MLA Ted Nebbeling (West Vancouver-Garibaldi) is the Liberal party's municipal affairs critic. A former mayor of Whistler, he recently sat down with Pique editor Bob Barnett to discuss provincial politics and the pending election.
Pique: Is the economy still the Liberals' number one priority?
Ted Nebbeling: It's the number one priority together with health care and education. These are the three items that we believe are inter-linked and that we will be discussing during the election. They're interrelated because with a healthy economy you can provide the very best health care for your dollars. The same for education.
I think it is what people want in the province, they want to see the economy getting better, they want to see people getting the benefits from it.
One of the things we will do, to stimulate the economy, is a considerable income tax reduction. We targeted that first and foremost in the strategy to rekindle the economy. That will be introduced within 90 days (if the Liberals form the next government). The key is that tax reduction, which will give people a bigger pay cheque, that money will be spent on a local level in the communities. So that's where the strength will come from.
Small business will be a real important part of that strategy for the economy. It will start putting more money in the communities, which means stores may hire more people.
The second wave of that is that the manufacturing sector is going to get more demand for goods, which again will create an economic stimulant. And that is where we think things will begin to develop, because when we have more purchases - we may see a reduction in income tax revenue for the provincial government, but at the same time other sectors, other tax areas will actually see an increase, and sales tax is a good example. When people spend their money back in stores an increase in sales tax revenue is inevitable.
At the end of the day we believe we will balance quite quickly. What we lose in revenues from tax cuts will be offset by higher revenues in other areas.
Pique: The economy is a little different than it was a year ago, with energy costs up, the American economy taking a downward turn. Has that changed your party's strategy at all?
TN: Well, not really because again we're trying to stimulate the economy on a local basis. We are not talking about broadening of the export markets - that will hopefully come, but that is not the initial hit that we want to institute to start making a difference.
The cost of energy is something that I'm really worried about. The export aspect - on the one hand I love the revenue, of course. But on the other hand I hate to see us becoming dependent on that revenue because I'm not sure the situation is going to be the same next year. California is one of the big buyers right now, but I don't know if their need is going to be the same as this year.
But more of my concern is: do we have the volume of electricity or power next year as we had this year? We have to be very careful depending on that kind of revenue to be an ongoing thing. It helped the province this year, no doubt about it. Hopefully in the future we will get more periods like that. But it should not be something everybody expects to be part of our daily lives.
Pique: Hydro itself had a $1 billion profit this year.
TN: $1.2 billion. What Hydro has done is a portion of that money has gone into a stabilization fund and that fund has been created with the knowledge that things will not always be as great as this year and we may have low production years, which means automatically the price would have to be increased to get revenue to cover the cost of operation.
So, rather than in a low production year Hydro having to up their rates, they have this stabilization fund to tap into to make up for the shortfalls.
One of the concerns, of course, is that is the money the premier is now giving people in rebates. It is totally out of that fund, which means that fund is getting depleted. I mean, there's still millions in it, but this particular rebate - about $325 million taken out of that account - God help us we don't get two or three low years because then we'd be in trouble.
The other thing that we will be doing is regulating Hydro again. Hydro was de-regulated in 1998, which was a big surprise to a lot of people; people didn't pick up on that. They de-regulated Hydro from the Utilities Commission. And the reason was in 1998 the commission said Hydro was making too much profit. Hydro had a freeze for a number of years, which means rates are not going up but they're not going down either. And they had about $130 million profit over and above what they were allowed under the Utilities Commission's guidelines. And rather than giving that money back - which the Utilities Commission said, give it back in the form of a reduction in the cost to consumers - the government took the regulatory function away from the commission. This is the cabinet. So the ministers themselves are now going to regulate Hydro.
So Hydro has been in an unregulated state for a couple of years and with all the profit Hydro has made now not one penny - besides the rebate which is more politically driven than actually calculated in a fair charge for power - instead of giving a reduction in the price of power, the government has said no we'll give you a one-time rebate but at the same time they take a lot more of the profit and put it in general revenue.
So consumers are getting hosed pretty bad. If the Utilities Commission was still in control they would have insisted on a considerable rebate based on this year's Hydro profit.
Pique: Will the Liberals hang on to Hydro or sell it?
