John Rustad was just about to drive from his home on Cluculz Lake to his Nechako Lakes constituency office in Vanderhoof Monday morning when Premier John Horgan announced B.C. voters will be going to the polls for a general election on Oct. 24.
Election rules mean the 57-year-old won’t be in his office during the campaign but he certainly hopes to be there for at least the next four years if he retains his MLA seat for his fifth consecutive term in office. As the Liberal candidate for Nechako Lakes, Rustad said the timing of an election call by the NDP government in the midst of a pandemic could not be worse, a full year in advance of an already fixed election date, but he says he and his party are ready to launch their battle to win back the government.
“Right now we’ve got the highest number of cases of COVID-19 per capita than any other province in the country – lots of people are concerned and I’m concerned,” Rustad said. “How do you do door-knocking or any of this stuff without creating risk.
“Personally, I think it’s a foolish time to be holding an election, but having said that, we’re prepared and we’ll be laying out a platform to give people an alternative to how we can help people in British Columbia and get this province economically back on track. We’re ready to take it to them.”
Rustad, the opposition critic on Forestry, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, lambasted the NDP for their three-year term in office since forming a coalition with the Green Party to defeat the Liberal minority government on a non-confidence vote weeks after the May 2017 election.
“Being a politician, the first thing that comes to mind is over $10 billion in new taxes and $13 billion in new spending and running the province into a deficit even before COVID-19,” said Rustad. “The next thing that comes to mind is our forest sector has lurched from crisis to crisis and we’ve become the highest cost producer. Costs in the Interior have gone up 33 per cent and on the coast they’ve gone up 69 percent. Our sector is very uncompetitive and for a riding like mine and for us throughout the north where forestry is such an important component, that makes us vulnerable.”
Rustad blames the government for raising taxes on forest product producers and adding regulations which he says scare off investors. He pointed to Canfor’s mills in Houston and Vanderhoof and the West Fraser mill in Smithers and the need to retool them to adjust to a reduced supply of beetle-killed trees but says those companies are reluctant to go ahead with those projects because of the high cost of producing lumber.
“Clearly, as a province, if we want the province to recover from COVID-19 and we want families to be healthy, both health-wise and economically, we need to be able to be competitive. Supply is a known issue but it’s the ability to be able to operate competitively that drives fiscal decisions by mills and that drives whether a mill is going to have to take curtailments. The challenge we have now is we’re uncompetitive.”
Rustad said the mining sector has been suffering under the NDP’s watch despite rising global commodity prices. Companies are facing longer delays in obtaining work permits and he said no new mines have opened under the current government.
“The process if you want to do work in the mining field used to be, under us, we were targeting around two months and what industry is telling me now is we’re up around six months just to get a permit to do exploration work or if you need to some other work,” he said.
“It takes years to get a mine built and it takes even more years to get approval. There are mines like the Blackwater mine (south of Vanderhoof) and Kemess Underground (north of Smithers) that could be going ahead right now with construction but they’ve been delayed because there’s no confidence to build in British Columbia. So we have mines getting close to the end of their operating life that could be shutting down and we don’t have these new mines starting construction.”
Rustad was first elected in 2005 when the riding was known as Prince George-Omineca and he’s won three more terms representing Nechako Lakes. In 2017 he captured 54.39 per cent of the vote to defeat NDP candidate Anne Marie Sam (29.81 per cent). Sam is once again running against Rustad for the seat.
“I thought long and hard about this because it’s hard to get things done when you’re in opposition and it can be very frustrating,” he said.
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