Just one week after the Liberals won a majority government in Election 42, we sat down for a chit-chat with our brand new North Vancouver Member of Parliament, Jonathan Wilkinson.
Below is the unabridged interview covering everything from his time at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar to his wealth of experience in the Cleantech sector, how the Liberal Stimulus Plan will impact North Van, and the importance of strategic planning to promote growth in the Canadian Economy.
Congrats on the win! When do you get sworn in?
Well they haven’t yet set a date, we go to Ottawa next week for what they call “new member orientation” which means they train us on how to be an MP, what are the budgets, how you run the office in the constituency vs the office in Ottawa etc. My assumption is that the swearing in will be a week or two after that, but they haven’t set the official date yet.
So you have to head out to Ottawa for training?
Yep. I’m going out next week and depending on when they set the date, I may just stay out there until then.
Andrew Saxton’s office on 3rd Street was notable in the Lower Lonsdale neighbourhood. What exactly happens in there? Who works there?
Well, this is part of what I’m going to Ottawa to understand, but typically constituency offices have two or three staff members whose job is to interface with residents of the community, particularly individuals who have questions or issues such as immigration problems or taxation problems and help them navigate the federal system. In a constituency office you’re as much a case worker as you are anything else.
So what we’ll need to do once I get my budget information is figure out if we’re going to stay in that office, or move to a different space. I think the lease on that particular office is expiring in a week or two, so it’s definitely available.
Ideally, where do you want your office to be?
I’d like to be on Lonsdale. It’s happening. It’s accessible from a transit perspective. I think wherever we put the office, it has to be accessible, because there are a lot of people on the North Shore that use public transit and don’t drive. It will probably be on Lonsdale, but may not be the exact same office, we haven’t decided yet.
Can you tell us a bit about your campaign and mindset leading up to and on election night on a personal level? Did you expect to win by as much as you did?
As the campaign went along I think there was a growing sense that we were likely to win a minority. I only really got the sense that it might turn into a majority when Mr. Trudeau was here for the last event of his leadership campaign, that Sunday in the Pipe Shop. We thought we’d get somewhere between 600 and 800 people. We ended up getting about 4,000 people. We probably jammed in way more people than we should have and there was still a couple thousand people standing outside in the rain. At that point I had a sense that something real was happening and we might see a majority.
One of the questions we had from a reader was when the first polls were released in North Vancouver, former MP, Andrew Saxton, had a small lead. Were you worried at all?
Haha. It’s interesting because people in the campaign office were watching the news and people in the Pinnacle were watching the news and there was kind of a hush that went over the room. I actually was in the campaign office just behind where the TV was and we saw the first 10 polls that came in and of those the only one Saxton was winning was Grouse Woods. But, yes at any rate it was an interesting moment. But the final margin of victory was 31%, and I have to say I was definitely surprised by how big that was.
Do you think the new Burnaby-Seymour riding borders had a negative impact on conservative support?
If you actually transpose the 2011 results on top of the new boundaries it almost made zero impact. It changed the numbers by maybe 1%. So I don’t think it did a heck of a lot. He lost Blueridge which I think was quite strong for him, but Deep Cove was never that strong for the conservatives. And he gained Pemberton Heights which normally would be stronger for the conservatives, but also Norgate which is not-so-Conservative—it netted out. I don’t think the boundaries had much to do with it.
At any rate it was interesting to observe a lot of previously blue ridings turn red.
A lot of “progressive” conservatives voted red this time. I saw a bunch of people at the door who said, “I’m a life-long conservative, but I just can’t vote for Stephen Harper.”
The liberals definitely succeeded with the “Hope, not Fear” mentality.
I think one of the things that people will look back on this campaign as being the most striking about it is, in the last 30 years is people have always said that negative campaigning works, you can’t win on a positive message. We proved that’s not true.
