My response to second reading of Bill 2, The Budget Measures Implementation Act, 2017.
The Budget Measures Implementation Act includes some wonderful initiatives. Changes to the Carbon Tax Act, the establishment of a new higher income tax bracket, restoration of the full provincial preferential tax rate for credit unions, an increase in the First Time Home Buyers grant threshold, and the elimination of the International Business Activity program are all positive shifts.
Thank you Honourable Speaker for the opportunity to speak to the second reading of Bill 2, The Budget Measures Implementation Act, 2017. I would also like to thank my fellow members in this chamber for their remarks on this important legislation.
The Budget Measures Implementation Act includes some wonderful initiatives and I am hopeful it’s a sign of better things to come in BC. A sign that the government is focusing on its proper role. And that is what I would like to speak to today.
Like many of you, I was in Vancouver at the end of September for the UBCM conference. I met with mayors and councils from across BC. It was a great week and I was thrilled to be able to meet so many inspiring local leaders, who are working tirelessly to serve their communities.
But the week also felt very heavy. There are a lot of people in BC having a really hard time. Every municipality I met with told me a variation of the same story. Over the last decade and a half, they have been sold out by their government and now their constituents are struggling.
For some municipalities the problem is over priced housing. Homes have become a commodity and communities have been gutted of their young people and working populations. School teachers, police and plumbers, nurses, chefs and carpenters – people with jobs and what should be living wages – find themselves unable to afford their own homes.
For other communities the pressing problem has been with forestry, where local watersheds are being logged without adequate planning or oversight. Whole forests are being cut down and shipped out of the region while local mills remain shuttered. In many of these cases communities have also been left with a compromised drinking water supply.
Others still spoke to me about their concerns over agricultural land either being sold to foreign entities in parcels that measure in the tens of thousands of acres, or sold to people planning to turn blueberry fields into mega mansions.
Honourable Speaker, we are seeing our food security in BC compromised. At the same time young farmers are out of work because they can’t outbid international agri-corporations for land.
So, in cities we have young families who can’t afford to buy their own homes and in rural areas young farmers who can’t afford to buy land. Where do we think this trend is headed?
Some of the municipalities I spoke to at UBCM raised concerns about local landscapes cut and crossed by an ever expanding network of roads, mines, wells, and pipelines. Projects that, since 2008, have been subsidized and propped up with billions of taxpayer dollars.
The oil wells, the gas drilling sites, the mining operations all leave an impression, and the government has not done a good enough job of keeping track of their cumulative impacts. Again, water protection featured prominently in the concerns raised by many local leaders.
The mayors and councillors that I spoke to are not against having active real estate, forestry, agricultural, mining, or oil and gas development in their regions. But what they don’t want is to see companies to come in, grab the cash or strip the resources and get out.
They want long term, sustainable development that serves the needs of the local community first and I support them in that. They want to be treated with respect and they want environmental standards that ensure their areas will remain productive over the long run. They want jobs in their communities so that the young people, the coaches and volunteers, can live and work where their families are – not in far flung work camps away from their spouses and children.
There were success stories at UBCM – and these were from communities who have shown leadership at the local level.
One success story I heard was from the Mayor and Council of Tumbler Ridge. In Tumbler Ridge, BC’s biggest windmill power facility just came on line. Tumbler Ridge – historically a coal mining town – was named the Clean Energy Community of the Year in 2016. They are the wind energy capital of BC. And wind energy companies are ready to invest more. In fact, with private investment in wind energy, Tumbler Ridge has the capacity to produce 70% of the energy that the site C dam would produce. Without a $10+ billion price tag for the citizens of BC, and at a lower price per gigawat for the energy produced. But that’s not all.
The Mayor and Council of Tumbler Ridge have made proactive decisions that have removed it from the boom and bust economic roller coaster that haunts so many resource-based communities. They had the foresight and sense to put away funds each year in order to build the community they want, and their foresight has gained them international recognition – a delegation from Russia has visited Tumbler Ridge to learn about community planning.
What does a diversified economy look like? It looks like Tumbler Ridge, where you can find North America’s second UN Geopark, you can find trails and rivers, mountains and lakes, and a waterfall taller than Niagra Falls. Tumbler Ridge has seen a seven-fold increase in tourism in the last four years. Seven fold. That’s not an accident – that’s what happens when a community decides to capitalize on its extraordinary assets.
