Interview with Adrian Dix

Adrian Dix, MLA

The Race to Lead the BC NDP

March 23, 2011

Best-known for his high-profile role as the BC NDP’s passionate health critic, Adrian Dix has served as a Lower Mainland MLA since 2005, representing the riding of Vancouver-Kingsway.

Prior to getting involved in elected politics, Dix spent thee years as chief of staff to former premier Glen Clark, and has worked as a columnist and pundit for numerous local media outlets.

Before getting elected to the legislature, you served as director of an organization called “Canadian Parents for French.” I just was wondering how you, as someone who grew up in Vancouver, became fluent in French.

I was interested, so I worked in Ottawa for a few years, I spent some time in France, I studied French politics, and I became fluently bilingual. Interestingly, in Canadian Parents for French — which promotes French as a second language education, principally French immersion — most of the parents in the organization aren’t bilingual, but obviously their children are, which is an exciting thing.

I applied for the job to be executive director, and they hired me. It was a great experience. I don’t think I ever thought of running for the legislature, in a sense, before I worked for them. We’d be working together in community groups, and I’d be speaking in my own voice on these issues. The organization itself was both great for me and great to work for. I had a great time.

Do you think British Columbia should try to become a more bilingual province in the way Manitoba or Ontario have, for example?

I think it already is. When I became executive director of Canadian Parents for French there were about 28,000 BC children in French immersion. Today, I think there are 43,000. And that’s in a relatively short period of time. Remember, you can only join the program in kindergarten or Grade 6. It’s hard to grow it in one year, so that kind of growth is extraordinary, and it shows the most important thing, which is that a higher portion of young people are learning French today than ever before.

The French fact in BC, the growth of Francophone programs and French immersion programs, is more of a reality than it’s ever been. That’s the most important thing, that the language is alive and growing in the province. It excites me, and that’s going to continue to happen.

Now, there’s enormous diversity in terms of language in the BC, as we know. I live in a constituency where the majority of people do not speak English at home. Their home languages are incredibly diverse. I think this is one of the things that gives BC great potential, and is a unique feature of our life. And I love it.

Is diversity an end unto itself?

I think it’s a reality in our province, and a very positive one. At Windermere School recently I attended an event on climate change. They had 600 students there on a professional day; they didn’t have to be there, they wanted to be there, and they had organized this event. It was an unbelievably diverse community of students, all interested in this issue.

I think in most places in the world one would look at that scene and can’t help but be inspired by what it means, and what it is. I think the way diversity expresses itself in our society makes British Columbia a unique and wonderful place.

I don’t think it’s the goal, it’s the reality. And the reality is something to celebrate.

Is there enough integration between various linguistic and racial groups in this province?

I think it depends where you are, and that’s why the role of public education, and the strengthening of public education, is so important in our province. It’s always been the case that there are separations and divisions in society, especially in a time like now, where we’ve had a government for 10 years that has seen a dramatic growth in inequality, between rural and urban neighborhoods, and between people. These divisions exist, and express themselves in society all the time.

So is there enough multiculturalism as opposed to successive monoculturalisms? I don’t know, but I think the younger you get in the community the more diversity and the more integration there is. I think that’s exciting, and I think that tells us what the next generation is going to be like.

What is the ideology of the Liberal Party?

Well, I think they are an unusually self-interested political party, in promoting their private goals and their private interests. I think that’s created a lot of cynicism in society.

Clearly they’re devoted to the idea, the singular notion, of tax cuts as a solution to our economic problems, and they continue to spout that and believe that in spite of the fact that all of the evidence points to an unsuccessful economic record. The worst economic growth record, in fact, of any government in my lifetime. That’s their record. Two percent average economic growth under them, compared to three percent under the NDP government in the 1990s.

They made a deal with the forest companies in 2002, they said “we’ll give you all you want if you invest in the province.” Well, they gave them all they wanted, and they didn’t invest. They cut taxes for the banks a few years ago, and they lost banking jobs.

So I think they are ideological, and they favor private interests over the public interest.

But you know, it’s more complicated than that. They think, in general, that they’re doing the right thing. So that’s what the debate’s about, and I’m happy with that debate. I think that we’re about to win the next election because of the consequences of their decisions.

Liberal politicians often say that the Liberal Party is the “free enterprise” party. Is the NDP a free enterprise party?

I think we have a mixed economy. My dad’s a small business person. We’re seeking to be the government in an open-market economy, and we have to deal with that reality.

My view is this: unequal societies are less entrepreneurial. That, in fact, what’s happened in the last ten years, where we have the highest rates of inequality — the top 20 pecent against the bottom 20 percent — of any province in Canada, that actually makes us less dynamic and less entrepreneurial. When you have the highest child poverty rates it means less social mobility, not more social mobility, and social mobility, in general, is a good thing in society.

