It could be a political rollercoaster ride in British Columbia over the next few months, with power balanced on a razor’s edge, an opposition party with 15 years’ worth of insider knowledge and a government with an ambitious agenda for change.
The New Democratic Party government opens its first legislative session on Friday with a Speech from the Throne laying out its agenda and a provincial budget due Monday. British Columbians will soon learn if fiscal reality will put an end to high hopes or keep them afloat.
I’ll be writing a column over the next several weeks, covering the new government’s achievements and challenges.
It was a wild spring after the May 9 election ended in a near tie — the Liberals had 43 seats, the NDP 41 and the Greens three, and no one had enough for a majority. Premier Christy Clark's Liberals attempted to govern but were defeated in a confidence vote when the Greens and the NDP agreed to collaborate.
Their 10-page agreement covers confidence and supply votes for the duration of the government — barring any surprises — but that does not mean they will vote together on everything. The agreement hinges on two significant and controversial changes for B.C.: a referendum on a proportional representation voting system and legislation that bans corporate and union donations to political parties.
Constant state of emergency from wildfires
In the two months since Premier John Horgan was sworn in, the province has been in a constant state of emergency due to wildfires. Nonetheless, the government has made about two dozen key announcements. Among the big ones were ending tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges; sending the $8.8-billion Site C hydroelectric dam project to the British Columbia Utilities Commission for review; and gaining intervenor status in a legal challenge against the Trans Mountain pipeline extension.
Among the most significant issues facing the new government are housing affordability, the opioid crisis, education funding and poverty reduction. Can this all be addressed without breaking the bank and while maintaining potentially precarious support from the Greens.
Housing affordability is a big challenge. Some people wonder if their children will be able to live in the province. Some are concerned about being one eviction notice away from homelessness, or about where they might find an affordable apartment for their aging parents.
The NDP pledged in their election campaign to increase housing supply by building more than 100,000 housing units and by increasing security for renters.
Finance Minister Carole James, former NDP opposition leader, is tasked with improving housing affordability, closing real estate speculation loopholes, and reducing tax fraud and money laundering in B.C.. The party’s election platform also called for an annual two-per-cent “absentee speculators’ tax.” The revenue would go to a Housing Affordability Fund to build more housing.
Will those measures be enough to make housing affordable? How do you make housing affordable without significant losses in equity for those who are the last ones in? The new government must try to answer those questions and more.
The former Liberal government brought in a 15-per-cent foreign buyers tax, which definitely slowed the real estate market, but didn’t do much for prices. They just keep going up.
Opioid crisis poses a challenge
Another challenge for the new government will be tackling the opioid overdose crisis, which has taken 780 lives already this year, an 88-per-cent increase over this time last year.
In a significant move, the NDP government created a standalone ministry of mental health and addictions, which shows intent to move on this file. Minister Judy Darcy, tasked with responding to the crisis and creating a mental health strategy, said the crisis is hitting people from all walks of life.
"The reality is that the overdose crisis could involve one of your family members, one of your friends, or one of your co-workers,” Darcy said in a news release. “I have talked to loggers, carpenters and bricklayers who were injured on the job, became addicted to painkillers prescribed for their injuries, and then turned to street drugs. I've met people who were in car accidents with the same result.”
The opioid crisis is a social problem with no easy answers. Some experts urge a move towards decriminalization, which has been tried with some success in Portugal.
British Columbia was home to North America’s first safe-injection site, which opened in 2003. B.C. has led the way before, and perhaps the opioid crisis will give the province enough of a push to lead again. But it will take time, a lot of money, and a serious intent to end the opioid crisis. The NDP government has made a solid start by creating a dedicated ministry, but it will be tough to slow the pace of deaths.
Education is also a hot file, with school districts scrambling to hire thousands of new teachers after a landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling last fall. The ruling restored terms in teachers’ contracts governing class size, specialist teachers, and special needs students that were stripped in 2002 by then Education Minister Christy Clark.
So far, the NDP government under Education Minister Rob Fleming has promised to fully fund the restored contracts. Fleming also announced a byelection to replace Vancouver School Board trustees who were fired last fall. The government restored full funding for Adult Basic Education and English Language courses and announced former foster children would have access to tuition-free education at all 25 public post-secondary schools in B.C.
That’s quite an impressive start, but there is still a long way to go. There have been 15 years of austerity in B.C. classrooms. A lot of bitterness and strife remains. Teaching jobs remained unfilled as school started; teacher on-call lists were pillaged to fill permanent jobs; more than 150 schools across the province still need upgrades; and about 6,000 students in Surrey attend class every day in portable classrooms.
There’s never a dull moment in B.C. on the education file and that’s unlikely to change under the new government.
First announcement was a start on poverty reduction
Somewhat connected to all these things is B.C.’s high poverty rate — more than half a million people live in poverty, including one in every five children, and it’s the only province without a poverty reduction plan. The NDP government has installed Shane Simpson as minister of social development and poverty reduction and tasked him with increasing the earnings exemption for people on welfare and disability, developing a basic income pilot project and creating a provincial poverty reduction plan.
The elements of that plan have not yet been announced but experts say a good poverty reduction plan should include better jobs, more affordable housing, low-cost child care and increased supports for training and education.
The very first announcement B.C.’s new government made was a $100 monthly increase to welfare and disability. It also promised to eliminate Medical Services Plan premiums and to create $10-a-day child care.
A fair wages commission is to look at raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. At first, they gave the commission a timeline of 2021 to reach the target but removed it after complaints from Green Party leader Andrew Weaver.
This may give us a glimpse into how decision making is being done behind closed doors, and the amount of power Weaver wields. In a statement on the day the commission was announced, Weaver called the timeline “prejudicial” and said it had not been agreed to as part of the two parties’ agreement.
Poverty will be a challenging nut to crack, but the NDP government has shown intent to at least try. The next few months will reveal whether it’s working.
Will financial situation prove difficult?
The government must also come to grips with the issues of climate change, softwood lumber, health, reconciliation, and the troubled ministry of children and families.
Another tricky area is going to be fee hikes, including at BC Hydro, Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) and BC Ferries. The NDP promised to freeze hydro rates, roll back or freeze ferry fares, and stop a 42-per-cent ICBC hike. Whether those promises can be kept will depend on what has been discovered in the government’s books.
On Tuesday, Attorney General David Eby announced ICBC rates would rise by eight per cent or about $130 a year for the average driver. He accused the former Liberal government of using ICBC as a bank machine by taking $1.2 billion dollars from the insurer and placing it in general revenue.
But financial limitations are always a reality for every government. All of these issues would be easier to address given an unlimited budget which, of course, does not exist.
Tracy Sherlock will be writing about the B.C. government each week, on Wednesdays. Contact her with news tips at [email protected].