2021 Supply Act: Nothing to see here, except there is!

Mar 16, 2021 | 42-1, Blog, Governance, Video | 0 comments

In December the BC NDP used their majority to delay budget 2021. They claimed they needed more time due to the challenge posed by the global pandemic.

In reality, it was their self-serving fall election that caused the new government to immediately begin trampling on the budget process, eventually pushing the annual budget day from mid-February to the third week of April.

Each year there the government passes a Supply Act to cover the costs of running the province while the new budget is going through the due process. Usually the supply is tied to the budget that was made public. However, because the BC NDP pushed budget day into April and still need to bridge the gap between the expired budget and new one, the 2021 Supply Act uniquely references the pre-COVID budget from 2019-20.

We have heard speaker after speaker from the BC NDP claim that this change is insignificant. It is troubling to hear my colleagues make these claims because our processes are important and our actions impact British Columbians. The process of government creates certainty and there are consequences when a government minimizes due process, sidestepping accountability.

That is exactly what the BC NDP is doing with Bill 10: Supply Act, 2021.

[Transcript]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to speak to Bill 10, the Supply Act. I’m glad that a little more humility has crept into the debate than was happening earlier. I think that it’s important that we not forget that we’re actually having a debate here and that the debate that we’re having here is framed in the context of billions and billions of public funds being spent that has nothing, or little or nothing, I should say, to do with the parties that are represented in this House. It has everything to do with who we serve in this place. We serve the people of British Columbia, and it’s important that when we’re having the debate about billions of dollars, it is in the context of those people that we serve.

I want to start my comments on Bill 10 with the acknowledgement, as many speakers have stood and stated at the outset of their comments, that there is a supply act. An interim supply happens every year. It’s a standard part of the spring session. And as other members have noted, it’s to ensure that there’s the ongoing funding of programs that allows for the time between one budget to the next.

What’s unfortunate about the debate that I’ve heard, that has been unfolding here in this chamber today, is that the whole story is not necessarily being told, because while members of the government would like us to just stop on the point that this happens every year, it’s important to acknowledge the fact that what’s happening in this supply act doesn’t happen every year. What’s happening in this supply act is unique. There’s lots of excuse-making. We’ve heard lots of excuses for why this is the case. But let’s just be honest about the fact that this supply act is unique –– as unique as the times, as many people have pointed out.

The government hasn’t presented a budget and estimates to this House. And so, as other members have pointed out, there is little ability between now and when they do…. They want us to pass this act now. In fact, they need this House to pass the act now to allow for the funding of the administration of government. But there’s little transparency and accountability, and so the members of the opposition should very much be concerned about that fact. It’s not a minor fact. Essentially, what this is, is an advance on a budget that we have not seen. That is the main distinction between what’s happening here today in this debate and this request from the government, and what’s happened in previous years and the previous requests of previous governments. Essentially, this House today is being asked for $13-plus billion, which is a lot of money, to support…. They’re asking for our support of that without the information that governments normally have when they’re making the determination that they will support a supply act.

[5:05 p.m.]

This is particularly problematic because last year’s budget, the budget that they’re using to provide the context for this…. Because there is no budget to provide any context to their request, they’re tying this to the previous year’s budget. What’s problematic about that is that the previous year’s budget is irrelevant. It’s pre-COVID. A lot has happened since then, as many speakers have said.

So we’re being asked, the people of B.C., represented by the members in this place, no matter what party you’re from — as the people of B.C. often hear, “Whether you’re on this side of the House or the other side of the House” — the reality of the matter is that the representatives of this House are being asked to spend $13 billion without the context that’s normally in place. So I think that that’s important to point out. As it said in this bill, the bill has to circumvent the Financial Administration Act. In section 1 of the act, part 2 says, “For the purposes of this Act, the main Estimates for the previous fiscal year ought to be read as if they were the main Estimates for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2022.”

Section 3, “Despite section 2 of the Financial Administration Act” — despite section 2 of the Financial Administration Act — “a reference in section 23 of that Act is to be read in relation to this Act as a reference to the main Estimates for the previous fiscal year.” So, while members of government stand up in this debate and suggest nothing is different, that this is what we do all of the time, are there any differences? Yes. There are differences.

