Today, I rose to speak to the Government’s Speech from the Throne. British Columbia is facing numerous crises simultaneously: the COVID-19 pandemic, a housing crisis, a toxic drug crisis, and the climate crisis. A year ago, we spoke about building back better – we were talking about a green and just recovery. We were talking about this moment that we were in, with this global pandemic, and we were not going to let things go back to the way they were before. We were not going to let things go back to the conditions that created exactly the outcomes that we have right now.
Yet in the throne speech this week, it was almost like the pandemic was some to acknowledge at the beginning, and then go back to the status quo. It may as well have been a throne speech from 2019. It failed to recognize that we don’t want to go back to the conditions that led us into these many crises, we want to move out of them to a brighter future – to offer a new story for a new tomorrow.
Today I spoke on how we could change that story. A first step might be to measure our success differently – moving away from GDP to genuine progress indicators, towards measuring what we actually value. That way, we would know if the economy is actually serving the people.
S. Furstenau: Hon. Speaker, as we respond to this throne speech after what has been for so many a year of sacrifice and loss, I think what British Columbians need at this moment is a shared sense of common purpose, not only for navigating this third wave of COVID-19 but for a more just and equitable future.
We need to recognize the responsibility this government has to address the multiple, overlapping crises we face, in addition to COVID-19, from the drug toxicity crisis to the existential threat of climate change.
What I think B.C. needs right now is a clear sense of where we want to get to as a province and how we’re going to get there together. What B.C. needs right now is courageous leadership, not just tweaking the status quo. With this throne speech, the government is choosing the latter.
I’ve been reading some interesting books lately: Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage and Rutger Bregman’s Humankind. All three of these books have really interesting takes on the role that stories play in what makes us human and the role that stories play in defining the realities that we live in. All of them also identify research that shows that, ultimately, humans are cooperative by nature.
I think we can reflect on this in our own experiences and our own lives. We can look at, for example, a year ago, at the beginning of this pandemic, the willingness, the enthusiasm that we had to come together, to take care of each other, to make sure that we were doing our best for our neighbours, for our friends and, ultimately, for people we’d never meet.
Yet the story that we often have, which dominates our political realities, is a story of competition. Everyone is for themselves. This long-standing story, this very old story now, has really dominated western politics for about 40 years. “You’re in it on your own. Government should just get out of the way, and people should just learn to take care of themselves.”
This story has been told for the last 40 years. We’ve watched inequality grow. We’ve watched our mental health worsen. We’ve watched our communities become frayed at the edges. We’ve seen homelessness rise. We’ve seen crises become the dominant way that we exist.
Part of this old story, this story that we’ve been listening to for so long, is that government’s job is to serve the economy. If we can just get the economy working, then the economy will take care of people. The economy is a construct.
I think we need a new story. I think we need a story that says: “We need to build an economy that will serve us. We need to build an economy, and in the building of that economy, we put the well-being of people at the centre of our efforts.”
I want a new story. I want a different story. I think a lot of other people want a new story as well.
A year ago we were talking about building back better. We were talking about a green and just recovery. We were talking about this moment that we were in, with this global pandemic, and we were not going to let things go back to the way they were before. We were not going to let things go back to the conditions that created exactly the outcomes that we have right now.
Yet in this throne speech that we heard earlier this week, it was almost like the pandemic was something to acknowledge at the beginning, and then we just go back. It may as well have been a throne speech from 2019. It didn’t really recognize that we don’t want to go back to how things have been, back to the ways that got us here.
One thing we could do to change the story is we could measure things differently. We could measure what we actually value. We could use genuine progress indicators, rather than GDP, to measure our economy. That way we would know if the economy is actually serving the people.
Right now the GDP measures one thing: just how much goods and services are moving around. It doesn’t measure our environment. It doesn’t measure the health of our people. It doesn’t measure whether our institutions are serving us. It doesn’t measure our social fabric. It doesn’t ascribe any values, negative or positive, to the transactions that go into the calculation of GDP. Environmental degradation or a disaster, depletion of resources, growing inequality — the cost of these are not factored into the calculation of GDP.
