The NDP government will set up a new innovation council this fall to promote investment in the technology sector and work to build B.C.’s engineered wood products sector.
But apart from those commitments, there wasn’t much in Friday’s throne speech for B.C. businesses.
Whereas previous throne speeches under the Liberal government focused heavily on jobs, the economy and fiscal prudence, the throne speech on Sept. 8 focused heavily on electoral reform and social programs and spending, including a commitment to take immediate action on the opioid crisis, which claimed 978 lives in B.C. last year and 876 to date.
That Liberal fixation on the economy and fiscal pruduence has left the new NDP government with an economy firing on all cylinders and a massive $2.7 billion budget surplus.
Through Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon, the NDP said it plans to ensure more British Columbians benefit from that wealth.
“It’s time that British Columbians shared in the benefits of our strong economy,” Guichon said.
Through Guichon, the NDP also heaped blame on the previous Liberal government for “bad choices” that have left British Columbians struggling with high housing costs, low-paying jobs, underfunded schools and long wait lists at hospitals.
“Starting today, your government will make different choices – choices that put people first,” Guichon said.
The government used its throne speech to reiterate its plan to “embrace” the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) – a move that has sectors like mining worried that an already difficult landscape will become even more difficult, should UNDRIP be interpreted as giving First Nations veto powers over things like new mines and fish farms.
“We must build a true partnership based on rights, respect and reconciliation,” Guichon said.
As expected, Friday’s throne speech included promises to set in motion reforms to both campaign financing and the electoral system, and move fixed election dates from May to the fall – the first one being the fall of 2021.
The government plans to hold a referendum on proportional representation in 2018. It will also introduce new laws that will ban corporate and union donations to political parties, and restrict donations to parties to residents of B.C. only.
Throne speeches are the bones of a government’s overall plan. The government will put flesh to bone on Monday, Sept. 11, with the release of an interim budget update. A full budget will be brought down in February.
The throne speech reiterated key policies agreed to by the Greens and NDP in a 10-page confidence and supply agreement – the document that led Guichon to ask NDP Leader John Horgan to serve as premier.
Prior to Friday’s throne speech, the NDP government had already made good on a number of campaign promises, including:
• referring the Site C dam to the BC Utilities Commission for review;
• taking legal action to try to stop the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline;
• eliminating tolls of the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges;
• establishing a fair wage commission to phase in of a $15 per hour minimum wage; and
• restoring funding to Adult Basic Education.
To address housing affordability, Guichon said the government will close fixed term lease loopholes “so people are no longer vulnerable to significant rent increases.”
It will also deliver “a comprehensive housing strategy to create homes for people” by working with the private sector, municipalities and housing co-operatives.
“Your government is determined to make housing more affordable for everyone,” Guichon said.
More broadly, Guichon said the government will introduce the first-ever poverty reduction plan in B.C.
“B.C. is the only province in Canada without such a plan,” Guichon said. “This important work will get underway in the coming weeks.”
Guichon said the government will begin to implement its affordable childcare plan by first providing more child care spaces and training more early childhood educators. The NDP had promised to implement $10 per day daycare, but the throne speech made it clear that, if the government ever hits that $10 target, it will take some time to phase it in.
On health care, Guichon said, “your government will build new hospitals and urgent care centres” and would “first reduce and then eliminate unfair MSP premiums.”
The government also plans to tackle the drug overdose crisis with better access to addiction treatment and increased policing resources “to help get deadly drugs off our streets.”
As for jobs and the economy, Guichon said the new government plans to make B.C. “a world leader in engineered wood products and grow our value-added sector.”
It will also try to boost investment in the high-tech sector through the establishment of a new innovation commission later this fall – a plank from the Green Party’s platform.
Some of the commitments made by the NDP, like removing bridge tolls and phasing out MSP premiums, will cost the government hundreds of millions in forgone revenue.
The Liberals have calculated the cost of eliminating tolls on the Port Mann bridge will reduce revenue by $532 million over four years and $169 million for the Golden Ears bridge.
British Columbians will find out Monday, with the release of the budget update, just how big of a hole those measures will blow in the province’s revenue stream.
The NDP have already indicated they plan to raid the $500 million Prosperity Fund to help cover the cost of removing bridge tolls, which may allow the government to fund its spending commitments without going into deficit. The government also has a $2.7 billion surplus to play with.
Richard Johnston, political science professor at University of British Columbia, expects the budget update on Monday won’t be much more than a tweaking of the last budget brought down by the Liberals, because the new government simply has not had time for a radically revised spending plan.
“The reality is that they haven’t had time to prepare a budget of their own,” he said. “My reading of it (the throne speech) is that they will prioritize the things that don’t have fiscal implications and that will set the stage for next time.”