Response to Budget 2022: Is life really more affordable for you?

Mar 2, 2022 | 42-3, Blog, Governance, Indigenous, Legislature, Video | 1 comment

In my response to Budget 2022 I cover a variety of issues that are concerning me with the erosion of democracy in our British Columbia Legislative Assembly.

I highlighted several aspects of Budget 2022 including climate action, reconciliation, housing, affordability, primary health care, and equity.

[Transcript]

I’ll be the designated speaker for the B.C. Green caucus.

Today I’ll be building on the comments that I made in my response to the throne speech, where I highlighted the importance of the government to honour and respect the processes of this Legislative Assembly. Each process is a necessary step leading to the next one. Skipping steps makes it difficult for the public, media and, importantly, the members in this assembly, the members of the opposition, to hold the government accountable.

The point of the Speech from the Throne is to clearly lay out the vision, objectives and goals of the government so that when we take the next step to the budget, we can see the choices government has made to achieve their stated vision. These are the building blocks of democratic accountability. If respected, the processes of this assembly can produce an effective and, dare I say, efficient governing body that creates systems, which produces services for all the people.

It is timely for us in this chamber to consider democracy and autocracy. Democracy means that the power or authority is in the people. Autocracy means the power or authority is in the self or individual. We have agreed that we exist in a democracy. To advance our collective interest, this government was organized over a matter of hundreds of years. A series of checks and balances was created to regulate against the dangerous concentration of the power of the people into an individual or a small group of individuals.

For this institution to function properly, there must be a healthy, respectful tension between the government and the opposition. The government must not use their temporary access to this concentration of power and authority to limit the opposition from using tools they have to provide effective oversight of the government. Nor should the government interfere or obstruct the opposition’s ability to enforce the accountability of the government.

One of the highest values to be protected in this assembly is truth-telling. Without transparency, the credibility and integrity of the entire democratic institution is in question. Concentrating power and authority is incredibly tempting for humans. We are witnessing the terrible and tragic events of the unquenchable thirst to gain and maintain power right now in Europe. I think this is one of the reasons why it’s troubling to hear any member of this assembly openly desire a majority government or to suggest that the only way this assembly can work well is if there is an unhealthy concentration of power and authority, because that is fundamentally antithetical to the proper functioning of this institution.

Majorities are the goal of another entity that lurks in the halls of this assembly — political parties. The goal of a democracy is to ensure that power and authority remains distributed and out of the reach of individuals or small groups of individuals, while political parties are that workaround. All the members of this assembly should be in service to our constituents who elect us.

Unfortunately, political parties pursue power and refocus the efforts of this institution. They create a four-year partisan race to see who can advance their own selfish interest, not those of our constituents. Autocracy, not democracy.

As the stewards of democracy, who are all part of a political party, the members in this assembly should always be vigilant and balance the interests of the people we serve with the aspirations of our political parties.

[4:30 p.m.]

Remember when the Premier went to the Lieutenant-Governor’s house to request an election? Remember when the Premier told British Columbians that they needed to elect a majority government to get anything done in this assembly?

I don’t think the person who said those words will fashion themselves as an autocrat. However, the core of those words is autocratic.

In the summer of 2020, the Premier moved to concentrate more power into his office by gaining an overwhelming majority of seats for his political party. Indeed, the B.C. NDP captured 65 percent of the seats of this assembly with only 47 percent of the popular vote. However, it’s worse. Only 54.5 percent of eligible voters in British Columbia voted in the 2020 election, so essentially, the B.C. NDP secured 47 percent of the 54 percent of the voters who voted.

It is an astounding accomplishment, really, that basically one-quarter of the B.C. voters yielded a consolidation of power where the Premier enjoys an automatic confidence of 65 percent of the seats in this assembly. No questions asked. These are obedient votes.

That’s precisely why the B.C. Green caucus expended so much energy in our fight for proportional representation and why I believe that minority governments are an essential component to a regulated, healthy distribution of power and authority in our democratic assembly.

