2011 Legislative Session: Fourth Session, 39th Parliament
The following electronic version is for informational purposes only.
The printed version remains the official version.
official report of
Debates of the Legislative Assembly
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Volume 29, Number 2
ISSN 0709-1281 (Print)
ISSN 1499-2175 (Online)
Introductions by Members
Statements (Standing Order 25B)
Mill explosion and fire at Burns Lake
Campaign for helmet use by snowboarders and skiers
Alexandra Court and housing for people with mental illness
Participation by MLA in welfare challenge
Grouse Mountain and Capilano Suspension Bridge
Government response to report on court system and cameras in courtrooms
Hon. C. Clark
Cameras in courtrooms and delays in court proceedings
Hon. S. Bond
Freedom-of-information request on impact of federal anti-crime legislation
Hon. S. Bond
Delays in court proceedings and hit-and-run case
Hon. S. Bond
Government action on seniors care
Hon. M. de Jong
Student financial assistance
Hon. N. Yamamoto
Office of the Auditor General, report No. 9, Summary Report: Results of Completed Projects
Office of the Auditor General, report No. 10, Effectiveness of B.C. Community Corrections
Office of the Ombudsperson, report No. 47, The Best of Care: Getting It Right for Seniors in British Columbia (Part 2)
Office of the Ombudsperson, report No. 33, Honouring Commitments: An Investigation of Fraser Health Authority's Transfer of Seniors from Temporarily Funded Residential Care Beds
Office of the Ombudsperson, report No. 48, On Short Notice: An Investigation of Vancouver Island Health Authority's Process for Closing Cowichan Lodge
Diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II
Hon. C. Clark
Orders of the Day
Second Reading of Bills
Bill 20 — Auditor General for Local Government Act (continued)
Hon. T. Lake
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2012
The House met at 2:03 p.m.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
Introductions by Members
Hon. B. Lekstrom: Hon. Speaker, today is, as you've said, a very historic day in our province and also a very proud day for myself. Over the time that I have served, about 11 years in this chamber, people have risen to introduce their new grandchild to this Legislative Assembly, and today I have the honour to do the same.
My wife and I became proud grandparents on December 16 of last year. Our daughter Lindsey and her husband, Blaine, became the proud parents of a happy, healthy young boy named Sawyer Dean Borek. Our youngest daughter, Taiya, is amongst the proudest aunties that I've ever witnessed in my lifetime. She is extremely proud.
I'm nowhere near many of my colleagues by number. This is our first grandchild. But in our talks, Mr. Speaker, you have said what to expect, and it is beyond that. So would the House please welcome one of our newer members of British Columbia — Sawyer Dean.
D. Routley: I'd like to welcome my four valentines to the House. It gives me great pleasure to welcome my mom, Marianne Routley; my sweetheart, Leanne Finlayson; my stepdaughter, Brooklynne Baird. And my fourth valentine, due to a medical appointment, couldn't be here today. That's my daughter, Madeline.
My three valentines here today are escorted by a sharply dressed young man — my stepson, ten-year-old Matthew Baird. Matthew is an avid rep hockey player, who is leading his team by more than a 2-1 margin, having scored over 50 goals in less than 40 games this year. So he's a very accomplished young hockey player at only ten years old. But please help me welcome my family to this House on this special day.
J. Yap: It is great to be back today on this special day. I have some special guests that I'd like the House to join me in welcoming. In the gallery today visiting — I don't think it's his first time, but to welcome him back to the gallery — is my loyal and creative constituency assistant. Po-wah Ng is here and with him two good friends who are community activists and leaders in the Lower Mainland, Nicky Li and Josephine Chan. Would the House please extend a warm welcome to these guests.
D. Horne: It being Valentine's Day, I thought I would be remiss if I weren't to introduce my wife, Larissa Horne, who is joining us in the precinct today, making it to the gallery right now. May the House make her truly welcome.
R. Howard: I have three guests to introduce today as well. First is my constituency assistant, Siu-Wan Ng, who does great work back in Richmond when I'm here in Victoria. She's joining us here today. I also have a husband-and-wife team, Andrew and Lucy Wong, who are great supporters in the community. They do a lot of volunteering in the community, and they do very much help me in outreaching to the community as well. Would the House please help make all three of them welcome.
M. Mungall: I'm feeling pretty popular today because I have roughly 30 guests who are all just coming in right now. They are students from eight post-secondary institutions throughout the province. I'll list the institutions off because if we went through their names we might be here until tomorrow.
We have UVic Students Society, UBC Alma Mater Society, Simon Fraser Student Society, Capilano Students Union, Langara Students Union, University of the Fraser Valley Student Union Society, Northern Undergraduate Student Society and BCIT Student Association. Please make them welcome.
P. Pimm: I'm going to introduce somebody in this House today that probably doesn't need any introduction at all — and in fact has already been introduced once today: a good colleague of mine who has spent many, many years in this place, certainly a constituent as well. I'd like the House to welcome Sen. Richard Neufeld to this House. Please help me welcome him.
Hon. N. Yamamoto: I would also like to add my voice to welcome the student societies, Alma Mater Society, student unions and associations from UVic, UBC, SFU, Capilano, Langara, University of the Fraser Valley, Northern Undergraduate Society and BCIT. Would the House please make them welcome once again.
D. Hayer: Being Valentine's Day today, I have a special guest who is one of my best volunteers and my best friend. My wife, Isabelle Martinez Hayer, is here. Would the House please make her very welcome.
G. Gentner: Not to be outdone by the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure, I also have an announcement to make. I'd like to introduce and welcome — hope you will welcome — two grandchildren, twins that were born on December 29. The ability of parents, of course, to be able to claim the whole tax year, thank God — very well planned. That's called family planning. Would the House please recognize my two wonderful grandchildren, Matias and Blake.
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Mr. Speaker: Hon. Members, being that it was a historic day, Black Rod day, it was also February 14, Valentine's Day, so, I'm sure on behalf of all members that can't be home with their loved ones, we want to wish them all a happy Valentine's Day.
(Standing Order 25B)
AND FIRE AT BURNS LAKE
C. James: I rise today to offer condolences to the people of Burns Lake and to express my deep appreciation and awe for their amazing spirit and strength in a time of tragedy.
The explosion and fire that ripped through the Babine Forest Products sawmill on January 20 took the lives of Carl Charlie and Robert Luggi, left 19 workers with a variety of injuries and changed the town of Burns Lake forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of Carl and Robert, with those injured, those in the hospital and those still healing.
Many of you know that my husband, Albert Gerow, is the Chief of the Burns Lake Nation, and Burns Lake is my second home after Victoria. I travelled to the community to be with Al and the people of Burns Lake, who are struggling to cope with the reality of what had happened and grieving for their losses.
It was a time to listen, to cry, to hug and to help out. Through all the anguish, it was extraordinary to see the community pulling together and to see the exceptional leadership from the six First Nations and the local and regional governments.
Lake Babine Nation opened their community hall 24-7, offering the entire town a place to gather; to share meals; and to receive counselling, information and support. The people of Burns Lake are strong, and they are focused on supporting each other. The outpouring of generosity has been truly something to see, with fundraisers, donations and offers of help coming from all over British Columbia.
The mill was the largest employer in Burns Lake, with 250 direct jobs and the entire town connected to it directly or indirectly. Now, understandably, the citizens are anxious about their future, the jobs, the mill and the timber supply.
All of us in this chamber owe it to the community of Burns Lake to support their extraordinary energy and sense of hope, and I ask all members to join in, in committing to do everything we can to ensure that Burns Lake remains a vibrant forest community.
J. Rustad: I'd like to thank the member for Victoria–Beacon Hill for her words about Burns Lake as well. I'd like to start by expressing my sincere sympathies and condolences to the people that have been impacted by the tragic accident on January 20, especially to the families of Carl Charlie and Robert Luggi, who lost their lives during that terrible accident, and also to the other 19 workers and their families who were injured in the explosion.
Within minutes of the explosion, emergency crews from Burns Lake and surrounding communities were dispatched. Health care workers, including retired professionals, rushed to the hospital. The organization efforts from across the north were truly amazing. I'd like to thank everyone for those efforts, especially Northern Health.
It's now 26 days later, and the community is still in shock, wondering about the future. Babine Forest Products have been the rock of support for Burns Lake since 1974, and many depended on it for their livelihood. But progress has been made. Support workers, counselling and a host of other services have been provided to those impacted. A jobs fair held on February 10 saw 30 companies from across the province presenting more than 1,300 job opportunities, with more than 400 of those within neighbouring communities.
Much progress has been made working with Hampton Affiliates, First Nations, community workers towards our desired outcome of a decision to rebuild the mill, and there's more that will be happening in the coming weeks and months.
Burns Lake is a resilient community. This tragedy has brought people together and shown their strength. I'm confident that our community will emerge from this disaster on a healthy road to a bright future.
I'd like to thank Mayor Luke Strimbold, the youngest mayor in B.C.'s history; Regional District Chair Bill Miller; the six local First Nations chiefs; the Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation; union leaders; industrial reps; and the people of Burns Lake for working so diligently to provide hope for the future.
CAMPAIGN FOR HELMET USE
BY SNOWBOARDERS AND SKIERS
M. Mungall: In January 2002 you could find me on my snowboard, ripping it up at my local hill, Whitewater Winter Resort. At 24 years old, I was invincible — no need for a helmet. Plus, I figured I looked kind of goofy in one.
In March 2002 I was still ripping it up on the slopes, but this time I had a helmet. So what happened in February? I left the hill in an ambulance because of a head injury, an injury that would have easily been prevented had I been wearing a helmet. I was lucky — only seven stitches.
This past November a young Selkirk College student in Nelson was not so lucky. Will Schooler passed away
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on November 28, 2011, from head injuries sustained while skiing. Uncharacteristically, he was not wearing a helmet.
Will hailed from my hometown, Edmonton. He was a fun-loving, kind-hearted young man, so it didn't take him long to make many friends in Nelson. When those friends and his family had to say goodbye to Will, they decided to honour his life with "I Will." Reminding people that helmets save lives, the "I Will" campaign is reaching out to skiers and snowboarders to put their lids on before heading down the hill.
Since it started just a few months ago, "I Will" has grown into a foundation that's motivating people to learn more about why helmets should be just as important as boots, boards and bindings. For example, before "I Will" I didn't know that skiing and snowboarding lead to twice as many hospitalizations as hockey. One study found that traumatic brain injuries account for more than half the fatalities at ski hills. While helmet use is on the rise, with the majority of skiers and boarders wearing them, it is still my age group who are the most reluctant.
