Yahoo! Exclusive: B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix finds common ground with Stephen Harper

·National Affairs Contributor

Meet Adrian Dix, who, barring some catastrophic collapse during the upcoming campaign, likely will be the NDP premier of British Columbia after the May 14 provincial election. The New Democrats, crushed by the Liberals in the 2001 election after years of scandal and policy boondoggles, seem poised to return to power. The Liberal government under Premier Christy Clark, tired and demoralized, has been reeling under papered-over internal rifts and an embarrassing scandal over misuse of government resources for party purposes.

Dix, 48, has been in politics much of his adult life. He was an aide to B.C. New Democrat MP Ian Waddell and chief of staff to NDP premier Glen Clark from 1996 to 1999, which brings Dix his own baggage. The Liberals’ business supporters have run an attack ad for the last year reminding voters Dix had to quit after admitting he backdated a “memo to file” to cover for Clark in the so-called Casinogate scandal.

In an exclusive interview with Yahoo! News Canada, Dix talks about his expectations for the upcoming election campaign and reveals surprising common ground with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Yahoo! News Canada: What do you think the ballot-box question will be?

Adrian Dix: What we have and what we’ve had is a government over the last number of years that hasn’t done a very good job on the key economic questions, particularly the HST [the Liberals introduced the tax after ruling it out in the 2009 election campaign. It’s since been repealed by referendum]. Their actions have damaged the entire economy, both coming in and going out.

So what we need is a stable government that focuses on the real problems of today, which are ensuring that young people have the skills they need for the jobs of the future, making sure that we invest in our infrastructure and land base so that we’re continuing to drive economic growth and addressing issues of sustainability. Those are key questions and I think what we need right now is thoughtful, serious government that addresses those key problems and that is what we intend to deliver.

Looking at the campaign, it doesn’t officially start until the writ is dropped, but of course unofficially it’s been going on for quite some time. Do you think it’s going to be a dirty campaign? I’m thinking especially about the ad that’s being run by the Liberals’ supporters on the old forgery case and so on.

Dix: The Liberal party is engaging in some of the nastiest smear ads we’ve ever seen. Their first negative ad against me on TV was in December of 2011. They’ve been running TV and radio and Internet ads attacking me personally since then. We’re going the opposite way. We think that the public is tired of personal attack ads. Of course, we’re going to challenge them on some of the issues but I’m going to be respectful of our opponents and that’s what makes this race interesting. It’s a case of different leaders, different candidates, of course, and different visions of the province, so different strategies and different tactics. We’re going to run a thoughtful, positive campaign that respects the voters and clearly the Liberal party’s going to run very negative campaign of personal attack. It’ll be up to the voters to see which they like.

[ Related: B.C. NDP leader pledges positive election campaign ]

You guys have a huge lead in the polls. Obviously that’s going to shift a little bit as the campaign winds down but at the moment you’re practically in a separate time zone in terms of poll numbers. Are you concerned at all about that breeding some apathy in your supporters, getting people to work and getting the vote out?

Dix: The NDP’s always the underdog. The Liberal party has a lot more money. They’re currently spending $16 million in government money on ads paid for by taxpayers to convince the taxpayers to support them. They’ve got powerful support and they’ve won 18 of the last 21 elections in different forms. [the Liberals are seen as inheritors of the Social Credit centre-right coalition that ruled B.C. almost uninterrupted for four decades] So we’re the underdog, and we’re going to work as hard as we can right through to the end.

What we’re going to do, though, is be positive. We’re going to say what we’re going to do and how we’re going to pay for it. We’re going to be respectful of people and we’re going to try to bring people, particularly young people, back to the political process. I think the nasty debate that takes place in our politics has had a negative and depressing effect on turnout in elections and we’re seeking a mandate based on a positive message and that’s how we’re going to campaign and we’ll see how it goes.

Let me ask you about the platform, which of course isn’t out officially yet. There was an article in The Tyee back in January which said that if we look at your announcements during your leadership run we get a pretty good idea of the outline of the platform. Things like making it harder to export raw logs, more spending on programs like help for seniors, education and so on, perhaps rolling back some of the corporate tax cuts the Liberals had. Are those things we should expect to see in the platform?

Dix: First of all we’ve been clearer on key tax questions that any other Opposition in history. Two years ago now, I was specific about what we wish to do about big-business taxes and the minimum tax on the banks. Some of those proposals, by the way, the Liberals have adopted, at least in part. I think on the issue of skills training and ensuring that young people have the skills they need for the jobs of the future, our platform items for some of those areas have been out for as much as two years.