In Tumbler Ridge, mining still plays a role in the economy – but it’s no longer mountain-top removal mining – it’s new and innovative technology that is far less destructive because it extracts the coal in a less invasive manner – it’s 21st-century mining, with the benefits supporting a community that is replacing its roads, updating its water system, and improving its sewers.
Tumbler Ridge is one of many stories of communities in this province that did not wait for the BC Government to enter the 21st century – Tumbler Ridge decided to demonstrate what leadership can achieve: a diversified, healthy economy that benefits everyone in the community.
We have limitless potential in BC to benefit from the extraordinary natural resources and bounty of our province – and to capitalize on our greatest asset: our people. And yet – and this is the tragedy – instead of more and more people seeing the benefits of this opportunity, we’re seeing more and more people having to make do with less and less.
I heard it over and over at UBCM. We have been sold to the highest bidder and now we’re struggling. Different commodities, but the same story. And the same result – a dangerously wide inequality gap that grows bigger every day.
Nothing illustrates this in BC quite like the short walk from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to Gastown, near where the UBCM convention was held. That is the human toll of inequality. In the middle of one of Canada’s most prosperous cities, people are trapped in a life of disadvantage, discrimination, and suffering. They are trapped in a system where even their suffering is treated as less equal.
There are incredible teams of people dedicating their lives to helping their neighbours and friends in communities like the Downtown Eastside. They do amazing work and deserve immense gratitude and increased support from everyone in this House.
Now that I have been elected to a seat in this House, however, I don’t think that is enough from us. I don’t want to be content only fixing around the edges when we have a duty to look at the whole picture.
How did we get here? Why are so many of our fellow British Columbians having such a hard time living with poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction? These are symptoms of a broken social system – one governments helped create by allowing certain groups of people to be consigned to a life of disadvantage and suffering.
Governments should never be content to put the pursuit of individual wealth by a few over the basic health and wellbeing of the many.
This system has been entrenched over decades, but that doesn’t make it inevitable. Unfortunately, policies put in place over the last 16 years have exacerbated it further. More wealth is concentrating in fewer hands.
Consider these numbers, cited in Andrew MacLeod’s book “A Better Place on Earth”. In BC, the most affluent 10% hold 56% of the wealth.
And at the same time, 3% of the wealth is shared amongst 50% of our population. Think about that. 50% of the people of BC – close to two and a half million people – hold only 3% of the wealth of this province.
And so when we hear over and over again about our “strong economy” – I ask, honourable speaker – when half of our population has such limited access to the province’s vast wealth, what about that is strong?
Before joining this House I studied and taught history. Over the course of human history, the fate of deeply inequitable societies, as compared to cooperative societies, has not been a surprising one. They are unsustainable and prone to collapse – the greater the gap between rich and poor, the more a society is prone to social and political unrest.
We cannot continue down this path and expect a different result. We need to start adjusting our economic modeling to fit with the world we now live in. We need 21st Century steady state economics that will value equity, that will recognize the importance of measuring not just GDP but social and environmental outcomes. If we are to cope with the extraordinary challenges of climate change and economic shifts, we must create a foundation of cooperation and compassion. It’s not good enough for a few to benefit while many suffer.
As elected officials, we need to be able to look at our current system and recognize where it is failing people. We spend a lot of time in this House talking about crises; forest fires, housing affordability, opioid overdoses, poverty… These are not natural, inevitable crises. Governments have had a hand in creating all of them, and we can work towards solving them.
To start, narrowing the inequality gap should be one of the government’s top priorities.
We won’t be able to solve this passively. It will need purposeful taxation policies, education policies, health policies, climate policies, housing policies.
We need to get away from the “all taxes are bad” narrative in this House. When used properly, the taxation system is a tool for achieving goals in the public interests. Everyone in this chamber is here because of public taxes. As are the roads we travelled to get here, the schools our children go to, and the medical system that cares for our loved ones. Taxes should be used transparently and responsibly; they should be used diligently as a tool for good for the many, not for the privileged few.
