Today in the legislature I was given the opportunity to respond to last week’s budget.
In the details of my speech below, you will see that I have tried to highlight both what I support in the budget and what I do not support.
Every MLA in BC could probably point to a number of items in the budget that he or she supports. Every MLA could probably point to a number of items in the budget that he or she does not support. Every MLA almost certainly has a wish list of things not included in the budget. And every MLA likely has a different set of priorities for funding. But ultimately, each MLA must weigh the cumulative positive aspects of the budget against its cumulative negative aspects and vote accordingly.
To summarize my view, while this operating budget might well be fiscally balanced, it is neither socially nor environmentally balanced. It fails the test of triple bottom line accountability.
Below is the text of my speech. I welcome your comments and ideas.
Response to the 2015 BC Budget
Since my election in 2013, I’ve participated in countless votes on legislation, or sections within legislation. In each and every vote, the official opposition has voted as one. In all but one vote, every member of government has voted as one. And in that one vote, the members from Abbotsford-Mission, Chilliwack-Hope, Maple Ridge-Mission and Surrey Panorama only voted in committee stage against section 115 of Bill 17, the Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Act. This section granted transgender people the ability to apply to the registrar general for an amendment to the sex designation on their birth registration. Honourable Speaker, while I disagreed fundamentally with the position of these four members, I respected their courage to vote the way they saw fit.
For the past two years Honourable Speaker, I’ve been one of only two MLAs in this chamber whose vote wasn’t a foregone conclusion — the other of course being the Member for Delta South.
Perhaps we might reflect on this for a moment … in a chamber of 84 voting MLAs elected across British Columbia to represent the best interests of their constituents, only two MLAs are not subject to collective group-think exemplified by whipped voting.
Let’s focus specifically on the budget. It doesn’t simply deal with one small area of government policy – it contains the spending for every single Ministry and government program. Each of us could probably point our finger to a number of items in the budget that we like. Each of us could point to a number of items in the budget that we don’t like. Each of us has a wish list of things not included in the budget. And each of us has a different set of priorities.
But the fact is, there are also things we can agree on. We all want health care to be funded. We all want to see government create a favourable environment for small business. We want our infrastructure to be in good condition. We all want clean air and water. And we all want to live in a safe environment.
In fact, I suspect that like me, the Official Opposition supports a number of the government’s new budget initiatives: more funding for Cancer prevention, for instance, or new funding for students who want to focus on programs in the trades. These are rather difficult initiatives to be against.
It is here where I feel it’s appropriate to comment on one of the most absurd rhetorical devices that exists in our political culture.
That is, the notion that if you vote against the budget, you therefore don’t support anything in it. This of course is closely aligned with the equally absurd notion that if you vote for the budget, you are in favour of everything it contains.
It’s this cynical and simplistic narrative that pollutes our political culture. It drives misinformation and creates a void between people and their elected representatives.
We are smart enough to know that most of the debates we have outside of this chamber have more than two sides. Why then do we pretend such nuance does not exist on votes inside the legislature?
This simplistic thinking needs to be cut from our collective discourse. It serves no purpose other than to drive deep wedges between us and to turn the public off important political debates.
As MLAs, we are given a single vote to indicate broad support or opposition to the full suite of measures contained within a budget. We are not asked to vote on every item.
The virtue of representing the Green Party in the House—whether officially recognized or not—is that I can separate my political support or opposition to an idea from the question of who brought it forward. I do not make decisions according to the out-dated framing of left vs. right, or BC NDP vs. BC Liberal, or government vs. opposition.
I base my positions on the evidence that I see at the time, and look for opportunities to contribute my own ideas to improve our province.
This is the approach I have taken with the previous two budgets introduced in the legislature. Despite much to disagree with in both the government’s choices and approach, I wanted to demonstrate an open and honest commitment to compromise. I wanted to make it very clear that I will not prejudge an idea based on its source.
I also didn’t view a vote on the budget as the be all and end all of my interaction with the government. Instead, I viewed it merely as a starting point.
I have spent much of the past two years working hard in an attempt to bring new ideas forward for consideration. I have tried to shine light on issues that have been allowed to slip through the cracks, and to offer substantive feedback and criticism when I feel the government is making the wrong decision. To be honest, I think it’s my job to do so.
I think this point is important – I have not been rushed in either my criticism or my support for government. I look to understand what they are saying before responding.
I want it to matter when I raise an issue – I want my concerns to have some weight.
With this in mind, I turn to the budget at hand.
The 2015 Budget
There was an exchange last week between the Finance Minister and the Leader of the Official Opposition that perfectly captures my discontentment and frustration with this budget.
