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George Abbott Quits Liberals He Sought to Lead

'It was no single thing. I've thought about it for a while.'

Andrew MacLeod 30 Jun

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, April 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

After 17 years as an MLA and many years in cabinet, George Abbott is no longer a member of the BC Liberal Party that he once sought to lead.

"I made a decision not to renew [my membership]," he told The Tyee. "It wasn't a dramatic and instantaneous rip-up-the-card-and-burn-it kind of thing. This is something I've thought about for awhile."

The move comes as the provincial government accumulates scandals, two Liberal MLAs prepare to leave the legislature to run federally, and Premier Christy Clark's approval rating plummets.

Abbott's most public falling out with the current government came when Clark cancelled his appointment as chief commissioner for the BC Treaty Commission, but he says that wasn't the only factor in his deciding to leave the party.

"There were a few things I was unhappy about in terms of my departure from government," Abbott said. "It was no single thing."

Disappearing job

Abbott was in line to replace Sophie Pierre as the Chief Treaty Commissioner, but at the last minute cabinet blocked the appointment and Clark said it was time to take a new direction on treaty negotiations since the process had resulted in few successes.

"I still have no idea what the new direction is, or the change of direction that prompted them to decide they weren't going to support a new chief commissioner," Abbott said. The government showed a lack of respect by asking him to do the job then removing it without giving a proper explanation, he said.

That built on feelings that lingered from his departure ahead of the 2013 election, a decision made after 17 years as an MLA and serving as a cabinet minister in senior posts that included health, education and Aboriginal relations.

Rather than feeling his colleagues were glad for his past contributions, Abbott said he instead felt he was letting the government down by not running again. "I didn't feel very much appreciated on the way out the door."

Two years earlier, in 2011, he'd run to lead the party, placing a respectable third in the contest Clark won. But today he's moved on, saying that though he's living in Victoria he no longer even visits the legislature. "I had my fill of the legislature and of political life. I don't miss it."

Academic life

Abbott is working on a PhD at the University of Victoria. His dissertation is on the BC Liberal government from 2001 to 2011, the years it was headed by Gordon Campbell.

BC Studies will publish an article this summer Abbott wrote comparing the implementation of the HST in B.C. to its implementation in Ontario, where he said the government did a "marginally better job conditioning the public for the change."

No longer being a party member helps him as an academic, he said. "I'm trying to be as objective and analytical as I can be," he said. "There's things one learns over the course of 17 years in the legislature, 35 years in politics for me, I want to pass along at some point academically some of the things I've learned."

Abbott is parting the party at a time when Clark's approval rating has dropped to 30 percent, according to the polling firm Angus Reid Institute. That's down from 45 percent at the time of the 2013 elections and matches her low from May 2012.

BC Liberal MLA Marc Dalton is seeking the nomination to run federally for the Conservatives in Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge and his colleague Doug Horne has said he's leaning towards running for the Conservatives in Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam.

Accumulated scandals

And the BC Liberal government faces ongoing scandals with the Election Act charges related to the "quick wins" Multicultural Strategic Outreach Plan headed to court, the information and privacy commissioner investigating accusations of Liberal political staff deleting emails that were subject of a feedom of information request, and various people demanding answers about the botched 2012 firings from the health ministry.

On this last topic, Abbott said, "I've always been puzzled as to what occurred there."

Abbott was the health minister from 2005 to 2009 and sat in cabinet as education minister up until Sept. 5, 2012, the day before the government publicly announced it had terminated or suspended seven employees and frozen several drug research contracts.

The government has since acknowledged some of the firings were heavy handed and that its investigation was flawed.

"I have no idea how something like that came to be," Abbott said. "The government's still got a considerable challenge on their hands for them to manage it from here on out."

Accounting for the mess, however, is no longer his problem. Said Abbott, "I am non-partisan now and intend to stay that way for the balance of my life, as near as I can project."  [Tyee]

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