Every skier and snowboarder has the ability to pay tribute to Will while also having a tremendous, positive impact on their own life. Say "I will wear a helmet" when you hit the slopes, the back country or urban rails. I know I will.
ALEXANDRA COURT AND HOUSING
FOR PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS
R. Howard: On February 3 I had the pleasure of attending the 20th anniversary of Alexandra Court, an affordable housing complex located in my constituency. Operated by Pathways Clubhouse and funded by B.C. Housing, Alexandra Court provides safe, affordable housing for adults with serious and persistent mental illness. The 24-unit complex, nestled in a residential neighbourhood, integrates seamlessly into its surroundings, precluding residents from being unfairly stigmatized by mental health stereotypes.
Having travelled by the complex many times over the years, I can truly attest to its anonymity. As I toured the complex and met with residents, I was impressed by the supportive community atmosphere,
The gathering hall located in the centre of the development further contributes to this atmosphere by encouraging social interaction between the residents. By preventing isolation and promoting a community atmosphere, Alexandra Court fosters social integration and the mental well-being of its residents.
Mental illness can affect any one of us. It has no single cause. Studies indicate that in any given year, one in five Canadian adults under the age of 65 will have a mental health problem, and it is often said that a society is judged by how it treats its members who truly need assistance.
Facilities like Alexandra Court and complexes like it all over British Columbia are truly a testament to our province's commitment to supporting those with mental illness. It's also a testament to partnerships with local governments and agencies.
I offer a congratulations to Canadian Mental Health Association Richmond branch Executive Director David MacDonald and President Bill Wright for their leadership in our community. I ask that all members in this House join me in celebrating Alexandra Court's 20th anniversary and wish its residents well going forward.
PARTICIPATION BY MLA
IN WELFARE CHALLENGE
J. Brar: On May 25, 2011, I received a letter from Raise the Rates entitled "MLA Welfare Challenge." Raise the Rates, a coalition concerned about poverty, inequality and homelessness in B.C., invited me to spend a month living on welfare. After much consideration and support from my family, stakeholders and colleagues, I decided to accept the welfare challenge to experience firsthand what life is like for half a million B.C. families and individuals living in poverty.
As a father of two young children, it's hard for me to imagine that in a province as wealthy as ours we have 137,000 children living in poverty. It's hard for me to imagine that we have 70,000 British Columbians going to food banks every month, and almost one-third of those using a food bank are children. It is hard for me to believe that the gap between the rich and the rest of British Columbians has widened to the point that the top 10 percent of B.C. families now earn considerably more than the entire bottom half of families.
Clearly, we have a wealthy society, and we can do better. I am sure that British Columbians want to us do better.
I lived on provincial income assistance for a month beginning January 1, 2012. Over the month I met people living in poverty and on welfare, listened to their painful and heartbreaking stories, and each story has a message for all of us.
We cannot afford not to take action to address the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and we must start addressing inequality with a pragmatic approach with clear targets and timelines. This is the path the people of B.C. would want us to pursue.
GROUSE MOUNTAIN AND
CAPILANO SUSPENSION BRIDGE
R. Sultan: As this government rolls out its jobs strategy, with tourism a priority, I note with pride that two of British Columbia's largest tourist attractions are located right in my riding: Grouse Mountain and Capilano Suspension Bridge. If, as Business in Vancouver recently
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did, you add up the incoming traffic in our top 25 tourist attractions in all of British Columbia, these two combine for a number which is one-third of the total. One-third — that's significant.
How do they do it? By showcasing the spectacular natural beauty of our province, by continuously adding new features such as the scary Cliffwalk at Capilano and Grouse Mountain's adrenalin adventures and Eye of the Wind tours. In fact, the latter two attractions are among the first to be included in the Canadian Tourism Commission's Signature Experiences Collection.
Experience helps. Capilano Suspension Bridge has been in business since 1889, and Grouse since 1926. The combined two centuries of experience have taught these organizations what works and what doesn't work. Smart management helps. It would be hard to find two better operators in this industry than Nancy Stibbard and Stuart McLaughlin. Advertising helps. The travel show in China provided the opportunity to showcase Grouse Mountain to an audience of 350 million viewers.
These two organizations are by far the largest youth employers on the North Shore. They are civic-minded. Grouse Mountain was awarded the 2011 community contribution award by the North Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, and Nancy is frequently cited as a role model for successful entrepreneurship.
Whether it's through their showcasing of our ski slopes, our fast rivers, our deep forests, our First Nations heritage, our back-country hiking, our fine cuisine, or whether it's simply providing a spectacular, professionally catered venue for your visitors or your business meeting, these are two wonderful attractions.
GOVERNMENT RESPONSE TO
REPORT ON COURT SYSTEM
AND CAMERAS IN COURTROOMS
A. Dix: It's good to be back. I want to say hello to all our friends on the government side. I'm looking forward to a productive session of the Legislature.
Last week the government released an audit by the Ministry of Finance that clearly demonstrated just how much of a mess the government has made of our justice system. It's the Premier's own Ministry of Finance that's saying it this time — saying: "There have been increases in the time it takes to get to trial, the lengths of trials and in the number of cases being stayed."
When will the Premier plan to follow the advice of her own Ministry of Finance and address the problems of the justice system, including the fact that criminals increasingly are being allowed to walk free without trial?
Hon. C. Clark: Like the Leader of the Opposition, I'm delighted to be back in our Legislature. I do hope that this is a productive and useful session for citizens of British Columbia. I know that on Valentine's Day there's going to be a lot of love to come here in the Legislature. We're looking forward to that too.
Hon. C. Clark: "I can feel it already," the Finance Minister says. You know, there are some serious issues in our justice system that we are addressing. We've been addressing them over the course of the last few months through a number of very important reforms, including the family law reform act, which will put children's interests first for the first time and will also divert a large number of cases from costly court litigation, which is costly emotionally for families but also for our court system.
The Attorney General has announced that out of the 23 new judges that have joined us since 2010, nine of them have come in the last month. We are doubling capacity in the Interior with a new jail that we've announced, just outside Oliver. We're hiring new sheriffs.
But here's the thing. Crime rates are down. The number of cases that are going to court is down. The length of time it takes to hear a case has stayed absolutely stable. More money has gone into the system, and it just doesn't add up.
We need to do more. We need to understand the problems, the issues at the root of these problems, and that is exactly what we're going to do.
Mr. Speaker: The Leader of the Opposition has a supplemental.
A. Dix: The report that we speak of, of course, was released to the people of British Columbia last week. It was given to the Premier in September of last year. Despite that, the Premier, in the Speech from the Throne written by the government, decided that televising trials stemming from the Stanley Cup riots was her biggest priority for the justice system. Yesterday, after months of the Premier living in denial, the Attorney General finally announced that the government was abandoning the Premier's project.
Can the Premier explain why, having received this report from the Ministry of Finance which told her specifically the damage that her government was doing to the justice system, she decided to make the Stanley Cup riot television project the priority over ensuring that criminals are convicted if they are found guilty in court?
Hon. C. Clark: The idea that we should have cameras in our courtrooms, that the public should have access to our courts even if they can't attend in person because they might have a job, is something that our government
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is going to continue to pursue. I think it's something that British Columbians support. In fact, I note that the critic for the Attorney General also supports that goal.
We are going to continue to work on finding ways to increase transparency in our courts. I think it's one way, one of many ways, that we can continue to build confidence in our justice system, which has been at a low ebb for quite a long time, not just in British Columbia but across the country.
We have a lot of work to do on that. Certainly, making sure that our courts are more transparent is going be part of it, but so is the Family Law Act; so is the work that the Attorney General, Minister of Justice is doing on making sure that we're dealing with traffic tickets appropriately; so are the tough drunk-driving laws; so are the 23 new judges, the new sheriffs that are coming on line; so is the court intelligence system — all of those things. And the member of the opposition stands up today and, I guess, says: "Well gee, we should throw more money at it."
Well, I would love to hear from him where he wants to get that money. And I hope that in this legislative session we will have a chance to hear exactly from the Leader of the Opposition where he's going to get the $6.8 billion he wants for health care. Is he going to get it by increasing taxes for British Columbians?
I think we'll have a chance to hear some really interesting answers from the Leader of the Opposition in this session, and I look forward to him coming clean.
Mr. Speaker: The Leader of the Opposition has a further supplemental.
A. Dix: There have been 36 stays of proceedings since the government received this report. There are victims of crimes and crime involved. I really think that the report should have been treated with a little bit more seriousness than we just heard from the Premier in this House.
So 109 stays in 2011 — an unrepentant cocaine dealer, another case involving a 20-kilogram cocaine bust, a police officer injured by a suspect T-boning his police cruiser, numerous impaired-driving cases. The list of serious cases that have been thrown out of court goes on and on. Judges made unprecedented pleas to this government for action, and their pleas were ignored.
The evidence is overwhelming, yet the Premier of British Columbia decided, because it happened on TV, I guess, that the priority was riot TV. And she was wrong. The evidence shows it was wrong. Those 36 cases show it was wrong. You don't ignore evidence like this provided to you, because it affects victims and the respect our justice system deserves.
When will the Premier finally admit that she got it dead wrong, and when will the government finally take action to ensure that criminals don't walk free in our courtrooms?
Hon. C. Clark: I think one of the most important questions that needs to be asked and needs to be answered by the Leader of the Opposition is: where are his solutions to this problem?
Mr. Speaker: Members.
Hon. C. Clark: The government has been delivering solutions for months — 23 new judges, including nine in the last month; a doubling of jail capacity in the Interior; more sheriffs coming on line; more money for legal aid; and yet, fewer cases going to court. Fewer cases going to court and more money going into the justice system, but still we see more delays.
Now, if the member opposite is going to tell us, as I think he will, that the answer is just more money, I'm quite willing to stand up here and say that I think he's wrong. It is not just more money. We need to look deeply into the issues in our justice system and find out why it is that delays are getting worse — which is an incredibly serious issue for victims of crime — at the same time that more money is going in and the number of cases is diminishing.
Those will be answers that the Leader of the Opposition will be called upon to give us in this Legislature. It's a debt that he owes to the people of the province — to tell us his real agenda for British Columbia so that British Columbians will know exactly where he stands on these issues.
