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Gordon Campbell looks ahead

Premier Gordon Campbell in his legislature office Feb. 16. The red cedar leadership desk, a gift from artist Arthur Vickers, will remain for the next occupant. - Tom Fletcher/Black Press
Premier Gordon Campbell in his legislature office Feb. 16. The red cedar leadership desk, a gift from artist Arthur Vickers, will remain for the next occupant.
— image credit: Tom Fletcher/Black Press

Premier Gordon Campbell sat through his last session in the B.C. legislature as premier on Thursday. Earlier in the week he sat down with Black Press legislative reporter Tom Fletcher to talk about his decade in B.C.'s top job and what he sees in the future.

Do you think the harmonized sales tax is going to survive the referendum?

I think it has a very good chance of surviving. There are too many workers whose jobs depend on this tax regime, who I think won't turn their backs on it. There is now an opportunity to think about the impacts. I think there's a consequence to turning back from the HST and that's the re-establishment of the PST and the GST. And I think a lot of people haven't thought about the costs of doing that, the real burdens that it will put back on the economy that have been removed from the economy.

So I think people are giving it some time, they're ready to think seriously about the HST and the consequences of making a decision, so I think there's a good chance that it will pass.

And some of the dire predictions such as restaurants closing don't seem to be materializing?

They haven't happened. In fact they've seen their revenues have gone up. There is change here, and I'm sure it's been challenging. A small change, people can pretend it's going to be a tsunami, there are some waves on the shore, but it's not a tsunami. Really what's happened is everyone is going to be lifted up by the HST because it's going to make our economy so much more competitive.

The forest industry is doing incredibly well in China, they're finding new investments. Those investments and trade initiatives are direct benefits of the HST. The mining industry has got huge opportunities, direct beneficiaries of the HST. Construction, manufacturing, the film industry, huge benefits out of the HST.

The real issue isn't whether there are benefits or not. It's for the people who feel the benefits to actually be out and talking to the public about the things they have to consider before they make the final decision.

Those investments take time to show up, so is it important that the referendum be held in September as scheduled?

I think it's important to give people time to gather the information in their own way. I've always felt the legislation is clear, we should have the vote in September. I think the government is right to say that if people vote to get rid of it, they will be the ones who drive that agenda.

To some of the people who say you have to do it [earlier] because there's so much uncertainty, the HST is there, so the benefits of the HST to major investment are there now.

Is the carbon tax going to survive? There's been some discussion among leadership candidates about what happens when the scheduled increases run out in 2012.

I think there's no question it will survive as it is. I think there is an opportunity to continue on with the carbon tax that they should be examining, because you'll use it to reduce personal income tax and create more choices for people.

If it's revenue neutral, I think it makes a huge difference in terms of productivity, in terms of competitiveness, and putting a price on carbon that's fair and can't be gamed. So there are real benefits to it.

You've talked about the pine beetle and other impacts. There's a raging debate about whether climate change is human caused and whether humans can realistically change it. Is the public becoming more accepting of the need to pay something to mitigate that?

I think we saw that. We won an election [in 2009], and one of the major issues was the carbon tax. As long as it's revenue neutral, people said, all right, I get that. We're putting a price on carbon and I'm getting a benefit because we're reducing the tax on my paycheque. That's good.

It's when people start looking at the carbon tax as a revenue engine that people get very concerned. It's not a revenue engine for us. It does require all of us to change.

There are still people who deny the impacts, but I ask people this: When you woke up this morning, did you think you were going to have a car accident? And they say no. So why do you have insurance, then? Why can't we take the steps to provide the insurance to make sure that if it is an issue, and they're wrong, we can take care of things.

I happen to believe it's a serious issue. We can't turn our backs on it. There are a whole bunch of things, climate change, aging, how we're going to deal with sustainable health care, how we build an economy in the future, the change to Asia. Those things are not going away.

We have an annual announcement now that B.C. is the worst province for child poverty. Do you accept that interpretation, and do you think enough has been done there?

I don't accept the interpretation, but I don't think it's relevant whether I accept it or not. I think there's a feeling that it's there. I think anyone who really cares about this understands that the low-income cutoff measurements that people often refer to are not relevant. Even Statistics Canada says it's not relevant.

But here's what's really important. There's not one person in government who wants to have any children in poverty. So we have a plan in place that means we're focusing our resources on people who are lower income, who are in some cases impoverished. We've made real progress on that. In fact there's no province in Canada that's made as much progress since 2003 as British Columbia.

We've seen a 46 per cent reduction. We're at the lowest level of child poverty we've had since 1980. And that in no way suggests that the job is done. But I think everyone has to recognize we're making progress, and the people who pretend you can just throw more money somewhere and it's going to work, I think are incorrect. The people who say it's all about putting a label there are incorrect.

We have had a strategy for dealing with child poverty, which is building a strong economy, creating jobs, targeting resources like rent supplement programs, Pharmacare programs, Medical Services Plan programs, and daycare programs to try to help people who are lower income, and it's clearly been a benefit.

On the timing and nature of your retirement. In addition to Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett, I have two other accounts of an effort that was made to accelerate your timetable on that. What was your sense of that, and do you accept that there was a movement to send you into retirement a little earlier?

All I can tell you is this. If there was, I only had one member of caucus who ever said to me, you know I think you should think about doing this. And I had a good, honest discussion with him and said, you know, I'm not thinking about doing it.

I'm not going to tell you who it was. They can tell you if they want. I thought that was fine. I had no concerns about caucus. There are always people who have differences of opinion.

I did have a concern that British Columbians were focusing on me as opposed to the policies we were following to drive the province forward. And candidly, I never really thought that I was going to be running again [in 2013] for another term.

Obviously when you're asked just two weeks after you've been elected, you're not going to say, oh yeah, I'm not running again. You have to be premier until you decide you're not going to be. I always used to say to people, as soon as I've made a decision I'll let you know.

So I made a decision on, I think it was Nov. 1 [five days after a televised address in which he promised a 15 per cent income tax cut that was later suspended]. It was over the weekend of Oct. 31 that I thought to myself, this is not fair to your family.

I talked to [wife] Nancy on Nov. 1 and on Nov. 3 I let everyone know, just like I said I would.

What's next after politics? Do you see what your next career move might be?

I think you have to be premier while you're premier, and I'll be premier for another three weeks. When I've stopped being premier then I'll have a chance to think about that. And most people who know me say, Gord, take your time. There's lots of time, lots of things will come, don't worry about it.

I think there's a real opportunity for me, because there's a world opening up. While being premier is a great job, and I can't say enough about how grateful I am to have the opportunity to be premier, it's also in lots of ways very constraining. So I'm really looking forward to the months ahead. I think they're going to be great for me and my family.

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