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Year-End Interview: Coleman on Site C, Electoral Reform and the Greens’ Mistake

‘The worst day in government is still better than the best day in opposition.’

By Andrew MacLeod 19 Dec 2017 | TheTyee.ca

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

As interim leader of the British Columbia Liberal Party, Rich Coleman is in a position he wouldn’t have foreseen or hoped for a year ago.

“When you first get the [election] outcome, obviously you worked hard to try and get a different result, I think you all go through a period of reflection or grief or whatever you want to call it,” said the MLA for Fort Langley-Aldergrove, who for 16 years held senior roles in cabinet, including several as deputy premier.

Coleman said he wanted former Liberal leader Christy Clark to stay, but instead found himself thrown into the interim role and having to build an opposition team while the party started seeking a new leader, a task it will complete in February.

“I was very impressed with how these guys came together to do a job, but you have the old adage, ‘The worst day in government is still better than the best day in opposition.’”

In a year-end interview, Coleman talked about the recent Site C decision, what the minority NDP government has gotten right and wrong, and the role of the BC Green Party. He dispelled rumours he’s planning to retire shortly and explained why the BC Liberal Party will likely begin accepting public money despite some leadership contestants’ criticism of that aspect of a new campaign finance law.

He acknowledged it has been a rough transition out of government but argued that if an election were held today, the BC Liberals would do well.

“Right now, it’s a coin toss between two parties and one of the parties doesn’t even have a leader.”

Tyee: What did you learn from the election campaign?

Coleman: Every campaign I’ve ever been involved in is sort of an organism of its own. It has nuances that can change it, and you can boil it down in a number of ways. I think the NDP did a very good job of pushing the negatives on Christy, but I don’t think that was the defining piece of the campaign. There were things that gave them a bump, like the toll thing...

When one is this tight, this tight of an outcome, if it went the other way by one seat to us, the rubbing of hands and grinding of teeth would be over the NDP side saying, “Well what did we do wrong, we should have won this.” A campaign is an ever-moving target and some of the smallest things can change the outcome. You just have to remember that and make sure you stay focused on your message and get through.

Why do you think the Greens didn’t end up supporting your party to stay in power?

I don’t think they ever had any intention, to be honest with you... Right off the bat it seemed their mind was already made up. I think because at least one of their members did not want to have anything to do with us with regards to any conversation about a coalition government. I don’t think it was ever on the table. I think it was a short little dance to show they were trying, but they weren’t really interested.

It would have strengthened their negotiating position to appear to be talking with you.

Yes, exactly. It is what it is... I didn’t think they’d make a deal with anybody. I thought if they wanted to be in a position of strength they would have supported the government until such time as they didn’t feel like working with us. As soon as they made the deal, they actually gave up what would have been significant influence on a whole lot of other policy decisions other than the little agreement they signed.

They could have, for four years, played both sides off against each other?

Yes, they could have. They could have actually driven some public policy and stuff. Now they are the junior partner — junior, junior partner — and effectively been absorbed into the NDP.

How long do you think their deal will last?

I have no idea. I suspect, given the history of minority governments in this country, it’s usually 18 to 24 months out that minority governments last. Things can change so much over time.

As part of the new campaign finance laws, political parties are to receive public funding. Will your party accept it? I know at least one leadership candidate has said you won’t.

There are two things that are happening here. One is there’s a law coming into place that says this is the formula and it has to be paid. That’s a statutory decision put into law. The candidates can’t actually make the decision on whether on the first of January the cheque that might go to a political party can be stopped one way or the other. The party really is an independent organization with a board of directors and a president... They have a treasurer and a secretary, just like any other organization, and that’s their decision, not a caucus decision or a leadership candidate position. The reality is the money’s going to flow whether you like it or not because the law says they have to do it.

What was your response to the decision to continue building the Site C dam?

They made the right decision. I think they could have made that decision without all the drama... It was processed, analyzed, the work was phenomenal already... It was made for a whole bunch of reasons, the right reasons, including the reasons at the time [Green Leader] Andrew Weaver supported. He actually went up to Hudson Hope with the Premier and the rest of them and celebrated the fact they were going to proceed with it because it was going to be clean energy. Somewhere between then and, I guess, six or eight months ago, Andrew changed his mind.

I saw you tweeting that after the announcement. Why did you want to remind people?

