Horgan says B.C. will focus on pandemic economic recovery, health reform in 2021

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VICTORIA — Premier John Horgan says economic recovery and health-care changes are the British Columbia government's top priorities for 2021 after the COVID-19 pandemic tested people individually and the resilience of the province.

Horgan said in a recent year-end interview that the pandemic has been a personal challenge for him as it has for others who have faced economic, social and health uncertainties.

Almost 900 people in B.C. have died from COVID-19.

"It's certainly tested me as a human being," said Horgan. "This has been such a sad time."

He said people have been "struggling" to find ways to stay safe and protect loved ones.

"What I've seen is the best side of humanity as we've all held together, knowing and recognizing that we are all fallible human beings."

Despite facing a projected budget deficit of $13.6 billion in the 2020-21 fiscal year, Horgan said the government will make economic recovery the aim of its budget in April.

"There are challenges around how we get the economy back on track and that's going to be the No. 1 priority come the budget in the spring," he said.

Health care will also be a major part of the government's agenda in 2021, Horgan said, as he joins other premiers to push the federal government to increase its funding above the current rate of about 23 per cent.

"A big change to how we deliver health care would be generational for Canadians and something I really want to focus on," Horgan said.

Provincially, health-care reforms will focus on improvements to long-term care in B.C., including hiring more care workers and cutting back on the number of shared rooms at care facilities, he said.

"I also want to make sure we learn the lessons of COVID-19 and that we make changes in long-term care, like reducing the number of multi-bed rooms and making sure we have sufficient staff to get our elders and our seniors the care that they deserve," he said.

Horgan's New Democrats won a majority government in October after he called a snap election more than a year ahead of the scheduled date.

The premier said the NDP's election win after three years of a minority government allows the province to focus completely on pandemic recovery efforts instead of announcements being measured as events leading to an election.

"What I'm happy about, quite frankly, is the politics is behind us," he said. "If we had gone into the next 12 months ... every decision that government made would have been put in the lens of some partisan argument either in favour or against. I don't have, in my opinion, the luxury to engage in that."

Green Leader Sonia Furstenau said Horgan's snap election call put the premier's political motivations ahead of the collaborative efforts to fight the pandemic between the Greens, B.C. Liberals and the NDP.

"We have a year in B.C. politics where for the first eight months the people of B.C., I think, felt really proud of what they saw from their elected officials," Furstenau said in an interview. "Then, I think, we saw the opposite in the last bit of the year with the election being called."

The two Green members of the legislature had an agreement to support the NDP in a minority government and Furstenau said it saddens her that was lost with the election call.

"It's disappointing but I've come back here and I'm determined as ever to work with all my colleagues and to remember, as hard as it can be sometimes, that we are in service to people first and foremost," she said.

Shirley Bond, interim leader of the B.C. Liberals, said the Opposition must look at next year as the start of a period of renewal for the party following its election defeat and resignation of leader Andrew Wilkinson.

The election saw Liberal members reduced to 28 seats in the 87-seat legislature, losing ridings to the NDP in Metro Vancouver and in their traditional Fraser Valley stronghold.

"There seems to be consensus that first of all, before we launch into asking a new leader to take on the role, we have to ask ourselves some hard questions," Bond said in an interview. "What are the reasons we didn't resonate as well as we should have or could have with urban voters."

She said "listening sessions" are underway and re-energizing the party is more of a priority than choosing a new leader.

"I don't think you'd be surprised to hear about the fact that they are concerned about our name," said Bond about long-standing concerns that the Liberal name does not appeal to the party's conservative wing.

"They also, as I, want to see a diverse range of candidates making sure our party reflects the faces of all British Columbians."

The B.C. Liberals are not affiliated with the federal Liberal party and describe themselves as "a made-in-B.C. free enterprise coalition."

Bond said timelines for the party's renewal process and leadership campaign will be announced next year, but they will not be rushed.

"We want to give the leadership candidates a sense of where people think we need to go," she said.

Bond, who has ruled herself out of the leadership race, said the party needs a leader who is bold and visionary.

"They need to be able to capture the interest of British Columbians," she said. "They need to be passionate about where we live. They need to be able to show British Columbians the path forward under a B.C. Liberal government."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 31, 2020.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press