“At 17, I may not be old enough to vote, but I still feel it is of paramount importance to convey my dissatisfaction with our government’s blatant disregard for these legally binding targets. Policy decisions made today will undoubtedly have an effect on my life—both in the short and the long-term—and with this at the forefront of my mind, I stand in defense of my future”
I hope those words echo through the walls of this chamber. They are the words of Tessa Owens, an incredibly articulate and engaged young woman who, together with 20 other students, visited my office on February 3. The legally binding targets that she was referring to, of course, are our 2020 climate targets. Enshrined in law; grounded in necessity.
The students came as a part of the Defend our Future Rallies, held throughout British Columbia. They sat in my office, united behind a single message: They care about their future and they expect their government to care too. Not when it’s convenient, but when it’s necessary. And what I think we can all agree on is that now more than ever, it is necessary.
With this message in mind, I ask this chamber: Does this budget do all it can to create opportunities today that last for generations; to transition our economy to one where we live within our means, so that future generations are supported, and not burdened, by the decisions we make today?
Let me be clear: I do not intend to use my time here to simply sling mud at the budget. I do have concerns—strong concerns—and I will voice them. But I will also recognize when the government has taken steps in the right direction and I will offer constructive ideas for moving forward.
There is no doubt that there are some strong points in the budget. We have managed to keep our spending under control at a time when few other provinces have. Yet, creating lasting opportunities for all British Columbians requires more than this. We need to prioritize up-and-coming industries to ensure we have long-term, well-paying and local jobs. We need to build on our vibrant social support system, grounded in evidence-based practices and sound economics. And we need to sustainably manage our environment so that future generations are not saddled with the debt of climate change.
My concern with this budget is that in its essence it is grounded in the expectation of an LNG boom. LNG has been positioned as a necessity for making progress on other issues—and if it doesn’t materialize, we could very well be undermining our efforts today to create lasting opportunities for British Columbians.
The history of BC’s LNG industry is a history of high-stakes promises and low-stakes delivery. We are betting our future on an industry that still offers no certainty. So I ask you today, what if it fails? What steps are we taking today, to prepare for the very real possibility that the LNG industry might not be as successful as the government hopes—that it might not create as many jobs or offer as much revenue as the government is predicting? How will we ensure a secure and affordable tomorrow for British Columbians if tomorrow doesn’t include an LNG windfall?
The unfortunate fact is we have no back-up plan; instead we have put all our eggs in one basket. In the words of Preston Manning, “we’re counting our eggs before the rooster has even entered the hen-house” and this budget does not offer a contingency plan in case the rooster never makes it, or in case the hen lays fewer eggs than we had hoped.
Smart, secure planning for the future means creating realistic plans, that convey honest expectations and solid contingencies in case our first, second or third plan does not materialize as hoped. Anyone who has managed their own investments knows that strong, resilient investment strategies are based on diversified portfolios. We need to do the same with our economy. While the government hopes for LNG in the future, we need to prioritize investment now in other up-and-coming sectors so we have more than one hen to bank on.
Yet, creating the future young people are calling for is ultimately about how we develop the economy. The floods in Calgary and Britain, record droughts in California and Vancouver Island, record breaking heat and fires in Australia, devastation in the Philippines from typhoon Haiyan and in New York from Hurricane Sandy together serve to remind us that there is more to creating opportunity than conventional economics. We only need to look at our own coastal communities suffering as the shellfish industry closes due to acidification in the ocean. Environmental catastrophes associated with climate change are already causing billions of dollars in damage. The debt of climate change may not be easily quantified in our 2014 budget, but we will be forced to quantify it in future budgets if we do not continue to act to mitigate and adapt to it.
Meanwhile as more and more research measures the cost to society of poverty and homelessness, of not adequately addressing mental health issues, and of not adequately supporting those in need, it becomes increasingly clear that our inaction in addressing social inequities and health concerns will burden future generations with a social and economic debt that we have unnecessarily perpetuated and that we have the power to solve today.
And so when I look at this budget, and as I consider whether to support it or not, part of what I consider is this: Does it take steps to offer British Columbians a back-up plan? Does it adequately invest in diversified industries? Will it allow us to better address our social challenges? And will it keep us on track to meet our climate targets so that present and future generations can have the best opportunities possible?
In many case, I feel we could do more. We could prioritize our investments differently to create a more resilient and affordable economy; one that is founded on a strengthened social support system, a healthy environment, and a practice of living within our means. There are clear examples from around the world that we can draw on to show that the economy, environment and social supports do not have to be trade-offs. We do not have to pit opportunities for present generations against those for future generations. We can move beyond the outdated notion that you have to choose the environment, the economy or the social sector. Other jurisdictions have found strategic and targeted ways to integrate all three, just like we did with our Climate Action Plan. By building on our own history and by drawing inspiration from those jurisdictions that continue to lead the way, we can take practical steps today to build that future.