Unfortunately, this B.C. NDP government, under this Premier and his chief of staff, are increasingly autocratic. Despite long consultation, community and stakeholder engagements, many who participate in these NDP processes describe them as exercises in futility. They go away feeling unheard, bitter, frustrated.

This government is increasingly top-down, paternalistic, autocratic. Call it whatever suits you. Their approach is subverting our democracy. Autocrats control the flow of information through the use of propaganda and political rhetoric. They are the most powerful tools autocrats use to preserve power and authority.

A troubling sign of an increasingly brazen, autocratic government is the use of the public purse to control the message they want heard, and to limit the access of the opposition, media and public to vital information they need to do their job.

Indeed, I have seen numerous accounts of reporters complaining about the very small room that ministers of the Crown are now going to, to make their announcements, with no access to the media, to ask questions. This propaganda is a powerful tool to control the narrative and to confuse. It does not matter that life is not more affordable under this B.C. NDP government. Repeat it anyway, and eventually everyone — including the official opposition, apparently — begins chasing the message.

It is at that point that we’re no longer debating what is actually going on but, rather, chasing each other around in a constructed alternate reality — basically a simulation. So when it comes to the annual budget, it takes weeks and months for the opposition, media, special interest organizations, academics and economists to cut through the rhetoric, cut through the noise that government has created to pitch their budget to find out what is in the hundreds of pages dumped on the table in the form of the Minister of Finance’s speech, presentation, the budget and fiscal plan, budget highlights, estimates, supplement to the estimates, ministry service plans and Crown agency service plans.

It’s important to get past the slogan “Making life more affordable for British Columbians,” referenced endlessly in question period, government communications and this budget. Rhetoric like “stronger B.C. ” is a powerful way to simply communicate complexity. So if the cabinet’s goals and objectives are to “make life more affordable,” the budget should show us how they are making life more affordable.

[4:35 p.m.]

This B.C. NDP government has been consistently building on this “making life more affordable” narrative for several years now. Don’t be confused if your life is not more affordable.
The point is not necessarily to make life more affordable but to repeat it often enough that you believe that your life has indeed become more affordable. It’s as if the more you say “our lives are more affordable,” it will overwhelm the bitter taste of the growing unsustainable and unaffordable cost of our basic needs — shelter, food and fuel — and our consumptive wants that are increasingly out of reach for most people.

Answers to questions about why the revenue that all of the spending in this budget is predicated on are actions that are detrimental to the stated outcomes of making life more affordable — those answers will never be forthcoming. For example, this B.C. NDP government has created what they call a climate budget, one that forecasts increasing natural gas production and declining natural gas prices. They are spending billions of our dollars on responding to the devastation caused by climate change, by accepting less actual value for fossil fuels we are extracting that are causing the climate emergency and making up for it by ramping up the production of the climate emergency.

Then came the astonishing debate in question period over the past couple of days. Last summer, I read the desperate pleas of my colleagues seeking relief from wildfires. Then those pleas turned to the devastation caused by the floods and the stifling heat dome that took hundreds of lives of British Columbians. This is a challenging time.

We are all trying to act in response to the terrible and illegal attack by Russia on Ukraine. We know that at the root of this conflict is energy — and, specifically, fossil fuel production and distribution. My colleagues in the official opposition have been asking important questions about divesting Russian assets from British Columbia pension investments. Somehow, though, these questions morphed into the permits for the expansion of fracking, gas liquefaction and exports in British Columbia.

To be clear, we have no existing capacity to replace the loss of fossil fuel energy in Europe, to make up for the supply that has now been cut off from Russia. As a response, though, the official opposition is suggesting that we ramp up permits of fossil fuel production in B.C. while totally ignoring the reality that fossil fuels are exacerbating the climate emergency that has been so catastrophic for communities across our province.

We have the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy trying to limit the impact of climate change. At the same time, the Minister of Energy is ramping up production. That is a climate change budget in British Columbia? We have an official opposition that is apparently so out of touch that they’re leveraging a devastating war in Europe to try to increase the LNG industry in British Columbia at a time when we are facing a climate crisis caused in large part by the extraction and the combustion of fossil fuels.

