A half hour with Kevin Falcon: the transcript
Friday, December 17, 2010
Penticton Western News: You have a new baby you like spending time with and you still have colour in your hair, why do you want to become leader of the BC Liberal Party and premier of British Columbia?
Kevin Falcon: It is time for a new generation of leadership. I think that I have an ability to reach out in a way that can rejuvenate our party and our government and reach out to young people, in particular, and get them interested and excited about public life and politics and that is something I really believe I can bring to the table.
I also think I have learned through my nine years as a cabinet minister and in a number of senior roles the importance of what I call the three Ls of leadership: Listening, Learning and Leading. And there is a big gap, I think, often in politicians between those who have vision and ideas but aren't particularly effective in executing those visions and ideas. And one of the things I bring to the table is a strong record of accomplishment on getting projects done, whether it is almost $100 million invested in (highway 97) from Summerland to Peachland, or the William Bennet Bridge, or the Kicking Horse Canyon (Highway), or the Canada Line, or changing the healthcare system, or trying to drive innovation and change, I do think that I have a record that will speak to my ability to take ideas and vision and translate that into action.
Western News: Voting rates in B.C. and across the country are pretty low, and with youth voters they are even lower, what are some of the things you would do to encourage more participation in the democratic process and get those numbers up?
Falcon: I honestly believe that politicians are often their own worst enemies because what happens with politicians in public life is that they often try to make everything sound good and the truth is everything isn't always good in public life, sometimes we make mistakes as government. And I think we have to have the humility and the courage to acknowledge when we don't do something well. It is not the end of the world. I have done that in my career many times, and you don't want to be having to do that every day I can assure you, but it is not a bad thing to say to the public, 'You know what, we didn't do as well as I hoped we could have done here but I'm going to try to do better and make sure that going forward we try and deliver things differently.'
I just think if we do that we erase a lot of the cynicism that you get amongst the public in terms of politicians in public life because what you will hear anywhere in the country is when something bad happens, you have some politician appear on television saying, 'Well no, it is actually quite good. You just don't understand it. This is really a good news thing.’ I think that kind of thing wears away at the public. So, I have always been known as a straight shooter and I have always been known to speak my mind. I do think that there is an appetite with the public for politicians that are straight up and honest about how they think about things and I think it has served me well.
Western News: There have been comments made by MLAs in both the BC NDP and the BC Liberals, and indeed from other governmental organizations and the public, that there has been too much power centralized in the leadership of the political parties. In the BC Liberals case that would be the premier’s office and cabinet, if you become the head of both of those bodies what would you do to make policy development and political decision making in B.C. more of a grass-routes affair?
Falcon: First of all, the history of my political involvement is very much a history that is grassroots driven. My history (began) in the social credit party as a young Socred. The Social Credit Party was very much a grassroots organization and I never forgot that because I do think it is very easy for us, if we are not careful, to loose connections with the regular Fred and Marys out there.
I really believe that the question you have asked is a really important one because every leader has a difference style. Gordon Campbell had a style. It is a style that would be different from my approach. It may have worked for him in many ways but my approach would be very different. I would follow more of, I guess what I would see as a (former) Premier Bill Bennett style, historically, where Bill Bennett was very well regarded and respected. People had no doubt that he was tough and he could make decisions but he allowed his cabinet ministers a lot of latitude and that allowed them to build up a profile to demonstrate to the public there was a team in (his) government. But he also wasn't afraid to hold them accountable for results or for a lack of results. And to me, that's a style of leadership that I really appreciate because I do think it is important that a premier makes sure that the members of cabinet and caucus are allowed to have their own style and allowed to raise their own profiles. And I think that is a good thing because I think it strengthens us in the public mind as really a team with some great people involved.
We have some very, very strong Members of the Legislative Assembly in our government. We have many of them ... running in the leadership race, right now, the ones that are running are very strong. Dr. Moira Stillwell, a radiologist and physician. George Abbott, Mike de Jong. All the candidates, I think, bring some real strength to the table. So, the issue is who is the best candidate to take our party and our government forward that can tap into what is important and (represents) a new generation of leadership that can bring people into our party and build this coalition and strengthen it. And help us ensure that we keep free enterprise government in power.
