Mike de Jong, one of six candidates vying for the leadership of the B.C. Liberal party, stopped in Castlegar on Monday to talk airports, accountability and action.
“I’ll change the weather,” de Jong joked in reference to reducing cancellations at the West Kootenay Regional Airport. “As premier I’ll decree blue skies. Let’s go to the root of the problem; everything else is window dressing.”
De Jong is the MLA for Abbotsford West and until recently was the solicitor general and minister for public safety. He stepped down from both those positions to run for the party’s leadership.
As someone born, raised and currently residing in Abbotsford, de Jong says he knows how important aerospace and airport infrastructure is to an area.
“I’ve been coming to Castlegar enough over the last 17 years as an MLA to know it can be, especially this time of year, hit and miss,” he said. “But I also come from a community that has demonstrated the economic value to improving airport infrastructure. Abbotsford’s a classic example of that because you develop the linkages that allow for the movement of people, but you also create an expanded opportunity for general aerospace development and here in the West Kootenay there is potential for that.”
However, de Jong won’t be promising any amount of money for the West Kootenay airport or any others in the province.
“My commitment to the development and improvement of airport infrastructure involves reallocating monies from within the existing capital budget,” he said. “And I say that because it’s very tempting in a contest like this one, to be the premier of the province, and make any number of promises to spend money. We are $1.7 billion in deficit this year, and that’s not something candidates for office often want to talk about.”
He said while the airport is a priority, “we’re going to have to make some decisions elsewhere within a significant transportation capital budget about some things we’re not going to do.”
“The temptation is to move around the province and tell everyone about all the money you’re going to give them, which is a lot of fun, and it’s very popular. We don’t have the money. So I have made virtually no spending promises, although the exception to that is airport infrastructure, and there I am talking about reallocating dollars from within transportation and capital budget.”
De Jong said since the campaign has started, one of the comments he’s heard most from rural British Columbians is how unfair it is to see resources taken out of the area with little or no local return on them. He said benefits can be measured not only through money but also training opportunities and where the training takes place.
“I believe going forward what we need to do is look at how we can ensure that more of those benefits as we develop more projects — and I believe we need to — how do we re-align ourselves to ensure that more of those benefits remain in the communities and in the region where the economic activity originates?”
De Jong has embraced social media during the campaign, including communicating with supporters through Facebook and Twitter. He says those mediums are not a substitute for having a conversation in person, however.
“As the person who has advocated letting Grade 12 graduating students participating directly in the electoral process, I have also said to those people, ‘if you want to have the issues that are of concern to you addressed, you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and get involved. You have to utilize those transmission tools … but unless you use those tools to ensure the issues you care about are on the agenda, then the effect will be the same.’”
Job creation and sustainability is also a priority for de Jong.
“We need, and people need, in the midst of their busy days, to think about where they want British Columbia to be in 10 years,” he said. “What are we going to do to generate the job opportunities that people in Castlegar are going to want for themselves and their children?
He said people talk a lot about how they’re going to spend money, but not a lot of time is spent on how they’re going to make money.
De Jong said every time someone says no to an economic development opportunity, they’re making it more difficult for a family to support themselves in the future.
“That reveals a certain bias that I have, because it’s my belief that if we are going to ensure that we have the funds necessary to improve our education system and support an aging demographic that wants more and more from its healthcare system, we are going to need to think about how we generate that wealth.”
De Jong said he sees this campaign as a job interview.
“Every one of the readers of the Castlegar News, if they wanted to, can be on the hiring committee,” he said. “All they have to do is become a member of the free enterprise party, the B.C. Liberal Party, and they will have a say in who the next premier is.”
He said having the endorsement of other MLAs is helpful, but it won’t decide who will win the leadership contest.
It will be decided by the people themselves,” he said. “And in the last month or so, we have managed to successfully invite thousands, and I do mean thousands, to either join for the first time or rejoin the B.C. Liberal Party.”
In the end, de Jong stands by his campaign of “Open Mike” and listening to the people of the province.
“I don’t want to lead a party that is ruled by an elite, or where the leadership is determined by the elite group, I want to lead a party that has the courage to reach out to everyone, and invite them to participate and have those people set the agenda through the election of a leader.”
De Jong is one of six candidates vying for the Liberal leadership, and the third to visit Castlegar after Christy Clark and George Abbott.
The leadership vote will be held Feb. 26.