CAMERAS IN COURTROOMS AND
DELAYS IN COURT PROCEEDINGS
L. Krog: Well, I guess if the Premier says she has no solutions, does she want to step aside today and let us take over?
You know, last fall, when it served her political interests, the Premier was interested in televising the trials of the Stanley Cup rioters. Indeed, she asked her Attorney General, and they gave a direction that said they wanted to have the trial proceedings broadcast to the public. That was the directive on October 4. On November 7 the Deputy Attorney General — another directive. It applied to trials and sentencing hearings.
Now, yesterday, in a moment of clarity, after the judge had made it fairly clear last week that he wasn't prepared, probably, to televise the trials, the Premier started talking about it in a very different way.
So the question really is…. When the Premier stepped aside yesterday from the issue, I want to know…. I'm asking this very politely. When she said she was talking about the trials and broadcasting the trials and then
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said it was only just the sentencing, was she mistaken? Or was she simply completely unaware of her own government's directive?
Hon. S. Bond: One thing I know absolutely for certain is that taxpayers in British Columbia simply cannot afford any solutions that the member opposite is going to suggest. They simply can't afford it.
Day after day after day in British Columbia they get up — including the critic opposite — and they make announcements about: "We're going to add $50 million here, a couple million there, a hundred million there."
What British Columbians want to know today is: where are they going to get that money? Is it from raising taxes or cutting services? It's time that the member opposite answered a question for British Columbians.
Mr. Speaker: Members. Members.
You can wrap it up, Attorney.
Hon. S. Bond: We're not going to make apologies for trying to find ways to increase transparency in the justice system. That's exactly what we're going to continue to do.
Mr. Speaker: The member has a supplemental.
L. Krog: You know, of the 109 judicial stays last year, I can assure this House that there are dozens of victims of the criminal behaviour that those charges involved.
So perhaps today in this House the Premier — not the Attorney General, the Premier — could apologize to the victims of that criminal behaviour in our province and explain to them why, when a government has been in power for 11 years, justice in this province has reached such a crisis stage that we have the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia and numerous Provincial Court judges telling this government they are wrong on justice. I'd like to hear an apology today in this House from this Premier.
Hon. S. Bond: What we'd like to hear on this side of the House — especially from the member opposite, who's a member of the bar — is whether or not, in his opinion, there is absolutely not one single improvement that can be made in the justice system in British Columbia.
How about this statistic? Thirty-eight percent of all court time in criminal matters in our provincial courts is taken up with matters such as an accused's breach of bail condition or failure to appear in court. How about the number that it takes six court appearances before we actually get to a trial in British Columbia?
Those are the kinds of questions that we need to be asking, questions beyond simply where we're going to get the money. The member opposite hasn't given us one answer about where they're going to get more money to add to the system.
REQUEST ON IMPACT OF
FEDERAL ANTI-CRIME LEGISLATION
K. Corrigan: I find it simply astounding that after 11 years in government this government can suddenly find out that there's a mess and they'd better do something about it. It's amazing.
It is quite astounding, as well, that the minister talked about transparency. Let's talk about transparency. The opposition caucus filed a freedom-of-information request last October for any materials related to the impact on B.C. from the federal omnibus crime bill. The package that came back last week only showed six pages of media speaking notes and a press release on the issue — not a single page of analysis.
To the Premier: why did this government tell British Columbians the impact analysis would be done, when this freedom-of-information package implies the only action seems to have been sound bites?
Hon. S. Bond: Well, as we've said all along — and the member opposite should well know this — trying to calculate accurately, for example, the complexity of Bill C-10 when in fact what we do know is that when we look at how judges actually make their judgments, we can't predict necessarily how they're going to make those decisions….
We've been very clear. One thing that we did very clearly was, when we met with the federal ministers recently, we outlined the concerns that we had about potential cost impacts. In fact, British Columbia led the discussion at those meetings. We're going to continue to accurately try to assess the costs.
I'll ask the member opposite which part of Bill C-10 she is not interested in supporting. Is it tougher penalties for child exploitation in British Columbia? We actually lobbied for those changes, and we're going to continue to support Bill C-10.
Mr. Speaker: The member has a supplemental.
K. Corrigan: This government has known that this crime bill has been coming for well over a year, and very little, if anything, has been done in terms of impact and the tremendous impact it's going to have on the taxpayers of this province.
The financial audit released last week by the Ministry of Finance but completed in September, before the information request was filed, clearly contains briefing material…
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Mr. Speaker: Members.
K. Corrigan: …on the impacts of the federal crime legislation. So much for transparency.
To the Premier or the minister: why did this government hide the audit, contrary to the law of this province, by not including it in the freedom-of-information package?
Hon. S. Bond: We have been perfectly clear about our support for the content of Bill C-10. In fact, previous Attorneys General, as part of this government, went to Ottawa and lobbied for tougher and more stringent penalties for people who exploit children in British Columbia. That's what we support, and we've been very public about that.
I can assure you that we are going to continue to do the analysis necessary, and like all of our counterparts at the federal-provincial-territorial meetings, the member opposite might want to check with their cousins in Manitoba, because they didn't stand up and say one thing about the costs of Bill C-10 at those meetings.
DELAYS IN COURT PROCEEDINGS
AND HIT-AND-RUN CASE
M. Farnworth: What's pretty clear, after the answers from the Premier and the Attorney General, is this: that after 11 years in power justice can no longer afford this government.
So 109 stays last year — 109 stays. Thirteen judges short of where we were in 2005. Criminals walk free. Yet all we get from this government is a report they've had on their desks since last September, and finally, because we're going back into session: "Oh, and this might be an issue. Let's call a review."
The public expects better than that. They expect justice issues to be taken seriously by this government, which clearly their record shows is not. So my question to the Premier is: when will this government's actions match those of her photo ops and so-called throne speeches?
Hon. S. Bond: We are continuing not only to invest but to look at reform in British Columbia.
This is the government that brought forward changes to the Family Law Act that had not taken place for decades in this province. It will make a difference.
In addition to that, this government has undertaken the largest investment in correctional facility investment in the history of the province — $185 million in phase 1. And in phase 2 not only are we going to add a new correctional facility in the Okanagan; it is going to create good, family-supporting jobs for a thousand people during the construction of that facility.
We will continue to make investments where it's appropriate and when possible.
Mr. Speaker: The member has a supplemental.
M. Farnworth: You know, the Finance Ministry's own report….
M. Farnworth: Oh, I'll ramp it up so you can hear.
The Finance Ministry documents state that strong public confidence in the system is of the utmost importance. That's what the public expects. The Premier nods in agreement with that. Well, let's talk about the real consequences of what that means.
In my constituency two women, Charlene Reaveley and Lorraine Cruz, stopped as Good Samaritans to assist somebody whose car had a problem on the side of the Lougheed Highway. They were hit by a hit-and-run driver, and they were both killed instantly.
The family of Charlene Reaveley is very concerned because they've been told that there's a very real possibility, because of delays in the justice system, that the alleged killer, the case, could be tossed. The public expects better than that. This side of the House demands better than that.
My question to the Minister of Justice is: will she guarantee that that family, the family of the Reaveleys, and the Cruzes get justice and that delays in our system aren't going to result in further cases being tossed?
Hon. S. Bond: First of all, the circumstances that that family has had to endure are tragic and horrific. No one in this House disputes that. And I want to make it very clear to the member opposite that a trial date has been set. We're not going to speculate about a potential stay. In fact, a trial date has been set.
What we understand is that it is important to continue to invest, and we're going to do that. We've added more money to legal aid. We're adding a new corrections facility. We've added more judges at the request of the chief judge of the province, exactly where he wanted them. We responded directly to his request.
But I can assure you of this: that British Columbians also demand a system that is actually prepared to look at some of those tough questions, ask questions about reform. We're simply saying, on this side, we're not going to keep doing things the same way over and over again and just cross our fingers and hope for better outcomes. In fact, we're going to ask those tough questions and invest where necessary.
[ Page 9122 ]
GOVERNMENT ACTION ON SENIORS CARE
K. Conroy: In her speech from her radio throne yesterday the Premier announced a new seniors agenda. The last time we heard about a seniors agenda was in 2005, when the Liberals brought in the so-called seniors budget. What happened? Six more years of neglect and abuse of seniors. That's the result of the last Liberal seniors agenda. Terrible stories like the ones we revealed in this House in 2007 about Beacon Hill Villa, and that's just down the street from this building.
Why should seniors believe anything that comes from this government when it comes to improvements in seniors care?
Hon. M. de Jong: I think the member is aware that we are expecting imminently the tabling of a report from the Ombudsperson — I believe, in a few minutes. We will certainly have an opportunity, as the House, to examine the details of that, and I'll have more to say about that report and the steps the government intends to take, going forward, to ensure that seniors in British Columbia and their families can have confidence that seniors are receiving the best possible care anywhere in Canada.
Mr. Speaker: The member has a supplemental.
K. Conroy: For 11 years — 11 years — these people have been providing services to seniors in this province, and in that time we've heard story after story after story of horrible situations happening to seniors. And yes, it does have to stop. But can we trust that?
Can we trust that this government is going to take the recommendations from that report and actually put them into play? We couldn't before, and we continue to see problems. Can we really, really trust that it's going to happen? I think that's what every senior and every senior's family in this province is asking today. Can we trust this government to really implement seniors policies that truly are there for the seniors of this province?
Hon. M. de Jong: Well, the member needs to look closely and fairly at a decade in which the number of new facilities, new beds, improved beds, to ensure that seniors are getting the kind of care that we would want for our parents and for our grandparents…. Literally tens of thousands have been created to ensure that seniors are getting that care. That's part of the record.
You know, I've had a chance over the last couple of months, as I think many members have, to travel the province and, in my case, visit a lot of the care facilities and hospitals, and I've noticed something. You walk into them. They usually have this plaque on the wall that indicates when they've been opened or when they've been renovated. I found that there are a lot of plaques that date from the 1950s. Those are older facilities, and many of them are in need of upgrade and renovation.
I've noticed something else. There are a lot of plaques that date from the last ten years. Do you know what I can't find? I can't find many plaques from the 1990s. I can't find them because there wasn't much done in the 1990s.
We are going to continue to work on behalf of seniors in the province of British Columbia.
Mr. Speaker: Members.
STUDENT FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE
M. Mungall: Well, today on the steps of the Legislature students from eight different post-secondary schools in B.C. shared their stories of financial hardship with the minister.
