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A former Liberal's Conservative prescription for B.C.

John Rustad pledges to cut carbon taxes, build more LNG plants, get tough on crime and drugs.
John Rustad, leader of the Conservative Party of B.C., addresses the Vancouver Board of Trade.

A B.C. Conservative government would axe B.C.’s carbon tax, lower taxes in general, tackle government debt, remove CleanBC restrictions that hamper new LNG development, reform B.C.’s stumpage system for forestry, reverse course on drug decriminalization, get tough on violent crime, and take a different approach to reconciliation with First Nations.

John Rustad, leader of the Conservative Party of B.C., sketched out his party’s election platform Thursday before a business audience at a meeting hosted by the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade (GVBOT).

Rustad opened with a criticism of the NDP government's handling of the economy, spending and social issues.

“Our debt is running at about $8 billion,” Rustad said. “We seem to have a huge spending problem, and we seem to have a crisis in just about everything you can think of, whether it is health care, whether it’s affordability, whether it’s housing, whether it’s crime, whether it’s addictions.”

Rustad criticized the current NDP government for what he characterized as “pure socialism…with a healthy dose of authoritarianism.”

He said the NDP government’s commitment to protecting 30 per cent of B.C.'s land by 2030 threatened working forests, farmland and ranch land.

“They don't want to just have 30 per cent of mountaintops and beautiful scenery – it’s 30 per cent of every ecosystem," Rustad said. "Thirty per cent of our farmland, 30 per cent of our range lands, 30 per cent of our forests.”

He said the government’s approach to aboriginal rights and title and reconciliation is not being balanced with protection of private property rights, and suggested the provincial government is abdicating its authority through joint decision making agreements with First Nations.

While he was minister of Aboriginal Relations, he said his government signed 435 agreements with First Nations, and included with shared decision making.

“But ultimately the province retained the final decision on behalf of all British Columbians,” he said.

He said the NDP government has lately adopted a joint decision making model that means the provincial government is no longer the ultimate authority on questions like land use.

“And if all decision-makers don’t agree, then nothing happens,” he said.

He took issue with the recent agreement that recognizes Haida First Nation title to all of Haida Gwaii.

“The real issue I have is they've granted title underneath private land,” Rustad said. “They granted title underneath infrastructure. What that means is, even though it's going to be your private land, Aboriginal law or Indigenous law will apply to your private land.

“As a government, quite frankly, we need to make sure that our government is defending everyone in this province.”

On energy, Rustad suggested a nascent LNG industry has been throttled by regulations, and vowed to remove restrictions holding back the development of more projects.

He noted that four natural gas pipelines had been permitted to serve LNG projects in B.C., and that only one has been built (Coastal GasLink.)

The permits for the other three pipelines expire in November. Rustad said a Conservative government would, by order in council, extend the permits for all three pipelines for 10 years. And his government would remove the CleanBC restrictions requiring that new LNG plants use electric drive.

“We're going to remove that requirement for electricity for compression… work with First Nations and designate sites so that we can see one, two, three, four, maybe five LNG projects go forward in this province," he said.

Rustad said he would also address permitting for other resources, including forestry to free up timber for sawmills, and would reform the current stumpage system, which is what forestry companies pay for the rights to cut timber of Crown land.

On B.C.’s drug addition crisis, Rustad suggested a tough love approach was needed, going to far as to suggest mandatory treatment in some cases.

“We need to get away from this process of decriminalization and safe supply,” he said. “We need to get to a place where we're focused on recovery --  everything from doctor prescribed treatment to voluntary short term, long term, maybe even involuntary long term care.

“You also have to get to a place where there are consequences for crimes,” he said.

As for housing, a major and ongoing issue in B.C., Rustad had little to offer in the way of solutions, except to suggest that building housing is something that should be done by the private sector, not government.

Asked what he thought of BC United Leader Kevin Falcon’s recent pledge to balance the provincial budget in his first term, Rustad said he didn’t think it was a realistic goal.

“First of all, I think the deficit’s going to be much larger than what they’re projecting,” he said, adding he thinks resource revenue and new housing starts are being over-estimated.

“I think, quite frankly, shaving off 10 per cent of the budget in that short of a period of time is unrealistic.”

Rustad has pledged to lower taxes. But when asked by GVBOT president Bridgitte Anderson if a Conservative government would eliminate the employer health tax, Rustad was noncommittal.

"We certainly want to look at all the tax measures that are potentially in front of us to make sure that we can make the best use of the room that we are hoping to have to be able to provide tax relief for the people of British Columbia," he said.

"I want to look at significant tax relief," Rustad said. "Getting rid of the carbon tax is only one (measure) but there is other significant tax relief that I want to put on the table, both for personal taxes and corporate tax restructuring."

Rustad's Conservatives are enjoying a substantial lead over BC United in the polls, and the party has benefited from the defections of erstwhile BC United MLAs.

According to a Research Co poll in May, 32 per cent of decided voters would vote Conservative, while only 12 per cent would vote BC United or Green Party. The NDP continue to have the support of 42 per cent of decided voters, according to the Research Co poll.

Earlier this month, Rustad’s party got a boost in the high-profile defections of two sitting BC United MLAs to the Conservatives: Elnore Sturko (Surrey-Cloverdael) and Lorne Doerkso (Cariboo-Chilcotin). And on Wednesday, Chris Moore from Sechelt, who had been a BC United candidate for Powell River-Sunshine Coast, switched to the BC Conservatives.

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