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Norm Macdonald reflects on 12 years as MLA for Columbia River-Revelstoke

Norm Macdonald talks about spending 12 years as an opposition MLA and how he tried to get things done for Columbia River-Revelstoke.
Norm Macdonald gathers with supporters at his farewell party in Revelstoke last Thursday.

As Norm Macdonald was preparing to retire from politics, he gave not one, but three speeches in the provincial legislature. They touched on familiar points for the 12-year MLA — broken BC Liberal promises on LNG, finance reform, growing debt, lack of social assistance, and more.

"Some of my colleagues think it was the same speech I always gave," he told me in an interview last week. "These are all very easy. They're the issues you're consumed with because you're reading about them all the time."

Macdonald has been the NDP MLA for Columbia River-Revelstoke since 2005. A teacher, principal and former mayor of Golden, he was asked to run after returning from four years teaching in Africa.

"What was motivating was education issues," said Macdonald. "We were in a district that had closed eight schools, and it was Christy Clark that was the minister, and she was doing all sorts of things that were goofy, they weren't thought through.

"She would give her speech, get a standing ovation and move on. She didn't care about the negative impacts or the cost."

Wendy McMahon, the incumbent BC Liberal MLA, was deeply unpopular. She was faced with the task of defending government decisions to close local schools, the hospital in Kimberley, and seniors care facilities throughout the riding. In Revelstoke, the government threatened to close Moberly Manor. "Revelstoke was marching on the streets and seniors were telling you this is not only a bad idea, but it's disorganized," said Macdonald.

Macdonald easily defeated McMahon. In his first term, he was named NDP's critic for Municipal Affairs, then Tourism, Sports & Arts, and finally Education in the lead up to the 2009 election.

"One of the first things that surprised me was how little (Premier Gordon) Campbell actually showed up," said Macdonald, when asked about his first impressions of the legislature. "Campbell showed up once a week and wouldn't speak to major pieces of legislation. I have to say it was hugely disrespectful, and Christy Clark is even worse. She never shows up and she never answers the questions."

Macdonald used his position to press the government on issues important to local communities, going after ministers in the house and behind the scenes.

"You're able to get up in question period and they'll give you an answer, but because you always know more, you're able to go very aggressively after them and ask the questions the community wants," he said. "It becomes indefensible for the government so they move on it."

In 2009, Macdonald defeated Revelstoke mayor Mark Mckee to win re-election. He was given the role of critic for the Ministry for Forests, Lands & Natural Resource Operations, where he developed a respectful relationship with Minister Steve Thomson. They toured the province together as part of the Timber Supply Review – a bi-partisan committee set up to respond to the mountain pine beetle epidemic. They produced a report that had bi-partisan support from the committee, but it was ignored, said Macdonald. "They did the opposite of what we recommended, and it was unanimous," he said. "I don't blame Steve (Thomson) for that, it was decided somewhere else. That's where the big money distortion comes in because that drives policy far more than an MLA."

Over the years, Macdonald feuded with Bill Bennett, the MLA for Kootenay East, on almost every issue, but perhaps most notably over Jumbo Glacier Resort and the Mount Polley Mine tailings pond spill. Macdonald called Bennett a bully. "All this bluster and name calling is not going to stop what I'm going to do," he said. "I'm going to come back at you harder, which is what we did, right to the last speech."

Macdonald said there were some Liberal MLA's he had respect for, like Shirley Bond, Mary Polak and Thomson.

"The interesting part is to figure out who these people are and how to move the agenda along, and then to make sure if they're doing the wrong thing, to make them pay the price, and if they're doing the right thing, to be honourable with them," said Macdonald.

When asked about issues where he felt he had an impact, Macdonald pointed to the anti-HST campaign, the opposition to Jumbo Glacier Resort, the fight against Independent Power Projects, and efforts to support seniors. He also pointed to his office's constituency work, which largely goes on behind the scenes.

"The thing we said we would do that we've always done is empower people," he said. "Because the community was willing to fight and because the political representatives aligned with that fight, we did better here in Revelstoke that almost every other community."

In 2013, Macdonald went into the campaign expecting to be a cabinet minister in an NDP government. He spoke as if the NDP would form the next government and approached debates by explaining the NDP platform. He said if you look at the BC Liberals campaign promises, none of them came true.

"I knew if we were going to form government, the things I said that debate were the things I could say in four years actually happened," he said. "I'm not going to be in the place of going for eight years complaining about people making false promises, and then spending four years being the same person."

It was a huge blow and disappointment when he returned to Victoria as an opposition MLA.

"It was an experience that would have been very interesting and challenging and given me the full spectrum of what it was like," he said.

He was named the critic for Energy & Mines, pitting him against Bennett in the legislature. Their feud continued right to the final days of the 40th Parliament, when Bennett interjected several times during Macdonald's final speech.

Macdonald hasn't let up on his criticism of the BC Liberal government. "I thought they were stale (in 2013). They're well past their best before date now."

His last speech in the legislature was about the government's failure to do anything on campaign finance reform.

"It's both the Liberal's strength and their weakness. They have $45 million, we have probably a tenth of that. That is huge," he said. "The problem is nobody donates $1 million to the Liberals without expecting anything. I think most thinking people would see that quid pro quo pretty clearly and would understand that public good is definitely hurt by that exchange."

Macdonald, 58, plans to return to teaching when he leaves Victoria. He and his wife Karen will be moving to Sri Lanka for a year where they'll be volunteering at a local school.

"Hopefully with that experience, we'll move back into a classroom," he said.