They talked about student debt. What has the minister said? "That's not what they're talking about."
They talked about reducing interest rates on student loans. The minister says it's not where she's putting her efforts.
They talked about financial needs–based grants. The minister told her local paper that she has no plans to address this.
How can the minister be so out of touch with students and what they are experiencing as a result of B.C. Liberal policies?
Hon. N. Yamamoto: Thank you to the member opposite for the question. It gives me the opportunity to tell you how proud of the post-secondary system that we have in British Columbia…. We have an outstanding high-quality post-secondary system in British Columbia.
I'm also tired, though, of hearing the fearmongering and the criticism and the anger from the members opposite and the Leader of the Opposition, promising things that they have no idea how they're going to pay for.
But let me give you a few examples of how we have helped students. In the last ten years we've increased funding to our universities by over 50 percent. Taxpayers have invested over $1.9 billion annually for post-secondary education. The average student pays for less than one-third of the actual cost of their education, thanks to the huge investment that taxpayers make.
I'm also proud of the fact….
Mr. Speaker: Thank you, Minister.
[End of question period.]
Mr. Speaker: I want to remind members that the use of BlackBerrys during question period is not allowed.
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Mr. Speaker: Members.
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Members, I have the honour to present the Auditor General's report No. 9, Summary Report: Results of Completed Projects; Auditor General report No. 10, Effectiveness of B.C. Community Corrections; Ombudsperson's report No. 47, The Best of Care: Getting It Right for Seniors in British Columbia (Part 2); Ombudsperson's report No. 33, Honouring Commitments: An Investigation of Fraser Health Authority's Transfer of Seniors from Temporarily Funded Residential Care Beds; and Ombudsperson's report No. 48, On Short Notice: An Investigation of Vancouver Island Health Authority's Process for Closing Cowichan Lodge.
Hon. C. Clark: I rise to make a ministerial statement.
Mr. Speaker: Proceed.
OF QUEEN ELIZABETH II
Hon. C. Clark: On February 6 British Columbia joined Great Britain and all members of the Commonwealth community in celebrating the 60th anniversary of the reign of our Queen, Queen Elizabeth II, and on that day the Legislature proudly raised her standard outside this building to mark the occasion.
When our Queen ascended the throne 60 years ago, she was a young woman grieving the loss of her father, and she vowed to devote her life to her people and to the Commonwealth. Reflecting on that promise now, this year we celebrate the diamond jubilee of a great-grandmother who, despite her very public role, has managed a modicum of privacy in her own life. She has raised her family with grace and dignity. Those have been the hallmarks of her reign.
The world has seen many changes in the last 60 years, and the monarchy has changed with it, standing the test of both time and history. Our Queen has been a steadfast, calm and reassuring presence — the only monarch many of us, including me, have ever known. She is also the Supreme Governor of my church, the Church of England, and the head of the Commonwealth of Nations, of 54 independent sovereign states. She has guided these institutions with unwavering strength and determination.
The only other British monarch to mark a diamond jubilee, as has already been noted in this House, was the Queen's great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, a monarch central to the birth of this province.
British Columbia has proudly hosted Queen Elizabeth; her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh; and their children and grandchildren on many occasions throughout her reign. She has visited Canada more than any other country in the Commonwealth, and she seems very much to hold a special place in her heart for our country, just as we hold a special place in our hearts for her.
We wish her well during this special year of celebration and events, including the largest flotilla of boats on the River Thames in 350 years, reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth I, one of history's greatest female leaders.
The young woman who came to the throne in 1952 couldn't have imagined the changes she would witness in her world, her Commonwealth and her family over the course of 60 years. On behalf of British Columbians, I thank her for her devotion to Canada. I affirm our loyalty to her and the monarchy, and I wish her many more years of health and a long reign.
God save our Queen.
A. Dix: Earlier today I spoke of how moving it is to think of what Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II has done for our country and for the world, and I just want to join with the Premier today in acknowledging this remarkable anniversary, this diamond jubilee. I think it's something that people across British Columbia are going to celebrate throughout this year.
I look forward beyond, I think, any differences that might happen between the government and the opposition. This is something we join together, truly, in celebrating now.
I want to thank the Premier for her statement and thank all members of the House for participating together in the ceremony this morning. I think it speaks well of our democracy and it speaks well of 60 years of extraordinary rule as Queen of Canada that we recognize Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II. Long may she reign.
N. Macdonald: I rise to present a petition from 673 residents of Golden. The petition was organized by Paulette Bertrand and Luke Nichols. The petitioners respectfully ask government to maintain on a year-round basis the pedestrian pathway that parallels the Trans-Canada Highway in Golden and to provide year-round safe pedestrian passage from the Trans-Canada to downtown. Ms. Bertrand did a tremendous job with this, and I am pleased to present it here on her behalf.
Orders of the Day
Hon. R. Coleman: In the House this afternoon we will continue second reading of Bill 20, intituled Auditor
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General for Local Government Act.
Mr. Speaker: If the member would just wait a few moments while members attend to other duties.
Second Reading of Bills
BILL 20 — AUDITOR GENERAL FOR LOCAL
S. Fraser: I'm resuming my place in the debate in this House on Bill 20.
[L. Reid in the chair.]
Just to recap, I was highlighting before lunch this morning that I will be speaking against Bill 20. The reason that I began to give previously is the suggestion that an auditor general for local government did not come through any process of this place, of this House. It did not come about from any process of consultation with local government. It did not come about from any requests from local government for assistance in this regard.
Indeed, as I pointed out earlier, local governments have some very strict rules as far as accounting goes. They already have independent reviews and accounting every year. It's a requirement. Unlike the provincial government, which can just change the law and run a deficit — which this government has made an art form out of — the local governments are not allowed to run a deficit.
Out of the blue we are dealing with, in this place, Bill 20, which is designed to impose an auditor general's office, a new office, on the municipalities of British Columbia without any process, without any need even being identified.
Again, I would suggest that it's the height of hypocrisy suggesting that local governments need another level of scrutiny when this government has made another art form out of deregulating in other parts of government, of ignoring the suggestions and the strongly worded reports, often, from the provincial Auditor General when it comes to criticism of how they're managing business.
It is baffling to learn that we are doing policy here based on the whim of a Premier who, as Premier, had not even been elected as a member of this House. Now we're seeing a $2.6-million-per-year office of the auditor general being announced with no information, with no financial accounting of how that $2.6 million will be used.
Indeed, we have a provincial Auditor General that could handle such issues as performance reviews for local government. Indeed, that process is already available to local governments. As I mentioned, municipalities are already required to be audited, to produce an annual external audit.
The biggest problem, in my opinion, with us even dealing with this issue as it stands in the House is that the very design of this office flies in the face of independence and an arm's-length feature that we see with the provincial Auditor General. So the model for auditor general, to ensure that the auditor general's office is arm's-length and is objective, is not being used. Instead, the new auditor general for local governments will be appointed by the government minister, on recommendation of an audit council also appointed by the same government minister.
Now, by definition, the new office is designed to be anything but arm's-length and objective and non-partisan. It has been orchestrated by this Premier and this government to be a creature of the minister, responsible to the minister — not to this House, not to this Legislative Assembly.
If I'm not mistaken, when we choose an Auditor General for the province that is done through a bipartisan process, a non-political process. It must be, to ensure even the appearance of objectivity and the assurance to the public that it will not be influenced for political or partisan reasons.
So for this Premier and this government to create a new body, an auditor general for local governments, and to design it specifically to be controlled and reporting out only to the minister of government is shocking.
I've — as many of my colleagues, both sides of the House — spent lots of time with local governments. I've been in local government before. I've been a mayor before.
Certainly, the big issues that come out of local government should be of importance to the government, to all sides of the House. They make recommendations every year through the Union of B.C. Municipalities, a large organization. Thousands of elected officials go every year to these conventions. They deliberate important issues.
There's been one consistent issue that's always brought up at every one I've been to. I've been to about 11 UBCMs. There have been issues around the off-loading and downloading onto local governments of costs and responsibilities that are unfunded by government.
This government in particular has been very hard on local government, so when those resolutions come forward, they are roundly ignored. Yet we have, based on the whim of the Premier before she was even elected, a new body being created to oversee local governments that was never called for and never asked for and never consulted on with local governments.
The fact is that we in this House have very important issues to deal with. An auditor general, a new office for local government, is not one of those issues.
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We could be dealing with child poverty issues right now. We have the highest child poverty rate in the country for eight years in a row under this government. That is an important issue. Putting $2.6 million a year — and not accounting for how that's to be used or spent — on a new office that is being set up specifically by this government for the ministry to have control of ultimately is wrong.
There were questions from other government members as to how we could possibly vote against this. The question is: how could anybody vote for an auditor general's office where the need has never been established, where there's never been any critical debate, where there was no consultation with government? And worst of all, the body itself will be created to not match the objectivity and arm's-length nature of an auditor general's office. It is the height of hypocrisy.
If you look at what a local government has to do to balance its books…. This government has downloaded costs like MSP premiums. They even hiked carbon taxes, gas taxes. They've imposed acts that take away the independence of local governments, like the Significant Streamlining Act. They have removed local control over independent power.
In 2011 the budget was cut from $285 million to $198 million — an $87 million cut, a 30 percent cut to local government transfers. Local governments still do a balanced budget by law, despite this government. So for this Premier and this government to foist an auditor general to try to keep local governments on the straight and narrow is appalling.
One of the biggest problems that local governments have in dealing with their budgets is this government and the consistent pattern of off-loading and downloading on them.
Considering this government never listens to the advice or the criticisms of the provincial Auditor General, it is the height of hypocrisy for them to suggest that local governments, those governing bodies that are the closest to the people, need their own auditor general — but not an auditor general that is objective, an auditor general that is appointed by the minister on the recommendations of an audit council that's also appointed by the minister.
If you walked the hallways at the last UBCM, that was the chat that was happening around the coffee machine. "Why is this happening?" At that point we did not know that $2.6 million is being pulled out of something for this — $2.6 million a year — with, ironically, no accounting for how it's going to be spent.
We have a body that's responsible for overseeing the accounting of local governments, and this Liberal government creates that body with a budget that has no oversight, that has no details of how the money will be spent. That cruel irony is not lost on anyone.
Again, we on the opposition, on this side of the House, will be voting against this bill, Bill 20. It's not a question of whether or not we believe in accountability. The process for accountability must only be embarked on if it can be shown to be non-political and non-partisan and not controlled by government.
