Excerpt from the Official Report of
DEBATES OF THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY

(Hansard)


September 18, 2017

Budget debate

I’m pleased to have the opportunity to join in the debate in regard to Budget Update 2017.

It’s always good to be back in this Legislature and good to be here on the territories of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples, the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations.

I’m very grateful to the people of Vancouver-Hastings, who have sent me back here to represent them for the fourth time. I’m particularly thankful for all of the work that is done by those in the constituency on my behalf. I have a wonderful team in my office in Vancouver-Hastings with Anne and Sherrill and Theresa, who all do excellent work for me and excellent work in making sure that the needs and concerns of citizens and constituents of Vancouver-Hastings are met and that their issues are addressed. They’ve been doing it for a long time, and they do it extremely well.

I’m also very pleased and thankful for the people who helped to return me here during the 2017 election. We all know that elections are exciting times. They’re times that can be stressful, and they’re times when we bring together people in our communities who support the values that we bring forward to this place and who come together to help to get us elected.

I had a wonderful team of people, and I just want to particularly acknowledge Colette Barker, who stepped up and took charge of my campaign as the manager and did a wonderful job making sure that I got the opportunity to come back here and speak for the people of Vancouver-Hastings in this Legislature again.

Since the election, of course, it was certainly a wild ride, as we went through the processes of resolving how government would unfold and play out here in British Columbia. Of course, I’m very, very excited with the resolution that we reached in this province, a resolution that led to a new government in British Columbia, a government that was committed to making this province more affordable, a government that was committed to adding and enhancing services and a government that was committed to a sustainable economy with family-supporting jobs.

That’s the commitment that we have made, that’s the direction that we have received from the Premier, and that’s the work that we are all doing every day. I’m very excited to be able to participate and be part of that through my role as the Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction — a ministry that we have revamped, and I’ll talk a little bit about that as we move forward — and taking on new challenges into that ministry.

At the outset, I really want to say a big thank-you to the people who have stepped up to help me in this new job as minister, particularly to Val, Brenda, Jayne, Casey and Leah, who work in my ministry office and work for me as the minister; and, of course, to all of the people in the ministry — the leadership of the ministry, the deputy, the ADMs, the directors and everybody right down to all of the people on the front lines, who do a great job and who are working very hard and who have been extremely supportive and very excited about the changes in the ministry and about the opportunity to do the work that they believe needs to be done.

It’s a good time around that. As we move forward with the initiatives that are in front of us, we’re very much seeing a level of excitement and commitment by people in the ministry every day who are looking at new and innovative ways that we can make life more affordable, that we can reduce inequality and can deal with the cornerstone issues that are in front of us.

At the time when this government came into office, there were a number of adjustments made around ministries. You’ll know, and people often talk to me, about the change in the name of the ministry that I lead. The name changed, and it became the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. I’ve had people say to me: “So what does that mean, the Ministry of Poverty Reduction?”

The Premier was very clear, in the conversations that I had with the Premier, about what he wanted to achieve. He was very clear when he said that this is not a rhetorical change in the name. Our commitment is to reduce inequality. Our commitment is to reduce poverty. The mandate that I was given, and it’s in my mandate letter, is to in fact effect those changes, and we’re going to do that through a number of initiatives.

The first three of those are on the table now, and that work is proceeding. But the context of that work is: if we have poverty…. Why do we need a poverty reduction plan for British Columbia? Well, British Columbia is the only province in this country that doesn’t have a poverty reduction strategy. It is the only province that has ignored that issue for over a decade, and that has to change. The reason it has to change is because when you look at British Columbia, we have 700,000 people who live in poverty, based on the Stats Canada standards — 700,000 British Columbians. About 20 percent of those are kids living in poverty, and we know that poor kids mean poor families.

The other thing that we know is that this isn’t just about people on persons-with-disabilities or people on social assistance. Over 40 percent of the people living in poverty are the working poor. They have a full-time paycheque coming into their household, and they can’t make ends meet. They can’t afford even a modest standard of living for themselves and their families.

I would like to think that everybody in this House would say that if you get up every day and you go to work and you work hard, you should be able to bring home a paycheque that at least affords you and your family a modest standard of living. That’s not what’s happening today.

