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Time to Replace Out-of-Touch Government, John Horgan Says

BC NDP leader talks inequality, co-ops, forests and political change in year-end interview.

By Andrew MacLeod 12 Dec 2016 | TheTyee.ca

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, 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

Before being asked a question, NDP leader John Horgan has launched into a list of the B.C. government’s failures under Premier Christy Clark.

There are crises in the education system, seniors’ care, drug overdoses and the rising cost of living, Horgan said. “It seems everywhere you turn, everywhere you look, provincial responsibility is being abdicated and the premier blames someone else for the situation that’s emerged over 15 years of BC Liberal government.”

Talking with The Tyee in his legislature office, Horgan said a change of government is needed. “The value of a new government is that you have more flexibility to look with a critical eye at issues that have been protected by ministers over a period of time.”

For example, Horgan said, the minister responsible for housing, Rich Coleman, is out of touch with the realities facing new families trying to afford a place to live. But the NDP has “a disproportionate number of young people in our caucus,” he said.

The same is true for the party’s candidates nominated to run in the May 9 election, he said. “I think we have a healthy mix of experienced people and young people who’ve gotten experiences that are different from those who are currently reflected in the legislature, and that will be a good thing.”

Horgan has been an MLA since 2005 and first worked in the legislature as an NDP staff member in the 1990s when the party was last in government.

Responding to the observation that it can be hard for MLAs who make at least $100,000 a year to understand what ordinary people are going through, Horgan said, “I live in the same neighbourhood I’ve always lived in, in a moderately sized house in Langford, where I’ve got an out-of-work logger on one side, I’ve got a statistician from UVic on the other side, I’ve got a nurse down the road, I’ve got a bus driver, I’ve got a retired couple. They’re regular people and I talk to them all the time because they’re my neighbours.”

Horgan said he sees inequality as the key challenge of our time and a well-resourced education system can give people the opportunity they need to thrive.

In a wide-ranging interview, Horgan talked about the state of the provincial economy, what he learned last summer in Italy about co-operatives and why he’s optimistic about the election.

The Tyee: We are frequently reminded by the provincial government that B.C.’s economy is leading Canada for the second year in a row. What do you make of that?

John Horgan: People aren’t feeling that. The Conference Board of Canada or whoever collates the statistics may feel that, but when I talk to people, they’re struggling. Fifty per cent of the people polled, I’m told, believe that if they miss a paycheque they’ll be in financial distress. Wages have been flat for a decade or more and costs keep going up — government-imposed costs as well as just the general costs of living.

I think that people are struggling in British Columbia, and it’s tougher to make ends meet than it was before, and they want to see some change on that front.

What does that mean for an election five months from now?

Wherever I go, whoever I talk to, whether they be business leaders, labour representatives or regular folk, they feel that the Liberals have tried to put this sense of “this is as good as it gets, we can’t do any better than this, we can’t fund our education system, we can’t address wait times in hospitals, we can’t deal with the poverty crisis, we can’t deal with the 1,200 fentanyl- or opiate-related deaths over a two-year period, because we just don’t have the ability to manage these things.”

I think the public wants to see and hear from government and political leaders that we can do better than we’re doing right now. Because people are not feeling that we’re making progress on a whole host of fronts.

What would you do differently?

You need to have someone in your corner. I don’t believe Christy Clark and the BC Liberals have talked to ordinary people in a long, long time, and after 15 years of sitting in the corridors of power they’ve lost touch with the people they were elected to represent. I think new faces, new ideas and new approaches will be an opportunity for hope for people...

ICBC costs [were projected to rise] 42 per cent, but they wanted to hide that until after the election. They did that last time with Hydro rates. These are government-imposed costs on people. I can’t address the cost of broccoli or cauliflower because those are market driven and largely out of the control of government, but there are a whole host of issues that are in the control of government: Medical Services Plan premiums, tuition fees — a whole host of costs that are being imposed on families that government can control, and they’re not right now.

So an NDP government would... ?

