Tom Fletcher’s year-end interview with Premier John Horgan.
TF: Premier, it’s been an eventful year, and one of the highlights is a referendum on electoral reform. You have said many times that reform is needed so that a minority of voters don’t control the direction of the province. The turnout was just a little over 40 per cent. How do you square that apparent contradiction?
JH: Well, you don’t say that if a mayor and council that are elected with 20 per cent of the voters turning out that they’re not legitimate. Democracy is about showing up. I’m pleased that we got 41-42 per cent voter turnout for a mid-term mail-in referendum. I think that speaks to a significant interest in the subject matter, and I’m encouraged by that.
I campaigned to have a referendum. My Green colleagues preferred to just implement proportional representation. I wasn’t prepared to do that, and I have every confidence in the wisdom of B.C. voters and will live by the decision that they send us.
TF: You suggested voters should take a leap of faith. Any regrets about that?
JH: Not at all. Life is a leap of faith. Getting up in the morning is a leap of faith. We live in an antagonistic world. I’m an optimist and I think every time you’re stepping forward and making progress, that’s a good thing.
TF: In your new climate plan, is the intention really to phase out natural gas for home heating?
JH: The intent is to decarbonize our economy, absolutely. We have abundant natural gas, and we’re using that to advantage in most parts of B.C. We’re now in a position to export natural gas to other jurisdictions after the final investment decision by LNG Canada, the largest private sector investment in B.C., in fact in Canadian history. I’m very proud of that, and we’re going to continue to meet our targets, our obligations as a sub-national government within Canada.
And we’re also going to continue to grow our economy. We’ve led the country in economic growth, the lowest unemployment for 15 consecutive months, so I’m bullish on our future and it will be a cleaner future.
TF: Speaking of LNG Canada, you embraced Christy Clark’s argument that B.C. gas can displace coal in Asia, but emissions from that operation here will be significant. Can electric cars and solar panels on houses really make up for that?
JH: We need to electrify our economy. That includes our industrial activity. With the support of the B.C. Business Council, we have an MOU with them, the largest employers in the province, the largest investors in our resource economy but not just the resource economy. So we’re going to work together with organized labour, industry, the environmental community, Indigenous peoples and regular folks to make sure that we meet our targets and we continue to have a prosperous and dynamic economy.
TF: The opposition leader, Andrew Wilkinson, is concerned too sweet of a deal on the gas to get this export project. What do you say to that?
JH: I disagree with him. We sat down with investors when we formed government and said, where are we competitive and where are we not? We had four conditions. We need to make sure there’s a return to British Columbians, we need to make sure that we’re creating jobs here, that Indigenous people are full participants and that we can meet our climate objectives and keep our air, water and land pure.
I sat down with investors and told them this is the deal. They came back and said we have some challenges here. You’re charging us more for electricity than you are other industrial sectors. You’re charging us more for income tax than any other investor. That’s not fair.
I agreed with them. We sat down with the federal government and said we need to work together, two orders of government, to land this agreement so we can take what is now a stranded asset in large measure, our natural gas resources are not competitive with resources in other parts of North America, so how do we sharpen our pencils and continue to see those four objectives met.
We were able to conclude an agreement that will see $23 billion come to the province over the life of the project, that we’ll be able to put into health care, education, transportation and other services that people want. So I think on balance, we did the best we could to make a good deal. I’d say mission accomplished.
TF: Your minority government agreement with the Green Party, Andrew Weaver has suggested he might be looking to add some terms to that. What might that entail?
JH: What Andrew and I have talked about is we had an agenda, a two-year plan to keep government going, to have stable services for people, address the challenges that we mutually agreed on, and we have in large measure been able to achieve that. We’re very proud, both of us, of the work we’ve done to get here. And we agreed to sit down and look at what other issues we might want to put down on paper, so the public understands where we’re going and how we want to get there.
It’s not unusual in business to amend your strategic plan after a number of months or years, so that’s basically what we’re doing. I’m not at all concerned about that, and nor is Andrew. Ultimately the NDP and the Greens have to ensure that we’re on the same page to ensure that the public understands where we’re going, and having documents we can refer to is helpful.
This has been a unique period in our history. I think it’s been a positive period. We’ve done a lot. We’ve worked together, we’ve achieved some of the things we wanted to do and there’s more to do. On balance, I think it’s worked effectively and it’s not unreasonable to say, what else can we do so we have a road map to success.
TF: They don’t want LNG exports.
