Budget 2021: BC NDP tinkering on the edges

Apr 25, 2021 | 42-1, Blog, Video | 0 comments

In her budget speech Finance Minister Selina Robinson told British Columbians that her fiscal plan is proof that the BC NDP “has our backs.” “Making life more affordable” is an oft-used BC NDP refrain in their throne speeches, budgets and question period responses.

Budget 2021 is the BC NDP’s first budget with their coveted majority government, and it provided an opportunity for Premier John Horgan and Minister Robinson to show that they are prepared to govern courageously.

This budget was also their first opportunity to move past the rhetoric of “having our backs” and “making life more affordable” and showing British Columbians that their BC NDP government is prepared be bold and invest in systemic change.

However, that is not what they delivered in Budget 2021. Unfortunately in many key areas like housing policy, childcare investments, primary health care, paid sick leave, landscape management, the environment and climate action, Budget 2021 either offers a lackluster response or entirely misses the mark.

[Transcript]

I’m pleased today to stand and speak to Budget 2021.

In the first few lines of the budget speech, the Minister of Finance offers the lens that the B.C. NDP government wishes British Columbians to view their effort through: “They’ve got our backs.” We should not be surprised, as this rhetoric has been framing everything that this government has been saying for the past four years. Even while they’ve been talking consistently about “making life more affordable,” they have yet to show the courage to take the decisive and even unpopular actions to tackle systemic issues like inequality and affordability. The same goes for Budget 2021.

Even as we welcome investments sprinkled across different program areas in this government, what is lacking is the ambition to set British Columbia up for a strong future. This is especially clear in how the B.C. NDP is tackling inequality and climate change.

In Budget 2021, the B.C. NDP offer little in the way of a unified sense of what they’re trying to achieve — a common agenda or a purpose. At the beginning of the pandemic, people expressed their hope that their government would take the opportunity to transform the economy, through bold vision and audacious policy proposals. However, while the B.C. NDP say they have our backs, they deliver a throne speech and a budget that takes a buckshot approach at spending billions of dollars while not clearly articulating the outcomes that they’re trying to achieve.

Do the B.C. NDP have our backs? Let’s explore that. In Budget 2021, there is approximately $110 million invested in British Columbia’s reconciliation effort this fiscal year. As I’ve previously noted, I appreciate the investments the government has made in housing for Indigenous People, both on reserve and off. I’ve been thrilled with the spending in earlier budget cycles on Indigenous language revitalization. However, I feel I must return to a common theme for me, and that is the disappointment I feel when parsing the signals from the noise.

For the past few years, I have consistently highlighted an important signal that the B.C. NDP could send to Indigenous People about their commitment to decolonization and reconciliation. The remains of our ancestors lie in basements of museums around the world. Along with our sacred items of cultural importance, they stand for a time when it was acceptable to raid the graves of Indigenous People.

The administrative work to repatriate our ancestors and items of cultural significance is expensive, time-consuming and traumatic. Just as the government found a key action of reconciliation was to awaken our sleeping languages, so too is the importance of the repatriation effort that need not take decades and hundreds of thousands of dollars that could be better spent on other programs that the money was actually designated for.

I will say it again, and I will continue to say it until this government puts in place a meaningful program that doesn’t rely entirely on Indigenous Nations but can support those Indigenous Nations in these efforts. This would be excellent work for the Royal B.C. Museum as they try to mend their relationships with Indigenous People in British Columbia.

The B.C. NDP detailed several programs they are supporting this year: anti-racism initiatives in health care, skills training, increased administrative capacity in the provincial government to support the execution of the reconciliation and other agreements, child care, housing, tourism and environmental efforts. The largest expense is $60 million which will provide “dedicated funding that supports Indigenous participation in land and resource activities…negotiations and engagement on legislation, policy and programs.” There is no doubt that this money is necessary, especially considering the B.C. NDP government remains committed to the 19th and 20th century extractive economy.

What the B.C. NDP are going to wrap their heads around is that prosperity for Indigenous People must be more than being yoked to the priorities of the provincial government, which are focused on the destruction of ecosystems. We need to create the space for Indigenous People to bring their own initiatives for economic development and prosperity to the table. For instance, a Narwhal article this week featured a Gitanyow project to set up an Indigenous protected area and specifically the response from our provincial government: “Well, industry doesn’t want to hear it.”