TN: No, 100 per cent. All we have said is that as an operation Hydro will be analyzed. We will not sell it. That is a commitment made by Gary Farrell-Collins, who is the critic responsible for B.C. Hydro, and by Gordon Campbell. But we do believe the system can be much more effective. So we want to analyze it. And that is what we've said about all the Crown corporations. We want to see if the Crown corporations are run in a manner that gets the very best return for the people of the province.
That has really confused a lot of people. So, it's not for sale but we will look at how we can make it more effective.
The other thing is that we believe there is tremendous opportunity in the private sector for producing power, as we've seen at Miller Creek and Soo Valley. B.C. Hydro has vigorously fought these kinds of projects, they don't like them because they see them as a threat, them losing power over the creation of power.
We have made it very clear that we will encourage the private sector to start producing these little plants all over the province, wherever there's a source to do that. And that I think will help us over the long run to produce the power needed to sustain this province, and if there's surplus power that can be traded, or bought back at a better rate, that's fine. But the priority of power distribution should be the province first, at the very best price, and if the private sector can assist in producing power so much the better. And the trading of our power is secondary to that objective.
Pique: The forestry sector of the economy has taken a beating for the last few years. Is the Liberal plan still to emphasize secondary manufacturing?
TN: Very much so. We have had meetings for about two years now, a group in caucus, to look at what kinds of opportunities there are, what kinds of burdens there are. We expect a report by a consultant based on what are the real opportunities in this province for secondary manufacturers, but more important what are the hurdles that make it impossible today.
One of the biggest hurdles is the cost of getting the timber out of the forest, getting it to the mill. Today the cost because of all kinds factors - stumpage, super stumpage, cost of getting logging plans prepared for the provincial government for approval, and then of course labour - that cost all together is higher than whatever product they can deliver at the end of the line. That has really discouraged secondary and tertiary manufacturing.
What we see as part of the solution is to really tackle the whole stumpage system as we have it today, which is target driven. What happens now is that the province says three months from now this is the amount of money we want to get from the forest companies, it doesn't matter how they get it we want it, that is the amount. If there's low logging activity the stumpage is higher. If there's a lot of logging activity stumpage is lower, per cubic metre. So at the end of the day they still have to bring together that money. Of course one of the problems with that system is there isn't a market for certain types of wood today. So hemlock and balsam, for example, are very low revenue creators.
So as a consequence of that, harvesting costs being higher than what they can sell to the mill for, a lot of companies have just quit harvesting - like the north coast of Vancouver Island, it went completely flat. That meant because they didn't pick up their fair share of the revenues the other companies that did harvest got hit double. That's a huge problem.
So one of the first things, when it comes to forestry, is we're going to look at the whole stumpage issue. And I personally think we have to go back to what it was in the '80s, stumpage set by the market. So it is a global market that sets the prices. In good times and high prices the provincial government gets a hell of a lot more than what they would get in low times.
Pique: There seems to be a trend in the United States and Europe, and the rest of the world, for lumber retailers to have wood certified as sustainably harvested. Any problems with that?
TN: Well it has caused a lot of trouble because certain organizations in the past, global organizations, have created their standards and unless a retail outlet is willing to accept these standards as a guideline for purchasing lumber, these organizations would start a war against these retail operators, obviously affecting their sales, threatening their customer base.
The thing is every time you comply with a standard there's another group that comes along with another standard. What we have to do in this province is counter effectively the many misstatements that are made by some of these groups, especially in Europe. Greenpeace; I encountered them in Europe a couple of times when they were doing petitioning drives. And in all fairness, the people who man these tables have very little or no knowledge whatsoever of forest management practices in British Columbia. But it creates a sentiment. The pictures they use to illustrate how brutal we are with forests are old pictures, often. And it's really a misrepresentation.
We as a province have to start countering that seriously - and not by setting up another table next to them. But work with the regulators, work with the bodies that have powers, like the European Environment Commission, which is made up of all the European countries, and then move toward global standards.
I witnessed first hand an attack on British Columbia by various environmental groups, about our forest practices, and the European Commission was going to pass motions to condemn practices in British Columbia, and only by bringing this group of committee members to British Columbia and letting them see areas they wanted to see - they were here for 10 days. The night before they left we all got together and the forest practices they had seen was something they were going to bring back and talk about. And the message to the European common market countries was that Europe could learn a lot from the forest practices in British Columbia. That's the kind of thing we have to do, not poster campaigns.
So we will set up a fund to finance that kind of correction of the image created by groups that are not from here.
Pique: What's the Liberal position on the LRMP process just starting in this corridor?
