BCBusiness publisher Peter Legge sits down with Premier Gordon Campbell for a wide-ranging conversation on everything from the plunging real estate market to the Olympics to whether B.C.’s two-term premier deserves one more shot.
When I meet up with Gordon Campbell at his Vancouver office in late January, he’s battling a cough and has a bit of a strained voice. I tell him my solution, based on years of experience as a public speaker: consume a few regular potato chips, as the oil in the chips brings your voice back to normal almost instantly. The premier reaches into his wallet, takes out a $5 bill and asks one of his staffers to slip downstairs and buy a bag of chips as we begin our conversation. This year Campbell celebrates 25 years as an elected official, starting as a Vancouver city councillor in 1984 and continuing as the city’s mayor, the BC Liberal leader and, for the past 7½ years, B.C.’s premier. If re-elected on May 12 – and assuming he serves out his full mandate – Campbell would become the third-longest-serving premier in B.C. history.
Peter Legge: In all the years I’ve known you and heard you speak in person or watched you on television, I’ve only observed you get quite emotional twice. The first time was when you were first sworn in as premier at Government House in Victoria, and the second time was at the funeral of Stan Hagen (the late minister of agriculture and lands, who died on Jan. 20) in Comox last weekend.
Gordon Campbell: Stan Hagen never allowed a label to get in his way. He was always there to help you as a person and never personalized a fight. He had a sense of grace in everything he did. He also loved public life and, yes, one’s entire family gives up something while you do the job. He loved what he did, but he loved his family more. Both spectrums moved me emotionally.
Legge: How do you feel about the tenor of public discourse these days – particularly in Ottawa, but also closer to home?
Campbell: I think there’s a huge shift that has to take place. We have to move away from the partisanship and personalized politics, and we have to get on with solving people’s problems, particularly with the changes that are taking place in the world today. We have to think about families first, not politics. We have to think about how we take care of our kids. Canadians are sick of personalized attacks and partisan politics. They want their elected officials to create jobs and solve problems.
Legge: What’s your philosophy on working with those with a different viewpoint?
Campbell: I’ve been in public life a long time and I’ve learned that everyone has something to contribute. The most important thing is that we should always look for ways that we can find agreement. If we focus on agreement, we’ll run out of resources before we run out of agreement. We’ve got many common goals and objectives. We should focus on those – not the differences, but the commonalities.
Legge: Politics is an adversarial business, though. How do you establish and build a constructive relationship with the official Opposition?
Campbell: The nature of our election cycle can make that very difficult, as people get wrapped up in politicking. Having said that, I think it’s important for us to constantly invite positive and constructive solutions from the Opposition. Frankly, the thing I’m always focused on is not so much the Opposition or the Government but what we can all do to create jobs and sustain them for the long term. [pagebreak]
Legge: Voter participation continues to decline with each election. What reforms would you advocate for our political system – both on a national and provincial level – to more fully engage citizens?
Campbell: B.C. has pioneered a number of democratic reforms over the years, including allowing free votes for MLAs, setting election dates and creating the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. We’re having a second referendum on electoral reform this May so that people can decide the best way to elect their provincial representatives. Other governments, including the federal government, have followed our lead on set election dates, so that’s something of which we can be proud. On a national level, we’ve said for some time that we need to take a serious look at whether we still need a Senate and whether it still serves a purpose. If we don’t phase it out, senators should be elected under a national process that’s the same for all of Canada.
Legge: On a topic that is perhaps more discussed around B.C. kitchen tables, what do you think about what’s going on in local real estate?
Campbell: There’s no question we’re facing challenging times. The housing crash in the U.S., falling financial markets and global economic factors are impacting people’s confidence and having an impact on the market here in B.C. But I think we’re also seeing a change in what people want. People want smaller units closer to cities and reduced commute times, and I think there’s an opportunity right now to see a real rejuvenation of our housing market and opportunities for young people and seniors in the province.
Legge: Thinking back to when you first got into the housing market as a buyer – as well as your experience as a developer in the 1970s and ’80s – how would you describe the evolution of B.C. real estate? Campbell: As a young buyer, I always looked to how I could add what they used to call “sweat equity” to my home. I think we have to find ways that we can help young people add sweat equity to their new homes again. People recognize that they may not be able to buy a 2,300- or 2,400-square-foot home at today’s prices but that they might be able to buy a 900-square-foot home and then work to add value to it.