So I think what they’ve done, by increasingly inequality through intentional policies that have had that impact, is made our society less dynamic and less entrepreneurial. That, in fact, when you invest in children to ensure that every child has a chance to succeed, you’re better off. Unless we believe that there’s some magic in inherited wealth, and we know that we’re going to need doctors and nurses and artists and forest workers and firefighters and police offers in the future, then having policies that write off a segment of the population is not very good for what is hopefully a dynamic, growing society.

Do you consider yourself a socialist?

I’m not into the labels. I’m a strong member of the NDP.

I’m a member because I believe in equality, I believe in that principle. For me that’s the guiding spirit. I think that all the evidence — certainly the international evidence — shows, and all we know shows, that inequality leads to very oppressive conditions as recently popularized by this idea called The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson. He showed that more unequal societies have a higher rate of mental illness, a higher rate of drug abuse, higher rates of infant morality, lower rates of life expectancy, and so on. So I think less divided societies, more equal societies, are better societies, and that’s what drives me in politics. That’s why I’m running for the leadership.

It’s just interesting because I recently came across a speech from Bob Rae when he was NDP leader in Ontario. And he was all saying “socialism” this, and “as a socialist,” that. I was just wondering why there’s now such a distaste for that label.

I don’t know if there is. There’s a famous moment in the BC election of 1972, where [NDP leader] Dave Barrett won. And at the time, a document called the “Waffle Manifesto” was an important document in the NDP. It was kind of a minority document, the views of the left side of the party. Dave Barrett had signed the Waffle Manifesto, and [Social Credit Premier] WAC Bennett was calling him a Waffle. And Barrett said, “well, if he calls me a waffle, I’ll call him a pancake.”

It’s important, of course, because some part of the socialist label was discredited by what happened in Eastern Europe, by the extent to which people defined those governments as socialist.

Was that unfair?

Well, they did it. Those governments called themselves socialist or communist. Obviously there’s a social-democratic and socialist tradition in Europe involving center-left parties that is well-respected. I guess the best label is “social democratic,” these days. There’s an excellent discussion of this in Tony Judt’s book called Ill Fares the Land, where he discusses these different labels.

I mean, I’m not uncomfortable with the term “democratic socialist” but I think probably for our party the apt term is “social democrat.”

Does the private sector have any role in health care?

As a matter of reality? Yes, because right now we have a public health care plan that only covers certain things. Prescription drugs, for example, the vast majority are provided by private plans, or by individuals directly. In fact, it’s the private parts of health care that have been growing out of control in terms of cost — not the public parts. I mean, prescription drug prices have increased 385 percent over 20 years, and you see the profit motive in place there.
I don’t think we’ve seen, shall we say, an age of discovery in prescription drugs, you know? I mean, we have Viagra (laughs), but we’ve also seen this dramatic increase in costs.

I strongly believe in public health care. Most western democracies have public health care systems where the public shares in the 70 to 78 percent range — most of the western European ones are actually slightly higher, but there are still co-payments and other things. So I think that’s the reality of it. The original plan was to cover hospital care, and then hospital and doctor care, and now we’ve expanded it out.

I’m a strong supporter of our public health care system, but I don’t ignore the fact that there is a component of health care, dental care for example, that isn’t universally covered, but is very important and essential to peoples’ health. So there’s a reality of private expenditures on health care. But on medicare, and things covered by the Medicare Protection Act? I’m a strong supporter of public health care, and I think that’s the most efficient way to run our system.

And by the way, one of the main reasons BC is a better place to invest than the western states is because of public health care. Why is it less expensive to build cars in Canada than the United States? Because of public health care. Public health care is good for business, and private health care increases inefficiencies, increases costs, increases costs on business as well as on the public, and provides a lower level of care. So all of the evidence points to public health care as being better, and I’m a big supporter.

Do you think the government of British Columbia is too big?

No.

I asked that to the Liberals and they all pretty much said no as well. Is there a consensus that government needs to be doing more, then? Are there places where government doesn’t belong?

I think there are lots of places where it doesn’t belong.

I think what we’ve seen in recent times, to the detriment of the province, is a transfer of services, and a transfer of focus in terms of government’s role.

How does a decision get made in the city? Who is involved in the decision to build a retractable roof over BC Place stadium? We’re spending $600 million on that, but we can’t find money to build transit. We can’t buy the buses we need. Who’s involved in these decisions? Is that really what government should be spending its money on? Is that really what the priority is?

We went over by $500 million on the Convention Center. On a building. That’s hard to do, it’s hard to go over that much on a fixed building. So $1.5 billion in public infrastructure investments on the stadium, and millions for a second convention center for Vancouver. I think it’s perplexing, because they don’t have any money for transit, they’re retracting public health care, they’re closing schools — Christy Clark closed 120 schools — and now they’re putting a retractable roof on the stadium.

