The Race For Premier: George Abbott

The Liberal leadership hopeful on his plans for B.C., politicians he admires and if being premier will change him.


In all your official biographies, much is always made of the fact you once owned the “oldest and largest berry farm in the Interior.” I was just wondering what this achievement represents to you.
I guess it reinforces the rural, agrarian roots that I have in my life.

My grandparents moved to Sicamous back in the 1930s during the Depression. They had been farmers in Manitoba and lost their farm during the Depression and came to Sicamous, bought a farm there. My parents got married after the Second World War and moved to Sicamous. I was born there in 1952. I guess it’s just a big part of my life.

Do you think you gained a lot of private sector experience?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I went into partnership with my father in 1976 on the farm, and I was, what I will term “a real farmer” until 1996 when I got elected to the provincial legislature. It was pretty tough to be a real farmer after that, though I still have the farm in Sicamous. It is not a properly functioning berry farm anymore.

Compared to the other men and women running for the Liberal leadership, what do you think distinguishes you?
First, my experience in politics is probably deeper than any of the other candidates. I’ve had extensive municipal, and regional district experience, as well as extensive provincial experience. I have a track record of proven success in working with people in the ministry of health, ministry of education, aboriginal relations, community aboriginal women's’ services, sustainable resource management. In all of the political positions I’ve had, I’ve demonstrated an ability to reach out to people, to get them working together, and to build constructive solutions together.

Do you see that lacking in some of your competitors?
Well, I only speak for myself. I’m sure all of them have their respective strengths, and so on, as well. But that’s what distinguishes me, and I think it’s something that I have proven over and over again. I’m not saying that to disparage anyone else, but rather to speak of myself.

If I asked you to describe your political ideology, how would you do that?
I would say that I am pragmatic, I would say that I’m moderate, I would say that I attempt to embrace common-sense solutions. What I find, is that around the cabinet table our traditional notions of left wing and right wing have remarkably little meaning. In any given question, people generally gravitate around common-sense solutions as opposed to ideological solutions. But you know, in terms of where do I sit in the party, I would probably characterize myself as a moderate.

Do you think that will make you a predictable premier?

It seems to me when you have a firm ideology, the voters know very much what they’re getting. When people say that they’re a moderate, it can sometimes be unclear how they will rule on any given decision. There will be a lot of contentious issues where you have to come down hard on one side or the other.


So, I would say that people can look at my record in the most difficult ministry of government, health care -- where I was minister for four years -- and get a sense of the kind of solutions that I embrace. And they are almost invariably solutions which make sense, which make systems stronger, which capture the best elements that people can bring to the table.

If you speak, for example, with Deborah MacPherson, the president of the B.C. Nurses’ Union — not always a great admirer of the B.C. Liberal government, and of course I say that with tongue in cheek because she is not much of an admirer at all — I was able to work with her, and she said some quite kind things about me in this campaign, which was very nice.

I’m able to work with people. I was able to build a very constructive relationship with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation — again, not always admirers of the B.C. Liberal government. And emergency room physicians, you could speak to them about how I am to work with. You could speak to the Union of B.C. Municipalities, where I have an honorary life membership, about how I am to work with. You could speak to the league of conservation voters and [their president] Matt Price. I was, I believe, perhaps the only B.C. Liberal MLA back in 2005 who won their endorsement. And they did that because of the way I worked with environmental groups, as well as First Nations, as well as industry, to try and reach accommodation on the central and north coast plants.

What is the ideology of the NDP?
The NDP, I would say, ranges from people who would be best categorized as social democrats. There may even be a few liberal democrats left in the party, but probably not many. I’d say the general range in the NDP would run between moderate social democrats, of the Tony Blair ilk, to some pretty radical folks who still have an affection for anti-capitalist rhetoric and anti-business rhetoric.

At your leadership kick-off, you said one of the main planks in your campaign would be strong support for free market principles. What does “free market principles” mean?
It means the ability of business to conduct themselves in their economic affairs in a way that is not inordinately inhibited by government regulation or government taxation. And provide opportunity for them to be successful, to get a return on their investment when they invest in British Columbia. That would be my understanding of free market principles.

Why are we not seeing more free-market solutions in health care?
I think there’s probably a variety of reasons for that. Some of the reasons would be historical. We have a pretty unique history in terms of the development of health care in Canada and British Columbia. You can go back as far as the late 1930s, early 1940s, and see that the B.C. Liberal governments of that period were in fact proponents of a provincial medical care system.

