Today in the legislature I rose to speak at second reading on Bill 41, Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Act (No. 3), 2015. Bill 41 proposed amendments in four general areas:
I generally spoke in favour of the amendments with notable caveats that I will explore further tomorrow at Committee stage. Below are the text and video of my speech.
A. Weaver: I rise to speak to Bill 41, Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Act (No. 3), 2015. It’s another one of the miscellaneous statutes acts, this one with amendments in four different areas — the first, of course, being Advanced Education amendments that my colleague from Victoria–Swan Lake discussed recently. Part 2 is Children and Family Development amendments; part 3, Energy and Mines amendments, specifically with respect to BCUC; and part 4, Justice amendments.
This bill actually covers a rather large number of bills within the four categories: the Child, Family and Community Service Act; the College and Institute Act; the University Act; the Interjurisdictional Support Orders Act; and the Utilities Commission Act.
The amendments clarify a few definitions and generally expand regulatory and exemption powers for the Lieutenant-Governor-in-Council or, in the case of the Utilities Commission Act, the minister assigned in the place of the Lieutenant-Governor-in-Council. This amendment bill seems to follow a pattern of a rather large number of these bills we’ve seen this year where the legislation is made somewhat increasingly vague and left up, often, to the discretion of the appointed minister or regulator.
With respect to the Child, Family and Community Service Act, the amendments are said to enable the expansion of the agreements with young adults program, allowing the Ministry of Children and Family Development to extend the duration of agreements and raise the age limit. Now, this is important. This is an important piece of legislation that is dealing with the transition of youth from the ages of 18 to 19 who often fall between the cracks as they move from being a child to an adult. Being able to allow the…. The amendment will allow and enable agreements to be used for life skills programs, in addition to the current educational, vocational and rehabilitation programs, meaning that children will be able to transition better.
I was speaking this last Saturday with an RCMP officer from the Victoria region, out on the West Shore, who said that the single most common call they get are calls with respect to adolescent mental health issues. Now, part of the problem, of course, is that these adolescents who move into adulthood fall between the cracks after they age out. This legislation allows ministries to actually coordinate — extend the coverage — under Children and Family Development, and it’s a very fine piece of legislation that I’m very proud to support.
On the same note, the changes to the Interjurisdictional Support Orders Act add further amendments that I’m very pleased to support. In particular, the changes will allow for child and spousal support decisions from other provinces and territories and countries to be more efficiently processed. The administrative changes will allow support order decisions from jurisdictions that do not provide court-certified copies of decisions, such those reached by tribunal, to be registered with the B.C. court. In addition, instead of using the court sheriff services to serve applications for support from other jurisdictions, the director of maintenance enforcement will now use a private process server.
Out-of-province support orders are often hard to collect and said to account for about 11 percent of family maintenance enforcement program cases. So again, an important piece of legislation within the broader Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Act.
Then we move to the Utilities Commission Act changes. Now, the member for Vancouver-Kingsway — I believe it was Vancouver-Kingsway — gave a very eloquent and fine analysis of the changes to the Utilities Commission Act, in particular how it affects BCUC. The changes include…. They’re being told to implement recommendations from the BCUC — British Columbia Utilities Commission — Core Review Task Force. That task force was initiated by government in 2014 in responses to concerns raised by customer groups and utilities about BCUC’s capacity to deliver clear and timely decisions.
The proposed legislative amendments are said to increase the BCUC’s effectiveness and efficiency and reduce the cost of regulation for ratepayers, who pay for BCUC in their utility raise. It all sounds fine at face value, but in terms of the implementation, what’s being proposed is that the amendments really seem to focus on increasing power and exemption abilities of the minister.
Now, while some ratepayer groups consulted during the core review are said to support these changes, it’s a disturbing trend that we’re seeing more and more often within this government’s legislation: to put more and more power in the hands of fewer and fewer and ask British Columbians to trust us. As we saw earlier today, there are times when “trust us” simply is not good enough.
The final component of this Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Act is with respect to changes to the College and Institute Act and the University Act. As I mentioned, my colleague from Vancouver–Swan Lake did a fine job outlining some of the…
A. Weaver: Did I say Vancouver–Swan Lake?
With humble apologies to the member from Victoria-Quilchena, the member for Victoria–Swan Lake outlined some of the issues that some university student groups have felt concern on. The amendments here to both the University Act and the College and Institute Act make adjustments to how fees are collected, or can be collected, from people who leave student societies. The Minister of Advanced Education says he will consult with student societies to determine which program or service fees should be protected under legislation.
I understand why this legislation was brought in. With the recent passage of the Societies Act, we were left with a rather concerning gap in legislation, which led to questions as to what would happen to the fees if students pulled out of the student societies. I recognize that the minister, in consultation with a variety of student groups, put forward the amendments that we see before us today in both the order papers as well as in the original act.
There has been some concern that too much power will be granted to the minister to determine what is or is not considered a fee. It’s something that…. Rather than pass judgment on it at this particular junction, I will ask for some specific examples during committee stage, to get on record a certain number of these examples to see whether or not this is what the minister believes to be considered as student fees or student charges.
