After deciding to create the Coffee Series (the part of the blog where I invite past, current, and hopeful politicians for a cup of coffee) I was left wondering who to ask for the first interview. After much consideration, I thought why not go big? So I decided to reach out to someone who spent 12 years in public office and is well-known across BC: Kevin Falcon. In addition to being the former Deputy Premier, Kevin has also filled the roles of Finance Minister, Health Minister, Transportation Minister, and Minister of State for Deregulation (talk about a solid résumé). Perhaps he was just thirsty or maybe he really needed his morning caffeine fix, but either way Kevin immediately accepted my offer to get a coffee. Below are excerpts from our interview.
To start off, how did you end up getting involved in politics?
“I was very much like you. At the age of probably 14, somewhere around there, I was invited by a friend whose father was working on the campaign of an MP... and I remember thinking oh I kind of like this politics stuff. My parents were not political at all, so I was the only person in my family of six boys that developed this outside interest in politics and I just kind of maintained that a little bit through high school, very much more so in university when I went to SFU." (Kevin studied political science and was a very active member of the Young Social Credit Club).
Essentially I got involved with the BC Liberals and Gordon Campbell in a by-election in 1997 I think it was… I wasn’t a Liberal in terms of federal politics and was nervous about Gordon Campbell and how liberal the party was. Was it really going to be a ‘big tent’ that welcomed both Liberals and Conservatives? I ultimately met him and decided he was very solid and we had to bring everyone together and that enough damage had been done by the NDP at that point so I went in to help them.
We won that by-election quite handily and then Gordon Campbell asked me to run for the party and I resisted initially, because I really didn’t want to be an MLA. Then ultimately I agreed to run on the basis of him promising that we would do some big things, because I knew to be successful in the government we would have to make really tough decisions, and Gordon Campbell said we would make those tough decisions and he was true to his word, we did.”
What did you enjoy most about being in office?
“For me being in public life was all about getting things done. I viewed public life as an opportunity cost in terms of exiting the private sector and I didn’t want to be doing it unless I really felt like we would be accomplishing something, getting something done. As the Minister of Transportation, as an example, I really felt entirely fulfilled because we were getting so many projects done. Even though it was controversial and hard to get these projects through, whether it was the Sea to Sky highway, the Canada line, the South Fraser perimeter road, or the Port Mann Bridge, or any of those projects. The fact that I could be involved from conception of the idea to getting it through internally in government, to fighting it out with all the different stakeholder groups that want to oppose everything, to getting it under construction, to seeing it built…that is an incredible feeling of satisfaction and that’s what kept me going in public life. The satisfaction of making things happen.”
Were you excited then to eventually become the finance minister given that there is always a lot to get done?
“Clark wanted to put me into the Minister of Finance [position]. I was actually reluctant, believe it or not, because I was really enjoying Minister of Health and really felt like we were on the cusp of getting some big policy stuff done and we had already made some great strides in effecting change. But you know, it’s one of those ministries that you have to stay there and be horsewhipping the bureaucracy, otherwise it will never happen. So I was reluctant to leave but I’m glad I did ultimately, because I really enjoyed being the Minister of Finance much more than I thought I would. I thought it would be boring as hell just dealing with numbers and meetings about budgets and stuff, but it was actually way better than that.”
How about the HST repeal process, was that a fairly big challenge for you as the minister of finance?
“Yes, it was a huge challenge and I didn’t want to do it actually because I knew it was just terrible economic policy to switch back. But we as a government were paying a price for the manner in which it was introduced. The public was fed up and exercised their right to hold the referendum and so the public decided they wanted to get rid of it. … It’s one of my great disappointments in public life. I hate doing something I don’t believe in and that was the one time I really had to do what I thought was the wrong thing for the province and it clearly is.”
While on the topic of finance, do you agree with the federal government running a deficit to spur on economic recovery?