Well, I raise my hands up to the provincial government for the important contribution in a variety of useful programs that will help Indigenous People. They will prove that they “have our back” when their promises of self-determination are allowed to influence the discussion and outcomes at the table and when Indigenous People no longer have to plead to have the remains of our ancestors returned to the rightful place in our homelands. Until the latter happens, there will continue to be significant disturbance in our territories.

I have mixed feelings about the B.C. NDP’S approach to housing in this 2021 budget. On one hand, they announce a $2 billion announcement to increase the lending capacity of the successful HousingHub program. The Minister of Finance claims this novel financing program will lend the capital for the construction of 9,000 new housing units for middle-income families over the next three to five years. This is a good program. I know many organizations and non-profits in Saanich North and the Islands are looking to this program to support the construction of affordable housing in our communities, mostly on the southern Gulf Islands, where housing is desperately needed.

However, despite this program on housing affordability, I do not believe the B.C. NDP has our back. In fact, this B.C. NDP government is shying away from taking meaningful action on housing by trying to build our way out of a housing crisis, and the B.C. NDP is not going to succeed at making housing any more affordable for British Columbians than the B.C. Liberals before them by taking the same approach of that former government.

In the 2018 budget, the B.C. NDP minority government set out what looked like it could be a promising path to begin tackling housing affordability with the 30-point housing plan, including some demand-side measures. However, since that time, the market has continued to escalate, and it has become clear that earlier measures are not making much difference. Yet we see no willingness to update these measures and take new actions to actually cool the market. Instead, it seems this government is content to watch as housing stretches further and further out of reach for British Columbians, particularly lower- and middle-income families and young people.

The truth is that this Finance Minister, like every Finance Minister since Bill Vander Zalm and probably before that, is too reliant on the revenue generated by real estate transactions to take any significant action to cool the super-heated real estate market. Housing prices are out of control, not just in the greater Victoria area, not just in the Lower Mainland, but in communities right across our province. However, housing supplies substantial revenues to the provincial coffers.

No doubt, measures to cool the housing market would be controversial, but what we need is a courageous Premier and Finance Minister who will speak honestly and directly to British Columbians about the necessity of those measures. Until the provincial government diversifies the sources of revenue into the treasury, we are going to, unfortunately, resemble that dog that relentlessly chases its own tail, only to never catch it and to stop briefly to celebrate that yes, we are still chasing our tail.

In addition, for anyone who is planning a construction project right now, they must have a serious look at the cost of building materials. Even as the B.C. NDP pumps billions of dollars into financing programs to encourage the construction of new homes, the cost of lumber has exploded 300, 400 percent. As a result, marginal projects are now unsustainable. In-stream projects are blowing through their contingencies and are likely to go over budget.

Truth is, the HousingHub program that we celebrate has been exhausted for months. Applicants have been waiting for this government’s decision on whether the Treasury Board was going to re-up on the program or move on. While this government dragged its heels month after month, projects that could have been up and out of the ground while the cost of building materials was still reasonable now have to be prudently reconsidered. As my colleague pointed out in her budget response, the situation is having a disproportionate impact on low- to moderate-income British Columbians and young people who had the dream of home ownership and are now having to reconsider.

The Ministry of Health budget continues to grow, now well over $20 billion and counting. Certainly, this past year, our health system has been tested. COVID-19 has exhausted our front-line health care workers. I raise my hands up to them as they continue to face what seems like an endless battle with a vicious pandemic.

A Vancouver Sun article from yesterday noted that 60 percent of nurses in British Columbia are showing signs of “emotional distress leading up to early signs of PTSD.” The head of the Nurses Union, Christine Sorensen, was unequivocal. The platitudes from the politicians are not enough. Hearing the Health Minister refer to the number of beds that are available does not reflect the current reality facing nurses in our health care system. As Sorensen said of nurses in B.C.: “They have done a remarkable job over the last year and have not been given enough credit. They feel incredibly undervalued by the employer and government.”

I have fundamental questions of this government about the decision-making process that chose to ignore the experts warning of an impending third wave that now has our health care system bursting at its seams, but that will come in the inquiry later.