TN: Where I blame the Ministry of Forests is they have waited so long. We were asking for the LRMP process at the time that they were setting aside land in the Protected Areas Strategy. There are today in the Ministry of Forests 28 different policies in place that all apply to the Soo TSA, policies such as the spotted owl areas, the SOCAs. There are policies on what are parks and what are not parks, policies on biodiversity and wildlife corridors - 28 of these policies are in place. They have been worked with for the last number of years, and nobody ever said let's put them all together and let that be the base where we start from for the Local Resource Management Plan. When I was the mayor I asked about this.
So I really blame the government for sitting on their hands, not doing anything and letting a lot of complications develop in the Soo TSA that I believe could have been avoided. I think we could have avoided a lot of hardship and confrontation had we done it when I asked for it as mayor. The mayor of Squamish asked for it, the mayor of Pemberton asked for it. We didn't get any positive response.
I mean, it's a worthwhile process, it has to happen. We have to have an LRMP. That a lot of work has already been done is an advantage, it means it should go faster. Ultimately we have to have an LRMP, a formal document that lays out the land use policies.
Pique: You talked a couple of months ago at an SLRD meeting about helping the regional district get on with regional planning. What's happening there?
TN: The regional growth strategy has been on the table for a while. The province has asked every regional area to create a growth strategy, a plan for land uses and so on. Unfortunately the whole thing has really gone off the rails. There's very few areas that have done the work on a growth strategy. The few places that have done it have only got headaches because of it. One of the first places is the Nanaimo Regional District. Because of the way they set up their growth strategy - it basically said all commercial activity is in Nanaimo and along the highway, and the other communities will help out with functions but will have no major industrial or commercial sectors. This has now led to everyone else but Nanaimo suffering. One of the problems is that Nanaimo now dictates to the regional board what, for example, Parksville can do as far as community development. So a lot of communities have looked at that scenario and said no way we want to be part of that.
I think it is essential that it is a strategy that reflects the objectives of the corridor and deals with the growth that is coming, in an effective way. But I don't think we have the formula to bring the parties together so at the end of the day all feel good. So one of the things that we are going to do is we are going to create regional charters as well. Like the community charter (for municipalities) we introduced.
If we get elected there will be a task force that goes on the road to really sit down with the regional boards and communities and say what are your problems, what is unique to your area that you feel you can not deal with because the regional legislation provides one solution for all areas. It doesn't work that way.
We have committed to go on the road, it may take six to eight months as a process, and then come back with a regional district charter. It will say here are the basics under which you have to operate as a regional district, but then you also have the authority and the right that if there's a certain uniqueness in your area that you as a regional board want to entertain, you can do that. You don't have to get our approval.
Pique: Land use issues are cropping up everywhere, whether it's regional growth strategies, LRMPs, treaty negotiations, the Delgamuukw decision, and in this region two ski area proposals. How do you move forward on these things?
TN: Well, personally, I'm really upset seeing good economic opportunities being scuttled because of aboriginal groups standing up and saying we don't want this. (The proposed) Cayoosh ski area is a good example. After nine years of studies and diplomacy and more studies and more changes in the rules, they got to that point - they had gone through a fairly substantial public process, and only after it was all done and they were told by the provincial government "Okay, you can go to the next step" to have an aboriginal community come up at that point and say "No, we don't want it." If they had said that right at the beginning - but I never heard that - that would have made it different, or at least their rejection would have been a consideration.
I find, quite frankly that British Columbia is being blackmailed when it comes to this.
On the one hand I recognize aboriginal communities have certain rights to certain properties, no doubt about it. I can not agree with this tactic that every time somebody proposes something that it is immediately a big "No".
Pique: Hasn't that all been affected by the Delgamuukw decision? There's uncertainty about anything to do with land use.
TN: Well what Delgamuukw basically said was "We're not going to make a decision. I want you guys to negotiate a solution."
Where I have a problem is that a band that has not started the treaty process claims half of British Columbia, and then every time something happens in that territory they say "No, that's ours." It's a fact that if every band got what they wanted we would need another piece of British Columbia to meet the requests.
At the end of the day, negotiations start with a certain land mass and we're always coming down to something more reasonable. We have seen that with Nisga'a, with Sechelt, with the group on Vancouver Island.
So until such time as the land mass has been decided - which means as a native community you'd better come to the table and start talking real - until such time as that land mass has been decided, what indeed will be part of the settlement, until that time I don't want them to have a veto. That they are asked for comments and they get three months to respond, that's fine with me. But it should not be translated into a veto, so if they don't agree everything comes to a halt. That I think is fundamentally wrong.