Since local governments didn't request the help of a new body, a new auditor general, since they have never raised this as an issue — there's been no resolution at the Union of B.C. Municipalities meetings — I have to ask the question: why are we in this House debating a bill that seems to serve no purpose?
We know some of the statements that came out of the Union of B.C. Municipalities' members, and it suggests that this is a solution in search of a problem. But it's worse than that. It's a $2.6-million-a-year solution in search of a problem.
Now, $2.6 million a year could go to a lot of things. It could go towards seniors care. It could go towards children in care. It could go towards any number of non-profit community groups that help our communities in a very real sense.
When you note that part of the downsizing and off-loading on local governments…. Maybe it's not direct for local governments, but the indirect costs — for instance, Liberal cuts to income assistance, affordable housing and addiction and mental health services — have led to rising levels of problems that local governments must deal with, because they're the ones that see it on the ground.
As these problems are downloaded by funds being removed from social services, from affordable housing by this government, it's quite tragic to see $2.6 million being spent on oversight for the very governing bodies, local municipal governments, that have to now fix the problems created by these off-loadings and downloadings from the provincial government.
So again, if you walk the halls of the UBCMs and talk to the mayors and councils, I'm sure you'll get a very large variety of great endeavours that could be embarked on for $2.6 million a year to help communities, to help local governments, to assist those in our communities that need help. But $2.6 million to somehow be used on a new office that will not be objective — that will be, certainly, by all appearances, partisan and a political body — is not right.
It's not what we should be doing in this place. This is the people's House. This has not been called for. This was an election gimmick by the Premier when she wasn't Premier. She made this promise to some business friends while she wasn't even an elected official, let alone Premier. She hadn't even won the by-election yet. Yet we're sitting in this House now debating a bill about devoting $2.6 million a year based on a promise made by the Premier when she was not even a member of this House.
That should not be how policy is derived in this House. It's wrong. We have great needs in this province, and we have great responsibility as legislators to deal with those
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needs. As we come back into this place, the very first issue that we deal with is a bill that is just the fulfilment of an election promise to try to win a leadership race. It's wrong for us to be in here doing that. This is uncalled for.
Deputy Speaker: Member, I will bring you back to consideration of Bill 20.
S. Fraser: Thank you, Madam Speaker. I have been away for a while, so I did digress to some extent.
Bill 20, the Auditor General for Local Government Act, is a questionable piece of legislation, because the mandate to bring in this bill, this oversight, hasn't been brought in through any public means that I'm aware of. This was brought forward as an election promise.
Now, there's been no task force. This government likes to make task forces when there's an issue that they're trying to fix after 11 years. There's been no work done.
There was an industrial task force commissioned by this government about two years ago because there were companies in this province that were refusing to pay their municipal taxes. So this government struck a task force on industrial taxation. I don't know what happened with that task force. Somehow that got changed into an oversight body for local governments, a new auditor general's office under the strict control of the minister.
In essence, we're dealing with a bill saying "auditor general for local governments," when indeed, by definition, this is not an auditor general, because an auditor general must be chosen in a non-political, non-partisan means in this House, involving both sides of the House — all members of the House, the independents in the House.
That's how you choose an auditor general. That's how every other jurisdiction chooses an auditor general. So if we're having a debate about the need for an auditor general, that's one thing — again, that didn't come out of any resolutions from any local government — but we're now debating Bill 20 because of an election promise.
There has been no need identified — not by any local government. It has not been identified by this government. It has not been identified to the official opposition. Yet the government is proposing to spend $2.6 million a year on this new body that will be controlled and chosen by this minister in a way that is not in keeping with the creation of any auditor general's office.
That is a synopsis of some of the reasons why I, as a member of the opposition, will not be voting in favour of this bill. I would hope that government members would also follow suit, because they well know that there has been no call for an auditor general for local government. There has been no rationale provided. There have been no studies provided. There have been no task forces that have completed any analysis of a need for a new body in this province that costs $2.6 million a year.
I would not want to speak for the provincial Auditor General, but I would guess that there's a tried-and-true office there that already has quite a bit of expertise in oversight on policy issues and that is well equipped to investigate any municipal project, because they do that now. The provincial Auditor General does that. They already have the potential to do that, and they often do it. Any municipality can utilize that service on request.
A performance audit would be best served, handled, through that body, which already has the expertise. Better still, the provincial Auditor General is an arm's-length body. It isn't a political or partisan body. It has been created to ensure that, for the public scrutiny and for public trust.
So to suggest that we should create a new body, but using a model that flies in the face of objectivity and public trust, makes a bit of a mockery of this place. We should be dealing with something a lot more important than this.
Hon. T. Lake: It's a great pleasure to be back in this honourable place to represent the people of Kamloops–North Thompson and to be with my colleagues on both sides of the House as we work on behalf of the residents of British Columbia.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in support of the auditor general for local government. As a former councillor and mayor of the city of Kamloops, I must say at the outset that I'm a big fan of local government. I think local government is the most responsive form of government. They're the people who make sure that our toilets work, that our water flows, that our garbage is picked up, that our parks are available, that we have recreation facilities. Without local government, our lives would not have the quality that we enjoy here in the great province of British Columbia.
So while I recognize how important local government is to each and every one of us, I also recognize and think back on my days in local government and know that we were always on a continuous improvement program. We always looked for ways to do things a little bit better for the citizens of Kamloops, as a local council. We looked at the way we did our strategic plans…. We looked at the way we did everything in terms of providing the services that are so necessary for the citizens of our communities around British Columbia.
A lot of times we would look to other communities. We would look to communities of similar size, perhaps Nanaimo or Prince George or — don't let anyone here say that I said this — we even looked to Kelowna to see if there were good practices there that we could emulate. We know this about local government: as hard as they work and as invaluable a service as they perform, they can always learn from other municipalities around the province.
As a member of the executive of the Union of B.C. Municipalities…. That is an organization that serves to spread best practices around the province.
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So the auditor general for local government can be another tool in that arsenal in the continuous improvement of local government, just as we have an auditor general here for provincial organizations, who is often extremely helpful in terms of providing government advice on improving the services that they perform for the citizens of British Columbia. So I believe that an auditor general for local government will be able to provide invaluable advice to local governments around the province.
There are some 200 local governments, I believe, around the province of British Columbia, and each one of those has its unique challenges. Some are very small in size, whereas others, like the city of Vancouver or the city of Surrey, are large and have many, many resources at their disposal. But for the smaller communities and, in fact, for many regional districts, there are capacity issues when dealing with some of the unique challenges of providing those invaluable services to their citizens — in terms of providing water, for instance, clean drinking water, or providing proper liquid waste management.
This office of the auditor general for local government can be a source of information to say: how is a community in another part of the province, which is of a similar size and faces similar challenges, able to provide this service that we are having a struggle to provide?
This kind of a service isn't a threat to any local government. In fact, many local governments have said: "We think this is a good idea. We have nothing to be afraid of. We can actually learn from an office of the auditor general." The city of Coquitlam, for instance, said: "This is something that we look forward to. This is something that we can use to make us better."
There's one thing that local governments always want to do, as I've stated. Local governments always want to increase the value to their citizens.
We know, through the work through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, that of all the taxes that taxpayers in Canada pay…. Even though we have a very competitive tax environment — I think there was a report that came out a couple days ago that showed that Canada was something like tenth or 11th in the world in terms of tax competitiveness — we do know that local governments sometimes face challenges raising enough funds to provide the service they provide. In fact, of every dollar of taxes that Canadians pay, somewhere between eight and ten cents goes to local government, whereas the vast majority of taxes go to provincial and federal governments.
So it's been a longstanding position of local government that they need to find ways of making sure they utilize those funds in the best way possible. We've had some excellent lobbying activity on the part of local government, and that's resulted in things like a portion of the gas tax now going to local government. We've seen infrastructure grants, many of those through the years, going out to local government.
But those are tax dollars that Canadians pay. Canadians, particularly British Columbians, I think, want to know and be assured in a transparent way that those dollars are being spent wisely.
Now, we are very fortunate here in British Columbia to have the Union of B.C. Municipalities, which does an excellent job partnering with the province, with the federal government in managing many of these programs. But I would say that having another set of eyes on some of those programs to ensure that taxpayers' dollars are being used to the best extent possible, that best practices are being employed throughout the province of British Columbia, is welcome news to the taxpayers of British Columbia.
As families struggle to meet the challenges of a time that, economically speaking, is a challenge, I think they want to know that their tax dollars are being used in the very best way possible.
I note that the member for Alberni–Pacific Rim said that this came out of the blue, that this office of the auditor general for local government wasn't requested by anybody. Well, I think it's fair to say that taxpayers around this province have been asking for transparency and accountability at all levels of government — not just local government but provincial government, the federal government.
So to say that no one has been asking for a model to allow best practices to be used around the province, I think, is completely disingenuous. To say that an auditor general is being foisted upon the local governments of British Columbia, again, I think does injustice to those leaders of local government here in British Columbia, like Mayor Richard Stewart of Coquitlam, who have said that this is actually a very good thing, that we can use this to make our operations even better than they are today.
The office of the auditor general for local government will serve a dual purpose. First, it will provide information to taxpayers, which they have asked for, to see how their tax dollars are being spent in delivering services to those communities. This is something taxpayers have asked for. It didn't come out of nowhere.
Secondly, it's going to provide information to local governments, as I said — information that helps them make choices about making the most economical, efficient and effective use of their communities' assets now and into the future.
It is, again, my pleasure to have served in local government for six years in the city of Kamloops, to serve on the regional district of Thompson-Nicola and also to serve as an executive member of the Union of B.C. Municipalities.
We have an excellent working relationship with local governments, but we have to remember that through the Local Government Act and the charter that we have, local government is essentially responsible — or is answerable, if you like — to the provincial government. They
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are essentially a creation of the provincial government, according to the British North America Act, so it is our responsibility to work with local government, as we have done in the past and will do in the future, to ensure that tax dollars that are provided by the residents of British Columbia are spent in the very best way possible.
The local government auditor general will report to an audit council, which is going to be comprised of at least five individuals with relevant professional expertise in accounting, auditing, local and regional governance or provincial governance.
Despite what the member opposite has said, this is not about balancing budgets. We know that this time of year local governments are going through budget-planning processes. I can tell you from experience, Madam Speaker, that there was nothing more excruciating, in many ways, than going through that process, where you had to make real choices about a number of different projects or plans that were being advocated by different parts of your community.