During question period on February 18th, the Official Opposition focused in on the government’s move to reduce the income taxes paid by those earning more than $150,000 a year.
In responding to the questions from the Leader of the Official Opposition, the Finance Minister went into detail about benefits that accrue to British Columbia residents earning less than $19,000 who pay no tax.
He highlighted the small tax credits that were accruing to families — both low income and otherwise — as proof of a concerted effort to make people’s lives better.
Lost in this dance of rhetorical questions and condescending answers, this dance of dysfunction that plays out in this chamber far too often, was the real question, the pressing question, the fundamental question: how is it that we have people earning less than $19,000 in the Province of British Columbia and how do they possibly make ends meet?
Why was this not the central issue of what was discussed? Why was it not the focus of the debate? Why was the government celebrating the fact that it has the fiscal space to offer boutique tax credits, when there are more pervasive, structural issues that need to be addressed? Why are we not taking concrete steps to address them?
It is this last question that is particularly important. The government seems to be asleep at the wheel, driving blindly in the dark without noticing what is happening around them, who they are leaving behind, or what damage is being caused. Honourable speaker, there are many people in this province who truly need their help.
As I said earlier, there must be more to opposition than blind criticism. Legislation must be weighed not on its source but on its value. And the budget that stands before us is not without certain merits.
$12.5 million dollars have been set aside for a world class Cancer Prevention Centre. It’s difficult for me to capture in words the terrible effects of this disease and the heartbreak left in its wake. There are few in this province, and indeed this chamber, that have not felt, either directly or indirectly, its pain. I believe I can stand with my colleagues on both sides of the house as I lend my whole-hearted support to this provision in the budget.
Government has also finally begun to listen to the call echoed across the province, for a more diversified economy. It’s something I’ve been calling for since before I was elected. Government has made important investments in our creative economy, extending tax credits to film, television and video game and other interactive digital media industries. They have made investments at Camosun College, alongside other institutions, as part of a larger post-secondary skills program.
These steps, however tepid, could mark a change for British Columbia; a shift away from that single minded pipedream that has, for far too long, dominated this government’s focus. But after two years racing towards a mirage, it is not enough to inch back to reason. We must move with the same vigour as the government did with LNG to shape a sustainable and diversified 21st century economy.
Finally, this government continues to prioritize and put forward a budget that emphasizes living within our means as a critical objective. I too believe this to be critical. It’s irresponsible for us not to ensure that our province lives within its means.
While the government’s balanced operating budget is certainly a laudable feat, it unfortunately does not reach far enough. Boasts of surplus and growth fall flat on the thousands of British Columbians who are struggling to make ends meet. The goal of government should not solely be a strong economy but an economy, which strengthens all British Columbians. While this operating budget might well be fiscally balanced, it is neither socially nor environmentally balanced. It fails the test of triple bottom line accountability.
Here’s my concern. I have sat in this chamber for two years now, listening to this government state that it cannot do more for low and middle income British Columbians until the economy grows—that there simply is not enough room in the budget to help single parents, seniors on fixed incomes or the men and women who spend their nights on the street because they have nowhere else to go.
In response, I have offered viable, cost-effective policies that the government could adopt to make life more affordable for British Columbians—most of which either save money in the long-term or don’t cost anything at all. I did so with the recognition that my role as an MLA is to contribute realistic, affordable solutions to the challenges we face.
However, with the tabling of the 2015 budget, we are witnessing a growing trend where the government takes small steps on the periphery to make peoples’ lives better, instead of addressing the fundamental systemic and structural issues that underpin those challenges. With so many British Columbians struggling to get by, we simply cannot afford to neglect these structural issues any longer.
Here’s what I mean:
Right now, we have the second highest income inequality rate in the country and the highest rate of wealth inequality. We are the only province in Canada without a comprehensive poverty reduction plan, despite half a million British Columbians living in poverty—over 160,000 of whom are children. Eighteen percent of our students don’t graduate high school within six years of completing grade eight—and that number rises to 54 percent for aboriginal students. Four of our cities rank among the five least affordable cities in Canada. The list goes on.
The inequities that plague our province exist, in part, because of clear choices that have been made by this government. In order to maintain the illusion of low corporate and personal income taxes, the government has raised regressive user fees like MSP premiums, BC Hydro Rates and ICBC rates. Instead of relying on a progressive tax system where government revenue is drawn according to an individual’s financial means, these regressive user fees target all British Columbians with the same set rates, regardless of whether their income is high enough to afford it.
