Forget the 30-second news clips and the pundits’ opinions. We wanted to hear first-hand what Gordon Campbell had to say about his government’s first four years, the coming election and the future for British Columbia. So on a grey winter morning, reporter Paul Willcocks sat down with Campbell in his seventh-floor Canada Place office to talk.
On the best moments of the first term There were two great moments. One was when we were awarded the Olympics. It was great, not just for those of us who were in Prague, but a sensational moment for B.C. There was just a huge outpouring of excitement that day. In the same year, there was a pretty spectacular uniting of the population around the fires in the summer of 2003. Those were two pretty significant things. They kind of gave British Columbians a sense of confidence in themselves. That’s what defined them as great for me. And the worst The toughest time was going through the whole HEU (Health Employees’ Union) issue last spring. It was very difficult to get out why that was happening, what was going on with the union, what was happening with the government. Frankly it was a lot more complicated than you can convey in newspaper headlines or quick television stories. On what it takes to be premier You really have to have a sense of where you want the province to go, what you’d like to have happen. You have to be passionate about British Columbia. And you have to like people – that’s a really critical part. I get most of my energy from talking to people and from hearing what they’re doing and what their challenges are. You need to be open to that. You have to be able to listen to a whole bunch of voices and bring them together so there’s sort of a common direction. You also need energy … the job requires energy.
Learning on the job There’s lots you learn. One of the complaints I get is that we have to make faster decisions. I sympathize. In fact, I’m the first to admit that I need to have more patience with how long it takes to get places. We’ve had to act boldly and dramatically to make the progress that we made. But at times, it takes a lot of effort to bring people along. One of the things about this job is that for all the political shorthand it is never a ‘one-person show.’ The real opportunity here is to get a group of people who are willing to work with you and move forward, and our caucus and cabinet have been like that. There’s sort of a conflict between what I try and do, which is to get the caucus to understand why we’re doing certain things, to get their input, and then to bring the cabinet together and make a decision. That takes a lot of work and sometimes you lose opportunities because of that. On backbenchers The caucus really is the government, regardless of how we say things work. They are our eyes and ears. They bring their goals, their objectives, their dreams, their concerns to the government and we try and sort them out. One of the advantages this government has had over previous governments – because of the representation we’ve had over 77 constituencies – we have had to deal with issues on the basis of what’s best for British Columbia. They’re often difficult decisions. If you’re in the traditional political alignment, some of those really tough decisions aren’t as tough because the politics weigh in and you say ‘let’s do this because this is where our guy is.’ We’ve really worked hard to process virtually all of the major initiatives we’ve undertaken through caucus, and I think that’s been healthy. On self-knowledge Obviously what happened in Hawaii was something that I didn’t like; it was horrible for my family. It was an irresponsible action. I think I handled that about as well as you can handle something like that. But I still live with it. I still feel that it was something I never should have done and I’ll probably have that for a long time. On managing change There is a real challenge dealing with some of the fundamental and structural issues that we had to deal with. It’s kind of like everyone’s for free enterprise, for competition, except for their particular niche of the world. We’ve heard a lot about cuts, but in a lot of cases where you heard about cuts there’s actually been changes. I expected it to be tough. However, I’m proud of the fact that our caucus has been willing to work through the difficult decisions to deliver some results, and I think we’re seeing those results. But results in public life are interesting. It takes a long time for those things to work their way down into peoples’ lives. One of our challenges is to get people to think longer term. I’m going to be talking about this more in the next little while because the more I watch government, the more I believe Bill Gates’ line that ‘the change you see in two years will be far less than you expect, but the change you see in 10 years will be far greater than you expect.’ On what British Columbians want People want to know that if they work hard in this province they will get ahead. They want to plan for their future. Most people aren’t saying: ‘You know what, I really want the government to take care of me.’ They’re saying: ‘Will the government please allow me to take care of my future.’ They want to have personal control over their lives and what they’re doing. And we can create a framework that allows them to have that – with a good public health care system, with a great education system, with a transportation system that works and connects people. I think we can do those things.
