B.C. legislature columnist Tom Fletcher’s year-end interview with B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson.
TF: Andrew, it’s been an eventful year for you. One of the things new party leaders encounter is a struggle to make themselves known to the public. What’s 2018 been like for you?
AW: It’s been a very busy year. I got the leadership job on Feb. 3 this year, and through the summer it was fairly quiet, and in September and October there was the issue of visibility. But once we had the [proportional representation] referendum debate on Nov. 8, that issue seemed to take care of itself. There was a lot more recognition of what was going on, and I was told I did a good job of keeping John Horgan under control and making sure they were telling the truth about this referendum.
TF: Another thing that’s taken place is the transition to personal-only political donations. The last report I saw, the NDP were out-fundraising the B.C. Liberals by two to one. Did you expect that? Is that a problem?
AW: I think we have to remember that in the leadership campaign, the candidates raised almost $4 million amongst them. And that’s the same donor pool that was asked to give to the B.C. Liberal Party.
So it’s not surprising that the NDP were outpacing us this year in fundraising, because we were, in the aggregate, beating them three to one if you add in the leadership money. We’ll get a more active fundraising campaign going in the very near future. If anything, it’s surprising how little the NDP raised. Normally when people are in government there’s enthusiasm to support their efforts, and we sure didn’t see that about the NDP. So we’re pretty confident things will fall into place in the next year.
TF: Enough politics, on to the policy. You’ve talked quite a bit about ending ICBC’s monopoly, but I’m not quite sure how far you’re willing to go there. Does that mean eventually privatizing vehicle insurance completely?
AW: ICBC is a 45-year-old state-run monopoly. Nobody likes it. It’s not doing very well. So the obvious question is why don’t we look all around the world at other models. There are only five million people in B.C. and there are 330 million in the U.S. and 30 million other people in Canada. Everybody’s buying auto insurance, so is there a better way to do this?
We’ve got to ask hard questions. Is it time to convert it into a co-op or a mutual insurance company that’s owned by the policy holders, and they get some control over it? Is it time to introduce competition? These are very good questions and we’ve got to get those questions into the public eye, and we do that by comparing best practices around the world, not by carrying on with this monopoly model that’s not working any more.
TF: One of the struggles they’re having, in addition to what seems to be a declining skill of drivers, is the whole ride-hailing discussion. They need a custom insurance package for that. Do you think the existing ICBC can do that?
AW: I’ve talked to the taxi industry and they tell me that in some circumstances, to start a cab on day one of the year, you pay $37,000 in insurance. And if you only run the cab two days a week because of peak demand on the weekends, you’re going to lose money. So clearly we need more flexible insurance products, so we can get the service that people in B.C. want. And it occurred to me, why not open up the taxi market to private competition for insurance? It’s done all over the world.
TF: And phase in competition in the insurance industry, starting there?
AW: Sure. It’s obviously a ripe topic, because people are looking for a better deal in the rides they get, whether it’s a taxi or with ride hailing. If the taxi companies can get a better deal on insurance, then the ride hailing people can supposedly get a better deal as well. Flexibility is what the modern world’s about. It’s not about buying insurance for the full year when you’re only going to operate the vehicle 10 days a year.
TF: We’ve seen a few tax changes this year. What would a B.C. Liberal government do with the speculation tax, the payroll tax to replace Medical Services Plan premiums?
AW: In 15 months, the NDP have introduced 18 new taxes or raised existing taxes. That’s not good for anybody in B.C., because all it does is transfer assets out of the hands of the public into the hands of government where they supposedly know better what to do with it. We’re very skeptical about that. The people of B.C. are entitled to get value for money and taxes in this province are getting way too high.
The NDP put taxes up by $5.8 billion in the last year, and we have yet to see anything to show for it. So it’s time for us to have a complete overhaul of this, starting with the NDP tax increases, and talking about getting rid of things like their phoney speculation tax, which is really just a tax on retirement.
TF: Medical Services Plan brings in a lot of revenue, even as it’s being phased out. Is it really practical just eliminate that without replacing the revenue?
AW: The MSP premiums were cut in half by our government in 2017, and we said as the economy grows we’ll get rid of them all together. Along comes the NDP and basically triples those premiums by adding on the employers’ health tax, which is on top of MSP premiums. So in the coming year, people who pay the tax will pay triple what they paid before. That’s a big problem.