To counterbalance the growing affordability crisis, I acknowledge that the government has taken a small, yet important, step by ending the claw back on income supports for single mothers. While steps such as this one are incredibly important, they barely touch the systemic challenges that perpetuate an affordability crisis in British Columbia. And besides, the fact that this mean-spirited, punitive, claw back ever existed at all is indicative of a government that has lost touch with the people it is supposed to represent.
Meanwhile, as user fees continue to rise, the government has taken steps, like it did in this budget, to phase out the $150,000 tax bracket for the top two percent of income earners. I recognize that when that tax bracket was first introduced, it was done so with the promise that it would only last for two years. But the rationale at the time was that the government would not need the extra revenue because of its promised wealth and prosperity for one and all from its spinning LNG Hail Mary pass of hope wrapped in hyperbole.
But here we are, two years later. While the Hail Mary pass was indeed caught on May 14, 2013 delivering a Liberal Majority government, it was subsequently fumbled. It was given a mandate to deliver on a promise. It’ didn’t and it won’t. While the government will attempt to deflect blame on market prices, external pressures, third parties and so forth, the reality is that even despite their generational sell out exemplified in the Liquefied Natural Gas Income Tax Act, ironically supported by the official opposition, the government has failed to deliver as I knew it would. For more than two years now I have been pointing out that the economics did not and still does not support the government’s reckless LNG promises in a market oversupplied with natural gas and in a jurisdiction that is years behind others in terms of developing an LNG industry.
Honourable Speaker, I strongly support the amendment put forward by the member from Surrey-Whalley. It is imperative that the government report out to British Columbians on where we stand with respect to its failed promises.
Yet this discussion is also indicative of a larger problem.
At a time when the government claims it cannot find enough money for affordable housing and other measures, it is eliminating the tax bracket on the highest two percent of income earners, and foregoing $227 million dollars a year that could be invested in programs that help make our province more affordable.
Here’s the point: It can’t simply be about whether or not there is a tax cut for the top 2% or a $3 rise in MSP premiums. We need to start talking about what those policies represent and what they collectively lead to. Through a combination of complacency and choice we have created a funding structure for our government that relies on low and middle income British Columbians paying more than many can afford.
In the context of the affordability crisis B.C. faces, measures like these at best perpetuate, and at worst add to the inequality that exists in our province.
The conversation we need to be having is not about the individual measures we’re taking to slightly increase the quality of life of British Columbians, but whether over the long-term these policies collectively foster an affordable, just and prosperous society in British Columbia. My concern right now is that we are moving in the wrong direction.
We have a nearly one billion-dollar surplus from the last fiscal year and additional surpluses projected for the next three fiscal years. Compared to a 46 billion dollar budget, that surplus is admittedly modest. Yet, so are many of the steps that we could take with this budget to make smarter, more targeted investments that move us further towards tackling the systemic issues perpetuating our affordability crisis.
Where we go from here
Going forward, we can do better. We need to have the courage to re-envision BC’s path to prosperity. Developing a 21st Century economy — one that is environmentally, socially and economically prosperous — is not about spending more — it’s about spending smarter with proactive, targeted investments.
As British Columbians, we are incredibly fortunate to be so wealthy in both opportunity and potential. We already have the foundation needed to be at the cutting edge of a 21st century economy: a highly educated workforce, renewable energy options, and beautiful towns and cities that people around the world want to move to. We can leverage this potential to foster an affordable, 21st century economy. Here are a few ideas for how to get there:
A budget for a 21st century economy would restructure tax credits and incentives to encourage the transition to a low-carbon economy and to foster a more progressive funding source for government. Rather than offering marginal boutique tax credits, taken from the Harper Tory playbook, for political gains, it would ensure that government revenue is based on an equitable, progressive use of our tax system. It would also use a portion of the nearly one billion dollar 2014/15 surplus to invest in affordability and to support those in need.
While we get ourselves organized to tackle the bigger issue, we need to tend to the low hanging fruit. Changes that incur no cost to government but make a big difference to British Columbians who are struggling. The Legislation of creditor protection for Registered Education Savings Plans (RESP) and Registered Disability Savings Plans (RDSP), for example, is long overdue. This simple change will help children saving for their education and individuals with disabilities feel more financially secure and protected in times of personal economic crises. Similarly, making MSP premiums a line item in the progressive Personal Income Tax system would be a quick way to both save on administrative costs and reduce the net burden on low and fixed income individuals while ensuring no revenue is lost to government.