Western News: The BC Liberals are a big-tent coalition party and people situate you more on the conservative side of it, what would you do to make sure you keep everybody under that big umbrella?
Falcon: I think that is probably the most important question that every leadership candidate needs to be examined on because we are at the end of the day at coalition. Just like the Social Credit was a coalition, the BC Liberal Party is a coalition of federal Conservatives and federal Liberals. Every candidate has to be able to demonstrate that they have what it takes to keep our coalition together and our caucus together. And I think that if you look at Kevin Falcon's campaign you will see a significant number of MLAs and ministers supporting Kevin Falcon in this campaign quest. I think that that signals some significant caucus support. You will also see that Kevin Falcon has significant support from prominent federal Conservatives and prominent federal Liberals, including past presidents of the federal Liberal party for British Columbia, including senior organizers for federal Liberal prime ministers and leaders. And that is something I am very proud of. You will also see in Kevin Falcon a candidate that has always recognized that whoever is in the federal government that our obligation as provincial ministers and provincial MLAs is to make sure we work and get along with the federal government so that we can deliver good benefits for British Columbians. And so, if you scour the public record you will not see criticisms from Kevin Falcon of the federal government, whether Liberal or Conservative. And not every candidate can say that. I think that is an important point.
Western News: What about getting away from the unpopularity, whether it is deserve or not, currently of Gordon Campbell? There are some that have said of the candidates perhaps Kevin Falcon is the closest one to resemble Gordon Campbell, whereas others like George Abbott or Christie Cark do not as much, how do you answer that and how would you separate yourself from the unpopularity of Gordon Campbell?
Falcon: First of all I don't accept the premise because every premier, as I have mention, especially a premier that has served for 10 years is going to be unpopular in this province. There is just no avoiding that. It happened to Bill Bennett, W.A.C. Bennett and it has happened to Gordon Campbell. I think over time people (have) already have looked at (the first two) premiers differently and I have no doubt the same thing will happen with Gordon Campbell.
But Kevin Falcon is his own person. I have demonstrated that. I think as a minister in all the portfolios that I have held, and certainly there is nobody that knows me within government that would not tell you this, that I have my own mind and that I don't have any problem taking on and having differences of opinion not only with my colleagues, but even with the premier on multiple occasions. That is how our cabinet system works. I think what I offer that is different than the premier is a generational difference, first of all. And I also offer a record of accomplishment that I think is important to the public because they want to make sure that whoever takes over is someone that is going to have the leadership abilities and a record to deliver as premier. I have a totally different style than the current premier. His style worked for him but I have a different style. And I think it will work not only for myself but for my colleagues and for the public. And I relish the opportunity, if I am successful, to demonstrate that to the public at large.
Western News: Why would a Premier Kevin Falcon be good for the South Okanagan?
Falcon: Because he was very good for the South Okanagan in his portfolios as Minister of Health and as Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure. I led some of the largest investment ever in the history of the Okanagan in terms of road and bridge infrastructure. While I was Minister of transportation hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on the Highway 97 corridor alone, not to mention improvements on the Coquihalla Highway. I was the minister that was responsible, in partnership with the premier, and our colleagues in getting rid of the tolls on the Coquihalla. That is something I am very proud of to have done as Minister of Transportation, again with the sport of my colleagues. And as Minister of Health, I have been very proud to see some very significant investments that have been made in the Okanagan in healthcare. The cardiac centre in Kelowna is going to be a huge benefit to the entire Okanagan, there is going to be no question about that. The UBC Okanagan Medical School is something that I'm proud to support as have many of my colleagues and MLAs up and down this corridor.
I think that there has been a phenomenal record of recognition and investment in the Okanagan that I have been proud to be part of. And I think that I as a premier would continued to recognize the important role that the Southern Okanagan plays and the entire Okanagan plays to the province of British Columbia in terms of tourism, trade, wineries and in all of the opportunities that are available here.
Western News: You have talked about wanting to do more for the highway route between Penticton and Hope and that you want to work with the mayors, specifically where are the areas of the highway that you think need the most work?