Government can and should be a supportive force in people’s lives. As it was for a large part of my life. I was fortunate to attend an early childhood education centre in Edmonton, jointly funded by the municipality and the province.I learned to read and write at five – and more importantly, I learned to love learning. I attended French immersion in Alberta, thanks to the policies of a Liberal government led by Pierre Trudeau.
I attended university here in Victoria during a government mandated tuition freeze and had access to subsidized, affordable child care for my son so I could pursue a master’s degree in history. All those benefits made me equipped to later serve my community, both as a teacher and an advocate, and now as an elected representative.
Just this morning, I met with a group of students from the Alliance of BC Students – they described how students are struggling to find affordable housing, struggling to pay the increasing costs, and facing crushing debt at the end of their university careers. Our best and brightest undergraduates leave BC to pursue graduate studies in other provinces, where there are provincial graduate student scholarship programs – a program that used to exist in BC, and that I benefitted from during my graduate studies at UVic.
Again, as a historian, I am drawn to the lessons found in time. Even the difference between how I felt about my future as a student, and how young people today feel is stark. I felt supported and hopeful. With the help of enlightened government policies I was able to move forward in life. But many today find themselves trapped – hemmed in by government policies designed to serve corporate, not community interests. Well-paying, stable work is out of reach for many. Owning a home, in some communities, is out of reach for too many people.
Honourable Speaker, we need to recognize that trickle down economics does not work. It is not working in BC. The evidence of that is clear to all who would open their eyes and take a hard look at the problems I heard about at the UBCM convention, and that we hear about every day in this province.
The money collects at the top, for the lucky few who are adamant the system is working great and who use their power and influence to maintain the status quo.
Before any of my colleagues stand in this House to defend trickle down economics I would urge them to first consider how this system is serving families trapped in poverty. Hard work should count for something. But all too often in BC we find that hard work won’t allow a young family to buy a house, or to buy farmland. All too often we find people who are willing to work, but who can’t find jobs that will allow them to escape the poverty trap. And this happening in a province blessed with bountiful natural resources and a supposedly strong economy.
One counsellor from a Metro Vancouver riding told me that nurses, teachers, and police officers can no longer afford to move into her community. The young people are leaving, she said. We have sold out an entire generation. She wondered why young people aren’t rioting in the streets.
It’s a good question. Why aren’t young people rioting in the streets? I think it’s because this shift towards government acting as a broker instead of a representative for the people has happened gradually over the last decade and has been sold as inevitable.
As if the province had no control over affordability trends. But we all know that’s not true. We are in this situation because of a series of choices.
It is the government’s job to ensure that inequality does not become the defining characteristic of our society, but in too many instances the conditions of stability in BC have been eroded because government has pursued policies that put individualism first.
We have created the first generation in Canadian history to be worse off than the one that preceded it. This is not a legacy to be proud of.
Even more seriously, honourable speaker, we are failing future generations by failing to rise to the historic challenge of climate change.
Two weeks ago, CBC reported that “In a blunt fall audit report tabled in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Julie Gelfand said the [federal] government has failed to implement successive emissions-reduction plans, and is not prepared to adapt to the life-threatening, economically devastating impacts of a changing climate.”
BC had taken a leadership position under Premier Campbell by being the first government in North America to put a price on carbon pollution – but that leadership position was turned into a laggard position under the former premier.
How dare we, Honourable Speaker – how dare we leave this mess for our children and their grandchildren? How dare we ignore the science, the evidence, the unrelenting impacts of climate change?
For generations, governments have allowed our atmosphere to be used as a free dumping ground for pollution – but the costs of that pollution, measured not only in forest fires and category five hurricanes, but in our increasing insurance rates, and our increasing need to rebuild after the disasters – the costs of that pollution are going to be the burden of generations not yet born.
We owe future generations a debt – we have a responsibility to them – and we have no right to pretend otherwise.
We were elected to shape the future, not emulate and exacerbate failures of the past. We must guide government back to its role of protecting and providing for its citizens. All of them.
In this regard, Bill 2 is a small step in the right direction. Changes to the Carbon Tax Act, the establishment of a new higher income tax bracket, restoration of the full provincial preferential tax rate for credit unions, an increase in the First Time Home Buyers grant threshold, and the elimination of the International Business Activity program are all positive shifts. I look forward to supporting this bill as it is voted through to Committee Stage for further analysis.