Once they have established a land mass that will be part of the settlement it's a process that can go fast or it can go slow, it's up to how they negotiate. Once that land mass is decided on and agreed on, then certainly nothing should happen on it until the treaty has been completed and they control the uses of these lands. Economic opportunities like tourism, like forestry - that's their business. But just to have this blanket control over everything that happens in the province has cost us billions of dollars in investment and has cost tens of thousands of jobs. It has driven a lot of people into bankruptcy.
Pique: How do you move forward on it?
TN: As a government you have to be responsible. There is nothing in Delgamuukw that says you have to listen to what the aboriginal community says when you talk about use of the Crown land. There is nothing like that. This government has chosen to make it as broad as possible for interpretation, or as a privilege for the aboriginal community. And I think they have opened it so wide that it has indeed cost the life savings of many people who were in the process of getting something going that would be of tremendous benefit to the aboriginal community itself, that would create job opportunities.vSo, consultation: sure. Veto, as it is now turning into: no. Not until the land mass is decided that will be part of the final settlement.
Pique: The Liberal community charter has been on the books now for five years.
TN: It's been there (as part of the Liberal policy) since 1995, however, what we will be introducing if we form the next government is something different - not as far as principles which drive the charter, they're the same. The principles are the same as in 1995 but we have re-drafted many of the sections because since '95 there has been three years of re-writing the Municipal Act, now the Local Government Act. There are some good things in the re-write; there is a lot of bad stuff in there. So the good things we have incorporated into our charter and we added another series of tools for local governments to be in control of their destiny. That's the bottom line I think. No more cap-in-hand to Victoria.
Pique: Can we talk about your ideas on the B.C. Assets and Land Corporation? You feel it is going to have to change.
TN: Oh, it is going to have to change. First of all, I know from having looked at a lot of applications, and the responses from BCAL, there is a group within BCAL that looks at applications and I think has a mindset that says "How can we stop this?" rather than "How can we make it happen?" And I've told BCAL this. I do not feel that every application is looked at with (the attitude) "Hey, this fits within our mandate, opportunities, backcountry recreation, so how can we make it happen?" I often see very silly arguments why an application is not going forward. It is a very negative process. That's the reason it's now five years since the backcountry guidelines have been formulated and put in place.
o I expect in the future, a body within government responsible for Crown land for the purpose of creating revenue from it. That body is going to be working with guidelines that will be restricted, that will lead to faster decision making and an appeal process, should you be rejected, that will not lead to an appeal being heard by the people who eventually decided not to support the project.
Too many people have spent too much money trying to get a business venture going and walked away from it at the end because it's taken years to get through the paper work, and on top of that just run out of money to pay for all the studies they have to do.
Pique: But at same time, haven't there been people who have just started up a backcountry company, haven't applied for anything, and started operating? Don't you need some kind of regulation?
TN: That's why I think you have to have a plan. I've always said that. We talked about a master plan at municipal hall, a master plan for the whole Callaghan Valley to deal with conflicting uses, making sure there's a good selection of land available for public use. Because it's not just to find a way to accommodate the commercial operators, it's also to protect the land for public use. It's public land.
Now, if you do allow a commercial operator in a certain area that operator is going to have to make an investment to do his operations. So, you pick one and say there's your area and here's your cross-country loop, or whatever it is, and that's yours.
We still have to find a level of comfort for some people who want to use the public land (on a non-commercial basis) but also would like to use the commercialized portions of the land for free. I don't think that's going to work. A decision was made there was going to be backcountry recreation of a commercial nature and yes, that public access has to be very well protected, but there will also be areas where the commercial operator can go.
I believe in the plan, I believe in the regulations. What I am very dissatisfied with is the way BCAL has worked to fulfil its mandate as far as the time that they take to make decisions and as far as their attitude towards the business aspect of regulations - in many instances, not everywhere.
Pique: Do you feel they're on the right track now?
TN: I'm beginning to see a willingness in some of the people working in BCAL that recognize the regulatory and bureaucratic handicaps and hurdles that an applicant has to overcome have indeed been discouraging a lot of people from doing what they need to do, have driven people out of business and to look for other opportunities in other places. And I also think there are some people in there who say yeah, these kinds of things have to change. That is a fundamental part of how BCAL will be judged in the near future, if it should continue to be operating as it is or do we have to find a different way.
