Excerpt from the Official Report of
DEBATES OF THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY

(Hansard)


April 28, 2011

Response to the Budget

S. Simpson: It's great to be back. It's great to have an opportunity to be in this place. It's been a long time, as some of my colleagues have said. It's about four days in the last ten months we've been here. It's kind of nice to be back, even if it is only for a handful of days. I think, depending how it plays out, it may be 17, 18 days that we're going to be back for this entire session. It is a bit beyond me as to why we're going to exit here on the second of June and why we're not going to continue.

There's lots of business to be done for people here. As has been pointed out, should Premier Clark be successful on the 11th of May, when she's in her by-election, she'll be back here, I think the speculation is, maybe for the last week or so, in time to do Premier's estimates — should she be successful.

I'm sure we'd all like the opportunity — and I would think that she'd like the opportunity, too — to come back and maybe spend a few weeks here and talk to British Columbians using their House, their place, about her vision for British Columbia and to have that exchange from the two sides of the House about that vision and about the values and about the differences that I've heard members on the other side talk about between our vision and the B.C. Liberal vision. I think it would be great. It would be a great opportunity to come and do that. But I don't expect that's going to happen, so I'm pleased to get a chance to at least come back for a few days.

We all know that while we haven't been here and we haven't been sitting in this place, it's been a pretty eventful time. As has been noted, we have a new leader on the government side, a new Premier, our Premier Clark. My congratulations to her on her success.

Of course, on our side the member for Vancouver-Kingsway has now become the Leader of the Official Opposition, and we're very pleased to have the member for Vancouver-Kingsway in the job as our leader, being able to provide a very strong, precise, insightful and thoughtful view of British Columbia that does distinguish us very much from what is offered on the government side.

Now, part of the challenge here — and this being the budget debate, I'll want to connect this to the budget — of course, is that when Premier Clark got elected, she ran and she campaigned on change. I think that probably was the message we heard more than anything else. I appreciate that message because I think that she's a smart enough politician to know that if she didn't try to distance herself as far from the B.C. Liberal record and the B.C. government as she could, at least in her rhetoric, she would be positioning herself for a guaranteed failure in the next general election, which will come sometime in September or October.

She was in a position where she had to make this argument that she was about change. Now, of course, change…. For those people who understand the legislative process, probably the biggest thing we do every year when we come here is to adopt the budget for the year.

The budget — more than anything else, more than any piece of legislation, more than any initiative that comes through this House — really defines the direction of the province, defines the values of the government of the day and tells British Columbians what it is that we are choosing to do as a province, the direction that we are heading and what the priorities are. That always is, first and foremost, a message that is delivered through the budget process.

So it is remarkable that this Premier, who talked about being the Premier of change, would not see any reason to set aside the budget that was brought forward in February and to bring forward a budget that actually talked about some kind of change. As the member for Vancouver-Quilchena, the previous Finance Minister, said when he introduced this budget back in February…. He was very clear that it's a status quo budget. It's a stand-pat budget.

It was a budget that had two purposes. One was to create quite a large cushion for the new Premier — in this case about $950 million this year, about $2.5 billion dollars over three years of cushion — that allows the new Premier some room to move on initiatives. It's an understandable thing to do, but it was done as a stand-pat, which essentially said that nothing else was changing.

In fact, what we know is that when the new Premier came in and advanced her cabinet, she advanced a cabinet that has a number of portfolios that don't correspond at all with what was in the budget in February. At some point over the next number of days, I suspect, we're going to have to see some kind of legislation or some kind of regulatory action on the part of the government to restructure this budget in some fashion, to have it mirror the portfolios that the government now has.

We're debating a budget here that does not reflect the portfolios as they exist today. It was a budget that was adopted when there were quite a few different portfolios and a different composition to the executive council. So now we're doing something quite different, but that's not reflected in the change that's been made here because this wasn't a progressive budget. It wasn't a thoughtful budget. It was a budget that had the purpose of creating some room.

The only other real reason we came back in February…. Let's be clear. There's a statutory requirement, and the government had to get a spending bill, an interim supply bill, through so that it could spend some money through to the end of July or so, so that we wouldn't end up turning out the lights on government. That's what we were here to do for our four days that we sat in February, when this budget was brought forward, never intended to be passed at all.