Let’s add some context, shall we? The report on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released this week said the following: that any further delay will mean missing “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and a sustainable future for all.” As Hoesung Lee, the Chair of the IPCC, said: “This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction. It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet. Our actions today will shape how people adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks…. Half measures are no longer an option.”

[4:40 p.m.]

As António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, said:

“I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this. Today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership…. People and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change. Nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone now. Many ecosystems are at the point of no return now.

Unchecked carbon pollution is forcing the world’s most vulnerable on a frog march to destruction now. The facts are undeniable. This abdication of leadership is criminal. The world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home.”

As U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken said:

“We know the significant risks climate change poses to our health and safety, and we know the climate plays a decisive role in shaping the trajectory of peace and prosperity in the world. While political and economic decisions are the primary drivers of conflict, climate change will increase as a threat to global and local stability.”

I could go on. However, I don’t think I need to say anything else to underscore the complete absurdity that has been displayed in this assembly over the past couple of days. The fact that the official opposition would advance the notion that we should use these intersecting crises, now including a war in Europe, to expand fossil fuel production and combustion, creating a bigger climate emergency, bigger town-destroying fires, more dangerous deluges, is asinine. We should be doing everything we can to transition as quickly as possible, not making new investments in fossil fuel infrastructure. Most certainly, we should not invest public money to subsidize multi-billion dollar multinational fossil fuel corporations.

It is important to be honest about the fact that we aren’t creating or changing systems in B.C. to reduce the output of fossil fuel extraction or the impact of our forestry practices. We are spending on a disaster response. There is absolutely nothing in the budget for conservation financing. The biggest increase in funding under the climate change is for the CleanBC program for industry.

The climate actions in this budget are largely inequitable. PST exemptions and rebates on zero-emission vehicles and heat pumps require you first to be able to afford a vehicle and a house. Then you must be able to afford making an investment in those assets. Most British Columbians are finding it more difficult to stretch their income to meet their basic needs. They don’t have the ability to grab a fistful of cash from an endless money pit. Most British Columbians can’t just borrow billions of dollars against their future. Most of the climate actions in this budget are designed for the privileged, the CEOs, tenured university professors.

We must be honest about our response to the climate emergency. If we are going to borrow billions of dollars against our future, then let’s make sure it improves our future. The missed opportunity in Budget 2022 is not going further than a basic response — frankly, a dishonest attempt to misrepresent the impact of the extreme weather events — when what is needed are dramatic investments in transformative change to protect and improve our relationship with the land and water.

For the past five years now, the B.C. NDP have touted their efforts to build affordable housing. When we asked the Minister of Finance to reconcile the obvious conflict of interest created by revenue generated by the property transfer tax, she just stands up and repeats that it’s her goal to make life more affordable. Then she goes on to list her ever-reliable list of accomplishments, like eliminating the MSP several years ago, the “largest middle-class tax break in a generation,” cracking down on housing speculation and so on. The list is long. We’ve all heard it.

The Minister of Finance never reconciles the issue that our increasingly unsustainable housing market actually benefits the bottom line of her budget directly. Let’s not pretend this is the Lego Movie with our very own homegrown Tegan And Sara song, “Everything Is Awesome” soundtrack, reinforcing our own narrative. Overall, life is not more affordable for all British Columbians. This is most certainly true with respect to the cost of housing in most communities in this province.

[4:45 p.m.]

With respect to reconciliation and Indigenous relations, I see this government has finally created a secretariat to coordinate the efforts of cabinet, fulfilling the mandate provided by the Premier, their service plan and the commitment made unanimously in this assembly on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, the Declaration Act. Who do we hold accountable for that work and the $12 million budget — the Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, the Premier’s office? This secretariat has the potential of 18 staff. I can imagine that the three-year budget commitment will be sucked up by HR and administrative costs alone.

I ask the question. If Indigenous reconciliation is a commitment of this government — and, as the Minister of Finance suggests, the budget reflects the cabinet’s choices — then this B.C. NDP has either little or no priority on the 79 actions in their 79-point action plan. I see nowhere in any of the estimates of the cabinet a line item for actual action on the action plan. Are the actions being funded through the base budgets of each ministry? If so, good luck.