JH: And I disagree with them. And yet, here we are. And I said we needed to fit the LNG development within our climate plan and we have been able to achieve that, with the help of Dr. Weaver and the Green caucus, as well as the B.C. Business Council. We appointed a clean growth committee from across multiple sectors to give us advice. We followed that advice and we’ve got the strongest plan in the country if not the continent to realize our responsibilities.
It’s not B.C. warming, it’s global warming, and we all need to get on board with this. I’d like to see more action from the United States. I know my immediate neighbours in Washington, Oregon and California are as committed as we are here in B.C., and together we are the fifth largest economy in the world, from the Baja to the Alaska Panhandle, and that’s a competitive advantage for us.
We have an abundant supply of clean electricity that can get us to the place we want to get to. We need help from the federal government on electrification. I’ve talked to the prime minister about that, and I’m confident we’re going to meet our targets and continue to be the leading economy in the country.
TF: Transit is important in reducing fuel use. There’s been a lot of attention on Surrey and its plans, an extra $1 billion to go from surface rail to SkyTrain. Are they getting any more assistance from the province, and does that take away from other transit projects?
JH: When we formed government we met with the mayors and councils that existed at the time. That group had been working diligently for a number of years to come up with a plan for Metro Vancouver that we could all live with. When we were campaigning we said we would increase the provincial contribution from the traditional 33 per cent to 40 per cent, and the federal government followed suit. That meant only 20 per cent remained for the mayors and councils.
They brought forward a plan that included SkyTrain, included more buses, included light rapid transit in the heart of Surrey. New elections happened, new mayor and council in Surrey, they have a different point of view. If Mayor McCallum and Surrey can work within the Lower Mainland, where there were a lot of trade-offs, where different communities were prepared to give way to address the challenges in Surrey. We all agreed that was the best way forward.
Mr. McCallum has a different view. They voted to carry on with a study of moving from light rapid transit to SkyTrain with the clear understanding that there would be no more dollars coming from the provincial government. If Mayor McCallum wants to increase taxes in Surrey to expand the SkyTrain project further down the road, that’s entirely up to him. I’ve spoken to the prime minister, I’ve spoken with mayors in the region. We want to see transit up and running as fast as possible. We’ve committed an unprecedented amount of money to make that happen. Whether it’s SkyTrain or LRT is up to the mayors. Whatever they want, we will fund to the extent that we’ve agreed to.
TF: The wait continues for ride hailing.
JH: But there’s a big difference. There is now legislation in place for it to happen. The B.C. Liberals had five years to do that and did not. We had 16 months and we’re underway. Next year when we do this interview, we can hail a ride hailing company and we can sing karaoke in the back of the car.
TF: That sounds great. There is an argument that ride hailing services not only compete with taxis, but with transit. Is that a concern for you?
JH: Studies in New York City for example showed that congestion increased rather than decreased by bringing in ride hailing. You had the existing taxi industry and then you had new entrants trying to pick up fares, making it more difficult to move around. We were conscious of the congestion issue. We wanted to make sure that the existing industry had a transition period and that the rules were the same for both. That means a class four driver’s licence.
Some argue that’s a step too far, but the travelling public wants to be confident that the person picking them up has been trained to drive a vehicle and carry a person, that they have had a criminal record check, and that they are fully insured in the event of a catastrophic event. These are significant issues that were not able to be fixed by the stroke of a pen.
ICBC has to provide the insurance product, we have to make sure we’re getting those class four licences out to the people who want to pick up the slack, but we are convinced that if ride hailing comes, it will not be without consequences.
We wanted to make sure there were limited impacts on the existing industry. We’ve given them more licences, worked with municipalities to eliminate the barriers to travelling from Coquitlam to Richmond and back, where you can pick up fares. All of those issues were constraining the ability of the existing industry to be successful. The travelling public is in the front of our mind.
TF: 2019 is shaping up as a difficult year for employers. A lot of them are looking at continuing to pay some Medical Services Plan premiums and a hefty new payroll tax. With a billion-dollar surplus, was that necessary?
JH: The surplus wasn’t forecast. We forecasted a modest surplus in this fiscal year. We’ve seen consumer confidence. We’ve seen revenues, not from property transfer taxes, which was what we wanted, to dampen escalation in housing costs, to get that under control, and we wanted to make sure we make life more affordable for people. And that means small business operators, who were paying medical services premiums themselves, and other families, being the only province in the country that was imposing this tax on individuals. So we’re going to eliminate that by the end of the coming year.
In the interim, those very businesses that are asking for more child care, asking for housing affordability so they can retain employees, are going to get those services that they need.