Investing in the health, happiness, and success of this generation and the next starts with education. Five years of labour peace, quite frankly, is not enough. We must not aim for temporary peace — but rather for a new relationship. What I find so concerning about the way this budget deals with education is that yet again government is failing in establishing a new relationship with those who administer and provide education to our children. Whether you agree or disagree with the administrative cuts, what I think is unacceptable is that they appear to have caught school boards off guard. How is the goal of fostering trust served when those who structure our education budgets are in the dark about the resources government is willing to provide them.
Even where government is making investments in education, I would challenge them to broaden their vision. Under the BC Jobs Plan, training focuses on trade skills. It’s good we are training new carpenters, electricians and welders to help build our traditional energy industries. But what about 21st century industries? What about high tech, biotech and cleantech? It seems like we are only training for an LNG-o-centric 20th Century fossil-fuel economy, not the future. We should also be focusing our educational investment on up-and-coming sectors like the cleantech sector that create well-paying, long-term, local jobs that grow our economy while supporting a healthy environment.
Companies like Google, for example, have committed to making the use of clean energy a priority. Currently only 35% of Google’s operations run on renewables. They are actively looking for new locations near green power sources where they can sustainably grow and develop, and many other tech companies are following suit. The government has repeatedly presented their floundering LNG industry as a “generational opportunity.” If we started to capitalize on our renewable energy options instead of clinging on to last century’s dinosaur resources, perhaps we could find and sustain that generational opportunity in cleantech.
British Columbians deserve a government brave enough to see beyond their term and bold enough to make proactive investments, while living within our means. Much like the positive correlation between education level and future health, economic well-being, and longevity, there are many other investments our government could be making to improve the lives of British Columbians and save money down the road. A study released last week from the University of Waterloo, for instance, found that standardizing physical activity programs in Ontario would reduce the $6.8 billion dollar cost associated with sedentary lifestyles in their province. Providing housing options for the chronically homeless is another issue I have spoken at length about. It saves money in the long term by reducing the strain on social, health and justice services.
In light of the increasing costs we have already started to incur from global warming, we have no choice but to start shifting to an economy that takes these threats into account. A paper from Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research released earlier this month analyzed the importance of pairing carbon pricing with clean technologies in a more effective policy package. “If we want to contain the impacts of climate change,” they wrote, “it is essential to start comprehensive and meaningful mitigation policies between 2015 and 2020. Otherwise, both risks and costs increase substantially.”
We all know climate change is more than an environmental issue – its impact on the economy will be equally devastating. Even if one prefers to selfishly only concern oneself with the regional ramifications of global warming, the outlook isn’t any better. As we see from indicator shifts in the larger trend of environmental change, local B.C. economies are already being hit — and hit hard. The mountain pine beetle has devastated our lodgepole pine forests. Acidification and warming ocean temperatures are threatening Vancouver Island’s shellfish industries, for example, with scallop death rates in Qualicum Beach rising to nearly 95% since 2010. And, as all of the disappointed skiers in the room know, Mount Washington, now with its 15 cm base, closed on February 9 and still awaits snow after another warm winter.
Though there is no easy solution to the problems we face, we do have options in the steps we take to improve the situation. In addition to carbon pricing — a polluter-pays model of reducing emissions —- technology support schemes can take various forms: from feed-in tariffs to quotas or tax credits for low-emission electricity sources, to direct or indirect support for technological innovation and carbon capture and storage techniques.
So where does all this leave us? I have gone through the merits and the shortcomings of this budget. I have offered a critique of the government’s approach, and have articulated a few examples of concrete steps we could take to move us towards an affordable, sustainable 21st century economy.
I would suggest however, that we must return to where I began in my speech.
If we are to make any real progress, we cannot continue to evaluate critical budget decisions through simplistic and divisive notions of black and white, us-versus-them politics. The challenges are too great and the solutions too complex for us to continue being distracted by partisan positioning.
We need to start with a basic commitment that we will all read the budget before deciding how we will vote for it. To do anything else, is to put ignorance and divisiveness above informed decision-making and a genuine willingness to work together for the betterment of British Columbians.
We need to see budget votes for what they are: a single vote to indicate broad support or opposition to the full suite of measures contained within a budget. There will always be aspects we agree and disagree with; it is impossible to fully represent this complexity with a single vote, which is why we also speak to our decisions in these debates.
And we must have the courage to vote on behalf of our constituents, not our parties. It is the citizens of British Columbia who sent us here to represent them. It is the citizens of British Columbia who experience the short-term consequences of the decisions we make in this chamber. And it is the next generation of British Columbians who ultimately have to live the long-term consequences of our decisions. Each of us needs to reflect on this as we ponder how we will vote.