This B.C. NDP government tells you that it is important, but then it puts zero priority in the budget to fuel the important work of reconciliation that this Legislative Assembly committed to over two years ago.

I hear the government talk a lot about protecting the health and well-being of British Columbians. Thousands of people in my riding alone are without access to equitable, universal primary health care.

In the early days, the B.C. NDP embarked on an ambitious program developing primary care networks, team-based primary health care. However, the minister got bogged down in politics — politics of the doctors and party politics. The unwillingness of this B.C. NDP to confront head-on the internal politics of physicians and the remuneration models, with our constituents at the centre of their work, and the desire of the B.C. NDP, as a political party, to be able to announce patient attachment numbers or the need to celebrate ribbon cuttings forced a change midstream. The focus went away from primary care networks and, instead, focused on health authority–run urgent care centres.

The difference between these UPCCs and PCNs is big. PCNs, or primary care networks, create longitudinal care for people, whereas UPCCs, or urgent care centres, are more like walk-in clinics offering episodic care.

I’ve heard from the experts in my community that the UPCC model has been disastrous on the delivery of longitudinal care for my constituents. Primary care providers locked into fee-for-service models cannot compete with health authority–operated UPCCs. Health authorities are poaching medical assistants and doctors, yet they never have to show the actual numbers of these UPCCs.

We hear the minister and his government tout the success, but they’re not showing their work. How much does a patient visit at a UPCC actually cost? Is it $31, $250? How many people do they see in an hour? How many patients have actually been attached? Even though these questions are never answered publicly, in Budget 2022, this government is expanding the UPCC model by 26. How are we evaluating the success of the UPCCs — by the increased number of ribbon cuttings?

Let me be clear. I heard it from the family physicians in my riding. The primary care networks that the Minister of Health was originally invested in were a good model. It was just poorly executed.

[4:50 p.m.]

I continue to hear that this ministry is increasingly autocratic. They don’t listen to the advice from the grass roots. The program is top down, paternalistic, not evidence-based — unless the goal is to destabilize primary care delivery in every community where UPCC doors have opened.

How many articles have been written about family physicians walking away from their practices? Frustration, exhaustion, anger, resentment, are being repackaged as retirement. Let’s be honest about what is happening to the equitable, universal primary health care in this province. It is being undermined and eroded, because the minister and members of this assembly are more engaged in petty politics than actual evidence-based decision-making.

Need I remind this government that very recently, a government in Nova Scotia changed because more than 150,000 Nova Scotians didn’t have access to longitudinal primary health care? This issue is motivating my constituents, just like it is motivating constituents across the capital region, Metro Vancouver, the Interior, the coast, the southeast and the North.
How did they solve this issue in Manitoba? Well, rather than autocratic, top-down decisions and provided cover by slogans, they listened to the communities. They actually got down into the grass roots and provided funding for solutions that were developed for the people, by the people, in the community. Instead of doubling down on an autocratic approach in Manitoba, they embraced a democratic one.

One doctor in my community said to me that they don’t believe this government cares for the health of its citizens. It’s a doctor in my community saying that they don’t believe this government actually cares for the health of British Columbians. How did we get there? You can say it’s ridiculous, but how did we get to a position where that exists? It’s time to build services from the ground up.

Look, I can understand that this is an emotional topic, and it’s one that conjures a response. That’s something that the cabinet on that side of the table and the government on this side of the House need to reflect on, because I didn’t make that up. I’m giving voice to people in our community that are speaking to it. So if it’s something that is conjuring an emotion within you, then you need to have that conversation around the cabinet table, because it exists. Pretending like it doesn’t is a mistake.

It’s time that we build the services from the ground up — a community-informed response, rather than the top-down, autocratic approach that this ministry has been taking on this particular issue. What is outrageous is that this B.C. NDP government is now sitting on the sidelines while a corporate tech giant and others disrupt our universal health care model, entrenching access to the layers of services based on privilege.

