Simply, Budget 2023 feels more like an update to Budget 2022 than the transformative legacy that Premier David Eby could have delivered.
Along with the multi-billion dollar surplus that the BC NDP government is rushing to spend by the end of this fiscal year, and the new budget starting on April 1st, Premier Eby had a Dave Barrett type transformative moment to address the deep structural issues that have been created by decades of neo-liberal economic policy.
In my response to Budget 2023, I talk about the missed opportunity and the need for the provincial government to adopt a more balanced, sustainable economic and environmental approach.
Thank you, Madam Speaker. Thank you for this opportunity to respond to Budget 2023. I will just suggest that my response to this budget will be somewhat different than what we’ve been hearing in the debate so far.
I think it’s interesting to listen as the different perspectives here are being articulated. It’s interesting listening to the analogies that are being used with respect to airplanes and clearcutting and sustainability. It’s, frankly, interesting to hear, from my colleagues the B.C. Liberals, about sustainability when, in fact, what has been happening, from an ecological and environmental perspective, is anything but.
I think it’s important that there is consistency. If we’re wanting to achieve fiscal sustainability or economic sustainability, we need to have that actually be a guiding principle throughout our policies for the environment as well.
It’s interesting to hear the use of the word “clearcutting” when, in fact, that’s exactly what has been happening on our landscape. We hear the Premier talking about the fact that our forests are exhausted.
There’s only one reason why the forest lands in a province that has been so blessed with natural resources like the forests that we have — the coastal Douglas fir, the western red cedar and the hemlock…. It is because of our voracious appetite to clearcut them and the reality that, for decades, we’ve not been replacing them with forests. We’ve been replacing them with tree farms, not monoculture, for sure, but certainly not biodiverse, rich ecosystems that reflect anything like the forest that was cut before.
We wonder why our streams are super heated and our relatives, the SĆÁÁNEW̱ , the salmon, cannot survive in them anymore because we’ve basically pulverized them. We’ve removed all of the cover, super heating those creeks and streams and making them hostile environments to salmon.
Indeed, just outside this chamber is the rotunda. In that rotunda, there are four paintings, and the four paintings highlight the foundation of the economy of this province: agriculture, mining, forestry and fisheries. Fisheries were exhausted two decades ago, three decades ago in this province. You could see the streams of salmon in the Salish Sea. That’s how thick they were at one point in the history of this province — reduced to a mere trickle in our creeks and streams up and down the coast.
The forest lands of this province, the old growth, the massive timber, the kinds of trees that we see the slice of outside the Douglas Fir Room that are 1,000 years old, those trees have been clearcut off the face of our province, off the landscape.
Indeed, I think that if we’re going to be coming in here and using analogies and wanting to, I guess, bring to life the perspectives that we have about Budget 2023 and we want to use that language, it’s important that it’s consistent, not just in how we view our budget. It’s how we view our relationship to the land and the land base.
For the Indigenous people, the people that I’m proud to descend from, the economy and the relationship to nature were one and the same. We didn’t have the benefit of borrowing. There was no such thing. You only had what was in front of you. You only had what returned that year. There was no way to bank the extra, or not very easily, anyways. There was only what nature provided you.
So the inheritance that we received from those who carried the names that we had before us were the locations in which you could harvest, the locations in which you could extract. You relied on your ancestors to be good stewards of those places, and you were also connected in a way to the future that this place is not connected. And this is where I resonate with some of the comments that are being made on both sides of this House. We have not been good stewards of this place historically.
When you look at Budget 2023 and when you look at the kinds of investments that are being debated in the other Houses now in the supplemental budgets, the question has to be: are we spending this money as good stewards for future generations?
Seven-generations thinking is the connection that you have to the three generations behind you and the connection that you have to the three generations ahead of you. It is a responsibility to live and be in a place not just now but a recognition that you have a responsibility to the future generations that are going to come after you. Just as we hold up our ancestors, just as we hold up the people that we came from, the relationship that they had to the land, we need to also remain connected to the people who are going to come after us, to the future generations.
