For 17 years, Colin Hansen has pushed his way through the revolving doors to the inner chamber of the legislature and crossed the immaculate red carpet to take his seat in the House. His political life was forged on the opposition benches. He rose to become a powerful cabinet minister in charge of the provincial budget. Next month, he will exit the House for the last time as a near-silent backbencher.
Mr. Hansen was dumped from cabinet by Premier Christy Clark because he had been the finance minister responsible for introducing the harmonized sales tax. His five budgets were distinguished by a commitment to cutting taxes for business and high-income earners to attract investment to B.C. This week, he watched as his colleague Mike de Jong tabled a fiscal plan that seeks to rebalance the tax burden by asking business and top earners to pay more.
I was off in the budget lock-up. What would I have seen, if I could have watched your face in the House, when Mike de Jong tabled his budget?
When I heard the budget speech I thought they had done an amazing job. It reads well. In 2001, when we formed government, British Columbia had a global reputation as a high-tax jurisdiction and a poor place to invest. We had to do some dramatic moves to change that reputation. But over the last four years that has been a shifting ground. Now what we are seeing is other jurisdictions are being forced to increase taxes as well, so we can afford to take that slight tax increase and still be an attractive location.
What advice do you give to people who are thinking of getting into B.C. politics?
The vast majority of people who get elected to public office, run for re-election. A lot of the public wonder why anybody in their right mind would run for elected office. A lot of the [commentary] does hurt, but the opportunity to serve, the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives is very satisfying and it more than outweighs the flack that people take.
We may see an opposition party making the transition to government this spring. You’ve been through that. What defined that move across the floor for you?
It was the fiscal realities of the day. In 2001, we were facing a very large structural deficit. How would you run a ministry – in my case it was health – and still find ways to get spending under control. The very first day we were sworn in as government, in June, 2001, the nurses’ union had a ratification vote where they turned down a 26-per-cent increase. That was the environment we inherited.
The other big transition you’ve made is from the cabinet benches to the back bench.
There were some very difficult times in finance. And in the last four months of cabinet to also have the health portfolio – something in your brain says, ‘Please Lord, don’t let me get sick, I can’t afford to take a day off.’ About four days after being out of cabinet I got sicker than I have ever been in my life. I think it was God saying, ‘Okay, now we are going to make up for lost time.’ It was an adjustment. When you are running on adrenalin, to not have those pressures was hard to get used to. But once I got over that first couple of weeks, I realized I actually have time now to proactively sink my teeth into some public policy areas that were of interest to me.”
I once described you as the lone sheriff selling the HST – I didn’t see a lot of your colleagues backing you up.
People sort of assumed this was Gordon Campbell and Colin Hansen ramming this through caucus. I did take it to caucus and told them all the reasons why I felt it was important. And also the fact that we were not going to be heroes for this – it was going to be a tough, tough sell. A lot of people assumed that if caucus had a free vote it wouldn’t have happened. In fact it was a free vote. I felt I was totally supported by every member of caucus in what we were trying to do. It was difficult for a lot of MLAs once that community anger set in. But as a public policy it was the right thing to do.
What does an ex-finance minister do after politics?
Initially I plan to re-engage with the company [Image Group] my wife and I co-owned 17 years ago. Laura has built that into one of the leading promotional products companies in Canada. If you had asked me that before, I wouldn’t have given you a straight answer – for 17 years I was always very careful not to put myself in a situation where someone could accuse me of using my elected position to steer business to my wife’s company. But Laura has made it clear the company is doing quite well without me, and besides she doesn’t have any room in the payroll budget.