Back in 2007, this Minister of Health decried the Copeman clinic for finding cracks in our policy to establish basic primary care accessible by all and premium services available only to those who can afford the premium fees attached. To be clear, the so-called premium services — prevention, screening, access to diagnostics — were always part of a primary health care plan. However, astonishingly, this Minister of Health, who apparently believes in equitable, universal health care, is justifying these changes by defending the fact that this company is B.C.-based.

Sure, the minister will always be able to say to British Columbians that there is episodic primary health care services, walk-in clinics, in person or virtual, paid for by billing the government. However, if you want premium services, then you must be able to pay an initiation and annual membership fee for the longitudinal health care club. Think of it like a private and public golf club. Even poor people can golf, but you need an ivory tower to golf in the Uplands.

[4:55 p.m.]

What is the impact of the emergence of Telus and others in the primary health care sector? Well, according to the health care providers in my community, they’re also poaching medical practitioners and paying them much larger salaries than can be afforded by primary care providers working under the fee-for-service model.

However, they’re also picking and choosing their clientele through an extensive weeding out process. All of the complex care cases — like the 90-year-old patient with everything wrong with them, the one that costs more than the clinic can recover — well, they’re left out in the cold.

If this is a people-centred budget, then the B.C. NDP have a different definition of people-centred than I do. It feels like the Minister of Health knows that these programs are failing, and that he is hoping that the likes of Telus can sweep in under the radar and provide services that he is not delivering. Perhaps that was that is why he was so visibly shaken when I shone some daylight on this in question period. Well, he’s going to have to answer to some of these questions because, as one family physician in my riding said to me recently: “There will be a reckoning. They should have listened to us, but they have ignored doctors for years.”

Primary health care is just one of many health care challenges to be tackled by the government. With more than 8,000 deaths in British Columbia since the public health emergency was called in 2016 due to toxic drugs, exposing our lacking mental health and addiction services, we have been trying to get this B.C. NDP government to act with urgency to decriminalize, destigmatize and provide an accessible safe supply to protect lives. The Minister of Mental Health and Addictions rises in this assembly to openly discuss her initiatives often. However, the response has never really been urgent enough nor has it gone far enough.

[J. Tegart in the chair.]

Many advocates openly and regularly question the B.C. NDP government’s commitment to solving these issues. The Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions does not stand on its own. It is within the Ministry of Health. The Ministry of Health delivers through health authorities much of the programming for Mental Health and Addictions. The Minister of Health speaks very little on mental health and addictions. He rarely mentions these words. Frankly, it’s left many wondering whether he supports the initiatives or whether he is an obstruction to them.

I’ve tried in question period to get his perspective on the record, yet he stayed seated. And then I was called a bunch of names on Twitter for apparently undermining the authority of the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions by asking the Minister of Health this important question. So, if the Minister of Health is indeed not an obstruction and an impediment that some consider him to be, then he needs to take the opportunity in this assembly or one of the many media interviews he does to provide unqualified support for decriminalization, destigmatizaton and safe supply programs in British Columbia. There is no harm in our Minister of Health saying those words on the record.

As I noted earlier, the B.C. budget is a sprawling collection of information, and over the coming weeks we’ll better understand whether this B.C. NDP government has us closer to the goal of making life more affordable for British Columbians. Does this budget create a more fair and just society? Is there greater equity on behalf of all citizens?

I have given a handful of examples where the initiatives are not necessarily accessible or applicable to all British Columbians. I think about an issue that I have raised several times over the years. AccessBC has been advocating for free contraception for British Columbians for a long time. As a cis male, contraception is widely available to me. There are numerous places I can access a lifetime supply of free or nearly free condoms. However, for virtually all other British Columbians, contraception is expensive, and the public health care system must get involved to provide prescriptions.

[5:00 p.m.]

Toilet paper is widely available in every public washroom, however to access menstrual products, those in most places are something you have to pay for. There is inequity in the decisions that are being made by this government. In the B.C. NDP’s 2020 election platform, right there on page 14, under the heading “Making Health Care More Affordable,” is the promise. It reads: “Making contraception free. Cost should not prevent individuals, particularly young people, from their right to make choices about their reproductive health. While condoms can be easily found for little or no cost and vasectomies are covered under MSP, prescription contraception is not covered. It’s time to make contraception free for all.”