So, indeed, every time that we’ve been told and every time that we will be told that “we’re just doing what we’re doing, folks, we have always done it….” Except we’re not. So, you know, maybe the people of B.C. should think about that, when their government can stand up member after member after member to say, “Don’t worry, nothing to see here, we’re doing what we have always done.” Except in the very language of the act they’re saying, “No, we’re not doing what we have always done, we’re doing something different.”

I think what the people of B.C. want is for their government to tell them what they’re doing, to be honest about that, and then to do it. We’ve heard… So this Supply Act is out of context. The context should be…. The Supply Act should be tied contextually to the current year’s budget. That’s not what is happening. So I look forward to future members standing up and acknowledging the fact that, yes, there is a Supply Act every year, and, yes, this year it is different because it is, in fact, and in reality, different than previous years.

Now, the government has framed this unfortunate delay largely as they’ve been framing everything in their delays — due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Now, I was here at the beginning. I was here a year ago. I was one of the ten members that sat in this place and approved the $5 billion and the $1.5 billion recovery fund. It was a day like none other, probably, in this chamber. It was surreal, was the word that I was looking for. I would say that it marked, I think, the beginning of the change of how this place operates.

Last year, I spent most of my time working from my patio, which I never thought that an elected MLA would do, most of his time — whether it be legislating from the chamber or constituency work or whatever…. That I’d spend so much time on my patio as an elected member. So there is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a tremendous impact on governing in this province and there’s no doubt that the administration of our government, the staff and the public servants, have done a tremendous job to negotiate the really incredible challenges. However, part of what we’ve seen here is a really troubling trend of a reduction in transparency and accountability of this government.

[5:10 p.m.]

We did in that time a year ago come together in a cross-partisan way — again, only reflected in the very substantive challenge that we faced. We came together. There was very little definition between this side of the House and that side of the House. I think that was what kind of caught me off guard in the tone of the beginning of this debate around this, was the fact is that we have seen in very recent times a time in which all members of this place have come together to support British Columbians.

So $1.5 billion was approved for pandemic recovery and that was by all parties in the House. It, unfortunately, ended up being a campaign fund. Because all through the summer that money was being consulted on. We’ve have heard member after member after member stand up and say that the government supports consultation and engagement and asking. Well, we saw that all through the summer. Then, on the eve of the election, $11.5 billion worth of programs put in front of British Columbians as if it were magic.

Yet it was months previously I was sitting in this seat right over here when we approved that budget. The government chose to delay this budget until April. The 2021-22 budget was a choice by the government to delay that budget.

Normally, we would have the budget in front of us right now at the same time as we would be debating the Supply Act. We would be able to take a look at it, and we’d say: “Okay, we see the budget in front of us. We recognize the imperative of government continuing to deliver programs, as the members have talked about. Based on the fact that all the documentation is in front of us, based on the fact that government has followed its due process. Based on the fact that it’s in alignment with the Financial Administration Act, let’s proceed.”

Usually, this process happens very quickly. Very few debates at the supply act. But the government also chose to trigger that snap election back in the fall, in the middle of a pandemic. That was a choice of this government to delay and to put that in the middle of a budget process that was actually moved up into the summer. The budget consultation, was moved up into the summer to give the government more time to consult, more space between that budget consultation, recognizing that it was going to be unlike any other year. They moved the budget process in advance.

They were probably more prepared and had more time for the 2021-’22 budget in terms of that consultation process than any government has been in maybe a decade or longer than that, except for the fact that they then decided, the Premier decided, to throw an election in the middle of it. That election has had — despite what many people in this House would like the public to believe otherwise — widespread disruptive impacts in our society. We’ve heard about it over and over and over again. Program spending that didn’t get out the door. Critical changes to programs that couldn’t be made to make sure that they worked properly when they first failed. Small to medium-sized business programs is an example of that.