Hopefully it makes the future better, when it comes to politics in general…
That was part of the plan. If you talk about the fact that we need to get back to a place where discussion of ideas matters and you can actually talk about things in a respectful way, then you have to do that in the campaign. You can’t run a negative campaign and then say “Hey we’re going to be better than we were in the campaign”. To his credit, Trudeau ran a positive campaign and he’s going to be able to act like that now that he’s PM.
Tell us a bit about your past? How did you get into politics? Our research says you’re a Rhodes Scholar?
I grew up in Saskatchewan where I was fortunate enough to win a Rhodes Scholarship, so I spent a couple years at Oxford where I did a Masters degree. Then I came back to Canada and did my second Masters at McGill in International Relations. I was very fortunate coming out of graduate school, the fellow who had just become the Premier of Saskatchewan asked me to come work with him on the Charlottetown constitutional process. I spent a year of my life right out of graduate school negotiating senate reform.
Then I wanted to understand how the business community works, so I went to Toronto and worked for one of the global strategy consulting houses called Bain & Co., which became relatively famous in the last US Presidential election because Mitt Romney was one of the founders of Bain.
And then my wife and I moved to Vancouver. For the past 17 years I’ve been in the clean-tech space. I’ve run a couple of different companies. Two in the alternative energy sector and one in the water treatment sector. Clean-tech is where I’ve lived for the past 20 years.
So what are your thoughts of the clean-tech industry in general? I feel like it’s been in a birth phase for a long time without breaking into mainstream.
Cleantech is different from IT, and I think it’s taken a long time for people to fully appreciate it. The product development cycle is WAY longer than IT and the capital requirements to get technology to market, including to scale it, are WAY higher. So there were all kinds of disappointments early on with respect to technologies that just look longer than expected.
But, clean tech has made a lot of progress in the last decade. And the best example of that is solar technology, which is almost at cost-parity with the grid, but that took not only technology improvements it also took mass manufacturing improvements—now happening largely in China—to get to the point where it could actually compete. I think Canada has a real opportunity in areas of cleantech. We’re never going to be the best at everything, but there are areas where we actually have technologies and companies that are leading edge. We really need to have a very strategic focus on how to move through that company creation phase to the successful commercialization phase.
One of the problems with Canada’s previous government is that it didn’t understand any of that. It thought clean tech was about carbon capture and sequestration. It saw Cleantech largely as an enabler for the oil industry. It wasn’t really about creating a whole new paradigm around energy—not just energy generation, but energy efficiency. Canada’s market share in the clean tech space fell by 71% over the last 9 years. Globally it’s growing at like 10% per year and over a trillion dollar industry. Yet Canada’s share is plummeting. If we want to be a country that can sustain the standard of living we’re accustomed to, in an era that’s moving towards being a lower carbon economy, that growth isn’t going to come from more oil and more gas and more coal. One of the areas it CAN come from is cleantech. That’s why the Americans are focused on it, the Chinese are focused on it.
The new government needs to spend a lot of time and focus on how to enable the Canadian cleantech sector. There are a lot of other areas as well, but clean tech is the one I’m closest to.
At the North Van debate a couple weeks back one thing I appreciated was your grip on reality in regards to the energy sector and resource economy. The Green Party has great ideas, but sometimes they’re so unrealistic.
We have to have a thoughtful plan that shows us where were going, but also what steps are required to get there. I really like Claire Martin, I think she’s a very thoughtful person, but we differ a bit on timelines. At one of the all candidates debates she talked about a project off the coast—basically inverted wind turbines under the water—hydro-kinetics. Those projects are very interesting and down the road could prove to be very valuable, but right now the cost of power coming out of them is somewhere between $0.30 and $0.50 per kilowatt hour. We pay $0.06 right now in BC, so we have to be thinking about the timeframe. It can’t all be done tomorrow. And we need to step back and actually have a comprehensive plan on how we’re going to get there.
Justin Trudeau has promised to hike taxes on the upper class or 1%. How do you anticipate the effect of that on big business and are you concerned at all about “Brain Drain”; the notion that the smartest or wealthiest people may move themselves or investments elsewhere at some threshold in taxation?