Falcon: I think the Hope-Princeton section in particular has got to be a priority and that has been informed by me listening to Mayor Randy McLean in Princeton who was talking to me about Copper Mountain and what that is going to mean in terms of increased commercial traffic and the importance of making upgrades on the highway. What I want to do is sit down with all the mayors along the Highway 3 corridor and say, 'How can we figure out a five-year vision for the Highway 3 corridor that will see us accelerate some capital improvements along the entire corridor recognizing how important it is, particularly for tourism, but also for some of the economic activity that we are going to see happening along there, particularly with some of the mining opportunities in Princeton.’
(As) Minister of transportation for six years you learn a lot about different parts of the province. We can't do everything all at once. There is no doubt about that but I do think we have to be responsive to what is happening on corridors and I think the Copper Mountain Mine creates a really important opportunity for us to try to get ahead of what we know is going to be happening in there and to get some significant investment happening. Now, we are going to be investing $40 million this year alone on Highway 3 so it is a pretty significant investment but I do think that if we sit down with the mayors we can identify together what the priorities are and start knocking them off, one-by-one over a five-year plan.
Western News: What about the long-term vision drafted by several local mayors for a four-lane highway from Salmon Arm to the US border in Osoyoos, is that a priority?
Falcon: I think that we have made a lot of investments along that corridor. I think the issue is that there is a lot that we can do and we have over $5.8 billion of federal and provincial capital commitments on transportation projects in B.C. just over the next three years. So, there is a massive investment that is going to be made in a transportation system over the next few years. And it is building on the largest transportation investment program in the history of the province of British Columbia that we've seen just in the last six years. So, we can be very proud of our record. But you don't get it all done at once. You worked through section by section and make those improvements as we have done here on Highway 97. And you continue to work your way along. That is the responsible way of doing it but it also signals to the public something that is very important and that is: there is a long-term commitment to get it done. And every year the public gets to see the progress that is being made.
Western News: As far as getting an interprovincial wine agreement done: who is against it; why hasn’t it happened already; and how quickly do you see it getting done?
Falcon: I wanted to come on board (with supporting this idea) because although it may seemed like a bit of an obscure issue, it is not an obscure issue for the wineries in British Columbia. We have some of the best wine in the world and yet we have this bizarre law in the books, dating back from the 1920s, that restricts folks that are visiting or are from British Columbia that want to buy wine and send it to family or friends across the country in Ontario, Québec or wherever. They are restricted from doing so as a result of that law. So MP Ron Cannon and Stockwell Day I know have been very supportive of this and have put forward a motion to have that fixed and changed. And I want to be on record supporting that because I think that it would be good for the winery business. And I think that the more we can let other Canadians know just how good the wine is in British Columbia, the better it will be. And it is something that I want to be on the record as supporting. If by become leader of this party and premier of this province I promise you that I will be championing that issue in Ottawa because I do think it is important. We shouldn't treat Canadians like bootleggers because they are trying to simply take wine from one province to another to share with family and friends. It just doesn't make any sense to me.
Western News: You contend that the HST, perhaps with a couple of percentage points taken off, is a good thing for the province, why?
Falcon: Because I think that it is the right tax policy for British Columbia if we want to have a competitive tax regime that will encourage investment in our province, create jobs and generate the kind of revenue we need to support our health care and our education systems. And even though we did just a horrible job of explaining it, or not explain it, and implementing it, the (HST) I believe is the right public policy. But I have said I will respect whatever the decision is that the public makes when they have their opportunity to vote in the referendum that will take place (currently scheduled for) September. But I have also said his leader that I would make sure that the public has the information so that they can make an informed vote. I think that it is very important to get the facts out to the public. Not sell them on the HST, but just give them the facts. And I have also said that I would, as part of my Listen, Learn and Lead campaign, listen to British Colombians in terms of what they think we could do with the HST. And what I have heard a lot of is that a lot of people see themselves supporting the HST, particularly if we march the rate down to 10 per cent. And I think that is what we need to do to get the public on board with what I believe is good tax policy and good public policy. And I am prepared to do it because I do believe it is in the long-term interest of our province.
Western News: And what about moving up the date of the referendum? How much damage is being done to the province's economy right now by having this guillotine hanging over certain industries for what will be close to a year?
Falcon: I don't think, candidly, that there is a lot of damage being done but I don't like the uncertainty. And certainly, I indicated that I'm open to having the referendum date moved forward. But I think we have to be responsible in ensuring that we don't set arbitrary dates. We want to make sure that it can be done in a way that Elections BC will be able to manage the referendum process responsibly. So, they do need time to get it done properly.