We need to attack that issue, and attack the issue is what we’re going to do. We’re going to do that on a number of fronts. What you’ll see, moving forward, is first of all, the initial steps that we’ve taken, a couple of quick steps that we knew would at least ease some pressure. The first of those was to add $100 to the cheque of everybody collecting social assistance and persons-with-disabilities. It doesn’t solve the problem, but we knew, and I knew, that putting a few more dollars in people’s pockets, a few more dollars to spend in what is a very expensive place to live, would at least ease a little bit of pressure.

The other thing that was announced in the budget and that you’ll see as we announce more details is starting this October 1. We’ve increased the earning exemptions for persons on social assistance and persons-with-disabilities. What we have said is that we’ve increased them by $200. That means for a person on social assistance, a $200-a-month exemption has become $400. For a person with disabilities, the $9,600 annual exemption becomes $12,000.

What that does is it allows people to at least work some and keep the money. It encourages people to show some initiative, to take an opportunity and to be rewarded for that when they do that and to know that it’s not going to just get clawed back off their cheque. If they can make a few hundred extra dollars and ease their pressure a little bit, that’s a good thing. We all know that part of breaking the cycle of poverty is finding ways to encourage and support people into work when that’s an appropriate and available opportunity for them, with a little bit of help. Part of that is letting them keep a few of those extra dollars as they move forward. I’m very proud of that.

We’re going to announce very soon the details of the initiative around transportation issues for persons with disabilities, the bus-pass issue that was back and forth in this House for months and months and months. I look forward to the solution that we’ve designed. We’ll be putting that in place, and it will come into force on the first of January of 2018. More will come on that in the coming days and weeks.

We’ve also seen, from other parts of government, initiatives that support people who are vulnerable. We saw the removal of tuition fees around adult basic education and language learning, ELL. We saw the free tuition for foster kids, kids coming out of foster care. We’ve seen the initiatives that were in the budget — and there’ll be more details to come — around housing and homelessness and a homelessness strategy to put thousands of units and available spaces in place for people who are homeless. There will be more to come.

As the previous speaker talked about a list, well, I will assure the folks who are watching and the members on the other side that the issues of child care and the issues of the minimum wage and the issues of further housing initiatives are all to come. You will see more on that in the February budget, the first true budget of this government. You will see the plan begin to unfold as to how we, in fact, get at some of those objectives and those commitments. This is a government that put a series of promises in front of people, and we have been checking them off one at a time.

There’s much more work to do, but we will get that work done. I’m confident about that. I’m confident that we’re going to be successful in that. I look forward to the debates in this House, and I look forward to the debates moving forward as we move on these issues.

In my ministry, there really are a couple of key steps that I want to talk about. I want to talk a little bit about poverty reduction. The fight against poverty, the fight to reduce inequality, is around improving the lives of people who are vulnerable. It is about looking at ways to break that cycle of poverty. It is about ways to bring together the resources of government to be able to effect some of the changes that break that cycle of poverty or begin to erode that cycle of poverty.

It means the minister responsible for Housing; the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions; the Minister of Health; the Minister of Education; of Advanced Education, Skills and Training; the Minister of Finance; Public Safety…. There has to be a concerted effort here. All of these ministries are coming together. We are bringing them together.

We are focusing attention on how to attack this issue. That consultation, the broad consultation in the community, has started. We are putting together the pieces now around what that strategy looks like moving forward. We are starting the conversation around how the legislation will look, and there will be legislation next year to legislate a poverty reduction strategy — a poverty reduction strategy with clear targets and timelines, a poverty reduction strategy that will report to this Legislature on an annual basis and that will seek advice on an ongoing basis, on an ongoing process, from people in the community.

It’s not just the activists and the stakeholders. We’re reaching out to people who are living the experience of being poor and talking directly to people who are living the experience of poverty. We are going to engage them directly in the process of helping us look through some of these issues and looking for the practical and the pragmatic solutions as we move forward.

One of the other things that we’re doing with this — and you’ll see this as we move forward — is beginning to look at some of the long-term potential solutions. Part of the agreement between ourselves and the Green caucus is to look at a basic income pilot and to look at what that looks like. We know Ontario is doing some of that work, and we’re going to do that work here and look at it in a British Columbia context.

We don’t know what the result of that will be. We don’t know what the evaluation of that will look like. But we will put in place, in the coming months, a pilot that will allow us to evaluate whether that model makes sense and, over the period of a couple of years, will be able to collect enough data to be able to make decisions about whether we should, in fact, be moving forward long term with that kind of initiative.

