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De Jong discusses our crazy real estate market, why he doesn’t email and what a re-elected Liberal government would do

This past February, Mike de Jong—a BC Liberals stalwart since the early ’90s and finance minister since September 2012—tabled his third balanced budget. For most governments, a string of balanced budgets would be a public relations coup, but in the days that followed budget day, attention turned to everything not addressed in the document. De Jong, whose ministry touches every facet of the B.C. economy, faces a slew of tough files, from the soaring cost of real estate to flagging LNG prospects. Next May, the 53-year-old former lawyer and school board trustee will be seeking re-election for the sixth time. (Editor’s note: the Province’s surprise decision to tax foreigners buying real estate in Vancouver was made as this issue was going to press.)

Back in March, reports surfaced that you personally do not use email, which caused some bewilderment. Why do you think people reacted the way they did?
I think it’s difficult for people to imagine someone at work not being consumed by email. But what got lost is that it’s not as if people in my office aren’t using email. There are a thousand-plus emails sent to us every day. I don’t sit in front of a computer sifting through those; I have a capable staff that is able to prioritize for me and draw to my attention those they believe require it.

Is a paper trail, via email, necessary for accountability?
The records relating to the decisions of government are kept in a detailed, comprehensive way, and they are voluminous. I think, to be fair, what some people were perhaps disappointed about is that email has become very conversational—and people like to see stuff. But that is not the decision-making process of government, which is very formalized and very well-documented.

BC Budget under Mike de JongThe debate over foreign ownership in the Lower Mainland has raged since at least 2012, when you became finance minister. Why did you choose now to act, with measures gauging the number of foreign buyers in B.C.?
As the market has continued to escalate in value, we have seen a plethora of theories and conjecture about what is accounting for it. For a couple of months, the dominant theory was that there were whole neighbourhoods where swaths of houses were sitting empty. And to their credit, the City of Vancouver commissioned a study and found that, over the past 12 to 14 years, the vacancy rate has declined. I will tell you candidly that I am far less concerned about what is happening at the very high end of the market—and more concerned about the middle and lower ends of the market, where families have a direct interest and where young people are trying to achieve entry. 

Shouldn’t the City of Vancouver have tools to deal with affordability?
Housing policy is for all of B.C. We have to be careful that the policies we create are responses to situations right around B.C. That’s why you’ll frequently hear me caution that the attention is fixed geographically on a very small region of B.C.—a small region of the Lower Mainland—and there is more to the province than just that area.

But it’s not just the City of Vancouver—it’s the entire Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley. Arguably that’s more than half of B.C. 
I don’t agree with that—and you would have a difficult time convincing those people who live in B.C.’s resource-dependent communities. Here’s what I try to remain focused on: are there any signs that exist that there is a structural vulnerability in the market? And particularly in Vancouver, around detached homes, we’ve seen prices go up. So we track debt-to-equity ratios, we track delinquency numbers, and there has been no appreciable change in terms of the extent to which people have become over-leveraged. The good thing is that values have increased at such a rate that there is room for a market slowdown, or even a correction, that does not lead to any catastrophic consequences.

You’ll be going into your seventh election campaign next May, after almost 16 years in government. Will the BC Liberals be offering something new?
There’s always another challenge and opportunity, but in general we’ll ask people to examine our track record and trust us to build an even stronger, more diverse economy.

Of course, if the Liberals lose, there’s likely another leadership race. You ran for the top job in 2011. Would you ever run again?
No thoughts on that—not even thinking about it. I’ve been at this a long time. It’s highly unlikely; for the moment, I’ve got a great boss and a great bunch of teammates, and I may need to get back to the farm sometime.