A series of public open houses are held, and at the end of the day, those local governments have to come up with a balanced budget. That sometimes will mean increasing the rate at which they charge homeowners and businesses for their property taxes — not a lot of fun.
I think every one of us, as elected officials, knows that it's not very much fun to stand up and tell people that they're going to have to pay a little bit more in order to have the services that they require.
Interestingly, though, surveys in Kamloops time after time showed that people were willing to pay a little bit more to maintain the services that they received. But they were also very interested in making sure those dollars were wisely spent. So to have an auditor general for local government that the local city council can then go to and look for best practices and reassure their taxpayers, who may be faced with a modest tax hike, that those tax dollars are being used in the very best way possible, I think will make the budget process a lot better for those local government officials.
The cost of the auditor general's office, as the past speaker has pointed out, is about $2.6 million annually. When you think about the amount of money that is spent at the local government level, I think this is a very small but wise investment to ensure that the very best practices are incorporated into local government throughout British Columbia.
One of the things that I recall when I got involved in local government was the issue of policing. I just use it as an example of how you look to other communities, and you try to find out what is the best way to provide a particular service. For our city council and the city of Kamloops at the time, policing was the number one cost in our budget — of course, a very important service to our citizens. Everyone wanted to ensure that they were protected, that they had a police force that was responsive and that they could rely upon. But they also wanted to understand the true costs of policing.
We have always used the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the city of Kamloops, and we've had just tremendous service from that organization. But I remember that when I was first elected, there was a concern about the rising costs of policing and a call to perhaps look at a municipal police force. So we did quite a bit of work to look at what people were paying elsewhere across the province — in fact, in other provinces — for local police forces versus using the RCMP.
There wasn't a lot of information out there. We had to go from one jurisdiction to another jurisdiction to another jurisdiction and try to break down those numbers to help us understand what the costs of policing were on a per-capita basis, to understand whether or not we were getting the value for money that we really thought we were getting from the RCMP. It took a lot of work.
As it turned out, I can reassure the people of Kamloops that at the time — and I believe it's still the case today — we were getting tremendous value on a per-capita basis from the tremendous services we received from the RCMP. But to go through that process was very painstaking. We had to keep going back and rechecking our data to make sure that we were in fact comparing apples to apples. To have a local government auditor general that allows information to be gathered, to be collated, to be compared and to be shared among local governments on a tremendously important service like policing, I think would just be a tremendous advantage to local government.
I know when I was a councillor and a mayor I would have loved to have had that information at my fingertips so that I could have presented the information in a more timely way and in a more cost-efficient way about the type of services we were receiving.
In summary, I would like to just remind the members opposite that this is something the taxpayers of British Columbia have been calling for. It has not come out of the blue. Whether a good idea happens to come from an elected official or someone that hopes to be an elected official, a good idea is a good idea. Why would we possibly say: "Well, we can't listen to that idea because you weren't elected in this House, so we're not going to pay any attention to that"?
A good idea is a good idea. This is a good idea. With the work with UBCM, with local governments around the province, we will continue to provide great service to our residents in every local community in British Columbia. I look forward to supporting this bill.
N. Macdonald: It is always an interesting transition when you move from local government into provincial politics. I was just listening to the member, a former col-
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league as mayor of Kamloops. I remember when somebody tried to step on his turf. I think it was a member still sitting, talking about industrial taxation and that local governments were dining out on industrial users. I remember at the time he took issue with that characterization. I think there are other members that have served in local government.
N. Macdonald: I know it was a different city he was talking about.
I'll just take a minute here, not to drift off topic. The Minister of Education — the first time I realized that he had an interest, perhaps, in provincial politics, I was sitting beside a gentleman who only joked around and was the most fun, easiest-going person. We know that's his true character. We were at UBCM in 1995. He stood up, and he went after a provincial initiative that was going to — and you can correct me if I'm wrong — limit multipliers that you would put to rail lines.
All of a sudden this person I'd never seen was incensed at any provincial government stepping onto our turf, which is what we thought at the time. It was a wonderful performance, and he's gone on to do great things with the skill set that I hadn't seen to that time. So I think when you look here in this Legislature, you have an awful lot of people that would share the experience of working in local government.
My wife just paid the water and sewer bill. Like most people, in a small town anyway, as we come towards the late spring, I'm going to go in and pay my property taxes. What local politicians will say, and it's true, is that there are very few levels of government where tax is collected in such a direct way. You go in, and you're not getting money back like you can from federal and provincial taxation when it's taken off your cheque. If that's how it's collected, you might get some money back. You write out a cheque, and you go in, and you pay it. In Golden, as with many communities, we actually mainly go into the town hall, and the staff are there collecting it. It's a very direct, hands-on process.
When I was a town councillor and a mayor in the 1990s, I really felt that we were being accountable and that it was really direct accountability. The period of time around when people walked into the town office and paid their taxes…. When they would see you, if you were up at the ball field or if you were going into the store — I was a teacher, so people had access to me — they had opinions on how we were spending the money. They would watch the work crew, and they would have opinions about how it could be done better, how we could save some money. So the accountability was really direct. They watched carefully.
Now, all of the communities that are incorporated that I represent are small. The biggest is 8,000 people, and that goes down to communities as small as 700. So when you talk about Golden or Revelstoke, Radium, Invermere, Canal Flats and Kimberley, these are communities where people are watching very, very carefully. I think what all of them have told me, as we talk about this bill, is they feel that as a level of government, they are as active and as vigorous and as accountable as you could be as a level of government.
The pressure for this seems to come from a promise that was made on the spur of the moment. I think a very good case….
If people will go and listen carefully on Hansard to what the critic said, in particular, and other members — the Finance critic as well — they laid out a pretty clear case that while the idea of an auditor general and the accountability that it may bring is one that on the surface is pretty hard to argue against, the devil is in the detail.
You know, we like accountability here. We like the opportunity to have accountability at the provincial level. Just as an example — and I think that we'll probably hear more about it tomorrow — right after question period we had the release of the Ombudsperson's report — right? It's a pretty brutal condemnation of what the provincial government has done over the past number of years in relation to seniors. I mean, that is what an independent office can do.
But as we move into looking at the details of this legislation, what we actually have is something that is not independent — that's one problem — and secondly, it's largely redundant. The people from local government who are up and speaking about problems they had in the past and how they had to share information and share ideas…. Well, they're telling a story of how they went out and shared ideas and did what they said this office is now going to be able to do.
If there was a level of government that was accountable, I guess I would finish off by saying it is local government.
Now, one of the advantages to what happened with this session is that with the bill introduced and, for one of the first times ever, the government not using closure, we were able to really go back and speak about the bills that are still on the table that we were coming here today to debate.
There was one mayor I wasn't able to speak to, but for the rest of the mayors that are leading communities that I represent, I was able to go back and ask them about this piece of legislation. They all said the same thing. I know that there will be some mayors who think that it's an okay idea, but each and every one of the mayors that I spoke to — and they represent a broad spectrum of political views — shared the same view that it was redundant and that if money had to be spent, that's not where they'd spend it. They would not spend money doing this.
In question period again today the talk that goes back and forth is: where would you find the money? So then it
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comes down to: what is the smart choice for right now in terms of where you'd spend the money? What I would say is that $2½ million a year spent on this is just not a wise use of money. I mean, let's be clear. This is not a government with a balanced budget, so we are borrowing $2.5 million a year, which will then go onto debt, to do this.
What I would say is that the minister did not make the case that this was a project that was worth going into. Essentially, what we are reacting to is a commitment made during a leadership contest with a degree of thought that's questionable.
When it was first raised and brought forward, the local government people that I saw…. We were all there at UBCM. It was described as a measure that was a solution looking for a problem. Now, we know that the Canadian Federation of Independent Business has pushed for this and was one of the first ones out really applauding this initiative.
We also know that the B.C. Chamber of Commerce…. I think this was actually announced as an idea by the current Premier at a B.C. Chamber of Commerce meeting. So there are obviously those groups that are talking about it as an initiative that needs to make sense.
It was also seen, perhaps, as a solution to problems perceived by some of the big industrial payers in rural communities, led mainly by, but not limited to, businesses like Catalyst. Other members have indicated that there was a task force on industrial property taxes, and as with many of these studies, it didn't seem to go anywhere. I don't actually even remember the report being tabled, so I don't know where that all disappeared to.
So the idea of auditors general at any levels can be a good idea. And from what I've heard from the B.C. Liberal MLAs that have spoken, that's going to be the talking point — that just at a superficial level, an auditor general, regardless of how they're structured, is a good idea, which is a lovely debating point if you're just debating on Twitter. But it doesn't take very long before you dig into the actual legislation where you start to really question the wisdom of spending $2½ million a year on this sort of initiative.
The two points that have been made are around the redundancy. The second point is that there is a lack of independence with the office. Let's be clear. This is a body that's set up that will be controlled fairly easily by the minister and by cabinet. It will be easy to control this body.
We have all been in this House long enough to know even with the independent officers how much pressure government applies to those individuals. They are structured in a way where it's difficult to apply pressure, but government still does. With this structure, there's no way that it is truly going to be in any way independent, and therefore, if it's not independent, it will very easily be subject to manipulation by the government of the day.
Let's just talk about some of the weaknesses that were identified by individuals or local government and elected officials in my area. Many of them would quote from the reports that were done by municipal law firms such as Young Anderson. Young Anderson — a long history in the civic field. They have been active with the UBCM. Those of you that have participated in local government will certainly be familiar with the firm.
There's the so-called value-for-money auditing which the minister talked about as something that needed to be done. Value-for-money auditing, of course, is a far broader type of auditing than you would traditionally get with just financial audits. What Young Anderson is saying, and what mayors in my area are saying, is that this is something that can already be done. Under section 171(3) of the Community Charter, both the inspector of municipalities and every municipal council can already do this work. So one of the key arguments for setting up this new $2.5 million bureaucracy is to do something that is already easily done under the Community Charter.
Similarly, if the province wants to order these types of audits, they already can. So that's redundant, to spend $2.5 million to just keep a promise that was made with very little thought, when the key task that's identified for setting up this new office is something that…. It's not just me; it's Young Anderson. People who specialize in law at the local government level are saying it's redundant. You can already do it. Why would you spend $2.5 million to set up a structure to do something you can already do?