The tax increase in the Liberal platform isn’t focused on corporate taxation, so I don’t foresee any disincentives for corporations to locate here. What we are asking people who make in excess of $200,000 per year to do is pay a little bit more. The increase is pretty modest. My belief is that it’s sufficiently modest that you’re not going to see people moving because they have to pay an extra 2-3% on income above $200,000. I just don’t believe that’s the case.
How much is the tax increase?
The increase applies only to income in excess of $200,000, not ALL of the income that somebody earns. The tax rate for income earned between $139,000 and $200,000 remains at 29%. For income earned over $200,000 there will be a new tax rate of 33%. It’s something that I think most Canadians find quite fair. I can tell you that in this riding—this riding is one of the wealthier ridings in Canada—if you go into the district, many of the people I was talking to at their front doors every night would fall into the top 1% and I found by and large most people were quite accepting of the view that we need to ensure that the disparities between wealthy and poor do not get so big in Canada that we start to have issues around social cohesion.
I think Canadians accept it. That’s what we saw in the results of the election. There’s obviously a point at which you start to run into problems, but I don’t think the modest increase in the Liberal platform is at that point.
Can you tell us a little bit about the stimulus plan and how it will be allocated?
The details and mechanics of the plan will be a heavy focus for the government over the next six months. What was in the platform are three areas where money is to be directed. One is affordable housing: social housing, seniors housing. The second part is transportation related infrastructure—meaning mainly public transit, but not exclusively. Something Trudeau talked about is the idea of changing the orange bridge at Lynn Creek to not only facilitate better traffic flow, but to add a piece to connect the Parkway with Mountain Highway so you don’t have to go around the bridge. The third is what we’re calling green infrastructure. That can take the form of large scale renewable energy projects, but it also can be things like wastewater treatment plants, which is a big sleeping issue here in North Vancouver.
The federal government created new regulations requiring secondary treatment of wastewater and right now our plant by Lions Gate Bridge is only set up to do primary treatment. This means we need a whole new plant. $750 million and thus far there’s no commitment from the federal or provincial governments. So that whole green infrastructure piece of the new Liberal platform could lend itself to projects such as these.
Projects that are going to get funded must be priorities for municipalities. The local municipalities have to bring forward a list of things that they deem the most important and then we’re going to have to sit down and—in the context of the money that’s actually available—decide where it’s allocated and in what time frame.
So this wastewater treatment plant is something that is now eligible for funding within the parameters of the stimulus plan?
Absolutely. Both the City and District have been lobbying for this for a long time. And there’s a lot of concern! I think the new plant has to be on stream in 2020 which means they have to break ground on the construction next year and there’s no money that’s been committed yet. Either the timeframe needs to be relaxed or they have to figure out the financing and these decisions must be made relatively quickly.
You mentioned Trudeau wanting to change the orange bridge to improve traffic flow in the Lynn Creek area. Can you speak more to the long term plan for traffic and congestion in North Van, which as you know, is getting out of hand?
If you talk to Richard Walton, what he will tell you is that the bridges only use to be busy one-way. So in the morning it was people going off the shore and in the afternoon it was people coming back to the shore. Now it’s jammed going both ways at rush hour. The main reason for this is that a lot of people who are working in the industries here, those who are working in construction or renovating homes don’t live in North Van, in part because of the price of housing. The enormous traffic congestion issue is partly a function of more people living here, but also a function of more people going back and forth.
I think the traffic congestion issue is one of the biggest issues for North Vancouver over the next 20 or 30 years—figuring out how to sort that out, because we’re adding more and more people and we’re not adding any more bridges. Part of it can be addressed by better public transit and people getting more accustomed to using it. Part of it can be addressed by de-bottlenecking, like adjusting the Lynn Creek area, but other solutions are going to have to come into the mix as well. Things such as tolling and time of day pricing where you pay to travel during rush hour. One thing you’ll notice about the second narrows bridge is that they are only busy for an hour and a half in the morning and an hour and a half in the afternoon, but for the other 21 hours they’re not that busy. When people are going needs to be addressed.