That work’s being done. Ontario is pursuing that work now. We’ve seen it previously in Dauphin, Manitoba, where it was pursued. In Finland, it’s been pursued. We’re collecting that information now. We’re collecting the data. We’re talking to experts in the field and beginning to craft what that pilot looks like, to allow us, in fact, to be able to measure whether that initiative, that kind of model, makes sense in British Columbia.

One of the other issues we’re looking very closely at — my colleague the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, my colleague the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and myself have all been mandated by the Premier to look at a provincewide homelessness strategy. We’ve been mandated to look at a strategy that will affect, in a meaningful way, the homelessness crisis that we’ve seen across this province. It’s a crisis that is not limited to the big city of Vancouver but that we see in community after community around the province.

Even in my early travels as a minister, when I’m talking to people in those communities, I’m hearing about those issues. We’re seeing tent cities pop up around the province. We’re seeing people who really are striving to try to find solutions for themselves, because they’ve not been satisfied with the solutions that government has put in front of them. There has to be a better way to do this.

I know my colleagues are committed to it, I’m committed to it, and the Premier is committed to it. We will, over the coming months, flesh that out, and it will become more apparent. We will be taking steps along the way to ease those pressures, as we head down that path to a homelessness strategy that effects real change in British Columbia.

The other issue that I want to talk about a little bit is around why I believe there is the level of excitement about the new government. And I hear that a lot. We hear that from people who are just excited about the change. We hear that from people who are just excited about a government that is talking to them. We hear that from local officials. I hear it from people in the community. I hear it across sectors. I hear it from people who are not historically or traditionally supporters of the NDP. I hear it from people who say there comes a time when you need new energy. There comes a time when you need a government that is prepared to reach out. There comes a time when you need a government that is prepared to look to the future and not just to how to hang on to power. And that’s what we have here.

There’s a lot of excitement, I must say, about the agreement between our party and the Green Party. I hear that in a lot of places. It’s an excitement about a sincere effort to have meaningful collaboration on how to move forward. It doesn’t say that we are going to agree on everything. It doesn’t say that we will vote the same way on everything, necessarily. It says that we have embraced a common set of values for the next 4½ years, embraced a common set of broad objectives, and that we are going to work together. We will have our differences, and we will have them respectfully. We will argue and articulate our positions in a respectful way with each other. We will sustain the government, but it doesn’t mean that we will always agree. And you know what? That’s okay.

As we move forward — you will see this in the coming weeks — around electoral reform and as we begin to lay out the first steps of a plan for a vote to happen next year around proportional representation, I know that it’s going to be critically important that we be able to demonstrate that we can work together in the best interests of British Columbians and to make the case for why a change in the electoral system is so important, why we need a change in the electoral system, where this Legislature more clearly reflects the intentions of British Columbians. It’s simply not acceptable anymore to the people of British Columbia, I believe, that any political party can get 43 percent of the votes and 100 percent of the power. It just isn’t what people want, in the future, from their representatives.

We see frustrations happening around the world, around political systems and around what they see as the elites. I think we have a commitment to try to change that. The legislation that was introduced today around campaign finance is a step to take big money out of politics.

We know that people are very cynical. Whether the cynicism is around the reality or the perception, it really doesn’t matter. People are cynical that those who have wealth — those organizations, whether it be a corporation or a union or, maybe even worse, people from offshore and other places that don’t call British Columbia home — have the ability, through money, to influence the outcome of elections. That’s going to end, and we will move forward. We have seen the last general election where money will be a major determining factor in the results of that election. That will be good for all of us. That will restore a level of confidence.

I believe an initiative around proportional representation — if the people of British Columbia choose to support that next fall — will further restore confidence. Our task here is to demonstrate…. I don’t believe this is an obligation just on the NDP and the Greens. I believe it’s an obligation on the official opposition, as well — for us to do our best to demonstrate that we are here to work for everybody in British Columbia. We are here to work together. If that vote, that referendum, is successful, then the system will change. The dynamics and the makeup of this place will be a very different composition on both sides, whatever that means — on the three or four or five sides, however many sides there are. We’re going to have to all learn to work together to make that successful.