We’re going to work towards that.

You’ve talked in the past about bringing the minimum wage up to $15 an hour and child care down to $10 a day. How far would those policies go to help?

Certainly when our lowest cost workers have more money in their pockets to spend that leads to them spending that money in local communities. Very few people on the minimum wage are socking money away in tax havens offshore. They usually spend the money they have on their day-to-day needs and that creates economic opportunity for small businesses and others in the community.

The child care question is one everyone agrees with but this government’s not prepared to tackle. As far as they were prepared to go was to create an interactive map so families could realize just how few spaces there are and just how long the waitlist would be.

I think we need to put in place government programs that will be promoted aggressively to make life easier for families. It’s not just about bumper stickers. Christy Clark was all about “Families First.” She seems to have dropped that this time around. What families want to see is some tangible evidence that government is on their side, or at least working to make life a little less difficult than this government has, and child care is a great way to do that. It also creates economic opportunities... child care is an economic stimulus, it’s not a drag on the economy as the Liberals would have people believe.

Related to the economy, could you tell me about what you were doing in Italy last summer?

I was invited by Vancity Credit Union to participate in a tour of Bologna, which is the centre of the co-operative movement in Europe, certainly in Italy.... It was just an opportunity to look at alternative ways of stimulating economic activity that were not necessarily always profit driven, but profit sharing in the case of co-operatives.

What I came back with, energized, was looking at the housing crisis in British Columbia, that co-operative housing has been a key part of the puzzle in B.C. over the decades, but has not seen much activity over the past couple of terms of federal and provincial governments, and I would like to see that reinvigorated.

Are there other places the co-operative model could be well applied in B.C.?

In some of the site visits we went to, seniors’ care was one where you had the workers, the social workers, the care aides, the therapists, occupational therapists — all [as] part and parcel of the operation. You had administrators making sure the facility was resourced and the people that participated in the delivery of the services were invested in the outcomes. That made them happier employees because they were able to make suggestions amongst themselves on how they could improve the delivery of the services, and then they went about doing it.... Everybody was participating in the decision-making. That model really appealed to me.

What about forestry? Do you see opportunity?

Huge. I’ve been meeting with industry leaders, I’ve been meeting with unions, I’ve been meeting with truck loggers just last week, and I am extremely concerned the potential consequences of the lack of success on the softwood file will lead to significant disruption in the industry and loss of jobs. I’m also concerned about our managing of the resources over the past number of years.

It seems to me the BC Liberals have done everything they can to make sure that those who provide political contributions are getting what they need on a quarterly basis in terms of their profit margins, but that’s not benefiting the sustainability of our public forests over the long term. Raw log exports is the symbol of that.... Now there are more logs leaving Vancouver Island than ever before, going by shuttered mills. Shuttered mills mean no dust, no chips, which means an impact on the pulp sector, so places like Harmac, a co-operative, an employee-owned company, can’t get access to a raw material to keep the company going. That is a result of BC Liberal policies, and we need to change that. Our forest sector is our past and it can be our future, and I want to make sure that’s the case.

Looking at some of the recent disputes, such as in Fort Nelson, where the big companies who hold the tenure may not have the interests of local communities top of mind, is there a greater role for co-operatives?

Community forests. We do [some of that already] and they’re usually wildly successful.... I believe it’s the role of government to steward the resource, the public resource, for the long term and that’s not happening. If you defer or devolve responsibility for managing the forest to the tenure holders, then you’re basically abdicating your responsibility. It’s called Crown land and the Crown should be managing it, not in the interests of those who have got the good fortune of having access to it, but they should be managing it for the public. That’s not happening to the extent that it can and should and that’s certainly a change that will be coming when the government changes.

How likely is that change?

I’m very optimistic. People don’t like these people. They’re tired of them and they don’t believe that they’re working for them. I come from a modest background. I’m a working-class guy who wants to make B.C. better. I want to work with people to maximize our potential rather than to let opportunity go by.  [Tyee]

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