Shuswap MLA George Abbott concedes that he’s pretty much over his 34-year addiction to politics.
While he’ll continue to represent his constituents until the provincial election in the spring, Abbott is excited about embarking on a new career.
On Jan. 9, the former political science professor of then Okanagan University College will again stand before a group of university students to teach Political Science 365, a course that focuses on B.C.’s political economy, politics, government, economic development and policy development.
“All of those have been central to my life for the past 17 years, starting in local government and most intensely in big ministries like health and education,” Abbott says. “I’ll be relaying my experience to (University of Victoria) students who may some day be in politics, or more likely find their way into the public service.”
When asked about a return to teaching, Abbott refers to Confucius, considered to be China’s most famous teacher, philosopher and political theorist, who advised “choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
“Teaching is not just enjoyable, it is often magical to teach generally younger people some of the things going on in the world,” Abbott says. “I am hoping I still feel the same way.”
In terms of the province’s $1.47 billion deficit, which is reported to be much higher, Abbott says that while questions are better directed to the finance minister, he can say that rules put in place in 1996 make it impossible to “fudge the books.”
Abbott points to other issues that have contributed to deficit issues in the province – a collapse in the American housing industry which affects B.C.’s forestry industry, lower demand for natural resources due to the recession in Europe and a glut of natural gas in North America.
“As a small trading economy, what happens in the rest of the world affects us. If the rest of the world goes into a tailspin, B.C. will reap the whirlwind,” he says. “Sometimes we like to amplify our problems, but we’re safe compared to many other places.”
In terms of highs and lows for Abbott and his government over the past year, the local MLA says one of the very good things that occurred was collective agreements between most of the public sector unions and government – most of them net zero.
“There is relative labour peace in the province,” he says.
“For me, a mediated solution to the BCTF (B.C. Teachers Federation) dispute was certainly a high. The dispute itself clouded our abilities to build a better relationship between government and unions.”
And therein lies Abbott’s choice for most-challenging issue.
“I had hoped as the new minister of education two years ago to build more constructive and collaborative relationships,” he says. “We made some small steps in that direction with early discussion about a BC Teachers Council and public policy, but all of it went sideways when we entered phase one of the strike. If anything, it went backwards.”
But Abbott says British Columbians need to keep in mind that the province has one of the best education systems in the world. He adds many schools are doing a great job but need to share and learn more from one another.
Abbott admits the health ministry – a portfolio he filled for four years – was hard on his own health.
“People will have adverse reactions and sometimes they die, and sometimes people take it personally,” he says, admitting death threats were not uncommon. “The average lifespan of health is one year, three months. I don’t regret it, but it was tough on my health.”
Abbott says health continues to pose big challenges, some of which are related to demographics.
“We are going to continue to become an older province for the next 10 to 20 years; this is not going to be an easy nut to crack,” he says, noting the minister of health and government have taken some steps forward, particularly on primary care and prevention.
Abbott says British Columbians have to start thinking about their own health and health care and contributing lifestyle factors – smoking, drinking obesity or lack of exercise, for example.
Weighing in on the proposed Enbridge pipeline, Abbott says he “wouldn’t bet the family” on the project proceeding.
He notes that regardless of the National Energy Board hearings now underway, considerable challenges remain, including a number of First Nations issues that will need to be resolved.
As he segues into a new career, Abbott says his perspective is changing from that of a politician to one of a political scientist.
“As a political scientist, you have to look at issues in a different frame and certainly as I teach classes, I will be just as critical of government…” he says. “My perspective will continue to shift as I move on to what I hope to do, teach part time and also work on public policy as a faculty member.”
As he hands over the MLA office to a candidate to be chosen in early January, Abbott says the Shuswap is fortunate to have five candidates, and he supports them all.