I hear elements of that debate playing out in here over Budget 2023, and I’ve heard it in ’22, ’21, ’20, ’19, ’18 and ’17, the first budget that I was here. And I had the opportunity to be here a few budgets before that when the former government was here and the decisions that they made about how they were going to invest the wealth that we have been extracting from the landscape at unsustainable rates. We continue in that way, unsustainable extraction of resources to the point where…. Actually, we’re getting to a situation where two of the four paintings in the rotunda may… LAMC may need to consider replacing them.
Those industries that we relied on as a province, the extractive industries and the economic development that, indeed, Indigenous people participated in before the first Europeans arrived — engaged in forestry and engaged in fisheries. But they were doing it in a truly sustainable way.
I take a look at budget 2023 and the opportunity that was presented to take a look at the supplemental budgets, items and estimates that are happening in other rooms — billions of dollars. I was mentioning to a couple of my colleagues when we were at the Pacific Salmon Foundation and the First Nations Fisheries Council meeting the other night that just a few years ago, we stood with the federal minister, the former Premier, the member for Langford–Juan de Fuca and myself down at Fisherman’s Wharf and celebrated the $140-something million BCSRIF announcement.
At that point, this was a massive amount of money that was being brought into the province. I think it was $143 million. It was going to be allocated around the province to do good work on watersheds, upgrading weirs and science and innovation when it came to protecting and standing up for the wild Pacific salmon, that iconic species, our provincial fish. $140 million seemed like an impossibly large amount of money.
Just yesterday, I was in the budget estimates for the $1 billion dollars that was being distributed amongst municipal governments. I was putting it into context. The numbers…. I mean, I think even when COVID first was set upon us, and we were in here for that special day where just a handful of us had come to this Legislature to give the government some space, $5 billion dollars was set aside in order for the government to deal with this global pandemic. It was a huge amount of money that was extended to the government in advance of the budget, because we didn’t know what was going to happen. Now, here we are talking about a $1.45 billion, in fact, for the budget estimates — a windfall.
I should say, in my opinion, something that local governments have been asking for, for more than a decade, is fiscal reform. Not a one-time cash handout. Although, evidenced by all of the pictures that have been taken and posted by government MLAs, there is not a mayor or a counsellor in this province that is going to turn that money away. Because those of us who come from local government know that the fiscal framework that we’ve been operating under has been failing local governments for decades.
The conditional granting systems where this House sets political priorities — frankly, that’s what they boil down to — and then forced communities to then apply for those moneys, even though they might not be the local priorities…. It’s a one-time fund. Governments have the opportunity to spend it over five years. For the first time, it’s unfettered from a provincial priority.
But this is not the solution. This is not what the Union of B.C. Municipalities and municipal governments have been asking for. They’ve been asking for sustainable, reliable fiscal reform to give them the ability to be able to generate revenues and to pay for the things that their local priority-setting has suggested are the needs of the communities that they have been elected to represent. My hope is that that money gets spent on those priorities that currently were ineligible for the conditional granting programs.
I raised an issue yesterday in question period around a fire hall on Saltspring, for example.
We have set the priorities. We’ve set the policy. We’ve set the regulations. We’ve set the rules that makes sense for this House, but that doesn’t mean that they make any sense out there. That just means that we get to grant money when we find some in the couch cushions, and then get the benefit of the photo ops that come with it.
The fire halls where those first responders go and show up to when the call comes in…. In some communities, those fire halls, well, they’re not eligible. I remember when I was in Central Saanich, and we were building a fire hall, and the B.C. Liberal government of the day — the priority for them was parks. I said, “Well, could we apply for parks, and then take it and put it in the fire hall?” which was the priority of the community at the time. It didn’t mean that parks were not an interest for our government, but it just meant that it was a lesser priority at that time than the fire hall that was absolutely needed. The Fire Underwriters Survey said you need a fire hall. Well, we were on our own.
I’m thankful that the communities in my riding are going to be able to get some of this money from this one-time fund. But I certainly hope that at the end of the distribution of this money that’s now been approved, that the provincial government doesn’t feel empowered and emboldened to say: “Well, remember the money that we gave you. Don’t forget the cash that we extended you when we found the money in the couch cushions.” Because the job of fiscal reform is not done for local governments.
