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'It's a Herculean Task': Christy Clark

BC's premier talks to The Tyee about wrestling the deficit, revolving aides, anti-smoking policies and more.

By Andrew MacLeod, 12 Dec 2012, TheTyee.ca

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Christy Clark: BC is one of only two provinces still committed to balancing budget, says premier. 'It's really, really hard.'

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British Columbia Premier Christy Clark has heard the criticism that she's been in campaign mode since winning the leadership of the BC Liberal Party in early 2011, and she strongly disagrees.

For the last year and a half, she and the government have been actively governing to deliver on the economic agenda set out in the BC Jobs Plan, she said. "It's a Herculean task."

The plan included constructing three liquid natural gas plants by 2020 and building or expanding 17 mines, a goal the province is already halfway to reaching, she said. In the past year trade with China has gone up 25 per cent, she said.

"It doesn't happen by itself," said Clark. The government doesn't create jobs, but it does create the conditions that allow them to be created, she said.

Clark campaigned for the party leadership as the person best able to give the Liberals a fresh start. After winning, she bucked predictions she'd capitalize on that freshness by getting rid of the HST in a hurry and calling a snap election.

Does she have any regrets? "You don't get everything perfect," she acknowledged. "Think about the decisions you made in the last year. Did you get everything right? I don't think so."

The Tyee sat down with Clark this week to talk about topics that included the most recent round of hiring for her office, penny pinching in tough times, what she buys at the drug store and why it's harder than it looks to get everyone in the legislature to work together. The interview has been edited and condensed.

The Tyee: Last year you made a couple high-profile hires in your office from the federal Conservatives, but the most recent [Ben Chin, who worked for Liberal Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty] has strong Liberal connections. I'm wondering what people should take from the shift?

Christy Clark: "Nothing. I hired the best people that we can find to do the jobs."

Tyee: And political affiliation doesn't come into it?

Clark: "Well, we try not to hire people who are affiliated with our opponents directly, but only because they might be advocating for higher taxes."

Tyee: When you hired Ken Boessenkool and Sara MacIntyre it sent a message at a time when the Conservatives were doing well in the polls. Now that they're not doing well, you've hired Ben Chin, who has Liberal connections. Surely there's a difference there.

Clark: "No."

Tyee: It's a coincidence?

Clark: "Yes. Ben Chin also used to work for CBC. Do you see a connection there?"

Tyee: The other piece of that, people have observed the government at large is in the middle of a hiring freeze, and yet it was possible to hire three people into your office.

Clark: "Well, the office hasn't grown, we're still on a pay freeze, and I think if I didn't have a director of communications you would be complaining and I would hate that, because I like to keep you guys happy."

Tyee: In your recent speech to the Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce you said the way out of a deficit is the same way into it, $10,000 at a time. Does that not put everything you do under scrutiny, such as the $1.5 million for family day or $64 million for government advertising?

Clark: "Well we budgeted for all those other things in the last budget, as you know, including the ads. We are looking at everything through the coming year to balance our budget and we're being really scrupulous about that, because I think people expect us to deliver a balanced budget.

"I think we are spending our money on the right things and you'll see in the budget when it comes out where we've decided to spend it for the coming year. It is difficult to balance a budget. There are only two provinces in the country that remain committed to balancing our budgets. That's us and Saskatchewan, the only two.

"You know why there are only two? Because it's hard. It's really, really hard. Anyone who's tried to balance their family budget knows that from their own personal experience. It's more money, but it's not a whole different process. You need to figure out what you're going to do and what you're not going to do."

Tyee: Recently I read something that said B.C. will soon be the last province where pharmacies are allowed to sell tobacco. You'd made anti-smoking a big thing in your leadership run as well as since becoming premier, so why haven't you stopped pharmacies from selling cigarettes?

Clark: "The smoking cessation program that we started, that I started, that our government started I should say, has been a phenomenal success. If you want I can get you some of the specific numbers on how well it has worked to get people to quit smoking. It has been great. In terms of selling cigarettes, we sell them in corner stores too."

Tyee: I think the way other provinces have looked at it is that pharmacies in some ways are part of the health business. They sell things like prescription drugs which are supposed to help people get or stay healthy, and selling cigarettes seems like a contradiction.

Clark: "When I go to my local drug store, you know what I buy? I buy bananas, toilet paper, laundry detergent, mascara. Most of the time when I go to my local drug store, I'm not buying drugs. It's a convenience store."

Tyee: But those aren't things you've had a targeted campaign against like you have against smoking.

Clark: "I think we should be focussed as a government in our smoking cessation efforts not on the symbolic things but on the things that are really going to make a difference."

Tyee: So not selling cigarettes at pharmacies is a symbolic thing?

Clark: "It is. They sell drugs at Costco. Is that a pharmacy? They sell drugs in all kinds of locations. Walmart I think has pharmacies now. I'm kind of curious what the definition of pharmacy is now ... You know what I go into London Drugs to buy? Electronics. Are they a drug store or are they an electronics store?"

Tyee: I'm sure other provinces have found a way to deal with that...

Clark: "Many other provinces that did this did it, some of them, over a decade ago now, before the line between a department store, an electronics store, a drug store became so blurred. I think there are other things we can do to encourage smokers to quit, that would make a meaningful difference for smokers to quit, but I don't think that's one of them."

Tyee: I have a detail question for you. Gordon Campbell while he was premier claimed on his conflict of interest disclosure statement a stipend from the BC Liberal Party, and you do as well. I'm wondering how much it is and what the rationale for it is?

Clark: "I don't know. Doesn't it say in the thing?"

Tyee: No, I think you probably tell the Conflict of Interest Commissioner the amount, but what gets reported publicly does not have an amount.

Clark: "It's a car allowance."

Tyee: Why? I'm wondering what the rationale is.

Clark: "I do a lot of driving. I do a lot of driving for party events and those kinds of things."

Tyee: Campbell's former chief of staff Martyn Brown in his book was talking about ways to get the different parties to co-operate more. You came in talking about doing that kind of thing, and I think of the pesticide bylaw as one where you said very explicitly the parties could co-operate and make it happen. Obviously it didn't happen. I'm wondering what lessons you drew from that, or that the public might draw from that.

Clark: "It's a harder task trying to change political culture than I think many of us hoped it would be. I think the closer you get to an election the harder it becomes even again. Should we be re-elected, and I hope we are, we'll have a chance to really redouble our efforts in that when we're farther away from an election. The best time to try and change a political culture is when the election is right behind you, as opposed to right in front of you. I think we'll have another chance. I'm still committed to that. I think there a lot of things we can do to change the way our legislature functions. I know Martyn had 10 years to work on it."

Tyee: The pesticide bylaw? It seems to me it was members of your party on the committee that recommended against it.

Clark: "Yeah, it's still something I would like to make sure sees the light of day."

Tyee: Will there be time before the election?

Clark: "Perhaps."

Tomorrow: BC NDP leader Adrian Dix, interviewed by The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief Andrew MacLeod.  [Tyee]

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