MLA George Abbott to teach course on B.C. political economy this spring

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A UVic course on B.C.’s political economy being offered for the spring term will be taught by MLA George Abbott. Abbott’s career in provincial politics spanned five ministries and lasted 33 years. Abbott announced in August that he will not be running for office in May 2013 and that his current term as MLA for the Shuswap riding will be his last.

“I hope [students] will share my fascination with political processes and developments. I hope that there will be some who will be foolish enough or brave enough to enter the political world,” says Abbott. “I think it’s really important to understand the dynamics of how cabinet works in relation to the public service, how a lot of these pieces [in government] fit together.”

Previous to his long career in the public service, Abbott taught at Okanagan University College (now UBC Okanagan) starting in 1980, after earning his master’s in political science from UVic. Abbott taught political science courses until he was elected into office as MLA of Shuswap in 1996.

Abbott was re-elected in Shuswap for four consecutive terms and held several prominent positions in the provincial government including minister of Community, Aboriginal and Women’s Services (2001–2004), minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Management (2004–2005), minister of Health (2005–2009), minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation (2008–2010) and minister of Education for a month in the autumn of 2010 and then again from March – August 2011.

These positions came with substantial challenges. Abbott served as minister of Education when the B.C. Teachers’ Federation went on strike in last spring. He was involved in the campaign to support the implementation of HST while he ran for Liberal leadership in 2011. Clashes within party lines with former premier Gordon Campbell and reports of tension with Premier Christy Clark — which have since been laid to rest — made his cabinet posts more difficult.

“The toughest job I ever had in my life — and ever will have in my life because I refuse to take anything that tough on again — is minister of Health,” says Abbott. “I was minister of Health for four years here, which is a spectacularly long time.”

The course Abbott will instruct is POLI 365: B.C. Political Economy, which will touch on politics, government and economic development in the province. Issues surrounding First Nations, health care, education, economic development and the constitutional framework will be covered. The course is being offered during what Abbott refers to as “silly season” as parties gear up for B.C.’s general provincial election that is scheduled for May 14, 2013.

“Our class will be [during] the first four months of what will be a six-month campaign,” says Abbott. “So we’ll follow on a week-to-week basis what some of the parties and leaders are doing to try to build their support for the real campaign, which supposedly starts April 15 but in reality will start much earlier than that.”

Abbot will be instructing while he serves in his last term as MLA. The course’s schedule, taught in three-hour blocks on Wednesdays, allows Abbott to attend to his responsibilities in the Shuswap riding.

Abbott realizes the possible conflict of interest in having an active member of government teaching a class on B.C. politics during an election, but notes that he has moved away from partisanship. “I’ve been around politics long enough to have a sense of the responsibility that comes with teaching versus responsibility in politics. And I certainly will not take a partisan view into class. It’s true that I’ll still be a member of government, but I want to be as critical of government as I might be of opposition.”

Sean Holman, journalism professor at Mount Royal University, believes that Abbott will use his substantive experience to educate students from all political stripes.

“I think he will bring an unparalleled insight into what actually happens inside government. And my sense of it is that Abbott does want to help make the system better, and I do think to a greater or lesser extent his heart was in the right place when it comes to being in politics.”

Holman founded a now-defunct journalism website called Public Eye Online that investigated B.C. politics, and he previously instructed journalism courses at UVic.

Abbott believes it is important to reshape the culture and processes of government.

“I think [the B.C. government] needs to change. It needs to move away from some of the often bitter, personal, destructive kinds of relationships to much more collegial and constructive relationships,” says Abbott. “I do think there is some potential for changing the culture here . . . and I hope that becomes the case regardless of who’s elected in May.”

Abbott says he will not be returning to public office and hopes that instructing at UVic next semester is the start of a long career in teaching.

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