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2011 and beyond: An interview with Abbotsford MLA Mike de Jong

With the year coming to an end, the Abbotsford News recently sat with B.C. Health Minister and MLA for Abbotsford West, Michael de Jong to look at recent issues and upcoming challenges facing the community, the province and the health care system.

 

What are the major challenges facing Abbotsford in the coming year?

 

Like most communities, finding the right mix between the desire we all have to live in a community that boasts all of the amenities – recreation amenities, arts and cultures amenities, housing options – but to recognize that what we also need are jobs. Jobs are a function of investment, primarily by the private sector. Ensuring there is a land base available to accommodate that investment and we continue to be viewed as a favourable place for that investment and job creation. And we have a tremendous record here ... I think we are going to have to address issues around transportation and transit – how we move, not just within the city, but between the cities.

 

What are your views on Abbotsford’s water supply needs?

There is clearly an issue here. Few of us think about a secure, safe drinking water supply until something happens that tells us it may not be as secure or safe as we thought. I am not someone who was at all critical that the city, the mayor and council of the day identified the fact that there was a need, there was an issue, and took some steps to provide people with an option on how to address that. Now folks have made a decision and declined the option that the mayor and council and city identified for them. That’s democracy. That’s fine. I think at times, governments of all stripes get criticized for not doing something and then they get criticized for trying to be proactive and identifying options for people ... The issue is not going away.

 

Will there be provincial funding available for a new water supply?

Money is tight and probably one of the most disappointing aspects of what has transpired is when you have secured a very, very generous funding commitment from the federal government, and top marks to Minister Ed Fast, our local MP, and the federal government. When a community declines that kind of offer it becomes that much more difficult to secure it again, so the math just got a little more complicated on this one. The province is clearly challenged, as are all levels of government. Our community has received significant provincial dollars over the past 10 years ... there has been an unprecedented level of investment ... The issue isn’t going away and there is no guarantee about where the money is going to come from. But it will ultimately come from the taxpayers.

 

What are your thoughts on the 2011 municipal election results?

It’s an interesting one to analyze ... I have known former Mayor Peary for decades, was a student of his ... and remain a great admirer. He accepted the verdict of the people of Abbotsford with a dignity that serves as an example to us all. He would be the first person to say now it is time to roll up our sleeves with a council and a new mayor and set ourselves to the task of addressing the issues. Mayor Banman is the fourth mayor with whom I’ve had the opportunity to work with as minister and MLA and I am looking forward to proceeding with that work.

 

In 2011 you became health minister. What’s your impression of this new position?

Well, it represents the single largest component of the provincial budget and that part of public service that most people describe as the most important. So there is a relevance and there is a level of engagement on the part of people. And as our population ages, the costs continue to increase and the challenge with finding a way to ensure we have a sustainable publicly funded health care system. Not just today but five and 10 years from now. Those challenges continue.

 

What is your philosophy on user pay and private service for health care?

When I speak with people in this country – British Columbia and in Canada – they tell me that when they are in need of treatment or health care they want to know that they can go to a facility, pull out their Care Card and know that treatment is available to them without any regard for how much they earn, and available in a timely way. They do not particularly care who owns the facility, they do not particularly care who is employing the landscapers or the support staff. They want to know that the clinical services are there for them and that probably is the best way I can think of to describe my approach to the mix that people often talk about.

 

Are there plans to redevelop the old MSA Hospital site?

There is, and there are discussions continuing. I can say this, that the health authority and the city are working together and have worked closely. The idea is to utilize the site in a couple of ways. One, to capitalize on both its history and central location. To centralize some ancillary health and social services there, with the new hospital obviously being the centre of acute care services, but there are a variety of other health-related services and social services that are provided to our citizens and it’s an ideal site for that. We’re also looking at the possible involvement of some other social service agencies that I think people would be interested in welcoming to Abbotsford. As well, there is a seniors’ complex on the site that is in need of upgrades and we are exploring ways to take a portion of the site and utilize the value of that to assist with the upgrade of the facility. So broadly speaking that’s where we’re at.

 

What is the future of health care? Will the budget continue to rise?

Well, it can’t, and certainly not at the rate that has been. When we met as health ministers in Halifax a few weeks ago, that was very much the subject of discussion. When we became government 11 years ago, the health care budget was about $8 billion. Today it is $16 billion. It cannot double again because the pressure that it’s placing on other areas of public service is intense. So I am convinced that the transition we need to see, and are going to see, and I hope to promote, is the one that talks about disease prevention instead of purely disease treatment. Chronic diseases are largely, not entirely, but many chronic diseases are preventable or their onset can be delayed or influenced by lifestyle choices. Whether it’s smoking, whether it’s eating, exercise, we all know the mix and the one thing that I have tried to do ... repeatedly, is say to folks ... to quote a former president, “Ask not what the health care system can do for you, but what you can do for your own health.” And there is an element of personal responsibility here.

People make choices … we know there is certain behaviour that is inherently risky, smoking being one of them. And the absence of exercise is obesity. When we meet with the other ministers they all pat the B.C. minister on the back and say you guys have the lowest obesity rates in the country, which is true. It’s 44 per cent, which is terrible. We need to do more to ensure our coming generation understands the imperative of making good choices … We’ve got the first generation that is not expected to live as long as their parents. I cannot think of a more tragic indicator of where we’re at.

 

Polls suggest the provincial NDP party has pulled ahead of the Liberals. Your comments?

We have a lot of work to do. There’s an election in a year and a half and I think the government and the BC Liberal party are capable of being very competitive in that election and even winning it, though I never take that for granted. We have come through some very difficult economic times; they are not over yet. We have had to make some very difficult decisions that obviously illicit a reaction, and sometimes a very unfavourable reaction. What has generally resonated with the public over the last 11 years that we have been in power, though, is the realization that we are making those tough decisions on the basis of a set of basic principles. That governments shouldn’t live beyond their means; that the private sector is the engine that drives the economy; that we should do things to encourage investment and job creation; and that the state has a responsibility to utilize the wealth generated from that investment to provide education, publicly funded and reliable health care system, public safety and support for citizens who, for no fault of their own, require that support. What we are going to need to do in the months ahead, particularly in the aftermath of the HST episode, is regain the trust of citizens...

 

The world is in the midst of an economic crisis. Is B.C. safe?

Nationally and internationally the headlines have been about overall economic dislocation and uncertainty. The province has fared remarkably well. The economy continues to grow, albeit at a much reduced rate. We are still very, very vulnerable to the economic challenges the United States is facing. I’m worried about that. The possibility of the U.S. slipping back into recession is ... very real and that will impact us.

And yet through it all, our employment numbers have remained relatively stable. People continue to come to Abbotsford, to B.C. Investment continues to take place … I think in part, it is attributable to the responsible fiscal management that the government has delivered. We are not dealing with multi-billion-dollar deficits. We are in a deficit. But it is by any measure a manageable one at this point and one we hope to retire in the next couple of years, and be back into a  balanced situation. Despite the fact that our biggest customer historically, the U.S., are not purchasing products like wood products at the rate they once did, the markets we have developed in China and other Asian countries are providing us with an option that is keeping people at work in B.C.

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