We’ve I think set very clearly the direction that we’re going to take the province. We’re going to address key issues. One is inequality — we have the highest absolute levels of inequality in the province in the country — dropping productivity, which hurts prosperity and economic growth, and issues of sustainability. What we’re going to see is a real focus on those in our platform. We have already. I gave a speech just today to the Langley Chamber of Commerce. I laid out some of those detailed positions and also said how we’re going to pick that up. That’s how we’re going to continue to act.

In terms of a fully-costed program, the Liberals just produced a budget which was I think one of the most improbable budgets we’ve ever seen in B.C. It’s a budget they say is balanced. It clearly contains a $1-billion-plus deficit. So we know we don’t have much in the way of resources, so every item that we’re going to consider spending on we have to look at with that in mind. There are going to be some items that we want to do that we’re not going to be able to afford to do right now. We have to say that clearly in the election campaign. That’s why we’re taking this process so seriously. It is a bit strange the Liberal party is complaining about it. (Former Liberal leader Gordon) Campbell in 1996 proposed his 10 days into the campaign period, which would be the equivalent of us doing it on April 26. In 2001 he did it five days into the campaign period, the equivalent of us doing it on April 21. So that’s what the historical standard is. I think we’ll be that just fine.

[ Related: B.C. Liberals repay $70,000 in misspent government funds ]

Let me ask you about Northern Gateway (project to pipe oil sands bitumen to a north-coast terminal for export to Asia). If the NDP win the election, is Northern Gateway dead?

Dix: We’re going to end the equivalency agreement with the federal government. Whatever the federal government decides is the provincial decision. Instead of all the posturing by the provincial government, that is the reality. Within 10 days of coming to office we’ll end the equivalency agreement and that will be a decision made here. People know where we stand on Northern Gateway. We think it’s not in our environmental or economic interests and that continues to be our position.

Is the B.C. position on Northern Gateway foreordained, based on your party’s position?

Dix: I think what’s happened on Northern Gateway is the public, the more they’ve learned about the proposal, the less they like the proposal. When we came out with our position of opposition in early 2012, at that time it was about 50-50. Now there’s I think massive opposition to the project. Remember, in part we’re having a debate about what the national interest is. The national interest for decades included a moratorium on all oil-tanker traffic on that part of the coast. We think that should continue to hold.

Which brings me to the question of an NDP government’s relations with the Harper Tories. How do you see that unfolding? You guys are pretty much at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Dix: I think it’s going to be very businesslike. In some ways I share some views with the prime minister on federal-provincial relations. I respect his jurisdiction and I’m hopeful he’ll respect our jurisdiction. Of many key issues in B.C., one of the key ones that will require the federal and provincial governments to work closely together is resolving First Nations issues in our province — an issue that will involve both levels of government. The first thing I would do as premier, the first meeting with the prime minister is to put those issues on the table and work together with the prime minister to help resolve those issues. The federal election ultimately will be fought between federal parties. I don’t plan to be the leader of the opposition in Ottawa; I’m ready to be premier of British Columbia.

[ Related: British Columbians don't buy balanced budget promise ]

Give me an idea of what views you think you share with Harper.

Dix: I think the federal government does want to make progress on First Nations issues and I’m hopeful, given the importance of that, the unique position of British Columbia where we haven’t seen a resolution of land claims or have treaties for most of British Columbia, that he will want to join with me and work on those issues. Another position that I agree with him on and have some sympathy on is the issue of, for example, procurement, which B.C. benefitted from in the recent decision around the federal ship-building contracts. He’s taken the position that they should be in Canada, that we should favour Canadian procurement in terms of shipbuilding, and obviously B.C.’s benefitting from that.

I think finally I have his view that to respect jurisdiction is one that I agree with in general, that the federal government should operate within its jurisdiction and the provincial government should operate in its jurisdiction. We have some differences of course, but my point is we have an excellent leader of the Opposition in Canada, Thomas Mulcair, and people have an opportunity to choose the next federal government in 2015. That’s not the issue in the next provincial election. It’ll be my job to work with whoever the prime minister is in the interests of all British Columbians.

Your old boss (Glen Clark) used to enjoy baiting prime ministers occasionally. Are you going to be able to resist that impulse?

Dix: Well, Glen Clark is now the head of the largest private company in British Columbia, one of the largest private companies in Canada, so some things have changed. And one of the things that’s changed since that time is the nature of federal-provincial relations. So I’m not interested in reliving the 1990s; I’m interested in delivering for British Columbians now.

Speaking of Glen Clark, have you spoken to him in the last while?

Dix: Of course, I speak to him all the time. He’s a constituent. I have to listen to him.

How do you feel about his transition from union organizer to full-blown capitalist?

Dix: He’s been very successful at Pattison (Group). He’s the president of the company. That doesn’t surprise me. Glen’s a very entrepreneurial, dynamic guy and that’s shown in the work he’s doing there. I’m delighted at his considerable success.

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