I think in Canada there’s been a greater willingness to accept socialized medicine than has ever been the case in the United States. It may relate to our cultural links to Great Britain, where there has been a long history of public medicine.


If you look at jurisdictions around the world which are similar to British Columbia and Canada, and the kind of medical systems they have, probably our cousin in terms of that would be New Zealand, which I visited when I was health minister. New Zealand has a health care system which is remarkably similar to ours, and it has been developed half a world away. I think the reason why it looks so much like ours is because their population is almost identical to ours. They have First Nations health issues, just as we do here. They have strong south Asian populations, just as we do here. And they also have that historic linkage to Great Britain as part of the Commonwealth. So I think that’s probably why.

Our links to Britain on this area have been stronger than our links to the United States, where, of course, private medicine still prevails.

Do you think that the B.C. government is too big?
No. I think that whether government is too big or too small, I’d want to look at it on a ministry basis and a functional basis.

I don’t think there are many areas of the provincial government that have not been brought into minimal sizing. We’ve had all manner of economic challenge in the last couple of years, and we’ve seen reductions in many ministries, particular in our resource ministries, and if anything those resource ministries are lacking in resources today. They are, in some instances, not having sufficient manpower to maintain their mandate. So I would not agree with the proposition that the provincial government is too big.

Are there realms where government doesn’t belong?
Of course there are. There will always be realms where government doesn’t belong, and I think our government over the past 10 years has taken itself out of most of the areas where their participation is not necessary.

Such as?

Well, back when I was a minister first in our government, one of my responsibilities was co-operatives, and the sort of regulation and management of co-operatives. That was an area where I didn’t believe we needed to have a role. Co-operatives take pretty good care of themselves, just as other areas in the world of business. So as a general proposition, government should only be where government needs to be.

If you become premier, will you have any interest in holding elections for the Senate?
That wouldn’t be high on my list of priorities. I don’t necessarily find it objectionable, but it wouldn’t be high on my list of priorities.

My government will focus, first of all, on trying to get our resource industries healthy, viable, growing, and diversifying. That will be the most important thing. The second thing we need to focus on is ensuring every young British Columbian has an opportunity to perform well, to have access to skills training, to be a part of the growing economy of British Columbia. That’s enormously important to me.

Our history of aboriginal relations in this province would suggest that governments over the past 150 years have done a number of things to undermine First Nations communities and culture, and we need to support the re-entry of First Nations people into our economy.

Do you think First Nations people are better suited under the existing reserve system than they would be if they were integrated fully as Canadians?
That’s a decision for First Nations to make.

What do you believe?
Currently, about 70 per cent of First Nations live off-reserve. That’s a choice that they make, not a choice that government should make for them. Government has made far too many choices for First Nations over the past 150 years. Choices about residential schools, choices about whether they could participate in law and politics, choices about whether they could own their own land, choices about their participation in things like fishing and hunting and so on. So that’s a choice for First Nations to make, not a choice for me to make on their behalf.

There is a lot of public disillusionment with politics, “politics as usual,” as they say. And a lot of times people say that the problem is with the system, more than anything else. That’s possibly why there was such high turnout for the electoral reform thing, just that people wanted a change.

And I was just wondering if you had any agenda of parliamentary changes, party changes, anything to change what could be described as the political “system” of this province in any substantial way.
That’s a very good question. First of all, there is, unquestionably, a great deal of cynicism about politics and politicians in all western democracies today. Some of that has grown up since the 1970s, and certainly in British Columbia I think cynicism is particularly strong at this point. I think our government has lost the trust and confidence of British Columbians, and we need to take some steps to rebuild it, and reconnect with British Columbians and try to win back their trust and confidence.

I’d say in terms of what we can do, I think some of the recent problems that the New Democratic Party has experienced around their leadership and unity within their group are symptomatic of how challenging it is to work in politics these days.

I’d like to see the B.C. legislature be a more functional and effective body. We have had a lot of bitterness and division across the legislature. I guess currently there is some bitterness and division within the parties, too. I’d like to see more opportunities for private members to participate in decision-making within the government. I’d also like to see more opportunities for the opposition and the government to work together on the committees of the legislature, whether it’s education, or health, or other committees. I think there’s some good work that could be done, and perhaps that’s one of the ways we could start to bring down some of the long-term animosity that exists within the legislature.

