what, they have done a good job. They did what they said they were going to do and did it in the best interest of the public of British Columbia in large measure by sitting down and working with them as opposed to trying to pit one group against another.’ I hope they would see: a thriving resource sector in this province, emerging industries, and people optimistic about the future because that is what I want for British Columbia.