We’ve seen the numbers in the modelling and then in the numbers on the graphs of COVID cases escalating rapidly during the election. We were told: “Not going to happen, don’t worry about it. It’s going to be just an inconsequential election.” With deep, deep, deep consequences. We saw Peter Milburn’s report on Site C was actually ready in October, but it wasn’t delivered until Christmas because, as he said, there was no government to give it to when it was ready. We were told that these kind of delays were not going to happen. But instead, they did.

So to make up for the snap election, the government brought us back in December, and they brought us back under the auspices that we were going to be approving the grant to support British Columbians, the $1,000 election promise to all British Columbians.

[5:15 p.m.]

Then we also saw a bill, at that time, that would give the government the ability to do a few things. First, to delay the budget by over two months so that it didn’t have to come in February, so it’s going to come, now, in late April. Then, as well, to give themselves enhanced ability to use special warrants — essentially, the ability to just spend money unchecked when the Legislature’s not in session.

This is part of this contextual narrative that is playing out, a government that wants the ability to just call money and spend it without the associated transparency and accountability that is required when we’re actually paying respect to the people who pay the taxes and need the services that the government provides.

This whole year, as I said, has been unusual. With that, I can agree with my colleagues. It’s been an unusual year. But let’s not forget: 2017 was an unusual year as well. So 2017 saw us go into an election. It was unusual because a Green won in Saanich North and the Islands. But more than that, it was unusual because we got into a minority government situation, where with the B.C. Greens and the B.C. NDP and the B.C. Liberals, there was no majority government in this province.

It’s important to point this out, because in that year, the B.C. NDP government, in a confidence and supply agreement with the B.C. Greens, put together two budgets, in that odd year, in that challenging time. I know it was challenging, because I was a part of those negotiations. There was nothing easy about that time.

In fact, as many people were saying, that was the least stable our government has ever been. As it turns out, it was pretty stable for 3½ years. But it was the least stable. Everybody was taking bets on when the government was going to fall. Somehow the Minister of Finance and this government delivered a September budget update and started the process and finished the process for Budget 2018 in February of 2018.
For all of these delays that have been argued necessary due to COVID, because of a unique situation, it’s important to point out that we’re not that foreign from unique situations. Yes, they’re different. Yes, a global pandemic and a minority government are different. However, I would suggest that we’ve experienced so few minority governments in the recent, modern history of this province that, actually, the situation that we faced in 2017 was traumatic for this institution. It was dramatically different from what we’ve seen.

So here we are now. We’ve got a situation in which we’ve delayed this budget, or we’ve been told that we need to delay this budget because of COVID. The reality is that we’re delaying this budget because of an election that was called. Claims that we can’t get the budget together, yet this same government got two budgets together in one year. We have examples of where the government is able to deliver a budget under duress, and in this situation, in this case, they’ve chosen not to.

They claim that this is about consultation, and more consultation. The reality is, of course, that that consultation happened a long time ago. The government has gone through that process. The committee that is charged with that has done the work. This government, prior to the election, was more ready for budget ’21-22 than they were previously, because that process was sped up.

This isn’t a new government. This is the same Premier. The majority of the cabinet’s in place. This isn’t a new budget. This is not a new budget from a new government. This is a new budget from a government that largely has had its hand on the tiller for the last 3½ years. The delay — let’s just be honest — is because of an election. It’s because of the timing of the election, and that decision that was made by the Premier.

[5:20 p.m.]

Like I said previously, response to COVID-19 was delayed because of it. Support for small and medium businesses delayed because of it. Support for the tourism and hospitality industry delayed because of it. Budget 2021-2022 delayed.

My final bits of comments here on this, I would just like to point out the process. Process is important. In this bill, this Supply Act, the government is flouting important processes. My job — as has been mentioned previously — as a member of the opposition is to hold the government accountable. It is to demand transparency when the government is using its power to ignore due process and the impacts that come from that. There are real consequences.

To my colleagues who want to just stand and suggest, “Don’t worry,” or “This is different,” there are enough impacts in our society caused by COVID-19 already. The last thing the people of British Columbia need is their government also throwing wrenches into the spokes at the same time, which is what’s happened over the last number of months.