I think it’s an important issue for young people, especially. When you can’t get a bus, and you have to buy a car to go to work or school, and you look at that decision, what does it make you say about politics? Does it make you want to get involved? Or does it make you cynical? I think that’s one of the main reasons why I’m running. I want people to be less cynical and more involved.

Are there ways we can reform the system of government itself to curb some of that cynicism? There’s a lot of cynicism not just with politicians and policy, but also with the broader way that the province is governed.

It’s a challenging provincial jurisdiction. The province’s control over health care, education, post-secondary education, land — most of the land in BC is essentially owned by the provincial government — means that the provincial government is very important in BC. Much more important than the federal government, if you look at the level of powers. And provincial politics is therefore very important, and very tied to the economy and our interests. This has created, historically, lots of problems and lots of challenges in BC that are not as evident in Ontario, for example, where the federal government has an equal, or maybe in terms of the economic side, a more significant role.

But are there things we can do? Yeah. I think we need to get money out of politics. I think it would be better for politics in BC if we had a ban — as they do at the federal level — on corporate and union donations, and had some public financing instead, so that it’s possible to do politics without constantly fundraising — you know the problematic role fundraising can have on the political discussion — and maybe even other parties could have some role if they get votes, and have some ability to have a role in the debate as well.

So I think getting money out of politics would be a good way in BC to lessen cynicism and improve the political process.

Was Glen Clark a good premier?

Yes.

That is not always the most popular thing to say.

Well, he was minister of finance and premier in the 1990s. Economic growth was three percent in that period. It’s been two percent under the BC Liberals. We were second in the country in support for health care, now we’re eighth. We went from ninth place in the country to second place for post-secondary participation, which is a real measure of value in a society.

The minimum wage went up. We signed the Nisga’a Treaty which was an incredible achievement. We had an environmental assessment process that was worthy of its name. We created more parks than any time in the history of BC. The economy was better. Relative to other provinces, health care was better. The federal government had withdrawn, and we protected public care. More students got to go to university.

But you know, it was a long time ago. I’m not running to re-litigate the 1990s. I’m just not defensive about it. The government made mistakes too, but think of how things have changed. Glen Clark is now the president of Jim Pattison, which is the largest private company — maybe either the first or second largest private company in the country. And he’s the president. So it was a long time ago. At a recent business forum someone said to me “you worked for Glen Clark.” And I said “yeah, I don’t know how he got elected to the board of Canfor either.” Times have changed.

Glen is still a very good friend, and still has my sign on his lawn and everything else. He still lives in the east side of Vancouver and he’s still who he was. But he’s had great success in business.

So I don’t know. I don’t get fixated on the past too much. Yes, I think I’m very proud to have Glen as a friend, and I’m very proud to have worked with him.

There is a perception though, justified or not, that the 1990s was a fairly scandalous time for the NDP, not their proudest moment. In that sense, what do you think is the lesson for New Democrats should take from Glen Clark’s premiership?

We inherited the largest deficit in history, in absolute terms, from the Social Credit Party. Glen was minister of finance, and we left the BC Liberal party a balanced budget. The economy was better, but there are still lots of lessons to be learned.

I think one of them is that when the NDP came to office in 1991, there was huge pent up demand. The party had been out of power for 16 years, we had a Social Credit government, so there were lots of things that needed to be done.
The first year we were elected we passed 92 bills, the second year we passed 73, third year we passed 54, the fourth year we passed 46. I don’t know what the total is, it’s in the 260 range. And that’s a lot of legislation. What it says to me is that we can sit here and write a bill right now to make a change. The big challenge is implementation, and I think we have to do significant things in government, but not as many, because we want to make sure the things we do are done properly. That’s a lesson I take from the 1990s.

There’s lots of lessons to take, and I learned a lot from that experience, and I think that will make the government I lead better. But there’s no question over 10 years the current government has failed the province.

Why is there so much organized crime in British Columbia?

Well, I think that it’s a concern, obviously. I was in Kelowna recently, and the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce a couple of years ago did a report saying that crime was their main concern. I take it very seriously, but I don’t know whether organized crime is more significant in British Columbia than in other jurisdictions. I think it’s a problem, but it’s a problem everywhere, and I think we can and should become more effective in dealing with it. Some of it is related to, obviously, the drug trade, which is financial fuel for them, so there’s things we can do to address that.

I think it’s not a problem that is unique to British Columbia, but it’s one we have to deal with. It’s an issue we have to deal with all the time. I’m not sure we’re the only jurisdiction that does, and some of the effort to deal with it will have to be at the federal level.

