Ralph, reflecting: MLA Sultan dishes on 5 terms in office

King Ralph is abdicating his throne.

After five consecutive landslide wins since 2001, West Vancouver MLA Ralph Sultan has announced he won’t be seeking election again.

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B.C.’s oldest ever MLA told the North Shore News he doesn’t intend to be on the ballot at the age of 88 (assuming the current minority government survives a four-year term) and possibly in office until he’s 93.

“I thought it’s time to sort of say, look, open this thing up if other people want to run in this seat. It will be available. So that was my decision. I wasn’t pushed. I didn’t jump. But I decided it was time,” he said.

After a career as an engineer, a mining executive, an economics professor at Harvard University and chief economist for the Royal Bank of Canada, Sultan was persuaded to seek the BC Liberal nomination. In part, it was because his wife Shirley had recently died for lack of treatment available to her following a seizure.

“My wife had been turned away from Lions Gate Hospital,” he said. “She needed help.”

Twenty years later, Sultan still chokes up when he talks about it.

As an MLA, Sultan said he’s seen himself bringing a corporate sensibility to the legislature, where so many MLAs cut their teeth on municipal councils or the non-profit sector today. But he also has earned a reputation as an iconoclast within the B.C. Liberals.

In 2013, the Liberals won a majority government, but Premier Christy Clark lost her seat in West Point Grey. Clark and Sultan had a good relationship but she needed a seat in the legislature and Sultan’s was her first choice.

When she called, Clark chose her words carefully because offering an inducement for him to step down would have been illegal, but she reminded Sultan that the party was like a family to him and that wouldn’t change after he resigned.

“I said ‘Well gee, thanks for the offer, Christy, but no thanks.’

“I said I serve my constituents and I intend to do that. Well, let’s just say her response at that point was wasn’t necessarily very ladylike,” Sultan said with a laugh. “She was displeased. Very displeased.”

Sultan speculated it might have been his age, or the fact he wasn’t in it for the money, but he said he’s had no difficulty speaking his mind.

“Whereas many MLA are cowed by the system. They want to get into cabinet. That’s the big prize,” he said.

When he did briefly hold a cabinet post, it turned out to be little more than a “list of marching orders,” Sultan said.

His disagreements shouldn’t be confused with disloyalty, though, Sultan quickly added. Every time he clashed with his caucus, it was because he was trying to help his party, he said.

That’s something Sultan would advise his eventual successor. Being in a safe seat gives you a little bit more freedom and therefore responsibility to speak your mind without fear of being voted out, he said.

ralph sultan
Ralph Sultan, West Vancouver-Capilano receives well-wishes from his colleagues in the Legislature. photo supplied

The West Vancouver-Capilano riding includes Dundarave, Ambleside and the British Properties as well as Pemberton Heights, Edgemont, Delbrook and Grousewoods. Sultan said he expects it to be a hotly contested race for the BC Liberal nomination. Sultan only “squeaked in” by about six votes, he recalled.

The party routinely hoards two-thirds or more of the popular vote in the riding, boasting some of the widest margins in B.C.

Through 16 years in government, Sultan said the NDP was able to find fault with almost everything they did – much of it “typical political exaggeration.”

But regrets, he’s had a few. The handling of the Harmonized Sales Tax comes to mind.

“I think we will be driven toward it by necessity sooner or later, but I was terribly disappointed in how we handled it. We bungled it … and we really haven’t come up with a good alternative. It makes us less competitive as a tax system and that’s a handicap that we can’t really afford,” he said.

Sultan said it was a tactical mistake for the party to go into the 2017 election with $3 billion in the provincial coffers when there was clearly a need for the money to be spent on British Columbians needing help, he said.

And, he added, during the early days of the Gordon Campbell government, they were gleefully cutting red tape and “silly regulations,” but Sultan said it was clear they overdid it in some areas.

“It’s easy to overshoot if you get carried away by ideology and I guess to some extent we were,” he said.

While he may be officially retiring from the legislature after this term, Sultan said he plans to continue with political advocacy and advancing some new ideas, especially on the two biggest issues on the North Shore – housing and transportation.

 “I guess if I want to earn my keep, I should make a positive contribution to both,” he said. “I don’t play golf at all. I think it’s a ridiculous sport.”

It might seem a bit inconsistent with his corporate background, Sultan acknowledged, but he said growing income inequality must also be addressed.

“It’s a huge problem and it’s driving populism. It’s driving Donald Trump. It’s shaking the foundations of capitalism as we know it. It’s not quite obvious to the capitalist, but we all have to start paying attention to this,” he said.

He’s also taking stock in his family.

After Shirley died, Sultan realized that she’d done all the heavy lifting in raising their four kids. He means now to have a closer relationship with his five grandchildren and a whole raft of relatives across the United States and Europe.

“And all of a sudden, she was gone. The kids were grown up by then, of course,” he said.

“I’ve been spending increasing time trying to figure out who are all these people and, you know, what’s the name of that grandnephew who just arrived?”

When Sultan broke the news to his riding association last month, he emphasized to them how humbling it was to be in a position of serving the public.

“I thought I knew just about everything there was to know that was worthwhile knowing in the world and I found out I didn’t know shit – about people, about humanity, about the human condition.

“And, once elected, I got my nose rubbed into it real quick,” he said. “This job is so fascinating, I would pay to do it. I feel guilty sometimes.”

Ralph Sultan
MLAs Ralph Sultan and Jane Thornthwaite take part in the 2016 Click for Babies event, which saw thousands of knitted caps distributed to parents and caregivers to spread awareness about shaken infant syndrome. file photo Mike Wakefield, North Shore News

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