Calculating genuine progress indicators adjusts for inequality, recognizes inequality is a negative impact to our society. GPIs add the value of nonpaid work — parenting, volunteering, housework — things that we all do but that we ascribe no actual value to in our economy, which is astonishing really. I mean, consider the value of volunteering in our communities, and we don’t think that has any value when we measure it when it comes to our economy.
GPIs add the value of service from infrastructure, both built and natural. A watershed is valued for the service that it provides of clean drinking water, not just the value that it could offer to a timber company if those trees were cut down.
GPIs recognize the value of time and leisure. GPIs subtract the costs of crime, subtract the cost of long-term environmental degradation, air pollution, water pollution, ozone depletion, noise pollution, loss of farmland, loss of forests, loss of wetlands. I think we could all recognize that the impacts of those losses, or of those effects on us, are negative to our economy and to our lives and to our society. Yet GDP…. Well, if a forest is turned into timber, that’s good for GDP. We’re not going to measure anything else about that forest.
I think if we want a new story for our province, we do need to measure things differently, and we can. Other countries, other jurisdictions, have introduced GPIs. We have some in B.C., but they don’t really inform a lot of our policy and decision-making.
What else in this story do we want to tell about B.C.? How about B.C. is a province where everybody has a place to live? Let’s start there. Every child has enough food to eat. Everyone has an opportunity for quality education, lifelong learning. Let’s keep building from there.
I think about this a lot. I imagine what it would feel like, not just for me — for people I know, for people in this province — to have a government say: “First and foremost, we’re here to make sure that you, your children, your elders, your neighbourhood, your community, your town, your city…. We’re here to make sure that the conditions to thrive exist.”
I think we owe it to young British Columbians and to future generations to seize this moment and to not let all the sacrifices of this past year go by and amount to nothing, to revert back to a little tinkering on the edges, to status quo.
People want to hear from us what’s possible. They want to feel inspired by a vision for the future that gets us that sense of common purpose again, that we can actually look at individual sacrifices because it contributes to a greater common good, that if my neighbour is doing better, that’s good for me. If there’s less inequality, that’s a better society for us to live in.
I don’t want to have a future where we just sort of say we are going to passively allow things to get worse year over year, where we’re resigned to the fact that a world devastated by climate change, inequality and lack of biodiversity is just the future that’s coming. We’re going to make ourselves a bit more resilient for that, but we’re not going to stand up in this moment that we have and say: “No, that’s not the future we want to build.”
In fact, that’s what we do in here. That’s our job. We build the future. Every decision we make shapes the future. More than ever, we need — I need — a government that will step up to meet the urgency of this moment, with a clear vision and a bold plan for what is possible.
We hear about the work this government plans to do on the edges, but what we don’t hear is a recognition that we need a realignment of how we look at the whole picture. For over four decades, we have heard politicians and governments talking about taking care of the economy. And where are we? A destabilizing level of inequality, an alarming concentration of enormous wealth into fewer and fewer hands, a climate emergency that governments want to look away from but that will not be ignored, with seasons that are now marked by floods, droughts, wildfires and vicious storms.
This throne speech doesn’t outline a plan to address the gaping holes in mental health care or tackle the housing affordability crisis in a deeply meaningful way. The speech says that “government will pursue its goal of a province where everyone has access to a safe and affordable place to call home.” However, the only specific promise that is made, to that end, is to make investments “through Budget 2021 to help get thousands of ‘missing middle’ rental homes built throughout the province.”
There’s no mention of any action to cool the market for real estate. Housing has shot out of control in cities and towns across B.C., even more so in the past year, leaving more British Columbians than ever shut out of owning a home or finding an affordable rental in their community. This level of housing unaffordability will hollow out communities, as it has already, if it’s allowed to continue. There is very little sign from this government that they’re going to take action to turn that around.
On mental health. The throne speech recognizes the impact of the pandemic on our mental health. It says: “People everywhere are experiencing increased anxiety, stress and depression.” This is true. There is no indication that this government is going to move to take action to support people’s mental health in this time of crisis in a way that ensures that everybody gets that help when they need it. We urgently need accessible and consistent mental health care. We’ve been advocating for including mental health treatment under MSP but so far not seeing a lot of willingness from government to act on this critically important issue.