“The short answer is yes, if it is indeed to spur recovery. But when I looked at the federal budget I was a bit disappointed. Because what I see there is only a very small percentage of the stimulus spending is actually going toward infrastructure, the kind of spending that will actually spur an economy. … As a former Finance Minister, when I looked at the budget, what I saw was just a whole bunch of spending and in a whole bunch of areas without any overarching focus that you could discern. Typically, governments will sort of say, okay here is what we are trying to do and here’s how we’re getting there and have a pretty clearly focused spending program that will reinforce commitments and direction that we’re trying to take the economy and the country. I didn’t see that in that particular budget, what I saw was we’re just going to spend a whole lot of money in a whole bunch of areas and hope it will work out I guess. It is really a bit disappointing, but I hope that some of that is just a new government sort of still getting its legs and understanding what’s going on.”
Now for the big question, would you ever consider running for office again?
“No, I’ve got really young kids, three and six. … I said when I announced my retirement from politics that I would “never say never” just because I don’t think you should ever close doors like that but I really can’t see that as an option, certainly not in the short term, maybe in the medium to longer term.”
Is that why you left, because of having kids and wanting to focus on family?
“That was a big reason. My daughter was two years old and I found out my wife was pregnant with another baby that was going to be due, based on my calculations, right around budget time and I was the Finance Minister and I thought, oh boy, that’s not going to be good. And so that was really the final deciding factor that I needed to get out. I thought if I stay in politics I’m going to be doing it for a career or I can get out and get back and connect with the private sector. I decided I wanted to do that and I'm glad I did. It turns out my second daughter, Rose, was born on budget day, so I called that one right!”
What do you do with your spare time now that you’re out of public life?
"For me it’s definitely family and outdoors and hiking and doing stuff like that. The politics side of it by necessity has taken a back seat so I try to keep an eye on what’s going on provincially and federally but I’m not really as engaged as I was in the past. I just don’t have time to be frank. I already sit on enough boards and non-profits that keep me busy enough… It was important to me that when I retired from public life, to be retired and not be one of these ex-politicians that never seem to go away. I thought that it was very important that I did my bit, I’m now retired, I’m pursuing the private sector and I really want that to be my focus. I don’t want to be distracted, because I know how distracting politics can be sometimes.”
Do you think the Canadian public is less interested in politics because they feel politicians don't seem engaging or trustworthy?
“I do. It’s actually one of the things I really like about the new Prime Minister, the fact that I think he has done just an exceptional job of creating interest--especially in young people--in the political process. And I give him full marks for that because you know people may mock this whole idea of ‘sunny ways’ but it’s actually important to be optimistic. As you know, Harper was a pretty dour guy, you know I liked many of Harper’s policies -- economic policies -- but his approach to governing was certainly not particularly optimistic… and I think that was a big mistake. I think that Trudeau has done a great job of tapping into the idea that politics can be a noble thing, a noble cause. As someone who spent 12 years in public life, there are a lot of really good people that get into it and there’s not a lot of benefits, a lot of work, a lot of weekends, a lot of time away from family, friends… and a lot of criticism that goes with it. But I think anything that can help people feel more positive about the political process is a good thing.”
Out of curiosity, what are your thoughts on the US election?
“I thought Donald Trump would go nowhere and look at him! I never ever would have predicted that and it caused me to really rethink things… I can now see why he is attractive, for the same reason Bernie Sanders is. It’s two different sides of the same coin. What they are tapping into is people that are really frustrated by the system that isn’t working for regular people anymore. It is corrupted by money, the income inequality between the rich and the poor in the United States is awful, it’s way worse than it is in Canada. I think Canada is a paradigm of fairness and equality in comparison to the US… Canada has been doing something right and I would argue it’s because we have universal healthcare systems and universal welfare systems that look after some of the folks that get left behind, and they don’t have that in the United States. It’s pretty dog-eat-dog. I think that’s what Trump and Sanders are really tapping into in a big way. They are authentic in their own weird ways. Trump is crazy, but they look at him and say, well the guy’s real, he says shit that nobody else would say and I like that… The same with Sanders and that’s why Hillary’s got problems because Hillary is the quintessential establishment politician. People have lots doubts about her, and for good reason.”
Kevin and I talked for well over an hour about his time in office and public policy issues but I couldn't include everything as that would be much too long and slightly boring. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoyed the first of what I hope to be many more Coffee Series interviews to come. Thanks for reading and don't forget to share below!