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BC Politics

Who Is John Horgan?

'There ain't anything phoney about my life,' says new NDP leader, sharing his story.

Andrew MacLeod 15 May

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

John Horgan was raised by a single mother after his father died, went "off the rails" in Grade 9, with help found focus through sports, became student council president in his last year of high school, earned a master's degree at university, worked various jobs, recently became leader of the B.C. New Democratic Party, and would like to be the premier of British Columbia.

It's a narrative Horgan has shared widely since he became leader of the opposition party two weeks ago, a deliberate attempt to introduce and connect him to the public and avoid the labels his opponents will try to stick on him.

"There was a discussion about who am I, how did I come to be," Horgan said in an interview this week, in what he described as "the big honking office" he inherited from outgoing leader Adrian Dix at the legislature.

"We talked about it, mostly [MLAs] Maurine [Karagianis] and Carole [James], my biggest backers, about the fact that I have a very soft side to my being that does not come through in the work that I do," he said. "They felt that was important for the public to have a view of. That I do come from very modest means and difficult times, and I had a couple of off-the-rails experiences as a teenager that I was able to recover from. Not everybody gets that chance."

Born and raised in the Capital Regional District, Horgan attended Reynolds Secondary School in Saanich. He said he failed science, math, typing and French in Grade 9.

"I didn't show up," he said. "I was 14-years-old and smoking cigarettes and not watching Captain Kangaroo, as the old song goes. I was running with the wrong crowd, and the coach of the basketball team kind of grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said, 'You can probably do better if you put your mind to it.'"

Facts, fun and otherwise

In talking about the government's practice of clawing-back child support payments off the income assistance cheques of single parents, Horgan has several times referred to how tough things were for his family after his father died. Horgan, the youngest of four siblings, was a baby at the time.

It's not just the challenging parts of Horgan's life that he's sharing. The Huffington Post ran a list of "fun facts" about Horgan, complete with pictures from different eras of his life. They include the fact he's a Star Trek fan, was the King of Hearts on Valentine's Day in Grade 1, and met his wife Ellie on their first day at university.

Premier Christy Clark frequently includes anecdotes about her 12-year-old son Hamish in her speeches, but past leaders in British Columbia have shared personal details only sparingly.

"We made a conscious decision to tell people who I was and where I came from, so that it would better inform them on why I make the choices I make as a political figure," explained Horgan.

"I always, always think about families, and when I hear 'the family unit' being used as a political tool in rhetoric, but not in substance, then I respond to that," he continued.

"There was no insurance of any consequence when my father died, so my mom was left to her own devices -- no job, no driver's licence -- and we all got through that, and it was because our neighbours helped us."

'There ain't anything phoney about my life'

By telling his own story, Horgan hopes to avoid having the BC Liberals stick him in a box as another backroom operative from the NDP government of the 1990s.

Yes, he worked for the party in the '90s and became chief of staff to Dan Miller when he was premier, but he's much more than that, he said. He lives on an average street in Langford, a Victoria suburb, and has many friends who aren't involved in politics, which he said helps him see how people relate to the government.

"I consider myself and my friends to be regular people," he said. "I live in a modest home on a cul-de-sac. My one neighbour's a faller, a guy down the road's a drywaller, got a couple retired folks, a fire fighter. You know, [that's] just a cross section of life on my street, and it's been that way for 22 years."

Horgan thinks many British Columbians will look at his life and see it as similar to their own.

"Most political leaders don't present themselves that way, or if they do there's a hint of phoniness to it, and there ain't anything phoney about my life," he said.

Even after Horgan got back on the rails in high school, he kept his old friends as he got to know new groups. "I was able to transcend the various sects and cliques and factions that you'll get in a high school setting," he said. "I think that will serve me well as leader of the NDP... there are cliques and factions in the NDP. I know that's a surprise to your readers."

He declined to map out the party divisions as he sees them, but said, "I'm sure they'll appear in the comments section of this piece and you can draw your own conclusions from that."

On the issues

The Tyee canvassed Horgan on various issues, some of which he raised in the 2011 BC NDP leadership race, when he placed third after Dix and Mike Farnworth, and some of which are ongoing. Here's what Horgan had to say.

On reviewing how B.C. is taxed:

"I'm increasingly of the view that we have to get a handle on things like Medical Services premiums. They're a regressive tax. Everybody pays the same amount regardless of your income, regardless of your family circumstance, and I just think we need to reduce those examples whenever we can."

On keeping the balanced budget law:

"I think I'd prefer to see the state of the books three years hence before I make a categorical statement on what we're going to do with the books. I don't believe they're balanced today. The Hydro example is classic. There's no equity at BC Hydro; it's all shoved into deferral accounts, but yet the province takes money out of Hydro... In principle, I think [the balanced budget law] is a scam, but in practice I think the public has some confidence that if there's a law in place, people will try to stick to it."

On raising welfare rates:

"I think you start by doing something simple, like doing away with the claw-back for child support payments for single parents. That's a good start. [It would cost] $17 million, which conveniently coincides with the exact amount of money the Liberals blew on partisan ads before the last election. That could have gone into kids' mouths. I think that's a better expenditure of money."

On balancing the harvest of natural resources with environmental protections:

"The Liberals would love everyone to believe the resource-environment debate is an NDP debate, but it's not. It's a B.C. debate, and we together need to grapple with it."

On the provincial carbon tax:

"Let's take the revenue from the carbon tax and drive it into green initiatives so that we are actually genuinely changing behaviour. I prefer that as a policy tool. If you're going to generate revenue from an activity, take that revenue and drive it into reducing the damage that's done by that activity."

On a tanker traffic moratorium:

"Certainly on the north coast, I believe that to be appropriate. There are tankers on the south coast now, so it's kind of disingenuous to say... I think there's a distinct difference between the Enbridge proposal and the Kinder Morgan proposal. I'm not enamoured with either of them, but certainly the party and the caucus made an unequivocal stand on Enbridge, and it's my view the situation with Kinder Morgan is materially different in that there is a pipe there now, there's a refinery at the end of it, and there are tankers coming in and out of Burrard Inlet today, going by my constituency of Juan de Fuca today. We'll have to see how that unfolds."

On a run-of-river power projects moratorium:

"Yes. We have more power than we need, right now, today. We're selling at a loss. We don't need to dig the hole deeper."

On offshore oil and gas exploration:

"I'm opposed to that. Too many risks."

On the need to constantly repeat himself:

"Christy Clark is expert at staying in the box. [Her strategy is]: 'These are the 10 words I'm saying today, and I'm going to say them all day long and smile while I'm doing it.' I don't want to diminish her when I say that; she's an extraordinary campaigner. It's a talent that I'm going to have to develop if I'm going to be successful, but my instinct is to talk directly to people in full sentences, and that apparently is not how modern politics is done."

On the need to sometimes stop talking:

"I will talk about just about anything. I'm not afraid of my ideas. At the same time, there is an expectation that my opponents, my friends across the floor, will take my words and twist them. So I need to give them less ammunition to do that, without doing away with the genuine nature of how I like to approach my relationship with the media -- which is extremely genuine in my opinion."  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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