There are welcome investments into health care in this budget: $585 million to train more health care support workers, $495 million over three years to increase diagnostic imaging and $45 million over three years to address the systemic Indigenous racism. I’m pleased to see the $253 million in the budget on team-based and urgent primary care. The specific mention of supplying British Columbians “faster access to doctors and nurse practitioners” should not be overlooked.

If I were to ask the 14,000 residents of the Saanich Peninsula who are without a family doctor if they felt that the B.C. NDP government have their backs, what do you think that they would say? If I asked them if they think a bigger walk-in clinic, when what they want is a relationship with primary care practitioners, was a sign that their government has their backs, what do you think that they’d say? What I need to see is how this quarter-billion dollars is going to be spent. Will it be on more urgent care clinics or primary care networks?

My constituents want a family doctor or a team of primary care practitioners to build a meaningful relationship with. It is still to be seen, after four years of promising team-based primary care homes and networks attaching British Columbians to longitudinal care, if the B.C. NDP government is actually going to deliver on the promise they made in 2017.

Five years ago public health officials declared an emergency due to drug overdoses. This tragic situation did not just happen overnight. The mental health crisis in British Columbia had been growing for years before. But since they declared the emergency, more than 7,000 British Columbians have perished to illicit drug poisonings. In Budget 2021, $500 million will be invested in youth-focused care, First Nations mental health and addictions, early psychosis intervention, eating disorder care, substance use treatment and recovery and opioid treatment services. There is no doubt in my mind that these cash injections into the mental health support network will help a great deal.

These investments have been a long time in coming. Over the five years, there has been so much grief and sadness. So it is in this context that I must note that the B.C. NDP continues to be reluctant in their reactive and painstakingly slow approach. This government launched the Pathway to Hope plan in June 2019. Finally, in Budget 2021, we see the first large investment in the plan.

This government remains in response mode. For months, the B.C. Green caucus has been asking government to cover psychiatric services for mild-to-moderate mental health concerns in our existing health care model. There is no recognition that mental health is part of the overall health of our bodies. The mind is indeed part of the body. Unfortunately, that basic reality continues to be ignored.

To prove that this government has our backs, they need to be proactive. More importantly, British Columbians deserve preventative mental health services. To get the correct treatment and therapy, we need to see the correct professional. It’s unlikely that our family doctor can offer much more for us than a prescription. Currently only British Columbians who can afford to get the help that they need get it.

None of this, of course, is good enough. It is when the B.C. NDP change their philosophical approach to mental health care that they will truly show that they indeed have our backs.

A robust public education system will always be a priority for the B.C. Green caucus. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve heard a great deal of fear, stress and tension coming from those working in our public education system. Many British Columbians are questioning whether this B.C. NDP government has had the backs of educators, administrators, support workers and students.

The provincial government supplied a one-time amount, a cash injection, to fund the extra costs in PPE, hand sanitizers and other materials to follow public health requirements. That money has not been extended in Budget 2021. From the perspective of this document, it looks as if the B.C. NDP are taking the approach that by September 2021, this pandemic will be all completely behind us.

In the lead-up to this budget, we’ve heard from school districts from across the province that they’re facing significant budgetary challenges. The $438 million investment in public education brings our total contribution to the ministry to $7.1 billion in operational funding. That’s the second-largest sum of any ministry. These funds will be enough to cover the increases to teacher and support staff contracts only. However, this falls far short of what is needed.

I’ve heard from many of my constituents that their children are not receiving the educational support that they need. I’ve heard that administrators are often asked to decide which students get extra help and which students are to go without. I’ve heard stories about delays in getting assessments for our children, so there are many students that may need extra help who are not even given a consideration.

This is simply not good enough. As a parent with children in our public education system, I do not feel like these actions are of a government that has my back, the backs of my child’s educators or of our children.

Child care has been a policy priority for the B.C. NDP government since the 2017 election. Experts, parents and advocates have been clear that child care is a key factor in affordability for families in British Columbia. During the fall election, the Premier committed to $250 million per year for child care. After he made this promise, advocates came to us to tell the B.C. Greens — quite apologetically — that our commitments fell well short of these new expectations that the Premier had set.