The North Shore as a municipality needs to continue to engage it’s citizens in the traffic conversation and bring them to the federal level. And the solution may turn out to be something novel that isn’t right in front of our faces. I don’t see building a third crossing to the North Shore as a viable solution.
Well that will actually have a counterproductive effect on commuter behaviour…
Exactly. Urban planners will tell you that if you build more things and more routes what will happen is they’ll fill up with more cars. If you’re really serious about moving to a greener economy, that’s probably not the answer.
Do you think that Vancouverites failed with the transit referendum? Would a tax hike to pay for more transit services at this point in time have been a good idea?
Well I think that the referendum, unfortunately, became a referendum on the management of Translink. Not on the issues that should have been at the forefront which were: how do we improve public transportation? I think the structure of Translink, perhaps, needs to change before people have confidence in granting them with more money to enhance public services, but my own view is that for this city to be a workable, world class city going forward we need to enhance public transit. However that’s done, and however that’s communicated, we need to come up with a plan to make that happen, otherwise we’re all going to be sitting in gridlock.
What are your thoughts on the Seabus running earlier or later than its current sailings?
I think it needs to, both later and earlier. If people want to take the Canada Line to the airport to catch an early flight, most of the time they can’t get on the Seabus early enough to take them to the airport. Ideally Translink should be able to extend the hours as well as increase the frequency.
What are some local North Van or even better, Lower Lonsdale, impacts that will trickle down to our community with you as our MP?
In terms of local stuff, the main thing is public transit. When Mr. Trudeau announced the transportation part of the infrastructure package he mentioned four projects, and two of them were on the North Shore. One of them was another Seabus to reduce the wait time associated with the Seabus and the other was the replacement of the Lynn Creek bridge to try to de-bottleneck that.
I think the affordable housing piece is something that will impact people here. The vacancy rate in North Vancouver is less than .05% right now. Finding a place for young people is really tough here. The government plans to get actively involved in creating more spaces and providing tax incentives for private developers to create more spaces.
Darrell Mussatto has done a good job of allowing for greater densification in the city in the same way Gregor Robertson has downtown; lanehouses and coachhouses etc.
The environment is clearly a growing issue in Canada and the Liberals have promised to provide leadership with respect to global warming. However, you have also promised to make energy transportation a priority. How do Trudeau and the liberals plan to balance this issue?
This is what I was talking about earlier in regards to cleantech. There needs to be a long term strategy that focuses on making that transition successfully. What are the engines of growth going forward? We can’t cut off oil and gas and coal exports today, but what’s going to happen over time is that as other energy sources get closer to price parity with our current energy sources, namely oil, the demand for oil will decline as a function of their relative cost increasing. So it’s not like we’re going to say to Alberta “stop shipping oil”. There’s simply going to be less customers for oil out there as people start to use more solar, more biomass, more wind etc.
We need to take account of that and think about what the world demand for oil and coal looks like in the future. In that context do we need all of the pipelines that have been proposed? I don’t know the answer to that. It may well be that we do need to build some of these projects as part of that 30 or 40 year plan. It may be that we think those changes are going to happen more quickly, and these proposed projects will become stranded assets.
Any Canadian government has to focus on getting product to market, but they also have to be aware of world markets and do our part in affecting the demand for carbon in such a way that we can move towards a lower carbon economy. We’re not in any way anti-development of hydrocarbon resources, we’re not anti-Alberta, we’re not anti-BC in terms of those things. What we do need to do however, is take a step back and look at what the demand for those products is going to be on a go-forward basis as the world changes. AND we need to recognize as a country that we’re going to need alternative sources of energy to drive growth. Because even if the consumption of those products stays largely the same, that’s not going to drive economic growth. We need other areas that are going to contribute to growing the Canadian economy.
Thanks for your time and best of luck in the future.