Is B.C. becoming too ethnically segregated? There are a lot of communities and neighborhoods where people can live and never speak English -- and never have any need to -- because they’re so insular and self-sustaining. I think it’s something that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and I’m just wondering if this is a trend that troubles you at all.
No. I think British Columbia has wonderful multicultural communities. I think British Columbia is an extraordinarily diverse, richly diverse society where there is much respect and understanding that exists between and among ethnic groups. I think we have a pretty good and open society here that welcomes and embraces multiculturalism and ethnic diversity. I think that’s a very positive thing.

Do you worry that becoming premier will change you?
No, I don’t worry about that. I’ve been in elected office since I was 26 years old. I’ve had other important roles in government before and none of that has changed me and I don’t expect being premier will change me either.

What is your biggest fear for the province? What do you worry about for our future?
I think the economy is my biggest concern. We’ve recently come through a very difficult period economically for the province. It was triggered by the sub-prime mortgage meltdown in the U.S., but it had dramatic impact right across the western world, including British Columbia. We probably fared relatively better than most jurisdictions in Canada, and certainly much better than jurisdictions in Europe, like Ireland, Spain, Iceland, and so on. We’ve done much better and we appear to be, at least tenuously, looking at a recovery here in B.C.

But to me, the imperative thing is that we continue to build and diversify our economy. We are really lucky in this province that we have been blessed with the range of natural and human resources that we have. But we can’t take those for granted. We need to keep building economic opportunity here, because what occurs when you have an economic meltdown, such as what was experienced in 2008-2009, is it very quickly calls into question our ability to continue to manage our wonderful health care and education system. Those two systems cost us close to $25 billion a year. So we need to have a growing, thriving economy to maintain those.

So to me that’s the central thing and that’s my biggest worry: that something unusual or unexpected might happen in the world, and suddenly we’re again faced with making these awful choices about how to survive through a difficult downturn.

Who are your political role models? Especially in a contemporary context, who do you look at around the world and maybe see a bit of yourself?
I think this will be a surprising answer to you, no doubt. I’m kind of a political history buff. I taught political history at the Okanagan University College and I published a couple of pieces in B.C. Studies, so I know the politicians from the turn of the 19th Century foreword quite well. I think if there’s a politician I feel I resemblance or kinship to, it would be John Hart.

The old premier.
Yeah, John Hart was the leader of the coalition government from, I think 1941 to 1946. I think in personality and outlook and demeanour I’m probably most like John Hart. Which is kind of a weird answer, I know, because no one even knows who John Hart is.

Your answer brings an interesting thought. The B.C. Liberal Party, I find, tries to exist as something that only exists in the context of British Columbia. There seems to be something of an aversion to allowing the B.C. Liberal party to be understood in a sort of a larger political context, either ideologically, or policy-wise, or whatever. And I wonder if that can really be sustained in the long term. At some point, don’t people want to know where you stand in a context that escapes the idiosyncratic world of British Columbia?
Yeah. Well, obviously when I was a kid growing up I had this perverse genetic twist that made me interested in politics when I was, like, four years old. And I remember talking to my mother about Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker, both of whom I admired at that time. And of course when John Kennedy got elected in the U.S., he was a bit of a phenom, and to me that was really interesting as well.

What did you think about Mr. Trudeau?
Oh, I was much impressed with Trudeau at the time. I remember when he came to the Okanagan, what, back in 1967? I would have been 14, 15 years old when he first blew in as a leader. I was impressed, yeah.

Do you think his legacy stands up to this day? I imagine that the B.C. Liberal Party would govern quite a bit differently than he did.
Well, Trudeau was a complex figure and not everything he did was admirable, but much of it was. You need to dig a little more deeply into people’s lives and what they did. You know, politicians change over time, too, and I think Trudeau would be among those who did.

There were fundamentally decent people like Robert Stanfield, too, who I admired a lot, too.

To become a premier seems like it would be such a fascinating moment for someone who is interested in such things, because you’d be so aware of yourself transforming into this historical entity. Someone who would be remembered forever, and someone whose picture would always be on the wall and in the textbooks and things.

It’s true.

Is it an overwhelming feeling?
It does seem at times a bit bizarre, yeah, that I’m in this position. I was a political science student at UBC and the University of Victoria and we talked about the things I’m currently doing. But you may find yourself in that position someday, too.