Yet while I am not fully satisfied with this budget, when considering my vote I must also consider how best I can contribute, as a single MLA, to building the vision that I share with so many British Columbians. I am a firm believer that being a member of the opposition is about more than opposing—it is about offering constructive suggestions, grounded in evidence, for improving our province. And so with this in mind, I turn to the specifics of the budget, to consider these questions.
While the budget does not offer a comprehensive back-up plan, it does take small, yet important, steps in the right direction. Amending the Film and Television Production Regulation to include the Capital Regional District in the Distant Location Tax Credit will support our local film industry to flourish even further. Supporting the First Nations Clean Energy Business Fund with an additional $1 million will help promote further First Nations involvement in the development of our clean tech industry.
We need to build on investments like these. Rather than going all-in on LNG, we need to prioritize and invest in a more diverse portfolio of sectors, such as clean tech, film, agriculture, and eco-tourism that will contribute to resilient economic growth, regardless of whether the LNG dream materializes. The United States is doing just that. In their drive towards a low-carbon economy, the United States has limited the expansion of its thermal coal exports and is shifting its focus to renewable energy and the clean tech sector. They too are developing their natural gas sector, but are doing so as a part of a broader plan to transition to a low carbon economy. BC is going in the opposite direction. While our province was once at the forefront of promoting innovation and economic prosperity through our renewable energy industry and our carbon off-set program, we have started falling behind in a race that’s too important to give up on.
US states such as Washington State and Oregon are already seeing the economic benefits of developing their clean energy sectors. With the establishment of a new BMW facility in Moses Lake that manufactures carbon fibre components for electric vehicles and a Google Data Centre in The Dalles, Washington and Oregon have been placed “at the cutting edge of the technological revolution”, resulting in both job creation and economic diversity across the region.
British Columbia has the resources and expertise to build a strong, diversified economy. Let’s recognize and support these other sectors with clear investments so they too can be positioned for greater growth and success.
Ensuring British Columbians can succeed in a resilient and diverse economy, requires us to continue to build a strong foundation in high-quality, affordable education. I applaud the government for its investments into skills training. Investments into new trades training facilities, such as those at Camosun College, will support thousands of students in the future to develop the skills they need to succeed in our economy. I also recognize the value of the BC Training and Education Savings Program grant that will offer $1200 to children born after January 1, 2007 for the RESP. Assuming steps are taken to ensure parents have knowledge about the program and that applying is both easy and accessible, this is an example of one way the government can make education more affordable.
Yet I am concerned by the cuts to funding for advanced education. University Presidents across the province have already made it clear that further cuts will impact student services and education. At some point we run the risk that these cuts will be downloaded onto students through additional increases in tuition fees. Average student debt in BC is already well-above the national average, with some students starting to see higher education as an economic burden, rather than an economic opportunity. We need to change this.
We also need to move beyond the adversarial relationship between the government and the BC Teachers Federation that ultimately hurts our students. We need to get the parties back to the bargaining table and negotiate a future for our education system that puts politics aside and puts our students first.
Our ability to prosper in today’s economy and in tomorrow’s—to create jobs today that last well into the future—will depend on our ability to offer an accessible, high-quality education to our students. The higher the student debt and the lower the investment we make in our education systems, the more strain we put on our education system and on students. We need to be leaders in educating not just for today’s economy, but for tomorrow’s, and that starts with prioritizing education.
While we invest in a diverse and resilient economy and a quality and accessible education system, we must also ensure our province is affordable for all British Columbians.
At a time when the cost of buying a house is prohibitive for many young families, the government has taken a small step to make that first home purchase more affordable by increasing the Property Transfer Tax exemption limit to $475,000.
Meanwhile, as homelessness persists, the government has committed to increasing investment in supportive housing and transferring property to non-profit organizations that provide affordable housing to low-income British Columbians. These are clear steps in the right direction that will help make life a little more affordable.
Yet at the same time as we are making these investments into affordability, the government is also raising MSP premiums and BC hydro rates, while dropping the personal income tax exemption to $9,869, meaning families will be taxed on an additional $1500 of their income compared to 2012.
Let’s be clear: These examples represent tax hikes on the poor and most vulnerable. The fact is, not enough is being done to ensure BC remains an affordable place to live for BC families. Echoing a point made by the Representative of Children and Youth, Mary-Ellen Turpel Lafond, the budget also shows no long-term strategy for addressing the fact that B.C. continues to have the highest child poverty rate in Canada.