As the member for Victoria–Swan Lake…. The UVic Students Society has been quite vocal about their concerns with this specific piece of legislation. They knew that changes regarding fees levied against those who leave the student society were coming. They were concerned. They did not expect the format that the government used to bring these changes in to be the one we see today. In fairness to the minister who brought in the changes, it’s not clear to me, in the time frame that the minister had, that it was able to, under the same umbrella, bring all potential types and qualifiers and identify all those that would be viewed to be student fees now. The minister has committed to engaging student groups in the future to discuss this.
Nevertheless, it has left an element of uncertainty. When there’s uncertainty, there’s concern, because student groups — not only the University of Victoria and others — believe that they are being asked to trust us once again.
I will say that the student group at the University of British Columbia seemed to be more supportive of the changes as put in, although they, too, note the irony of almost a catch-22 being in place. I don’t think it’s fair, but a catch-22 is in place, where they say that the Societies Act seems to imply, quite logically, that only members of a society can cast votes on society business.
Yet there is an administrative problem, because students who resign their membership must continue to pay student fees. The bill specifies that these students must also continue to have voting rights. That seems to be in conflict with the Societies Act. But, as I will outline, there are ways around this, which brings me to a comment. I’m concerned that, in fact…. Ironically, in light of the amount of time we’ve spent during this session discussing red-tape reduction, it seems to me that one of the consequences of this amendment is a rather substantive increase in red tape to be applied to student organizations in British Columbia.
The bill separates the fees that students face into multiple, regulation-dependent categories, which may operate in different ways. There are a number of issues that I can think of that need to be addressed in the committee stage, as I mentioned, that I’ll cover later. But first, this bill creates the so-called red tape for student societies that I alluded to earlier as follows.
Previously, a simple annual vote took place. Annually, students would vote. That vote took place to elect a student board and was used to pass any new funding. The student board would be elected. New funding would be approved or not approved by a referendum, and it would be done with all students who are members of the student union or society voting.
However, the bill appears to morph this process into a far more convoluted red-tape process. I should have worn some red tape over my suit here today. Student societies must now account for a new category of students who will cast ballots on funding referendums and not on the student election.
This strikes me as odd — that you’ll have various groups of students voting on various things, in light of the fact that student turnout at the best of times is not as high as it could be. They already suffer from limited turnout in many universities around the province, let alone making this much more complicated and having different categories of students being able to vote for something or against something.
Secondly, the bill confers, I would argue, unnecessary powers to the minister to decide which fees apply in which ways. Now again, I recognize that this probably was left as a matter of regulation in light of the timeliness of trying to get something passed this session so that student groups collecting fees from students who secede from the union or society that represents them would be in place sooner than later. I recognize that.
However, there are questions that we can explore at committee stage, and they’ll follow along these lines. In general, there’s an issue with the increased reliance on regulation to set policy. However, in that case, there should be a simple remedy. Consult with student unions about the specific fees they levy and draft the legislation accordingly.
Again, we are told that the regulations will come in place through consultation with the student groups. Again, as I’ve argued earlier and pointed out, some of these student groups more so than others feel that they’re being asked to trust the government. Depending on the various student groups, some will trust them more than others.
A. Weaver: The minister, of course, is suggesting that we should all trust government. Well, as I mentioned earlier, trusting government in many cases is simply not good enough. We don’t have to reiterate the example we heard today during question period and the resolution I brought forward for emergency debate on the Shawnigan Lake situation.
The change, as I mentioned, also appears to allow the government to decide which fees are appropriate. That, again, could potentially limit the union’s or society’s ability to challenge government decisions it doesn’t support.
Let’s suppose, hypothetically, that the university of somewhere in B.C. decides to form…. Through referendum, the students decide that they want to put a group there, a union. Their union, through the fees, have decided a club is going to be formed. It’s going to be the “We have to get the Liberals out in 2017” club.
Now, that’s a fee that has been approved by referendum, and students then…. Maybe one or two in the university who don’t agree with that pull out of the student society. The decision as to whether or not that fee that was elected democratically…. Whether or not the students who pull out can actually take their payment of the fees with them is left up to the minister to decide.
Clearly, there is a potential conflict there. There’s a potential question as to whether or not the minister will or will not support. I gave a rather crass example. But we could actually move a little closer to where it’s not so clear. Obviously, all of British Columbia has sincere trust in the present Minister of Advanced Education to do absolutely no wrong at any time. Let’s suppose, hypothetically, that there were a minister who ideologically did not believe that men could be with other men and marry other men, and that therefore that minister…. I’m sure there are many of them in this government who feel that way strongly. Perhaps they are in a position of decision-making.
They, then, could decide: “You know what? These fees are not allowable.” Hence the concern of some student groups over others. Now, as I pointed out, this clearly would not happen in British Columbia with the esteemed leadership of the Minister of Advanced Education, also representing Vancouver-Quilchena. But there may be other ministers, at some point in the future, who will be less trustworthy.
Finally, I will say that much of this I’m going to try to deal with in committee stage, by providing specific examples of specific clubs that do exist already in some universities, and see whether or not the fees to these clubs were the types of fees that the minister was thinking are allowable to actually be passed on as a direct cost back to the students union if the students pull out of the union or the society that represented them.
With that, I thank you for your time.
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March 16, 2018