It is important because you have to be somewhat consistent in this. I’ve talked to him over the years about Site C... I don’t get it because the real story is it’s actually going to help us reach our climate action goals now because we’ll have clean energy to deal with reducing the GHGs in the northeast as well as other things.

Aside from Site C, are there other things you think the government has gotten right?

That they’ve gotten right? I can’t point to one to be honest with you. The commitment on housing went from being 114,000 units over 10 years to an aspirational goal... I think the significant mistake they’ve made is flushing $900 million on the George Massey Bridge. You’ve got 90,000 people stuck there in gridlock every single day, morning and night... I don’t think anything because they really haven’t done anything.

I was going to ask you what the government’s gotten wrong, but I think you covered that in your answer to what they’ve gotten right…

Site C, they could have saved $400 or $500 million by not delaying the road and stuff like that while they went through this little charade, but I’m OK with the fact they got to the right decision because I actually believe in this project. You have to remember they’re new, and just like my guys have a learning curve going into opposition, and I think they’ve built and coalesced as a team and done a great job where they came from a standing start, these guys came from a standing start too. Their ministers needed to learn their files and get experience. I think the test of where they’re at will be after they’ve had their own budget and they had their own throne speech to deal with in the spring, and then people will be able to start to measure against their promises and commitments.

So far, the answers from the government on a lot of questions have referred to 16 years of mismanagement under the BC Liberals. What’s that like for you to hear?

I chuckle at it. Some people get offended at that, but you know we did mention the 10 years, the decade of decline, in our answers when we did stuff in the House too, so we have to remember there is reality, and then there’s the theatre of politics.

What would you say to people who have observed there wasn’t a lot of news out of question period?

You have to remember, we used to drive news out of question period back when it was a 15-minute question period. The half hour is actually tough to sustain. If you’re going to get a story, you might get it in the first five or 10 minutes, and I think you have to mine through your estimates debate and stuff and other stories will come out... Of course, the gallery itself has changed since I first came here [in 1996]. It was way bigger. You guys have had your world change dramatically. They don’t pay you like they should. They don’t put the money into news like they used to. It gets consolidated, and they’re chasing the dollar and competing with others online. There’s a generation that probably don’t read newspapers.

What are your expectations for the referendum on electoral reform promised for next fall?

It will be interesting. Right now, people are getting together to try and figure out the “no” side and “yes” side campaigns and of course it’s not going to be run by a political party. We’ll be supportive of the “no” side because obviously there’s a lot of people who want to work on it and there’s a lot of NDPers that’ve reached out already and said, “We want to be part of the ‘no’ campaign,” as well as some Greens, ironically. They don’t like it either.

There must be some Liberals who support the “yes” side as well…

I don’t find it internal to caucus. We were pretty passionate in our debates on this thing. I think when people start to understand that places like Belgium didn’t have a government for 500 days, and the people in the Interior... We’ve got guys representing ridings right now it takes them 12 hours to drive across... You have to understand the geography and the representation side... Everywhere from Langley into the Interior will be not in favour of proportional representation.

Depending on the model proposed, there are options that protect rural representation…

They haven’t got to the point where they’ve articulated that yet... There’s all kinds of models. But I think it was Churchill who said, “This is the best we’ve got until you find me something better. It may not be perfect.”

There’s been speculation you might be ready to retire when this job is done. What can you tell me?

Everybody speculates about me, and I don’t get that. I’ve never said I would retire. I ran for a term, right? You can never say something couldn’t come along and change that, anything from health or family issues or whatever, but as far as I’m concerned, we have a new leader in February and I have my office picked out where I’m going to and I have a staff person who will go from here to there. She’ll work to support me as a legislative assistant and two or three other members. The speculation is unbelievable.

This place can feel like a high school sometimes with the gossip.

Sometimes it’s more like an elementary school. These walls talk, and there’s rumours every day, and there’s speculation about people and staff as well. This city is an incubator too because the public service interact with the government levels and opposition levels, the kids go to school together and they’re at soccer together. It’s a pretty small community with regards to how everybody knows each other in many ways.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’m really proud of this group. I think they’re doing a great job. I think the spring session is going to be a measurement of both groups simply because it will be their throne speech, their budget. They’re going to have to defend it and what they’re doing, and our guys have to keep focused on stuff. They call it “the opposition” for a reason. That’s the job.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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