As we heard the other day when I asked the question, the process between the UBCM and the municipal affairs is still underway. That is a process that started in 2010-2011 with a report to the UBCM. We’ve been talking about it for 12 years, so forgive me if I’m not encouraged that the pace of this fiscal reform is coming speedy enough for local governments to actually be able to have that sustainable, reliable source of revenue year over year. That then they can make good plans and inform good plans.
I looked at Budget 2023 as an opportunity for a new Premier. Somebody who certainly has been in this place, this chamber, the since 2017 and before that, but since 2017 as the Attorney General. Someone who has been very attentive to where we are at in this province. Indeed, I think when the Premier was the Attorney General — I kind of joked with him a little bit in the hallway today — he was here every day almost in those sessions debating numbers and numbers of bills.
There is no doubt that our Premier is well aware of the situation that we face sitting around the cabinet table for the last six years. It was a hope that I and my colleague had that he would use this opportunity to create a legacy. With just a few short years left until the next election, that the Premier would take the surplus that they had found and the budget for Budget 2023 and create a legacy, be transformative, be a little bit more like Dave Barrett than Premier’s predecessor was, do some big things in the final months remaining before the next provincial election.
But unfortunately, what we saw is not a transformative budget. It is more like a fiscal update for 2022. Rather than making systemic change, it’s using tax rebates. It’s using tax credits and rebates — short-term thinking, short-term fixes. But they’re not even really fixes. They’re a way for people to feel like the government is doing something, but the government actually hasn’t changed the underlying problems with the systems that are broken and that are not serving British Columbians well.
I think one of the examples of this is the situation when it comes to an increase for people on disability payments, support payments. Yes, the government has increased the shelter rates. Yes, the people who receive the 140-something dollars when it comes to the increase in shelter will be happy for the $140. Nobody is going to say that they are not going to accept that when they are in a situation that they’re in and every dollar counts.
When they are living…. When people on disability and people on social supports are receiving $10,000 less than the poverty line in our province, what the government is offering in this budget is thousands of dollars a month short of what’s needed for people to live in a dignified way, being able to meet the basic poverty line in this province. They have failed to deliver what’s needed. Yes, they’ve given something.
[S. Chandra Herbert in the chair.]
Here we are today in another part of this Legislative Assembly, right now as I speak, talking about the nominal increase in budget for social development and poverty reduction rather than talking about how the government has used the surplus that they have found at the end of this year to increase those payments and to support people who rely on those payments day after day, month after month, year after year. That’s not being offered to them.
So there is an opportunity, there was an opportunity, with this budget for the new Premier to be transformative. I think that this budget, from our view of it, has fallen short of that.
When I take a look at another example of where the government is using short-term thinking instead of long-term thinking, I think of another issue that I’ve raised in the last couple of weeks here, the Island Coastal Economic Trust.
The proposal that has been put in front of this government, back in September of last year, was to turn a sinking fund into a permanent fund, to place, yes, a large sum of money, but to protect it in a permanent fund and then allow the Island and coastal communities, the communities on Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast, to be able to draw from the profits that are made from the investment every year and disburse it.
Between $7 million and $12 million dollars every year could have been disbursed to those communities — again, on their priorities. But instead, that fund and the people who are operating that fund remain…. They have no idea as to whether or not they’re going to be required to shut down this year, because they run out of money, or whether or not they’re going to be supported in the short term, or what their long-term viability looks like.
This is just a missed opportunity. One that, frankly, shocks me, because these are communities that are represented by…. Other than my colleague from Cowichan Valley, all of the other communities that are within this trust area are members from the government side of the House. How it is that this was too complex an investment, and yet we see all of these other investments that are being made scrambled out to the end of this year, seems to me like a complete and total missed opportunity.
We could have taken some of the surplus. We could have even actually increased…. They asked for $150 million. The provincial government had the opportunity to increase that amount.