I would urge us all to make the efforts to start to build that new rapport, that new environment and that new climate for legislative action today. We don’t have to wait. We can do that today. The time for elections will come in due course. We will all run, and there will be parties that will come together, whether it’s on the right or the left or the middle, to form a government down the road. We have an opportunity today to try to work to make that happen.

I think that’s what people want. That’s the excitement that I hear from people about the agreement between our party — the government — and the Green caucus. It’s an excitement about the possibilities. It’s an excitement about the opportunity. It’s an excitement about politicians who are prepared to make a commitment to try to do things differently and to try to do things in a more collaborative way.

We will not always get it right. We will mess it up sometimes, and we will not always agree, but the effort is sincere, certainly on the part of both parties, I believe. It’s an effort that I feel very confident is going to lead to many progressive and positive changes over the next four or 4½ years here in British Columbia. I look forward to that as we move forward.

The previous speaker talked about an array of issues, and he talked about the economy. Well, we know the economy is changing. We know the resource industries need support. We know that probably the most compelling issue in front of us from the resource sector is to find resolution on softwood to put the forest industry back on its feet and begin to try to restore some of those 30,000-or-so jobs that were lost in that industry over the last decade and a half, to bring those jobs back. They’re good, family-supporting jobs.

We also know that we need to move forward and be very thoughtful about what the new economy looks like and about how we advance the new economy in a way that doesn’t create winners and losers. That’s a big challenge with the economy.

One of the things that we know, going back to the work that we’ll be doing in my ministry around poverty reduction, is that a poverty reduction strategy and a strategy to reduce inequality is not simply about putting a few dollars in the pockets of people who are poor — that’s an important thing to do — but it is an economic renewal strategy. It is a strategy that is about revitalizing the economy. All of the evidence and all of the research shows that those societies, those countries, those communities that have succeeded in reducing poverty, reducing inequality, have some of the most vibrant and dynamic economies in the world. The evidence shows, without exception, that those are the economies that work best.

I do believe what we’ll see, moving forward, is that if we want to seriously address many of the social issues that are in front of us, whether they are issues of homelessness or issues around the opioid crisis or issues around mental health and addictions — any of these issues — we will do better when we strengthen everybody’s circumstances, when we improve the circumstances for all. We’re committed to doing that.

[3:30 p.m.]

I believe that we can achieve that, and as we do, I think we then will be in a better place in terms of the future of this province. We see poverty reduction, these initiatives, as being economic initiatives for economic renewal, moving forward. I’m very excited about this time.

I must say that when I was first elected in 2005, probably the most exciting day of my life at that time — certainly my work life — was the opportunity to come into this place for the first time to swear in as a member of the Legislature and to begin this adventure. That was an incredible day. I know that every member here has found that that’s a day none of us will ever forget — the day that we were sworn in. You begin to realize the incredible responsibility that you’ve taken on to represent the people of your community.

But I must say, the day that I got sworn in as a minister and took on a totally different responsibility — one that I didn’t entirely understand…. I know I can look at friends across the way, who have certainly had that responsibility. I’m sure they would agree that the job of MLA is the first and the most important job. That’s what you’re here for, is to be the MLA.

But the job of minister is a whole other experience, the good and the bad. So far, good. I know there’ll probably be a little bad to come down the road sometime. I’ll get there in due course, but I’m not in a rush. That day certainly borders on being the best day in my political life. We have a lot of work to do, though.We are committed, on this side, to doing that work. We are committed to doing it in a way that supports all British Columbians in all the communities around this province.

We understand that poverty is not limited to the Downtown Eastside and not limited to Vancouver — that it exists in every province, every part of this province, every community in this province, whether it be Quesnel or Prince George or Cranbrook. We need to work in those communities. I’m looking forward to building a consensus in those communities about how we move forward on poverty reduction. I’m looking forward to bringing together the resources, business, labour, local governments to begin to address those issues in those communities.

I look forward to the opportunity, hopefully, to come back in about a year and report out the first year of a poverty reduction strategy, the efforts we’ve made and the progress we’ve made on the path to reducing poverty in this province. I think it’s there. I think we can achieve it. It excites me. I know it excites a lot of people in British Columbia.

We’re going to get this done, and we’re going to get it done over the next year. I look forward to the support of all members of this House to make that successful moving forward.

events
Wednesday, December 19, 2018 - 1:00pm - 2:00pm
Tuesday, January 15, 2019 - 6:30pm - 8:00pm