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Coquihalla tolls gone as Campbell girds for 2009 election

Premier Gordon Campbell took credit for B.C.’s economic good times in an hour-long speech to the UBCM, and sold himself as the party leader who will keep those good times rolling beyond the 2009 provincial election.

“We are one of the leading economies – not just in Canada – but on the continent,” Campbell told a cheering crowd. "In May of next year, British Columbians will decide: Move forward into the 21st century, or go back."

In a break from previous UBCM addresses, Campbell made no major funding announcements.

After asking the Penticton audience for a show of hands of those who planned to drive home via the Coquihalla Highway – hundreds of arms were raised – he announced, “By one o’clock this afternoon, the tolls on the Coquihalla are gone for good.”

Campbell also committed the province to begin First Nations consultation and an environmental assessment process leading to construction of the Northwest Transmission Line from Terrace to Bob Quinn Lake along Highway 37.

But the majority of his anecdote-laden speech consisted of reviewing the economic accomplishments of his seven years in office. He pledged to continue cutting taxes and reducing regulations. And he promised to continue supporting policies including the softwood lumber agreement and, pointedly, his first-in-North America carbon tax.

“Some people want to reverse that,” Campbell said, referring to, but not naming, B.C. NDP leader Carole James.

“We are not going back. We are going forward into the 21st century,” Campbell asserted. “In our province, we already feel the impacts of climate change. Our pine forests have been decimated as a direct result of climate change,” he continued. “It’s time to take responsibility for our own actions."

The Premier stepped away from the podium and walked to the edge of the stage to deliver one of several personal anecdotes.

“I’m a grandfather now,” he said. “I’m probably not going to be here in 2050. But the little guy born on Aug 8 probably will . . . I want to be able to look him in the eye and say, ‘I did what was right for you.’”

Campbell made another oblique reference to the NDP when he spoke in support of the softwood lumber agreement, which national NDP leader Jack Layton has recently criticized.

“Rip it up? Give your head a shake,” Campbell said. “We won't rebuild the forest industry by ripping up the softwood lumber agreement . . . It’s what’s keeping our forest industry going through what is probably the most difficult period in its history.” He continued, “We will fight for it. We will defend it.”

Campbell made clear he intends to continue his policy of funding municipal projects primarily through grants and awards, rather than sustained commitments. The unreliability of such year-to-year funding has been a major bone of contention within the UBCM during recent years. Campbell did commit to simplifying the paperwork required to apply for his administration’s various grants.

Campbell launched his UBCM address by introducing a stage-full of British Columbians who won Olympic medals in Beijing. Likewise, Campbell returned to the subject of the Olympics at the end of his speech.

“In just a little over 500 days, that torch is going to be lit right here in British Columbia,” Campbell said. “I want [the world] to hear our national anthem played again and again as we win gold medal after gold medal after gold medal.”

As Carole James had done the day before, Campbell seemed to signal how he would like to run for re-election next May: Wrap himself in the Olympic flag, weave himself into the story of B.C.’s economic successes, and remain upbeat.

He also appeared to be road-testing a few new catch-phrases, including: “Wood is good. Wood is great. Wood is British Columbia.”

In a post-speech scrum, Campbell explained that tolls were being lifted from the Coquihalla now because the province had already recouped most of the $848 million construction costs for the 32-year-old highway. He stressed that future tolls on projects such as a new Port Mann bridge would similarly be removed once the capital costs of those projects are paid off.

In the scrum, the Premier was more direct in his attacks on the NDP. He responded to a question about James' call to axe the carbon tax but keep the tax cuts:

"If you've figured out what Carole James has been saying for the last couple weeks, and if you could write that out I'd appreciate it. Because I haven't been able to figure out what she's saying. And I honestly don't think she knows what she's saying. If she's saying she's keeping the tax cut she's creating an enormous hole in the budget,” Campbell said. “She's talking about taking us back to the 1990s. I think that's a recipe for real problems for British Columbia.”

And regarding Layton’s call to renegotiate the softwood lumber agreement:

“I think Mr, Layton has shown a profound ignorance of both the agreement and the impact that his statements will have in British Columbia,” Campbell said. “The New Democrats are saying they're going to get rid of the softwood lumber agreement. That's going to cause huge job losses at a time when forestry can't afford any more challenges than they're currently facing."

New Democrat Rob Fleming, the MLA for Victoria-Hillside, provided a terse reaction.

“It was a Seinfeld speech, it was really about very little,” Fleming said. “There was very little there to take away.”

Monte Paulsen and Geoff Dembicki report for The Hook.

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