So what do we see today? We see a Premier who is supposed to be all about change who does not bring forward a new budget, who does not bring forward a new throne speech, who — as it appears, if we're going to exit this place on the second of June — is not prepared to come and spend any amount of time in her place here, presuming that she wins the by-election, defending her view of British Columbia or even advancing her view of British Columbia, because we certainly haven't heard very much so far.

It's troubling, to say the least, that we have this situation. We have the Premier embracing a stand-pat status quo budget that's not intended to do anything, on one hand, while on the other hand she attempts to tell us that she is the agent of change. Pretty remarkable. Pretty remarkable.

What can we expect from the Premier, and what can we expect when we actually do see something from her, something from this Finance Minister, from this government in terms of where we're going? Well, there are some serious questions about this, and there are serious questions about the capacity to deal with this and what kind of reckless behaviour we are likely to see out of this Premier in regard to this budget — what kind of reckless behaviour and irresponsible action we're likely to see.

It's not me who would say that. I would remind members here that back during the campaign, back when Ms. Clark was running for the leadership, there was the debate about her policies around spending and tax cuts and deficits and tying the health care to the GDP and that whole variety of things. There were some serious concerns raised.

Those serious concerns were not raised by this side of the House. Those serious concerns were raised by other members of this House. I think it was the now Minister of Education who on the second of February was quoted as saying: "More and more, it's abundantly clear that Ms. Clark's positions are simply not credible, and it shows that she has no real plan for our province, our economy or our families."

That wasn't the only comment of the Minister of Education. The Minister of Education then on Radio NL, a radio out of Kamloops, on the eighth of February…. This was in discussion of one of the new Premier's more creative ideas of tying health care spending to GDP. So the Minister of Education said at that time: "This is a recipe for no end of problems in the health care system. To try to find, as an example, over the next year or two $750 million in reductions to meet this unrealistic plan, I have no idea where she would begin to find $750 million, but I'd love to hear from her where she would propose to do that."

Well, we would all love to hear from her where she would propose to do that, and we'd like to hear from her in here. Now, to be fair, I wouldn't want anybody thinking the Minister of Education was just singularly being particularly hard, because of course the Minister of Finance on the 12th of February in the Vancouver Sun on that very same issue, around tying health care to GDP…. Well, today's Minister of Finance said: "I respectfully disagree with the position that you could tie it artificially. That would involve finding hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of cuts that would be very, very difficult to do."

He's right. He's right, but we don't know because, unfortunately, the Premier at this point is not here. Fair enough. She needs to run in an election, and I'm glad that she's doing that. But at some point, to get here, it would be nice if we spent a little time here after she arrived so we could talk to her about her creative economic plans.

Now, what are we talking about here when we talk about change? Let's talk about some of the issues that are in front of us — the economic challenges. We heard the previous member talk about the economy. What we do know about the economy today…. We have not heard one word, not one word, from the new Premier on this matter, and we certainly have a budget here that, as the person who introduced the budget, the member for Vancouver-Quilchena, the previous Finance Minister said, is a stand-pat budget, a status quo budget, a budget that is simply there to get us through our leadership race and allow the new Premier to really put their stamp on things.

Well, we've had the new Premier for two months and, so far no stamp. So far no stamp, but what we do know is that over this period of time in British Columbia we have the highest levels of unemployment west of Atlantic Canada. We have economic growth that essentially is stalled out, and the best economic policy that this government is advancing and about to spend an untold amount, unknown amounts, of money to promote is the HST.

What do we know about the HST? Well, what we know is the HST, other than the way it was bungled and the government…. We heard the Finance Minister earlier today in question period acknowledge how badly they bungled the introduction of this legislation, of this new tax.

The thing that doesn't get talked about is this. This is a tax that we are told, by the government side and others, is revenue-neutral. It's a tax that will not put one more dollar into services for British Columbians, but it is a tax that will take almost $2 billion of corporate taxes and put that on the backs of working families and of small businesses.

This is a dramatic tax increase for working families and for small businesses, and for this government that says it's not about tax increases…. What they should clarify is that they're not about tax increases for their friends. That's what they're not about. But they're more than happy to increase taxes on others in British Columbia, whether it be almost $2 billion of HST dropped on working families and on small business or whether it be dramatic increases in MSP premiums, mostly hitting people in the middle class and in the lower levels.