We see the kinds of sums of money that are being invested in certain areas and priorities for this provincial government. I think that so far — so far, anyway, I’m going to remain hopeful — the message to the people that live on Vancouver Island and in those coastal communities is that they are not a priority for this government.
Otherwise, we would have seen that fund recapitalized.
We would have seen those projects that have been so important funded on an annual basis. We would have seen an opportunity for other community members to also invest in that fund and grow it, making it a more impactful and a more powerful community economic development tool.
But unfortunately, they or those communities or the leaders…. I’m not sure what it is — not the priority for this B.C. NDP provincial government. Yet I do remain hopeful that if there is not a long-term solution, there is at least a short-term solution so that, then, the communities that are benefiting from these funds will be able to continue to invest in their local priorities.
I think, just to comment very briefly before I take my seat on some of the narratives that have emerged here to suggest that this current government is all to fault for the situation that they find themselves in and that the previous government was all to fault for the situation that they left for this government…. I think I just want to suggest that that is a false narrative.
We are in the situation that we’re in today because of decades of neo-liberal economic philosophy. This is the result of at least 30 or 35 years, a product of 35 years of decision-making, of deregulation, of allowing our forests — as I started this speech with — to be clearcut as some kind of…. And then for us to be able to frame it as some kind of sustainable environmental practice — clearcutting — and replacing it with a couple of species and then tagging only timber value as the only value that matters.
I mean, indeed, the exercise of chasing wolves around the southeast of British Columbia in order to not damage the last remaining caribou is an example of this in the extreme, the reality that we have been harvesting the food source of the caribou to near extinction. It should be no surprise to us that also, then, the caribou are at near extinction.
The fact that we’ve been cutting superhighways for wolves across the southeast and yet now they’re a problem should be of no surprise. This is the result of how humans are altering the landscape and of how that economic philosophy that has driven the decisions by multiple governments, not just this government, not just the government for 16 years, not just the government for ten or 11, before that, the government that had — what? — three Premiers in ten years, not the government of the decade before that or the government with one Premier for multiple decades before that…. It is the result of all of those successive governments operating and developing budgets and policies around nature that are unsustainable.
I’m going to end with this. Of all of the criticism that I have with this budget, it was deeply encouraging to be able to stand in a supplemental budget estimates debate yesterday and talk about a $100-million fund that’s going to be created, a permanent fund that is going to be created that can start us on the process for a restoration economy in this province.
Maybe, just maybe, we don’t need to change the paintings on the rotunda, the paintings of the forests and the paintings of the fish if, indeed, we can encourage people to invest in that fund alongside this government. If indeed, we can get Budget 2023 and Budget 2024 and ’25 and ’26 to grow that fund, maybe we won’t have to abandon some forestry extraction and some fish extraction, because we have been beginning the process of restoring the damage that we’ve done to the landscape in this province.
Maybe we don’t have to throw our hands in the air and say: “Forestry is over. The forests are exhausted. Find something else to do.” We have got ourselves dangerously close to that situation in this province right now.
When I take a look at the $100 million, I was proudly able to stand and say, “I can support this investment, and I can stand up and encourage people to join in, in the investment in this,” because $10,000, $20,000, $1 million at a time, we can encourage the people who live on the land, who benefit from the land, who have the philosophy, which my ancestors left to me, to say, “We belong to the land,” to begin restoring and investing in those sacred places that have been destroyed in the past.
It’s going to take us to have a different conversation in this place. It’s going to take us to have a different frame around the way we view our budgets and the debate that we have, on both sides of this place that, frankly, isn’t all that productive.
With that, Mr. Speaker, I look forward to engaging the minister’s, in the time that we’ve been able to work out with our colleagues in the official opposition, to ask however many questions we get in those budget estimates, to learn more about how the ministers are going to be expending the resources that they have been allocated in Budget 2023.
I look forward to that process — I do every year — to better understand what the underlying philosophy is, about how they’re going to move forward. I’m grateful for this opportunity to say a few comments about Budget 2023. With that, I’ll take my seat. HÍSW̱ḴE SIÁM.