George Abbott had suggested June 24. I didn't have any problem with that. I agreed would that, subject to ensuring that it can be done responsibly. But it is not a decision that we as leadership candidates will be able to make. It is a decision that the premier and executive council would have to make a recommendation to Elections BC. So, whether they do that or not I don't know. But I am open to moving it forward but I think at the end of the day, I want to make sure the public gets the right to have that vote. So, I disagree with Christy Clark when she says she wants to take away that right. I just think that is fundamentally wrong. The public deserves the right to have the vote. I just want to make sure they have an informed vote.
Western News: When the BC Liberals brought in the HST did the party listen, learn and lead?
Falcon: No, we didn't and that is one of the reasons why we are paying such a big political price. And it is one of the reasons, in part, that it has cost the premier his job. There is no doubt about it. And that is because we didn't give the public the opportunity to let us listen to what they had to say. Now, I must say in our defense that there is not a history in parliamentary democracies of having broad-based discussions about tax policy. Typically, the way our system works is that tax policy is the one issue that is always closely guarded and appears in budgets. So, there really hasn't been any kind of tradition in having broad-based discussions about tax policy. However, given the nature of the change that we were talking about here, I do think the right thing to do would have been to say to the federal government, 'Look, we need some more time to be able to have a discussion with the public about this before we make a final decision.' In retrospect, that absolutely would have been the right way. But we were also facing a very, very difficult economic situation. We saw that the capital markets had melted down. We saw $2 billion of revenue we were relying on evaporate in 60 days. I can tell you as the minister responsible for the largest spending ministry in government, which was health, I was really, really concerned about the economic circumstances we were facing at that time. So, when we made that decision, we made it because we thought it was in the best long-term interest of the province. But we, in retrospect, absolutely should've said, 'Wait, let's pause and go have a discussion with British Columbians about this very significant shift in how we are going to eliminate the provincial sales tax and replace it with a harmonized PST and GST. We didn't and we should have.
Western News: What about the growing deficit during the election? Do you think the BC Liberals were as clear as you should've been with the public on just how quickly that was growing, as there was a big difference between the pre-election deficit numbers and the post-election deficit numbers?
Falcon: I don't think anybody anticipated that the economy was going to collapse so rapidly around the world. It was like nothing I had ever seen in nine years sitting around the cabinet table. Again, hindsight is always 20/20, in retrospect it would have been way better to say, 'Let's just put a really huge (deficit) number up there and if we come in under it, that would be great.' But we were trying very, very hard to maintain a discipline around deficit spending because we were the government that brought in the balance budget laws. We were the government that restored B.C.'s AAA credit rating on our debt. We are the government that got us back to balanced budgets. We are the government that brought in the financial penalties for cabinet ministers that said if we go into deficit we'll take 10 per cent pay-cuts which we have. And so, we wanted to get back to balance budgets as quickly as we could.
Today, even with a $1.7 billion projected deficit this year that is one of the smallest deficits in the country and, frankly, around the world. So, again British Columbia is very well positioned and we will be the first province back to having a balanced budget. I can almost guarantee that.
Western News: But the optics of it were not great.
Falcon: The optics were not great at all because we were trying hard to hold onto a (deficit) number that at the time seemed reasonable but in retrospect was not at all given how quickly things were deteriorating.
Western News: In hindsight, how realistic was the balanced budget legislation?
Falcon: It's good legislation.
Western News: But is it realistic?
Falcon: Well, maybe it is not realistic when you have a global economic meltdown. But nevertheless it is legislation that imposes a discipline on politicians that I think should be there. And in a perfect world, perhaps you have a clause that says if there is an international economic collapse of some sort there is something built into it, and we might have to look at that down the road, but I do think it is important to put a discipline on politicians that does not give them free rein to just spend like crazy because that is how we got our country, and historically under the NDP are province, into big financial problems.
I am proud of the fact that we have restored our AAA credit rating. We had that downgraded on five occasions under the NDP government in the 1990s that ran a deficit eight out of the ten years they were in power. That is not the kind of economic leadership we need in British Columbia. So, we want to get back to a balance budget as quickly as we can. It would be nice to get that 10 per cent pay-cut as quickly as we can, to be honest. But that is a discipline I think should be there and we should be held accountable for it.