Premier Horgan delivered a juicy election promise. But when called on to deliver it….

Mr. Speaker: Member, no names.

A. Olsen: The Premier. Sorry. Thank you.

It is this B.C. NDP government that has fallen well short of their own expectations, and $250 million over three years is a fraction of the money they promised to invest in this ministry. Even the provincial government’s own budget documents needed to remind the reader of the 2018 investments, likely to distract from the underwhelming commitment this fiscal year.

I’m thankful that, finally, the B.C. NDP government is going to move child care into the public education system, where it belongs. For the B.C. NDP to truly have the backs of families, there needs to be affordable, high-quality early childhood education systems as well as before- and after-school care available for our children. And while the $4-an-hour wage increase is welcome, I’m sure that if the B.C. NDP is to have the backs of our early childhood educators, they are going to have to do much better than $23 per hour.

I’ve heard the B.C. NDP members stand in this chamber and talk about their climate action and their commitment to our environment. Just this morning the member for Nelson-Creston delivered a two-minute statement about the desperate need to transition from fossil fuels. I believe she meant it. However, what she and all other members of the B.C. NDP caucus, who care about addressing climate action…. What are they doing to force our Premier to stop subsidizing fracking and the gas liquefaction industry?

As the Pembina Institute said in their response to the 2021 budget, the government’s plans equal “small steps” for climate action. I’m with the member for Nelson-Creston. But what is needed is for the B.C. NDP to reflect the sense of urgency that I heard in her voice this morning.

I’m happy to see Budget 2021 follow through on the commitment to create a $500 million strategic investment fund for British Columbia. We’ve been calling for a fund like this for years. We see other important investments, commitments like the $130 million for clean transportation, including investments in rebates and zero-emission vehicles and active transportation and the PST exemption on e-bikes. However, I stand to deliver this speech in this chamber on Earth Day. I must recognize that this budget is striving only for a greener economy, tinkering around the edges and missing the opportunity that was there to be taken.

We have been encouraging the B.C. NDP to lay out a comprehensive vision for a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. We want them to embrace the vision of their member for Nelson-Creston, to match the desperation in her voice by using our competitive advantages to be leaders, not followers. Instead, this B.C. NDP government does not have the focus or the ambition that’s necessary, lacking the political will to match what other jurisdictions are doing or, better yet, to get ahead of them.

When I think about the frame of this speech, a government that claims to have our backs, in the short term the B.C. NDP has offered us some trinkets and blankets. But over the long term, they continue to try to be all things to everybody and shy away from tackling systemic issues with systemic solutions. The B.C. NDP’s own throne speech from last week said: “Too often, economic growth in our province has come at the expense of the environment. That must change.” But we’re not seeing anything in this budget to make that change.

The B.C. NDP has failed to outline or fund a paradigm shift in the forestry sector, as they promised. The budget for the Ministry of Forests is set to decline over the next few years. Every time the Premier has promised to implement all the recommendations of his own old growth strategic review panel and promised wholesale changes to land use and landscape management. However, his government has invested nothing to deliver in a transitional way from old-growth logging. Without proper funding to implement the recommendations of the old growth panel report, this government’s promises on old growth are meaningless.

[N. Letnick in the chair.]

As I stated clearly in my response to the throne speech, benefits agreements with Indigenous People are specific to certain resource extraction activities. They are not broad economic development tools. To protect old growth, the B.C. NDP need to step up with a fund for conservation financing to compensate for the lack of revenue that was promised in those benefits agreements that will not be realized if those forests are not to be cut. There is no funding for that in this budget. There is no funding for Indigenous-led protected areas or to support communities through transition.

Here we are again with a government that believes you can change the status quo by doing the same thing over and over and over again, while standing up, members in this House, to talk about the change that they dream of.

As I said at the beginning of this response to Budget 2021, the B.C. NDP have offered little in the way of a unified sense of what they’re trying to achieve, a common vision, agenda, or purpose. They’ve failed to take the opportunity to transform the economy through bold vision and audacious policy proposals. The B.C. NDP claim to have our backs, and yet their throne speech and budget spend billions of dollars while not clearly articulating the outcomes they are trying to achieve.

With that, I’ll take my seat and thank you for the opportunity to speak to Budget 2021.

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