Are there any American politicians you admire?

Absolutely! You want a list?

In the 1988 New Hampshire primary I went down and spent three weeks working for Jesse Jackson. I admire Jesse Jackson a lot, and he ran an extraordinary campaign. In 1988, he finished second in the Democratic primaries. Won, I think, 14 of them?

I admire Bernie Sanders, who came and spoke at a fundraiser I did once, he’s the senator from Vermont.

Many people don’t know, but there’s a great tradition of progressive politics in the United States, all over the place. From historic figures like the La Follettes in Wisconsin to [former Socialist Party presidential candidate] Eugene Debbs to others in that part of history, to guys like [Congressman] Peter Defazio in Oregon who are progressive leaders today. I think there’s a lot to learn from progressive politics in the United States. I follow American politics very closely, and I think there’s a great progressive tradition there.

One issue that I’ve worked on a lot here, farm workers issues — there’s a great National Film Board film about the farm workers movement in British Columbia called “Time to Rise” and Cesar Chavez, of the American farm workers union, was famously here to come up and speak to that. There’s a lot of inspirational leaders in American politics.

These people, though, are quite far to the left of the American mainstream, even within the Democratic Party. I mean, Bernard Sanders isn’t even a Democrat, he’s a member of Democratic Socialists of America.

Yeah, that’s right. But there’s lots of American politicians I admire. I have great admiration for the President, although I disagree with him on some of what he’s done. I think the 2008 presidential campaign was, without reservation, an inspiring moment and even spent a day just phoning people to get out and vote in the Washington caucuses down there, for Barack Obama. I think he’s just a remarkable man and he’s done remarkable things. Notwithstanding the inevitable criticisms you get in government, he’s an interesting guy.

But there’s a lots of others, lots of people doing very interesting things in American politics who are really all over the spectrum.

Is there a fear you have for the future of the province? Something that keeps you awake at night thinking, “unless someone like me is premier…”

In terms of my role, I think there’s a lot we can do to make the province better. I’m troubled by the growth of inequality in the province, and I think we have to address that. If left unchecked, it will make us a much more divided and less dynamic society in the future. So I’m very troubled by the growth in poverty, but also the growth in differences. We’ve essentially been losing the middle class under the BC Liberals, so the potential for division that we see in American politics is very great. It forces people to opt-out.

What they’ve done to rural BC, for example, a lot of communities have lost their schools. 190 schools closed. Rural communities lose their schools, see a centralization in health care… If you’re sitting in a small community today, and you don’t have public education in your community, and you don’t have health care in your community, and you’re paying higher MSP premiums and so on, then a lot of people say they want to kick the government out. A lot of people’s reaction to that is to say “I’m on my own, and I’d rather pay less taxes. If those important institutions are not going to be present in my community I’m going to opt-out.”
You see a lot of that in American politics, in the very states where you’d think people would be most in favor of collective action, government action, community action. They’re the least in favor, of course, because they’ve been abandoned by their government and by the political process. And so they’re left to say, well, the heck with that.

So I think this is an important topic. 1.4 million people didn’t vote in the last election. When Glen Clark won the 1996 election that figure was 655,000. Registered non-voters. 1.7 million eligible voters didn’t vote in the last election. It’s very troubling because it’s disproportionately young, disproportionately on the work force people who are disengaged. For long-term politics, that’s very troubling.

So my plan is to give people something to vote for. Something to believe in.

That’s interesting, because when I interviewed Premier Clark she said very much the same thing. So it will be interesting to see if you become NDP leader and run against her, how high the voter turnout will be.

I can’t wait. I think there would be a big turnout in that election. And I think we’ll win.

She has a record and I have a record. I only know her a little bit. I’ve been on her show, and I knew her a little bit when I worked in government. And don’t have any issue with her personally. She’s wanted to be premier, I think, all her life and that’s not been my goal. But when people get to that spot you have to congratulate them genuinely. I think it’s something she’s always wanted to do.

But her record in politics is not good. She was minister of children and families and she left the ministry in chaos. There were the largest cuts in the history of the province, and they hit kids. I became an MLA, we fought that, and we forced them to reinstate some of the funding that was cut, and we forced them to reinstate the Children’s Commission. So that’s her record and my record. She closed schools, I fought to save schools. So I’m looking forward to the debate. It will be very interesting.

On the health care file, which is a critical file, she’s put forward, I think the most content-free proposal that I’ve ever seen on a serious public issue. Her proposal links health care spending to economic growth, and would have led to $715 million in cuts. Even George Abbott laughed at it. That’s her proposal. I put forward detailed proposals to make public health care better and more cost efficient.

I’m looking forward to the debate. It will be fun, and I’m very confident that we will win. And there’ll be a higher turnout.