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Rob Shaw: David Eby sheds his activist skin, focuses on his new power

Eby asserts he is no longer the activist, not at all interested in a snap vote
David Eby says he wants the next 18 months to prove government can do things for people.

Urgency, expectations and an early election were on the mind of a reflective Premier David Eby this week when he sat down for a lengthy interview with veteran political columnist Vaughn Palmer.

The new premier didn’t necessarily divulge anything new. But he gave some honest, thoughtful glimpses into why he’s moving so quickly in his new government, whether he’s set the bar too high for his own success and why he refuses to go to the polls early (despite the opinion of pundits).

Eby gave off an almost fatalistic attitude towards his political future, admitting he’s raised expectations for his own success by promising visible progress on difficult files, but that he’ll throw himself on the mercy of voters in 18 months and let them make their own judgment.

“If I raise expectations and don't meet them, and British Columbians at the end say you told us you were going to do things, you didn't get them done — I'm willing to take that chance,” Eby said.

“But the only way to get people together and unified, and looking forward to what the province could be, is by setting those expectations, saying this is where we're going, and we can only get there if we work together.”

Eby said he was disturbed by the story of a Burnaby senior he met recently, who had spent her entire adult life working at a local school and volunteering, but who had recently been given notice by her landlord and discovered she can’t afford to rent or stay in her own community.

“The urgency I feel around addressing this issue for her, for so many people in the province, is driving this energy you see from our government around getting these initiatives in place,” he said, admitting that “urgency” is the theme of his first 140 days in government.

“We’re not going to be able to solve all these problems between now and the next election, but I want British Columbians to see very clearly landmarks of where we’re going. I want them to see progress.”

Still though, it will be hard within 18 months to show progress on crises like the doctor shortage, homelessness, housing, mental health, affordability and overdose deaths.

It’s why some continue to speculate Eby might be smart to call an early election now, as he enjoys a honeymoon period with the electorate. Eby has repeatedly said he’s not interested.

He put the question to rest in a definitive way in the interview.

“I keep getting asked by different political observers. They're like, this is the time to call an election. . . your numbers are good, the economy's OK, but storm clouds are gathering,” said Eby.

“I'm like, are you kidding me? This is a window of time, a year and a few months to really show British Columbians what the possibility is of government to make life better for people.

“Cynicism about politicians is at an all-time high and I was in that group, believing that you could only get places by suing politicians.

“So, if we could show people in a limited way as we did with ICBC, turning it around and reducing rates, that government can do these things — it feels like, OK, well, maybe I still don't like politicians, but maybe there is a role for government to do things that support me and my family.

“There's a chance to show that to people. I would never pass it up. And I'm so excited about it.”

Eby was also reflective about his career as an activist, first with Pivot Legal Society and later with the BC Civil Liberties Association, where he fought for the rights of the unhoused and marginalized, particularly in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Both those groups are at loggerheads with the new Eby administration, especially over its role in sanctioning the city’s massive and controversial tent removal campaign in the Downtown Eastside Wednesday.

“There were two possible choices,” said Eby. “One was: leave the encampment there, hope we don't have a catastrophic fire where people actually die, people are murdered, that another building doesn't burn down because there's a fire in the tent and it goes to one of the buildings. Or, what happened (Wednesday), which is to give people, again, many housing offers over the last few months.”

Still, though, in general, those who used to be Eby’s allies in the civil liberties space are now his critics. They ask: What happened to David Eby the activist who used to sue the government and wrote a handbook on how to protest police?

“They're right -- I'm not that activist,” said Eby.

“I still share those ideals about where our province can go, that every person be treated with respect, that we can have economic development and a clean environment. We can deliver these things. I'm in a different role now to bring people together, to try to create a province where those ideals that we all share can be realized.”

Eby also praised a recent Orca column by economist and former deputy minister Don Wright, who argued Ottawa’s massive immigration efforts could make it more difficult for B.C. to solve its housing and health care crises.

“He's absolutely right,” said Eby, who admitted he has to keep raising the issue directly with the feds or they largely forget about B.C. as they rush to placate Ontario and Quebec. “With the growth that we've seen in this province, the province has to respond.”

The premier’s full interview is worth a watch, and is reminiscent of the extensive and much-missed Voice of BC interviews Palmer used to conduct.

It gave us a rare glimpse into the mindset of a premier who is making clear and calculated decisions about his political future — as difficult and risky as those may be.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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