I was also profoundly disappointed to see no mention of a green recovery in this speech. The section in the speech on CleanBC and climate action was last, almost like an afterthought. The word “climate” is mentioned exactly once. In the speech, we were promised that the government will create good jobs while tackling the climate crisis and protecting the environment. An afterthought.
To say that this is an inadequate approach to addressing the challenge of climate change feels like an understatement. We cannot afford to view climate action as an afterthought. We cannot see it as being something opposed to job creation, as if creating jobs and taking action on climate come at each other’s expense.
Again, this is the old story. “We have to choose. We can have jobs or the environment. We can have jobs or climate action.” I don’t believe that story. It’s the opposite. If we take ambitious climate action to green our economy and support workers as we do so, this investment and innovation driver would be a huge job creator. It would create jobs that aren’t unhealthy either for the workers or the environment.
Tackling the climate crisis and ensuring a just transition for workers must be at the centre of our investments and our recovery plan, if we are serious about addressing the greatest challenge of our time.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
It’s not just us saying we can do more and must do more at this moment. In other parts of the world, from small jurisdictions right here to other countries, governments are unveiling their ambitious plans to do better for their societies as they build back from COVID-19.
South of the border, President Biden has unveiled an economic recovery plan that has climate action and a just transition at its centre. His plan is predicated on re-imagining and rebuilding a new economy. This plan recognizes climate change as one of the greatest challenges of our time, and over the next ten years, the plan proposes to invest $10 trillion into infrastructure, all aimed at reorienting the American economy and making it more resilient to future shocks.
Other examples. Denmark is spending 18.4 billion kroner — €2.5 billion — to renovate 72,000 social housing units, with another 11.5 billion kroner that will serve future renovations until 2026, with the focus on green transition.
New Zealand is spending $1 billion to create environmental jobs focused on pest and weed control, biodiversity projects and conservation, with a goal of saving 4,000 native species that are on the brink of extinction.
Amsterdam, Brussels and, right here in B.C., Nanaimo are cities that are adopting doughnut economics as the economic model to recover from COVID, with a goal of ensuring that nobody falls short of life’s essentials, from food and water to social equity and political voice, while ensuring that we don’t break down the earth’s life-support systems, such as a stable climate and fertile soil.
Amsterdam has targeted a 50 percent reduction in food waste by 2030, implemented measures to make it easier for residents to consume less and pushed for construction companies to build with sustainable materials.
Iceland is preparing to issue green treasury bonds as part of its recovery plan. Sturla Palsson, director of market operations at the Central Bank of Iceland, put it this way: “We have to be second to none in terms of the demand that we put on ourselves to preserve nature, the environment and sustainability.” Iceland has also strengthened its pledge to the Paris Agreement by raising its 2030 emissions-to-cut targets to 55 percent of 1990 levels rather than 40 percent.
Hawaii released a feminist COVID recovery plan in 2020, with recommendations for everything from ending the gender pay gap to using federal loans to bolster critical social services.
We in B.C. could be among the world leaders in our pandemic recovery, recognizing that this is a moment to seize, a moment when so many of us see that continuing to do the same things and expecting different outcomes really isn’t a plan that we should accept any more.
While COVID-19 continues to feel all consuming, we need government to prepare for the future. That’s the job. We need the NDP government to outline a far more ambitious plan for an equitable COVID recovery that is built on climate action, a just transition and building a more equal society in which everybody’s needs are met, our natural systems that we rely on for our health and well-being are protected and our communities are safe, vibrant and connected. That’s the B.C. I want to be part of building.
We owe it to young British Columbians and to future generations to seize on this moment and not let all of the sacrifices of this last year amount to nothing. People want to know what’s possible. They want something to inspire them, something to rally their efforts around — a shared vision of a future that is healthier, more equitable and more hopeful.
Now, more than ever, we need a government that will step up to meet the urgency of this moment with a clear vision and a bold plan for our shared future.