Rebuild trust or face life in opposition – Abbott

Liberal MLA George Abbott admits his government made some “ugly choices” in the past two years and has deservedly lost the confidence of British Columbians.

Liberal leadership hopeful George Abbott addresses local supporters and curious at the Discovery Inn Sunday.

Liberal MLA George Abbott admits his government made some “ugly choices” in the past two years and has deservedly lost the confidence of British Columbians.

Abbott, the former health minister and one of six vying for the position of premier, said if elected he will work to make government more open to the public in an effort to gain back that trust.

“I think we need to rebuild the trust and confidence of British Columbians and we need to rebuild the connection at the grassroots level or I don’t think we’ll be re-elected. We cannot continue to be a Vancouver-centred or Victoria-centred government or we will fail,” Abbott, who hails from the small town of Sicamous, told a crowd of about 40 people at the Discovery Inn Sunday when his campaign made a stop in Campbell River.

The biggest of the “ugly choices” Abbott referred to was the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) which was introduced last summer. Although Abbott said “he will campaign as vigorously as he can to keep the HST” he admitted the government made a “fundamental error” in how it handled the introduction of the tax.

“In May and June 2009 we knew tens of millions of dollars were going to drop off our revenue stream – we had a challenge but we didn’t share it with the public. We had a revenue crisis but we didn’t tell the public how scared we were and it was fundamentally bad politics that we didn’t do that. We didn’t share the collapse we were going to see,” said Abbott.

The government had few options – raise taxes, make further cuts in grants to programs which had already suffered a reduction of $200 million, or introduce the HST. Abbott said the HST came with an offering of $1.6 billion to the province in federal transfers.

“When you just finished ripping away $200 million you look pretty favourably at $1.6 million,” said Abbott. “There were some ugly choices made and we can’t continue to do that. We need to work at acquainting people honestly and bluntly with the challenges we’re faced with in British Columbia.”

Abbott said he not only promises an open-door policy as premier but a commitment to developing rural resources.

As a former berry farmer in his hometown of Sicamous, Abbott knows the importance in supporting the resource industries to bolster the economy.

“It all starts with the resource industries, it’s absolutely critical for me. There is no substitute for that,” said Abbott. “If we want a future in Campbell River we need to provide opportunities for children outside the golden triangle of Vancouver.”

Abbott said he supports the growth of industries important to the North Island – forestry, mining and aquaculture and is committed to making them viable, sustainable and prospering once again.

Abbott, who has been in elected office for 30 years, also supports a change to his party’s voting system – from the one member, one vote style – in order to give smaller communities as much influence as larger cities.

On Feb. 12 the Liberals will decide whether or not to switch to a weighted vote which aims to give all regions of the province an equal say in choosing a leader by having each riding worth 100 points.

Candidates would compete for those points in each riding, no matter how many Liberal members there actually are in the riding.

“I’m hugely in favour of the weighted voted, it moves the authority to elect a leader out of the major cities – many members currently are concentrated in the Lower Mainland so rural areas get less of a say,” said Abbott. “I can confidently say that George Abbott of Sicamous has a very minute share of those votes (from members). I don’t have the connections in those large communities where you can sign up a whole bunch of people in one shot.

“If we don’t adopt this new system my chances of winning are very slim, I can be blunt about that.”

On Feb. 26 Liberal party members will elect Premier Gordon Campbell’s replacement. Abbott has the declared support of 17 sitting MLA’s, including Comox Valley MLA Don McRae.

“When George put his name forward it took me about 13 seconds to say ‘that’s my guy.’ The opposition doesn’t like it when he gets up and speaks because he defeats them all the time,” said McRae. “He gets rural B.C. and knows how important it is. I know in my heart of hearts George is the one to bring all of B.C. together.”