There’s one member who stood up and said he’s astounded that we must talk about this bill. I would just suggest I ask the question: should this House just give the government $13 billion to spend without debate? That doesn’t sound like the democracy that we have set up here. That doesn’t sound like how this place is supposed to work.

I know the government would like to not have the accountability and transparency, and their actions recently have shown that they’re trying to achieve that. They might, in fact, use their majority of votes in this place, if they can convince their own members to just go along with it to get that power. But that doesn’t mean that it’s right and that they should have it.

There is a great deal of difficulty to hold government accountable when there’s nothing for us in the opposition to point to and say…. We can’t point to the budget from the last time and say that the context of this Supply Act is from this budget over here. That’s not the way it should work, arguing that 20 days is 20 days, or 15 days or 10 days. As the Premier has said and a member has raised, the Premier said previously that one day is too many. Well, apparently that’s changed. I think it’s the laissez faire approach to some of the debate here, like: “Don’t worry about it. It’s just 20 days — just 20 days. What’s 20 days?” It’s a lot when you’re talking about $13.5 billion.

Most British Columbians will look at this and see a bald MLA splitting hairs, probably.

Interjection.

Yeah, there’s been a few, but I’ll just speak for myself. However, is this bald MLA splitting hairs because he has so few hairs to split? No. No, it’s because the processes that we’ve set up in this place for accountability and for budgeting measures are well-established and they’re there for a reason. They’re there to protect the interest of the public that we raise that money from. If those are flouted, if those are set aside, if those are easily put aside, then what certainty do those people have?

We must hold government accountable, and we must hold up the processes that are in place to protect the public interest. If we’re not doing that and the government basically has this laissez faire approach about it which is just: “Whatever, it’s just 20 days. What’s 20 days really…?” It’s nothing, in the grand scheme of things.

But it is important. The reason that we need to protect those processes is because other businesses, non-profits and other organizations have created their processes to match ours.

[5:25 p.m.]

When we do that, the delays that were caused back in the fall by decisions that were made by the governing party here throw all of those planning processes into chaos. You can imagine the people who have to manage the other budgets that are contingent on this budget — what they must be thinking right now — as they’re hearing government members go: “Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s just 20 days. You guys just hang in there a little bit.” The people who are working — just hang in. You might have a job; you might not. Twenty days. It’s nothing, really. Except it is something. It does mean something, and it means something for a reason.

The reason we have these processes is so that other groups and organizations can align their processes so that in the end, we can have certainty. What the chaos of the election was called…. People say: “Oh, it’s just the Greens standing up because he was the one that was burnt.” No. The certainty that’s created by this place filters down through our society, and other people and other organizations, non-profits, businesses, need us to stick to our processes and not flout them and then, when we do, minimize that.

I’d just like to close by saying that this has been an unusual and a challenging time for this institution, incredibly so. We’ve seen, as members, the impact on this institution. But I also want to point out that this has been incredibly challenging not just for us but for everybody in our society, for everybody in our communities that we represent.

So the chaos that’s been created by an election, the chaos that’s been created by delaying the budget…. It is just wrong for to us stand up in this House and minimize it like it is of little consequence, because the consequences and the ramifications are very large. We do ourselves in this institution a great discredit when we make the debate about us and our political parties, when we make it about what they did in the 90s and what they did…. I can’t wait till we talk about the 80s and the 70s in this place.

What we need to be focused on is the job that we have at hand right now, which is Budget ’21-22 and, on the opposition benches, holding government accountable for that. Unfortunately, what we have here in front of us is we have a supply act that is pointing and created a context that just doesn’t exist. For me, that’s very troubling.

With that, I will take my seat. I thank Mr. Speaker for the opportunity to speak to Bill 10. I really hope that as we move forward in the coming budget cycles that we can once again — in light of the fact that we’re dealing with a global pandemic — create that certainty that the people of British Columbia, the organizations that rely on us to have that certainty…. That they can once again rely on their government to create that certainty for them so that then they can do the important work that they need to do on behalf of their constituencies. With that, thank you. HÍSW̱ḴE SIÁM.

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