We’re seeing it in the city of Vancouver where I pay property taxes. My property taxes are going up by hundreds of dollars to pay the employers’ health tax. So it’s not like anybody’s getting anything for free. There’s only one taxpayer, and sooner or later, somebody has to pay these taxes.
TF: One tax the NDP is intending to get rid of, and that’s the liquefied natural gas income tax. That seems significant in terms of having an LNG export project actually proceeding out of Kitimat. Was that a mistake by your government, looking at “debt-free B.C.” in the last election?
AW: We all remember in 2013 there was a big push by the B.C. Liberals to encourage an LNG industry to develop. A lot of projects came onto the table, and because of market conditions, a lot of them started to slow down from 2016. And we put together a package that served the interests of British Columbians and ensured that prosperity would come if the LNG industry decided to set up here.
Then lo and behold, the NDP decided to cancel a bunch of those programs to make sure they could attract major investors. And we have to understand, the NDP are not exactly investor friendly. They create all kinds of barriers to investment, things like payroll taxes, things that make investors pause. So what they did with the LNG industry was just drop the income tax to nothing to make sure the industry would come here.
They continued the B.C. Liberal program to get an LNG industry to come here, and we won’t know for many years whether they gave away the store to get it.
TF: There was no LNG income tax anywhere else. That was invented here. Are you suggesting the NDP government isn’t getting enough out of the resource?
AW: It’s possible the NDP gave too sweet a deal to LNG Canada. We don’t know that, but that’s going to have to be examined in the future. Of course the regime has to be competitive. At the same time, we can’t give away our resources. We’ll have to look at that as time goes by.
TF: Labour legislation changes. We’ve seen the NDP make what they say is a significant reform to what went before, and that is the flipping of senior care contracts, allowing them to get out of a union contract by reincorporating. Was that a mistake by the previous government?
AW: When this change came through about labour agreements in care homes, it was surprising how there was no real concern about it. Both the providers and the unions said, ‘Oh yeah, that makes some sense. Let’s carry on.’ So it became completely non-controversial.
I think the bigger issue that we have is that the NDP are proving to be excessively union friendly in things like their supposed community benefits agreement, which is really a union bosses benefit agreement, where they have cut a deal with only 19 of the many construction unions and said, ‘You’re our friends. We will reward you and make sure that major projects are only run by your union members.’ Whereas the other union members and the non-union members are completely cut out.
So the NDP basically said to 85 per cent of construction workers, ‘You’re not welcome, you’re not our friends,’ the people who donated to the NDP in the past, and now they get a sweet deal.
TF: What are the cost implications for something like the Port Mann Bridge or the widening of Highway 1 in the Interior?
AW: It doesn’t sound like a big percentage, but seven per cent of $1 billion is $70 million that’s being handed off to the union bosses. That’s a big problem. So on the Pattullo Bridge, which goes between Surrey and New Westminster, the on-ramps at the south side, we’re told that’s not part of the deal any more because they can’t afford it. That’s being dumped onto the City of Surrey.
And if you do the math you say, wait a second, the cost of the on-ramps is what you gave to the union bosses. So what we’re going to see is fewer projects will be built at increased costs because the budget is going to get used up by sweetheart deals for the NDP’s friends.
TF: What about the local hiring restrictions there? That seems on the face of it to be a good thing, that people are hired locally before they’re hired from further out.
AW: It’s a small-minded approach. Construction workers in heavy industry in B.C. are used to working all over the place. They go to Alberta regularly to get work. So to tell people that they have to live within 100 km of where the project is, is really an arbitrary, government-created rule. If you’re a crane operator and there’s no operator locally, they’re going to have to find you anyway.
We heard immediately from aboriginal construction companies, who said ‘Wait a second. We’ve been working hard to get our place established in the economy.’ Generally the aboriginal people are based in more remote areas like around Shuswap Lake, and they were saying they’re going to get cut out of these highway projects because they don’t live 100 km away. That’s just not fair. It’s an hour drive.
TF: We’ve had a relatively unstable minority government here. Do you think there is a chance of an election in 2019?
AW: We’ve had votes in the house that were tied recently. That means it’s a pretty unstable situation. We’ve got all this chaos going on in the Speaker’s office, and we have the Nanaimo by-election coming up. So anything could happen in 2019, and we will be ready.
Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press Media. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org