Western News: What about having set election dates? Is that something you are going to stick by or are you open to the possibility of calling an early election, perhaps to acquire a mandate as a new premier?
Falcon: I was asked that question earlier today and my honest answer is: I think it is almost irresponsible to comment on that when you are in the middle of a leadership race because I'm focusing all my attention right now on trying to win the leadership race. And for any candidate to presume (winning the leadership and) to start speculating on when they might call an election, I think it's a bit presumptuous.
Western News: What about the legislation itself?
Falcon: The legislation was never meant to be a straitjacket. The legislation was to be part of a whole range of changes that we made in the democratic process in British Columbia which I'm very proud of. We brought in the fixed election dates. We brought in the balanced budget legislation. We brought in changes to question period to extend it from 15 minutes to 30 minutes. We brought in free-votes to allow government members the ability to vote against government legislation if they wished to. All of those were part of a package, it was never meant to be a straitjacket. It does allow for a premier to make an election call early but they will have to make that case to the public. And I think that is very important. So, at this point, for me as someone who's running for leadership of the party I haven't spent five minutes thinking about an election call. I have been spending every minute of my time trying to go out and build support for Kevin Falcon to try and become leader of his party.
Western News: What is the difference between having the fixed election date legislation and not having the legislation?
Falcon: I think the difference is, it says to the public, 'Remember we are a parliamentary system and in the parliamentary system fixed election dates are not typically part of our system.’ So, by its very nature, there has to be some flexibility recognizing 600 years of parliamentary history. But the reason we put it in place is we wanted to take away from the ability of politicians to manipulate the electoral calendar for their own narrow interests. Now, there may be some exceptions to that rule, and honestly we haven't had a leadership race in a government in this province in the entire time (the BC Liberals) had been in power. In fact, we haven't had one in our party for 17 years. So, it is a different circumstance. But again I just go back to the fundamental (point) that set election dates, I think, have been a great success. I think the public likes the fact that we have set election dates and I think that at this point in the middle of a leadership race it is premature for candidates to start speculating on whether you would even change the legislation or call a snap election or do any of those things.
Western News: When NDP MLA Norm McDonald was in Penticton he said that Gordon Campbell didn't spend enough time in the legislature answering questions during question period, how committed would you be to being in the legislature to answer questions?
Falcon: I think if you called Norm McDonald right now and ask him about Kevin Falcon and his love of answering questions in the legislature, I think you would find that I am not someone who shies away from question period and that I have enjoyed question period. In fact, I enjoy it a lot. I think it is the one great accountability measure that we have in our system that is wonderful. So, I love Question Period. I am very unique that way. But, you know, we do have to remember our premier does also have an additional set of responsibilities that sometimes make it difficult for the premier to be at every single question period. You can't ignore that reality. The premier has to be premier for the entire province and that means the premier has to travel the entire province and that sometimes the premier has international or national obligations to attend to. So, I will make this commitment that if I am fortunate enough to become leader of the party and premier of this province at every opportunity that I have to be in question period I will certainly be there. But I will not ignore the responsibilities I would have as a premier to attend national events or international obligations to ensure that I represent the entire interests of our party and our government.
Western News: Then, if you do become premier and enjoy the same success as your predecessor, ten years from now will you be the same Kevin Falcon that keenly goes to question period and answers all the questions?
Falcon: I will be exactly the same person. I have been that person for almost a decade now in public life. I have been a straight shooter. I think that most of the media knows that about Kevin Falcon. I say things as I see them.
You go talk to people in my riding of Surrey-Cloverdale and they will tell you that Kevin Falcon today is the same Kevin Falcon as he was 10 years ago. I think the strength of public life is staying connected to people and I am proud to represent the community I represented for the last 10 years. They are regular folks and they are good people. And I never lose site of the fact that they are the people who send me to Victoria to do the best job that I can possibly do. And I have been rewarded with an increased level of support in every election and I'm proud of that. And I think that I would take that same approach with the entire province should I ever have the honour to lead this party and become the premier of this province.
By Bruce Walkinshaw - Penticton Western News
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