The Dubious Privatization of BC Rail: The Liberal Stance

November 13, 2002

The Dubious Privatization of BC Rail: The Liberal Stance

During the run-up to the May 28, 1996 British Columbia general election, the two foremost contender parties”?the incumbent BC New Democratic Party (NDP) and the BC Liberal Party (Liberals)”?took divergent stands on their future plans regarding the province’s publicly-owned railway, BC Rail. “Liberal leader Gordon Campbell placed BC Rail front and centre as an election issue when he released his economic plan before a television audience: A key component of the plan [had] a new [Liberal] government privatizing BC Rail:to earn a one-time $1-billion revenue windfall” (Lewis, 1996). When faced with northern opposition to the privatization from within his own party, Campbell stated: “The BC Rail sale is part of our policies, and the candidates are expected to support them. I’ll have to talk to [the dissenter(s)]” (Lewis, 1996). NDP leader Glen Clark, on the other hand, made it clear to BC voters that his party had no intention of divesting the province of its publicly-owned railway transportation network. The Liberals lost the 1996 election. Looking back on the campaign in early 1997, Campbell admitted to a “litany of errors that:cost his party the election” including “the alienation of voters in the north with a promise to privatize B.C. Rail” (Palmer, 1997).

Apparently, Mr. Campbell learned from the mistakes made during the 1996 election. In campaigning for the May 15, 2001 British Columbia general election “he disavowed some of the biggest mistakes from [the 1996] campaign”?the promise to privatize BC Rail is the best example” (Palmer, May 2001). The official Liberal platform promised that “a BC Liberal Government will: not sell or privatize BC Rail” (Campbell & BC Liberals, n.d.). Having successfully anticipated the desires of the electorate and made campaign promises accordingly, the Liberals were elected in a record-breaking landslide victory, taking every seat in the BC legislature except 3. On July 15, 2001, British Columbia Transport Minister Judith Reid reaffirmed that: “We [the Liberals] have made our promise that we are not going to privatize or sell BC Rail: The passenger service is really important to the lives of people in northern communities” (Daniels, July, 2001). A year after the Liberals took power, the BC public had not changed its collective mind about the privatization issue and a McIntyre & Mustel poll released June 21, 2002 found that “British Columbians don’t want to privatize ICBC, B.C. Rail, BC Ferries or the B.C. Lottery Corp” (Beatty, 2002). However, as early as September 2001, rumours had abounded “that the Liberals might tinker with their promise not to privatize B.C. Hydro or BC Rail, both of which have assets valued in the billions of dollars” (Palmer, September 2001). Those rumours have proven factual and this essay will examine the issues surrounding the privatization of public assets, paying particular attention to the British Columbia crown corporation BC Rail.

Next Week: We take a look at the issue from the side of the NDP political party.


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Wayne E. Benedict is a Locomotive Engineer at BC Rail and President of the Canadian Union of Transportation Employees Local 1. He is working toward his Bachelor of Administration in Industrial Relations and Human Resources at Athabasca University.