Pique: Do the Liberals support the Olympic bid?
TN: Very much so, yes.
Pique: Do you see it as an opportunity to address some of these issues, land use, infrastructure, transportation.
TN: Transportation is something we constantly bring into the context of the Olympic bid. I personally think Olympics or not, transportation is just a major issue. I don't want it to be tied to the Olympics. We need better transportation regardless of the Olympics.
The Olympics, I think, are going to really help us do what Expo did to a certain extent in 1986. It will highlight this province again as an incredible place to come to. But I don't want to hang the transportation issue on that same coat hanger.
I think most people agree with me, we have to move forward. There has been very little done on the subject. I hope the mayors and the chambers of commerce that often spearhead dialogue with government, that they feel comfortable after all these years of talking to the provincial government and going no where. Obviously if there's a new government we're going to look at it differently and also look at some different opportunities. How can we deal with the problem of capacity? It's the lack of capacity that often leads to unsafe conditions.
I'm not saying we start building a four-lane highway from Vancouver to Whistler, obviously not. Are there other alternatives? I've always thought, and I still maintain that I would like to really look at rail - what is possible and what are the financial consequences of that, that kind of routing.
I think so far the provincial government has paid lip service to transportation in the corridor and I would certainly, if I was part of the government, would change that attitude very quickly. We'd get much more focus and we'd deal with it.
Pique: Transportation solutions for this corridor start with getting across Burrard Inlet. Don't you need a master plan for the whole Lower Mainland and southwestern B.C.? Those would be mega projects.
TN: They would be mega projects if you take it in that context. However, if you talk in that context you also have to be willing to take the next step and say how can we make it happen. Not on our own with taxpayers' dollars but with the private sector. And that is a dialogue that I think could be very enlightening.
At the end of the day there's the question: How are we going to recover this investment? That's part of this because if you work with the private sector they're not going to do it for nothing. So it almost has to be a mega project to justify some unusual new way of thinking how we can recover costs.
You talk about crossing the Burrard, the tunnel, or another bridge, or whatever. But instead of saying it's going to cost $700 million so we have to come up with $700 million... Sure, a toll can be part of recovering the cost but if you amortize $700 million over 30 years you have to have a fairly substantial toll considering the amount of traffic that goes through that tunnel. So, are there other ways?
I have suggested in the past that maybe we should look at a growth strategy for the Lower Mainland and for the Sea to Sky corridor. The corridor is going to be one of the highest growth areas in the province, or the highest. That means there's going to need to be more land made available for development, there will be more need for infrastructure - clinics, hospitals, police stations, cinemas, shopping malls. We will create new centres for people to live, that's inevitable given the growing numbers. Well, we are rich in one thing, that is land. So maybe we sit down with a consortium of builders and suppliers of materials, banks, pension funds and say: Okay, how can we build a package of elements that will give the assurance that there's a return on the investment we make in order to build the infrastructure elements? And that could include land, it could include development rights for an area where a town site will be created or a town will be expanded by adding land to it. With all these elements it could be factors of profit that could make it work together, rather than just saying, well the town will have to pay for it, otherwise the taxpayers don't win.
And the only reason that I talk that way is that's what we did with Whistler. We needed hundreds of millions of dollars of uphill facilities, so what did we do? We gave them Crown land. We said okay, for every thousand people that you bring uphill in an hour, we give you so much land and so much development rights. That's where the profit was made and that's how Whistler developed. I'm sure it's been done in other areas for other infrastructures. Why can't we have that thought process when it comes to the infrastructure of the Lower Mainland or the province as whole?
That's the type of thing I would pursue, to see if that's where the answer is. Because the answer is not okay, just put $1.2 billion on the table for a new highway to Whistler and lump future generations with paying for that.
So I would like to broaden the basket of areas where return could be found to include some of the things that I just talked about. That's what I personally would do. That's what I think has some elements to finding solutions to these problems.
Pique: It's an integrated, long-term plan.
TN: That's the key. You don't just look at one road. You look at - in the next 25 years in this province certain things will happen. It's going to require the following elements to make it a healthy community - I mean the province as a whole community. So let's see what that growth is going to require and then say okay, there are certain factors. If we can make land available as our share of the total project, that would be a benefit for whoever developed the land, because they don't have to buy the land. There are other areas like that. So the province is a partner in it, but not necessarily just for cash.