Legge: But how do we preserve housing affordability here, particularly for middle-income earners?
Campbell: We need to build smaller, more compact units that don’t cost as much as large homes on large lots – and that takes vision and planning at the municipal level, as well as support from other levels of government. As a government, we’ve done things like raising the threshold for the Property Transfer Tax exemption so first-time buyers can get into the market. We’ve also introduced rent supplement programs to help seniors and low-income families. Legge: One of the big influences on real estate in recent years has been the Olympics. What do you think will be the three or four key legacies of the 2010 Games?
Campbell: The Olympics puts B.C. front and centre on the world stage. Billions of people will be watching and seeing what this province is all about, and when the 15,000 media members come they aren’t just coming to cover the Games; they’ll come to do profiles and documentaries on B.C. – so there’s a tremendous opportunity for all our communities, in all regions of the province. Besides the world-class venues and the jobs and economic growth it will create, I think the real legacy will be with our children. If young people can get inspired by the athletes and the spirit of the Games, I think we will feel the benefit from that for decades.
Legge: What is the key to a vibrant and dynamic post-Olympics economy?
Campbell: I think the key is to use the Olympics as a launching pad into the future, to show the world who we are, what we do and how well we do it. We need to continue to focus on keeping taxes low and diversifying our economy. We can build on the opportunities that come with being Canada’s Pacific Gateway and a clean-energy powerhouse. [pagebreak]
Legge: You mention taxes and economic diversification. What do you think is the role of government in creating economic opportunity?
Campbell: I think it’s imperative that we keep B.C. competitive on a global scale. That’s why we have reduced taxes and worked with the business community to create jobs and investment opportunities. We are accelerating infrastructure projects to keep people employed in our construction sector and to keep goods and people moving. This includes upgrades to Highway 97, the Cariboo Connector, Highway 3, Highway 16 and the Trans-Canada Highway and decommissioning of the toll plaza on the Coquihalla Highway. We are also asking the federal government to consider a national housing program especially for our at-risk populations, seniors, people with disabilities and Aboriginal people. Every construction job on a housing project generates more work in direct and immediate spinoffs and creates more demand for lumber, driving new jobs and opportunities in forestry.
Legge: B.C. is in many ways two provinces: urban B.C. – Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna – and rural B.C. What do you see as the economic prospects for rural B.C., given the long-term decline of natural resources?
Campbell: There’s no question our natural resource sectors are changing, but I think there are tremendous opportunities in forestry, mining, oil and gas, and certainly bioenergy. We need to promote our products both domestically as well as nationally and internationally, and we’re certainly getting better at doing that. Of critical importance is ensuring we can get our products to markets; that’s why we’re making huge investments in transportation infrastructure such as the Port of Prince Rupert and regional airports in places such as Nanaimo, Prince George, Cranbrook and Smithers. But the biggest advantage for building a strong economy in rural B.C. is its people. We held an economic summit in Prince George recently and had 500 people come out to share their ideas. People in every corner of B.C. are ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work to build a strong economy.
Legge: Looking back, what are some of your biggest regrets, both personally and in terms of policy, from the past 7½ years?
Campbell: You know, I think when you’re in this job you have to keep focusing on what the good things are.
Legge: OK, what are some of your proudest achievements?
Campbell: I’m most proud of the fact that people feel optimistic about themselves and their communities and they’re planning for their future. You know, there’s a whole bunch of projects that we’ve done that have made a real difference in people’s lives: the Park Bridge, the medical school in the north, the W.R. Bennett Bridge in Kelowna, the new hospital in Abbotsford, the Olympic Games, the aboriginal issues with which we’ve dealt. I’m proud of all those things, but I’m proudest of the people of B.C. and what they have done. This is never, frankly, about what the government does; it’s about what people in the province do, and I’m proudest of that.
Legge: Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
Campbell: I hope to be premier of the province, and I hope that we are driving even stronger into a future that opens up Asia-Pacific opportunities – a future where young people have the educational opportunities they need. I’m looking forward to seeing the people of British Columbia actually leading the country into the future.
Legge: And after that? What might a life after politics look like for you?
Campbell: Restful. That’s all I’m saying.