If council wants to look at an issue, they have the ability to set select committees with members of their own choosing. They can have elected officials if that's what they want to do, but if there's a need for expertise, then councils have the ability to set up a select committee. They can choose people with expertise in any area that they want.
Again, it's the redundancy of what is being offered here. Why would you borrow $2.5 million, money that I think all of us could think about where it could be better spent, and simply do something that it is already possible to have done?
So what Young Anderson concluded in saying that this $2.5 million office…. These are their words. It is "a largely redundant office to examine expenditures that are already under the discipline of pay-as-you-go financing and may be a purely symbolic provincial gesture." So there is Young Anderson. They have no political motivation here. They're just looking at it, and their conclusion is that it's redundant. It's $2.5 million that is being spent as a purely symbolic provincial gesture.
That is a problem. That is a reason why one would think that the money could be spent in better ways. Now, one of the communities that I represent even offered
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things that could be done by the provincial government rather than waste money on this office. They said: "Well, if you want, if you're seriously concerned about the problem of sharing ideas or maybe doing things better, then there are better, more cost-effective ways of doing it."
Their suggestion was this. They suggested a UBCM-LGMA — LGMA, of course, is the local government association for senior staff — University of Victoria Local Government Institute partnership that would identify quantitative and qualitative analysis of existing value-for-money tools available to B.C. municipalities. That's a thoughtful approach to an initiative many think is a solution looking for a problem.
Let's look at the difference of this. You have somebody in the midst of a leadership campaign, possibly with fairly limited experience at the local level — I know there was an attempt to be the mayor of Vancouver, but I don't think there was local government experience — making, off the top of her head, a suggestion that we're going to do a municipal auditor general.
Contrast that with people who have a lot of local government experience, including staff, saying: "Well, without having to spend $2.5 million — perhaps spending something, but far less — why don't we do this? It is more likely to get results."
If we did things properly in this province, and we actually listened properly to the wisdom that sits in our communities, then we would be able to tune in those ideas and do something with them. But too often we're not. It's this idea of top-down, of ideas that are imposed — whether they make sense or not, we're just going to do them — the idea that somehow this government here knows better than people that sit in our communities. It's not the case.
So that's just one idea, and we're talking about…. I think the former mayor from Kamloops, now Kamloops–North Thompson, talked about 200 communities. Imagine if we tapped into the wisdom in all of those communities for coming up with ideas about how to do things better. I mean, it happens already. But here we could take ideas about how we could do this without spending as much as is suggested here.
There is another idea they have. You could make changes to the Community Charter; you could do staff development work — all substantially less expensive and likely more effective.
Like I say, earlier our local government critic and, I think more expansively, our Finance critic made the case for using the existing provincial Auditor General's office to do the work if there is even a need.
I don't want to repeat all the arguments they made, but like I say, I would ask members who are interested in this to just go back and see exactly what was suggested by the member for Surrey-Whalley and the member for Fraser-Nicola.
There is an opportunity to use the structure that we have that pre-exists, that actually has expertise and is actually independent, to do this work if we feel that it is actually needed. But again, all of this presumes a problem.
I'll just move on to a story. I don't want to make it more than it is, because it is just one example. I don't know how broad it is. I certainly wouldn't want to characterize all the work of the organization I'm going to talk about, but it is pertinent to this issue.
When the auditor general for local government, as it is now called, was put forward, one of the first groups to really push for it and to stand up with the Premier and say it was a great idea was the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and their spokesperson, who used to be here as a journalist.
They even published work. I think it was November of last year, about the same time this legislation was tabled. They called it the Municipal Spending Watch. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business had a list that they distributed to newspapers of the 30 worst, freest-spending B.C. municipalities. So this is their work. This is their justification for the municipal auditor general.
I was surprised to see that the town that I was mayor of back in the '90s was right at the top of the list. It's right up there. The town of Golden was, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, one of the worst, freest-spending B.C. municipalities.
Okay. Well, that doesn't sound right. It certainly doesn't seem like everything we do is a Cadillac version of what local government does. So I asked mayor and council: "Well, what's the story? Why are you on the list?" They had a simple explanation, one that took about ten minutes to explain, which points to the problem with this type of study, done by people who start with a conclusion and then look for evidence — right?
What they were told is that data was taken from B.C. Stats for the period between 2000 and 2009. What the Canadian Federation of Independent Business concluded is that in Golden in that period our population had dropped 2 percent but spending had increased dramatically. So you get yourself on the list. Well, it looked like a massive problem — right? — except that there were a number of areas where the regional district started to participate in joint programs.
Now, even when I was mayor, we had joint programs, because 4,000 people live in the regional district and 4,000 live within town boundaries. So if there's an arena, it's a shared cost. Well, many of those shared costs started to get reported through the town, so there was a flowing of money that came in through the town's budget as an expenditure.
You had Golden Area Initiatives. You had Kicking Horse Culture, Golden and area emergency management program, the regional airport, the cemetery, the arena, the Rec Plex all of a sudden showing up, not only
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with the town's contribution but also with the regional district's contribution flowing through the town books. So it showed up as an expenditure.
That was one problem. The other thing was the…. In 2006 you had the resort municipalities initiative. It was started. It collects, in a different way than normal property taxation, about $500,000 per year that now flowed through the town's books.
The conclusion from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business was that there was this massive amount of money that was being taken by a population that was shrinking in size. Of course, the amount of taxes and fees paid by the average town-of-Golden resident is pretty well unchanged for the last six years.
When the lights go off, I'm reminded of a teacher trying to get control of the class and flicking the lights and saying: "You know, buddy, that's about enough." I saw the Minister of Environment over by the light switch, and I'm just….
The amount of taxes and fees paid by the average town-of-Golden resident is pretty well unchanged over the six years, so being put on a list of free-spending municipalities has more to do with a misunderstanding by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business than it actually has to do with free-spending local government. Again it comes down to that idea of a solution looking for a problem.
The structure of the auditor general for local government is also open to abuse. It's an office that is completely controlled by the minister and her cabinet colleagues. In the end, since it's clear that I'm supposed to finish here….
N. Macdonald: The minister responsible says the lightning bolt is next.
It is my intention to vote against this unless the government substantially changes the legislation. I don't think, from past experience, that's likely to happen. They certainly haven't made a convincing case, in my view. I do think that with the scarce resources we have, there are better ways to spend $2.5 million. We could actually pay for lights in this place.
I understand that this is an attempt to keep a commitment, but with so many B.C. Liberal promises broken, it seems odd to choose this one to keep. With that, I finish, and I wish the next speaker the best of luck with the lighting. I thank you for the opportunity to speak here.
Deputy Speaker: I thank the member, and please know the issue is being addressed as we speak.
J. Thornthwaite: I hope the lights don't go out, because I need to read.
I rise today to offer my support of Bill 20, the Auditor General for Local Government Act. As a former school trustee, I'm well aware of how close to the people municipal governments are.
I believe that as MLAs, as government, our first job is to protect the economic interests of British Columbia families, and this bill does just that. It recognizes that there is only one taxpayer in B.C. and that all levels of government have a responsibility to ensure that British Columbians receive the best possible returns on their tax dollar.
The federal and provincial governments are all subject to oversight by auditors general, and several other Canadian jurisdictions have taken similar steps to ensure taxpayer dollars are invested wisely at all levels of government. Examples in the municipalities are Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Toronto, Ontario. In Quebec all municipalities with populations over 100,000 people are required to have a municipal auditor general. So this concept is not new. Plus, I do agree with the Minister of Environment, my colleague, who spoke earlier: if it's a good idea, who cares where it came from? And great. We're keeping a campaign promise. I thought everybody would be happy about that.
The primary purpose of the auditor general for local government is to help local governments by offering neutral, non-binding advice that will assist them in spending more efficiently and improving program effectiveness. Bill 20 sets out the key design elements of the auditor general for local government. It conducts performance, value-for-money audits only. It creates a separate, independent office that does not report back to the Legislature.
It supports, not duplicates, the strong accountability framework currently in place for local governments. It has a mandate more limited than that of the office of the Auditor General of B.C. but is similarly restricted to making recommendations rather than imposing solutions. It does not restrict local governments' ability to make policy decisions about taxation, land use and other services by second-guessing policy choices.
Madam Speaker, our government is committed to working collaboratively with municipalities to keep costs low for taxpayers, and that is why we have consulted widely with stakeholders, close to 300 people, including the Union of B.C. Municipalities and locally elected officials, business groups and other affected parties, like non-profits, to determine how best to structure the role of the AGLG.
Stakeholders will continue to be a key component as we work to establish the new office, and all local governments were provided with a survey to provide government feedback. I'll just read a couple of validators. One is from Shachi Kurl, the director of provincial affairs, B.C. and Yukon, at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. "This is great news for taxpayers across B.C. be-
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cause they deserve to know that their hard-earned dollars are being spent in the best way possible."
And how about Jordan Bateman, B.C. director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation? "This is an important step towards bringing a much-needed addition to the accountability of how city halls spend our property taxes. If something is a concern at city hall, residents need to have someone available to look at the problem with fresh eyes."
This office would support the goals of the government's families-first agenda, ensuring that B.C. families receive the best possible return on investment for their taxpayers' dollars. It will also support local governments by conducting performance audits and providing recommendations about how to find efficiencies and improve the effectiveness of their operations.
It would serve a dual purpose. First, it would provide information to taxpayers that would help them see how their tax dollars are being spent in delivering services to their community. Second, it would provide information to local governments, information that would help them make choices about how to make the most economical, efficient and effective use of the community's assets in the future. It would provide objective third-party advice through non-binding recommendations on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of local government operations.
You can be assured that the legislation putting in place the auditor general for local government reflects important, agreed-upon principles such as an independent office, no duplication of existing financial accountability, focus on value for money and powers no greater than those of the other auditors general.
Audits will examine how that service is being delivered, whether that method of service delivery is efficient and effective and whether the service is achieving the results that council wanted to achieve when it chose to establish the service in the first place.
So what would be a typical example of that? Is garbage collection in your municipality delivered in the most cost-effective manner, or can it find operational savings? Did funding a new water conservation education campaign achieve its objectives of reducing water consumption during peak summer usage? Is a road maintenance program in a municipality sufficient to ensure long life of a road system? Are reserve funds adequate to fund expected capital upgrades?