It seems that for every step that promotes affordability, another step retracts from it. Let us take the good steps made in this budget and to them add a consistent vision for an affordable British Columbia. We can start by exploring the most effective way to abolish MSP premiums, which constitute a highly regressive tax and a net burden on low-income British Columbians, and to raise the equivalent income through our more progressive income and corporate tax system. Let’s also close the bare trust tax loophole that allows wealthy individuals and corporations to avoid the property transfer tax and use that money to invest in affordable housing and other proven social programs.
Utah has been bold enough in its vision to set a goal of ending homelessness within 10 years. 8 years in, while navigating the largest recession since the Great Depression, they are already more than 70% of the way there. Let’s join them in their leadership so we too can build a more equitable society, while also enjoying the net economic benefits of ending homelessness.
Last week I tabled an amendment to the Throne Speech, asking us, as a House, to recognize as we did 5 years ago that climate change is one of the greatest issues facing our province, to acknowledge that the government’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is inconsistent with the current expansion of U.S.-sourced thermal coal exports that leave through B.C. harbours and to explore all means by which the government may halt the expansion of thermal coal exports in B.C.
Some said I went too far—that the government should not pick and choose which substances pass through our ports. To them I say that I believe the government has an obligation, in certain circumstances to prioritize the social and environmental well-being of the province, just as this government has done with its 5 conditions on heavy oil pipelines.
Other said my amendment did not go far enough—that on its own halting the expansion of thermal coal exports will not do enough to solve climate change. To them I say, it would have been an important and practical step in the right direction.
Yet instead of taking this step together, I stood alone and watched as that amendment failed. 73 to 1.
And I have one word for this: Shame
In my response to the budget last year I quoted the Honourable Carole Taylor from her own budget speech in 2008. She ended it by laying out the essential choice we must consider with all budgets:
“We can be the generation that had it all and let it slip away, or we can seize this opportunity which is before us to be the generation of British Columbians who made the right decisions, who chose to take action and, by doing so, showed their respect for the earth, for the atmosphere, for those who came before us and for those who will follow in the decades to come.”
Let’s seize that opportunity. Let’s take practical steps, today, to mitigate climate change, so that future generations can be a little better off. We can start with thermal coal exports. The government could follow Washington State’s lead and include total emissions impacts in future environmental assessments of industrial projects, including new permits for projects such as those proposed on Texada Island.
We can also work together to ensure that LNG development is as clean as possible. We can start by mandating the use of clean energy to power liquefaction facilities. We can invest further in a domestic LNG market aimed at reducing reliance on heavy carbon fuels and specifically engage stakeholders in the ferry and trucking industries to transition their fleets to LNG or CNG. And we can explore means by which our LNG industry can be used to spark development and innovation in our clean tech sector.
Our children are asking us to demonstrate consistency, resolve and leadership on climate change. Let’s not be that generation that had it all and let it slip away.
Having observed and now participated in BC politics for some time, I am concerned that we are institutionalizing a political culture that seeks to undermine and to tear down, rather than to build up and to contribute. It is a culture that feeds on divisiveness and erodes the trust that is so essential to cooperation across party lines. The ideal of a transparent government held to account by a constructive opposition has slipped into a reality epitomized by rhetorical questions and condescending answers.
I ran on a platform to do politics differently, to work across party lines to represent my constituents and to move our province forward. To be sure, there are times when the most helpful thing I can do for our province is to raise my voice in opposition to bad policy. But opposing the government for the simple reason that they support something—as so often seems to happen—should never serve as our starting point. Opposing for the sake of it does nothing to rebuild the trust and cooperative relationships we so desperately need in our political system.
When I look at this budget, there is no question that it is not a budget I would have tabled. It is also clearly not a budget that the Official Opposition would have tabled. Yet as an individual MLA, I must also ask myself: What is the most effective way for me to represent my constituents? Is there more to be gained by raising concerns about the problems and opposing the budget alongside the opposition? Or could I better address my constituents’ concerns by highlighting the parts of this budget that deserve recognition and building on them? In either case, I commit to working with both the government and the official opposition over the next year on the parts of this budget that are important to me and my constituents.
As we reflect on these questions, let us also reflect on the message of all of those students, like Tessa Owens, who visited so many of our constituency offices on February 3rd. They are looking to us for leadership. They are looking to us to create opportunities today that last for generations. And as we create those opportunities, they are asking us not to burden their generation with the economic, environmental or social debt of ours. At the very least, we owe them that.
By the time their generation inherits this legislature, many of us will be long gone from here. What I ask is that we heed their call; that we commit to leaving a legacy that they too will be proud to build on.