Those of us, like everybody in this room, our employer, essentially…. The people are paying our MSP bills. That's true for lots of people, but there's a group of people there that pay that bill for themselves, and they are, in large part, small business people who are in fact working for themselves or are self-employed. They are people who are working in modest jobs where their employer doesn't pick that bill up for them — the people who least can afford it, often.

They're the ones who will pay those additional premiums, and that's a tax no matter how you cut it. But this government is prepared to dramatically increase that tax year after year after year. They don't have a problem with that.

This is a government that has continued to drive up the tax cost for working families, for working people, and to drive down the taxes for corporations. They have done that, trying to make an argument that says that somehow that results in jobs and investment. Now, we saw research recently reported out in the Globe and Mail that challenges that — not just for British Columbia. It challenges the whole thinking of that argument in this country.

What we have seen and what we have heard from people who certainly would hardly be called left-wingers is the argument or the analysis continually being made now that says: "Look, when you don't tie those cuts to performance in some way with a requirement of performance, then you in fact get a situation where you end up increasing dividends to shareholders, or you often end up creating revenue pools for offshore investment." But there is little evidence here….

I took the time back a month or so ago, since we weren't here — I happened to be over here — and asked the Legislative Library. I said: "Could you do something for me? Could you give me a list or show me any research that's been done by government independently — empirical, reviewed research that has been done — that makes the argument and clearly makes the case for linking tax cuts to job growth and investment and job creation investment?" The library, essentially, came back and said: "We can't. We don't have it."

There's one thing…. The Legislative Library is a pretty remarkable place, and they do pretty remarkable work there, and they weren't able to come up and produce those independent studies by independent sources who weren't paid for by somebody who wanted a result that made the case that, in fact, you could draw that correlation in a way that was provable.

So we have a government that's just driven by ideology, by an ideology that says: "We don't like government very much. We like the corporate sector a whole lot better, and the more we can support them, we believe that it will be in the best interests of us all." Except there is little evidence to support that argument, and I'd encourage the government to produce some evidence that would support that argument.

Now, we're going to have this debate. The HST is going to engage a large part of our debate over the next period of time. But it's pretty concerning. Not only do we have the concern over how the $1.7 million that the government has announced will get expended. We know there's the $250,000 for a yes side, $250,000 for a no side and a half a million dollars for academic institutions to hold discussions and allow for forums for discussion. The rest of the money is for some kind of information process, but I haven't got an assurance.

The Minister of Finance today in question period did not provide conclusive assurances to tell us there would be no other spending by the government. Now, if he and the Minister of Transportation — who's going to be his buddy in this, I understand — want to travel the province and talk to people, that's all good, but he provided no assurances that we're not going to see more advertising and more spending to try to convince people that this tax shift of $2 billion on to their backs is good for them. So we haven't seen that, and it would be good to know what the situation there is.

The other thing that, of course, we've seen is the cabinet, the B.C. Liberal cabinet, basically say: "We're not going to spend a lot of money over here; $1.7 million is not a lot of money in the big scheme of things. But we're going to say to the corporate community, who are about to get, if they are successful with the HST, a $2 billion tax break every year…." You can be assured that they will, since there are no limits on third-party advertising, no limits on third-party spending.

I understand that Phil Hochstein, a good friend of the government's, is helping to lead the charge on this. That business community is going to spend millions of dollars advertising to convince British Columbians that it's good for consumers to give corporations a $2 billion tax break. That's what we're going to hear.

If the government was serious about making this about a discussion of the facts and of the evidence — the $700,000 or whatever they're going to spend on the brochure they're going to send out, and the academic work that's going to be done with the other half a million dollars, and a half a million spread between the yes and the no side — they would be saying to third parties, whether they be the corporate community or the labour community: "You're not part of this. We're limiting severely your ability to participate. You deserve to have a voice, but you don't get to blitz the airwaves with advertising and promotion to sell your position."

That's not what democracy is about. That's not really what democracy is about. But the government is prepared to let the corporate community do their dirty work to try to sell this tax.

Now, what we know is that there are a range of pretty critical issues that are facing British Columbians, and they are issues that simply are not addressed in this budget. They are issues that a Premier who wants us to believe she's about families first would be addressing, and she is silent. She is about to advance and adopt a budget that is silent. We have nothing in this budget that deals with questions of poverty. There is no poverty reduction plan. There is no poverty reduction strategy. There is nothing that talks about poverty with children, poverty with families, seniors.

