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Lessons from the Campbell years could be applied to COVID-19 recovery

Last Updated Sep 13, 2020 at 3:44 pm PDT

Summary

A former cabinet minister is out with a new book looking at the first term of the Campbell government

George Abbott is the author is a new book, Big Promises, Small Government

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – It has been nearly a decade since Gordon Campbell stepped down as Premier of BC, felled by the backlash to the Harmonized Sales Tax.

His resignation came not even two years into a rare third-term and mere months after the 2010 Olympics. Now, a new book looks back at his first term in office.

“Gordon and I did not part on the best of terms. We certainly don’t go out of our way to find one another or find out what [one another] is thinking and reading these days,” admits George Abbott, who was Minister of Community, Aboriginal, and Women’s Services from 2001 to 2004.

That’s not likely to change with the publication of Abbott’s new book, Big Promises, Small Government: Doing Less with Less in the BC Liberals New Era.

AUDIO: George Abbott

So, why write the book now? “Why now? Well, I think it’s a hugely important time to be thinking about questions around how do we fill things like fiscal deficits, how do we address economic problems — of course, we have some of the most difficult problems ever as a result of COVID-19,” he explains. “It’s not just a problem in British Columbia, it’s a problem in Canada, it’s a problem across the world.

Big Promises, Small Government focuses on the first term of the Campbell government.

The BC Liberals were armed with a powerful mandate after winning 77 out of 79 possible seats in the 2001 election, ending a decade of NDP rule.

The big promise of the party’s New Era campaign platform was a dramatic tax cut that Gordon Campbell was convinced would pay for itself. That ended up being far from the case.

“It ended up being a $4.4 billion fiscal hole to be filled. The book is really the story about how we got there and how the government attempted to get itself out of that very deep hole,” says Abbott.

“Again, I think there are some very important lessons there for our current situation.”

On Thursday, Finance Minister Carole James revealed the government faces a fiscal year-end deficit of $12.8 billion, up from the $12.5 billion forecast in July.  Compare that to the February budget, which was projecting a modest $227 million surplus.

Abbott has this advice about tax cuts: “Governments need to think about, ‘Well, what will this look like if it doesn’t produce the benefits that we think it will?  What are the unintended, unanticipated consequences?  What are the cumulative impacts that might be occur social programs if we do this?'”

As Abbott lays out in the book, the Campbell government soon found it hamstrung by having to pay for a 25 per cent personal income tax cut and a pledge to have a balanced budget by 2004, all without sacrificing the budgets of core ministries like Health and Education.

So, instead of doing more with less, the government now could only do less with less and Abbott’s ministry bore much of the brunt.

“I hope no-one seizes on tax cuts as, somehow, the recipe for getting ourselves out of the very big COVID fiscal hole that we have today because, if it doesn’t work out, it will produce even more adverse consequences than otherwise for the disadvantaged and the vulnerable who rely on social programs from the government.”

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Abbott points out that Campbell and then-Finance Minister Gary Collins had decided beforehand to go ahead with the tax cut, even as the BC economy was on the edge of recession.

“Governments will doom themselves to failure if they embrace, for ideological reasons, the kind of fast road to recovery that is seductive, but which, I think, holds unacceptable risks for the population of British Columbia.”

As for what Campbell may think of Abbott’s conclusions, it may be best to let him have the last word on that too.

“I hope that he gets angry enough would not be a nice way to put it, but I hope he gets fired up enough about my book that he will write a book himself. I think that would be an interesting counterpoint.”

Big Promises, Small Government: Doing Less with Less in the BC Liberals New Era is available from UBC Press.

– With files from Liza Yuzda