When? Not in the 2021 budget. In Budget 2022, the notion of free contraception for all remains a goal for a future time. Why? Why has this B.C. NDP government not found the resources to make good on this election promise? It’s a promise that is supported by all the political parties represented in this assembly.

The Premier tweeted just a few days before the 2020 election day — on the same account that he uses as the Premier, I might add: “Cost shouldn’t be a barrier to making choices about reproductive health. We’ll change that, making sure everyone can access the contraception they need. #BCelxn2020, #bcvotes.” The Premier remained seized with the idea of free contraception for all in the early days following the election, when he produced the Minister of Health’s mandate letter. On page 4, it says: “Make prescription contraception free for all.”

I make a big deal about this issue because, well, it’s a big deal for millions of British Columbians. It makes no sense that this issue has not been solved yet. But as the Minister of Finance has said, budgets are about choices, and it does not appear that making good on the promise of free contraception for all is a choice that this government was willing to make, at least for two successive budgets.

I will continue to raise my concerns about the autocratic trends that are emerging in this assembly. Government must be mindful of its responsibility to the people of British Columbia through this institution. Confidence in our work in this chamber is founded in truth telling, in the openness and transparency of those entrusted with the greatest amount of power and authority, in the respect those members of the government pay the accountability measures given the opposition to guard the public’s interest in this democratic government.

There is always the potential for members of this assembly to try to consolidate more power than any one person or small group of individuals should have in this assembly. When political parties and individuals lose sight of who they are to serve and accept, or even desire, a majority — even a false majority — this institution becomes increasingly secretive. That is not in the interest of democracy, and it must be treated as a move towards autocracy. Let’s call it what it is. Any move towards autocracy is a selfish and a self-interested act. In our system, the power must reside in the people and is only temporarily bestowed on a government and members of this Legislative Assembly.

Budget 2022 is largely a status quo budget. Sure, there are investments, and sure, many of the investments are new. But every one of the B.C. NDP’s budgets have featured flashy expenditures. Cutting through the rhetoric, the “Making life more affordable” slogan, the B.C. NDP must be honest about the situation that we’re confronted with. But they are mostly concerned with their communications plan, maintaining the controlled, celebratory, silly narrative that their random, episodic interventions are amounting to overall greater affordability for British Columbians.

[5:05 p.m.]

The erosion of the role of the opposition in this assembly is deeply challenging. We, as the members of the opposition, must re-centre ourselves around what our role is in holding the government accountable on behalf of all British Columbians. I believe it’s time that this assembly pulls up its bootstraps.

This must remain a democratic assembly. The opposition is the oversight of this operation. We must have teeth. So let’s go back to the beginning. Every act here is a deliberate and necessary act. We do not serve here at the pleasure of the Premier and his cabinet, ideologically and obediently defended by a political tribe, populating seats in this chamber through a false majority.

We serve here on behalf of the people of British Columbia. It is their interests that must be defended first, long before the colours of our banners. If we do a good job, then they may choose us to form the next government. That should be the outcome of our effective work, not the goal. Unfortunately, for political parties, it has become the goal. So political parties in this assembly need to be reminded of their proper place in our democratic institution: subordinate.

Through the throne speech, the government should clearly articulate their vision and objectives. In the budget, we see how they’re going to activate their vision by where they spend our money, or our future money. They make their choices and priorities known. In the coming weeks, I and my colleagues in the opposition will engage in detailed debates in budget estimates, each minister with their priorities. I hope that the quality of their responses increases and the excessive time wasting decreases.

With that, I will take my seat, having completed yet another necessary step in the cycles of this governance institution. I hope that with each one, I am improving the quality of our collective service to the people of British Columbia.

HÍSW̱ḴE SIÁM.

1 Comment

  1. Janice Kennedy

    Well said .. I have many of the same views!

    Thank you.

    Reply

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