Other provinces, six other provinces across this country, have dealt with this issue — provinces of every political stripe. This is not an ideological thing, but it is about equality, and it is about the cost of poverty. Increasingly what we're learning is that poverty, even in just bottom-line economic terms, is extremely expensive for us.

It's time to deal with that. It's time to break that cycle of poverty. That requires a thoughtful strategy and a strategy that has targets, it has timelines, it's legislated, it has accountability, and people can see and measure how much success we're having.

There is nothing here. It is silent. The Premier has been silent on this issue. I know this is a question in Vancouver, it's a question in the valley, it's a question in the Okanagan, in Kelowna, in other areas — young families looking for ways that they get into the housing market. Young families say: "We have pretty good incomes. We're comfortable with our couple of incomes in our house, but there's no way we can even get into a starter home because we can't even get a sniff at getting close to a down payment because it just isn't working." But there's nothing here.

There are innovative ideas. We see them in the U.S. We see them in other places where governments and the private sector, the building sector, are doing innovative things to create opportunities for people to get into those markets. They still need to have the incomes. They need to pay the mortgages. They need to be accountable for the debt. None of that changes, but there's a way to open the door to allow them into the markets when, in fact, you have these very prohibitive down payment requirements and obligations that just make it impossible.

I think about people in my constituency. I have a young woman, a young lawyer, who said to me about a year or so ago — and things haven't gotten any better — that she at that time and her husband, who is also a young lawyer…. They're just beginning their careers.

She said: "You know, we have pretty good incomes. We can afford to pay a mortgage, but there just is no way we can put together the down payment. Yet we should be exactly the people that you want to have buying houses. We've got two incomes, start of our careers, they're going to grow, but we can't get in. So we either go some place else or we wait and we pay rent. We don't want to be paying rent because we want to be building equity. We want to buy an asset. We want to build equity. We want to start to have that dream." But there's nothing here. There is no help for those people.

Sustainability. The previous speaker talked about climate change. Well, we are looking at some of the biggest challenges being in our urban areas and issues around urban sustainability, but we're not seeing the conversation that needs to happen around how we deal with the two biggest pieces of that question.

There are lots of issues around green buildings and how we support that and how we deal with some better, more sustainable and efficient infrastructure, but it's transit and land use planning that are the keys to urban sustainability. We're not seeing anything here in this budget that begins to take us down that discussion at all.

Certainly, as my colleague from PoCo over here will know, the never-ending discussion of the Evergreen line…. You know what? We're still $400 million short on that. Whatever the government is doing…. I mean, we hear it's going to be built, but we don't hear a word about where the $400 million is coming from.

I saw the mayor of Port Moody on television the other night. I've seen him on TV probably for years now. He's looking a little older every year, just that increased frustration that there's a government here, a B.C. Liberal government, that talks this line. I mean, the only thing they've promised more often than the Evergreen line is Surrey Memorial Hospital. The only thing they promised more often is Surrey Memorial Hospital, but we've got a new record now. The new record is the Evergreen line.

The ex–Transportation Minister is over there. Maybe he can tell us. He's now the Finance Minister. Maybe he can tell us how this gets built. We're not hearing. What we're hearing here is that it's going to be built. So I'm looking forward to hearing how it's going to be built.

...

S. Simpson: This Finance Minister hasn't debated the budget yet, I don't think. Maybe he did in those four days, but it's not his budget. Maybe he doesn't want to debate the budget because it's not his budget. You never know. We'll get to see sometime over the next couple of days, I guess, whether this Finance Minister wants to speak about this budget.

The other problem we have here, of course, is we have this government that tries to tell us how we move forward with R and D and with innovation. Yet when you do look at the small bits of this budget that actually have things — my time is running out, so I'll just name one — what do we see? This government cuts student funding in the budget from what was $84 million, as it was estimated in 2010. This budget has $50 million in here — $50 million. So the government cuts funding in arguably one of the most important areas.

As my time is running out, what I would say is that we know that this budget is a stand-pat budget. It's a budget that wasn't ever meant to be adopted. It's a budget that was put there to get interim supply. Yet this government is so vacant of ideas, has no plans, is in such disarray that they can't put together a credible budget. So they brought this shamble forward, and they're advancing it.

I guess the reason this Finance Minister is not on his feet defending the budget is that he's probably as embarrassed by it as most British Columbians.

We'll get through this, and then we'll get on to an election, and we'll get on to getting a real government in place in British Columbia that respects British Columbians.

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