On what government should – and shouldn’t – do I think that government may do less as a part of the whole economy. But if you look at our government – and this is one of the myths of the public debate – we have not cut the cost of government. We have changed where we put the cost of government. When you increase the health budget by $2.8 billion, that’s a pretty significant increase. And I do think British Columbians understand that we’ve got to have a health system that works, that we have to have a public education system that’s top notch, that excels, that’s as individualized as you can make it. So I’m not expecting that in absolute numbers government will shrink or that costs will shrink. There’s going to be changes in how government works and we’re going to have to meet the needs that exist. The question is can we do this in a way that’s constructive, that improves our quality of life? That doesn’t happen in a week and a half. On a civil public life We have to find a way of having a respectful and open public debate about what we’re trying to accomplish. When you look at the big issues, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want a great public health care system and a great public education system. So we have to change the way we have conversations about that. I hope that people don’t feel I personalize things; I just try to keep looking at the bigger picture. I was there the last day of the Citizens’ Assembly and I loved that. It was 162 people from all walks of life and from all parts of the province. Walking into that room you could feel the sense that they had been part of something that is really about citizenship. The real challenge is to recognize that those people are working to take care of their families, they’re wondering about their mortgages, they’re wondering about their jobs. And we need to find ways of communicating with them, because they’re not necessarily running to the paper when it comes, saying ‘I’ve got to read Paul Willcocks,’ or ‘I’ve got to pick up BCBusiness.’ So it’s up to us to find ways to connect with the citizens. Our big challenge as we go through the next 20 years is to find new ways to include people and to recognize that one of our strengths is that we’re not a country or a province that’s based on unanimity. It’s not there and we don’t want it there. We just want to be moving together towards some big goals and see if people will accept them. On personal responsibility I was talking the other day with (Health Deputy Minister) Penny Ballem about how we can engage people in a discussion about health care, and what we want, and what they have to do to accomplish it. Because it won’t be what the government does. Government deals with symptoms as opposed to causes. We can encourage right behaviours and right actions, but at the end of the day it’s what you do or I do in our personal lives – and I look at my personal life, and I’m not living a very healthy lifestyle right now, in terms of my workload and exercising, etc. So in 20 years maybe all of us will be paying for the fact that I didn’t. We need to act now. If you’re worried about the environment, ask yourself, ‘What am I doing about it?’ Yes, you do your recycling and that’s good. But when you drove to work, did you drive alone in an SUV, with a V-8 spewing pollutants? And does that really reflect what you’re saying your values are? On B.C. in 20 years I think British Columbia can be one of those places that the world would like to be, with enormous diversity, an enormous amount of creativity. Personally, I’m hoping this is kind of the first stage of a renaissance. And a renaissance is not just about opening up trade, it’s being open to new ideas, it’s celebrating creativity, it’s recognizing that when you take the risks of leadership sometimes you will fall down and scrape your knee but you’ve got to pick yourself back up and try it again. This will be British Columbia’s time on the Pacific. We know that the economies in India and China are going to be some of the most important economies in the world over the next 50 years. We couldn’t be better positioned to take advantage of that. Twenty-two per cent of our population is of Asian origin, and we have great connections into India. Our Mandarin-speaking population, our Cantonese-, our Urdu-, our Punjabi-speaking populations are truly great assets. So I do think British Columbia will be a hub of intellectual activity. It will also be a hub of leading resource management because we have great resources here and most of them are renewable. If we apply what we know today in 20 years, this will be a spectacular place. The North will be far more open and Prince George will be a major area of activity. The province will be an international place with Canadian values. And I think that’s pretty exciting. On the media I don’t like talking about the media much because the job that I’d like you to do and the job you actually have is quite different. But there’s really no point in complaining, so I don’t complain. I think the challenge we face is to look comprehensively at things where frankly the media is looking for a simple answer. That’s not a criticism. It’s like you saying to me, ‘Would you mind taking your 10-minute answers Gord, and boil them down to two minutes or five sentences.’ I would like to see some more diversity in the media. But other than that I think that you and your colleagues have been fair. . . you do what you do, and you do your best. On the next election There’s no question that this spring’s election is going to be very, very tough, very difficult. And I think one of the reasons for that is that we have changed some of the power infrastructure. I know that a lot of the public sector unions are very unhappy with what’s happened. That said, I don’t know if their membership is all that unhappy with what’s happened. People have said to me, ‘Do you realize that if you’re re-elected you’ll be the first premier in 22 years that’s been re-elected?’ Yes, I realize that. But do you also realize that I’m the first premier that’s sought re-election, that’s actually been able to go and say ‘I want re-election,’ in 22 years? We tend to think that the world knows us as we know ourselves, and they know what all the nuances are. They don’t. They look at British Columbia and say what is going on there? That’s a big issue for us, I think, to try to create some continuity and to try – and I am going to try and do this – to get people to look 10 years out. And the big issue For me, it’s for people to think about what they want British Columbia to look like, and more importantly to feel like, in 2015 – 10 years out. And then if we can sort of capture that vision for ourselves and share it, then we can plan a course of action that will get us there. And that’s what I hope people will think and talk about. And you know I do think they have to hold us to account for what we said. And one of the interesting things I’ve learned is that although you may have done over 90 per cent of what you said, it’s the 10 per cent you haven’t done that people focus on. And they’re kind of right to do that. And our job is to be able to say: ‘Right, we couldn’t, and this is what we plan to do.’ On jobs and hope I know what people felt by the time they reached the end of the 1990s. They had no sense of hope. They didn’t have plans. Today you can go to just about any community and they’ve got plans. Go to Prince Rupert, which has been kicked around the block a couple of times by changes in the world, with the economy, with New Skeena – Is it bankrupt? Isn’t it bankrupt? Is it opening? Isn’t it opening? – uncertainty all around. You go there, they’ve got plans. They’re ready to go. You go to Prince George now, they’ve got plans for improving not just the university, but also adding in terms of energy, mineral resources and forestry resources. They’re excited about their future. A person’s job is a critical component of their quality of life. It’s a critical component of heir health, of their family’s health. If we can create more job opportunities for people and more choices for people, and connect those choices with training and educational opportunities, I really think that we’ve got a great future ahead for us.
On life after politics I hope my next job will be one where I can work with ideas. And really – this sounds too hokey actually – I’d like to remind people that they can help make a difference. I wouldn’t mind going back to Africa and working there for five or so years. There are some real connections for me there. I know that in countries where they face some pretty ravaging health challenges and some pretty substantial education challenges, that we could make a difference. I know I made a difference in a few students’ lives when I was teaching in Nigeria. When I think about the world, I think that the way for us to create a healthy, peaceful world is to give people a sense of hope. I’d like to see a massive commitment to offering education and health care services in the rest of the world. You know I’ve learned a lot as I do this. You learn a lot about people, you learn a lot about what they can accomplish when they do things together. You learn about people who will try and hold you back, and people who will tell you what’s not realistic. We can create a world with hope, where things are healthier. You can sure make a huge difference by just going and making a commitment. Those are the sorts of things that I’d like to do. I think that Nancy would like to do them with me and that’s important. Actually when I begin planning, the first question I have to ask is not what do I want to do. This time it will be what does Nance want to do? I’ve been given the chance to do what I want for a long time now. On history’s judgment The main thing that I would want people to say is that I worked to make B.C. a better place. And that’s what I’m trying to do. That’s what drives me. I’d like them to say – again I go back to this whole idea of opening up British Columbia and opening up opportunities – he was a premier who recognized that it was the whole province working together that actually could accomplish the most. It would be good if they said that.