And what about here on the North Shore? Can the municipalities on the North Shore be offered better combined fire services to the people by amalgamating those services with the city of North Van, the district of North Van or the district of West Van?
In summary, this bill offers collaboration between governments. It's not adversarial. I believe the auditor general will report back with recommendations that will lead to greater efficiencies in local government. Nothing is being imposed here on any level of government.
I'm always looking for feedback on how I can do a better job, so I believe that this is actually a good thing for local governments. I believe that voters and taxpayers will be in favour of this office to help ensure that their property taxes are being spent wisely. The results of this office will, like the provincial AG, help provide better bang for the taxpayers' bucks.
M. Karagianis: I rise to speak to Bill 20 here. I must declare at the beginning that I disagree with many of the comments made by the former speaker, many of the assumptions about what may or may not come of this bill, and I think many of them are assumptions. One only has to look at the language of the bill to call into question the intention behind this auditor general's act.
The first thing that came to my mind when I heard the government declare that they were going to put this position in place was why. Why at this stage, at 11 years into this government's mandate, are they now suddenly taking this interest, this very keen interest in local government and, in some ways, pointing the finger at local government's ability to manage their own affairs?
You know, if a new government has come into place and feels that there is something lacking within things like the Municipal Act or, in this case, the Local Government Act, which has been written, rewritten and amended many times over…. Certainly, in the mandate of this government, one would assume that they would have captured any of the issues in the Local Government Act that this auditor's position might speak to.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
In looking at the rationale behind this position, I ask myself, from my experience in almost a decade in local government: "Were there public complaints about accountability of local governments?" Certainly we have not seen any manifested that I am aware of. I've been to UBCM for many, many years, leading back right into the mid-1990s, and in fact there have been no significant outcries by the public about lack of accountability of their local governments. One would then assume that that's not the genesis of this bill. That's not the rationale for the government bringing it forward.
The next thought that came to me is: have there been any direct complaints about municipalities and about the way they manage their affairs or manage the business of their taxpayers? To my knowledge, in doing some research, I was unaware of any complaints that had come forward, other than perhaps to the municipal inspector, who has, right now, authority for investigating complaints against municipalities. But in reality, our research shows that there have not been any very significant complaints or anything that would in any way call for this auditor general's position to be put into place.
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Certainly the issue of accountability and transparency…. There is certainly no taxpayer in British Columbia that does not expect that from every level of government, and on this side of the House we support that as well. That certainly is not any rationale for looking critically at this auditor general's act. But in fact, when we look at what has led the government to put in place this position to oversee an autonomous level of government — and I'll talk a little bit more about that in a few moments — it seems to me that there are perhaps some clues if you look at some activities recently by the business community.
We certainly see at this point that the Union of B.C. Municipalities themselves have been somewhat suspicious of this act and have called it a solution in search of a problem. We continue to hear very similar sentiments from municipal leaders across the province that we have spoken with.
Certainly the Union of B.C. Municipalities themselves are not standing up saying: "This is a position that we feel is imperative, and this is a task that needs to be undertaken by the provincial government." They are, of course, in a position where they are unable to push back against the government and say: "We do not want to be accountable and transparent, and therefore, we do not approve of this."
They have been put into a real corner here in their ability to fight back on this and say: "We want to be respected. We already have many tools in place that allow us to be accountable to the public." I feel in some ways that it is unfortunate that municipalities have been put in a position where it will be difficult for them to be as candid as they might want to be about this particular position.
I think the fact that most municipalities have enormous levels of accountability and transparency and certainly, just like any other level of government, they go to the electorate on a regular basis and put before them their performance over the last number of years and either get re-elected or don't get re-elected by their own citizens, based on their performance.
This particular auditor general for local government seems in some ways to also not be in mesh with what we might see happening in other communities. Certainly the government hasn't looked at other provinces and said: "Wow, here's a model of something that has worked really well, and therefore we're going to adopt it."
In fact, this is sort of anomalous with what you might see in other communities in the way of oversight for local government. I cite communities like Quebec and the way they have mandated an auditor general there, or Ontario for their …. Toronto has appointed an auditor general, but it doesn't function in the same way that we're seeing this particular auditor general in British Columbia. Nova Scotia as well….
There doesn't seem to be a particular rationale here that says: "Other communities have had enormous success with this, and therefore British Columbia is going to take this as an opportunity to follow something that's good that's happening elsewhere."
[L. Reid in the chair.]
But I do note that…. You know, the provincial government's credibility on this is somewhat taxed by the fact that the provincial government has not respected their own Auditor General's reports and have often either refuted or fought with the Auditor General here. So in some ways, it really does sort of stretch credibility to the breaking point when the provincial government is saying that we need to have more oversight and have someone looking at municipal governments and checking out whether or not they're doing business to the best of their ability, when in fact we have an auditor general here provincially that we continue to ignore or debate with.
I will note that the member for Cariboo-Chilcotin, who was a mayor for many years, herself came out and criticized the need for this local government auditor general by saying, "I don't believe we need any more red tape in the way government does their business. I was a mayor for 18 years" — for which we give her great credit, Madam Speaker.
I can tell you that basically, municipalities are very well monitored, and I would agree with the member on that. I would say that absolutely, I think municipalities have a much different role and a much more critically observed role by their taxpayers than do other levels of government — the provincial and federal government, most certainly.
Then I said: "Well, if no one has complained about municipalities, if we're not looking to other provinces for a better model, and if there is no apparent model here of government's adherence to their own Auditor General, then what would be the genesis of this bill? Why are we putting an auditor general in place to oversee a duly elected, autonomous level of government?"
In fact, we see that the Canadian Federation of Independent Business…. I note the previous speaker quoted from that organization, praising the implementation of this act. That is a group that has been asking for the government to create this office — not taxpayers, not municipalities, not the Union of B.C. Municipalities, but in fact the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. They have been the ones asking for this position.
That makes it very, very interesting. That makes the observation and the reading of and the analysis of this bill much more compelling than I originally thought. The B.C. Chamber of Commerce has also been very strongly in support of this.
Let's look at what the business pressure has been for decades within British Columbia. I know. I spent almost a decade — I spent nine years — at local government. Year after year the pressure that came from the business com-
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munity to reassess property taxation — to reassess how business tax and industrial tax was levied versus residential tax — was always there. It was a constant pressure on municipal governments, a constant lobby that went on every single year, year after year. I have no doubt that since I've left local government it has continued to be that same kind of pressure.
So there we have, for me, the answer as to why we now have this auditor general's act being put before us — not because citizens were asking for it, not because municipalities needed it and not because their union of municipalities felt that this was a good tool, but because of those that have lobbied persistently and consistently for government to re-evaluate industrial and business tax, because they asked for it. I am convinced that this bill is wholly and completely to address the concerns and requests of the business community.
That being said, I think on closer inspection of the bill…. I did read through it quite carefully and had a number of clauses that I was quite concerned and curious about, but I do want to talk a little bit about this issue of autonomy of local government. In fact, local government is a duly elected body of government that represents its taxpayers, that's accountable to its taxpayers and that in fact, I would argue, has a much higher level of accountability than even the province does.
The province has repeatedly ignored its own Auditor General. When it doesn't like what it's hearing, it can certainly ignore that or refute that. However, at the local government level there are so many triggers in place, accountability measures that are there that municipalities have to answer to.
We know for one thing that they have to balance their budget. They can't run a deficit like the provincial government does or the federal government. There alone says that their balanced budgets every year add such a high degree of accountability. All their meetings are conducted in public. All of their budgeting is done with the public's input and with consultation — to a much higher degree than I would say is present with the government.
In fact, if this government had consulted with local government, perhaps we wouldn't be hearing all the underpinnings of discouragement from local government.
The Local Government Act is required to hold a referenda on major capital projects. They must provide public consultation on their annual financial plans — printed. I know exactly what that process is like, having experienced it year after year. They have to issue annual reports, including reports on their performance measures against defined goals.
I would argue that if the province had to do any of these things, we would probably be much more enlightened about the state of affairs that the current government has got us into.
Municipalities have to produce an annual external audit and undertake a performance audit on any particular program or project in conjunction with existing audit process. So they're already subject to much more audit and oversight than the provincial government. Yet what is the rationale here for putting in place an auditor general who will carry out some of these tasks?
We also have the oversight of the inspector of municipalities. This particular office has investigatory powers. They can certainly respond to complaints by communities, and I know for a fact that there are not a lot of complaints. There are not, certainly, a lot of accountability complaints that would in any way justify the kind of move that the government is taking here in putting in place a new auditing body.
So what is local government saying about this? Despite the assurances from others members on the other side of the House here that this is not about taxation, local government knows that at the heart of this, this could very well be about taxation.
I don't believe for one minute, and I know that many municipal leaders do not believe or trust this government's word on this in any way. The government has certainly, up to this point…. Their track record on things like the HST has proven to us that they can say one thing one day and do something else tomorrow.
When it comes to this issue of taxation…. It would seem to me that all evidence points to the rationale for this local government auditor general coming from the request by the business community to please do something about municipalities and their ability to set tax rates that are industrial and business-related versus residential.
If this fight had not been going on for as long as it has in such a public way in municipal council chambers all across this province, it wouldn't be so obvious. If there had been a track record here that showed municipalities were in dire need of this, it wouldn't be so obvious that this is being driven by the business community.
At the heart of it, municipalities are very concerned and very fearful that this is an opportunity, an office put in place for the pressure to come, the recommendations to come, and the government to get in and tamper, on behalf of their business friends, with property taxation rates within communities.
You only have to look at what happened with the Catalyst Paper challenge in their own municipality to know that that is a huge leading, driving source here, for this government to go in after municipalities and override their autonomy, override their current responsibility to their taxpayers and say: "We're going to come in, and we are going to now impose on you some taxation recommendations."
We're not entirely sure how that may come about, but I absolutely believe, as I stand here today, that that is what this is going to be about at the end of the day.
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All of the other tools here that are being offered up make no sense otherwise. There is simply no reason for this office to be created to give oversight to things that are already in place and evident with local government.
The costs. The priority of government at this point in time to implement this costly office, this costly process, again, flies in the face of reason. We have a government that has self-declared their fiscal problems. After 11 years in government the fiscal situation in the province has become a topic on every table in this province. At every kitchen table people are worried about what the economy of this province is doing.
We've seen the government repeatedly slice away at vital social programming, slice away at supports for families and for the vulnerable. Yet we have a government that says one of our top priorities now is to put in place, at the cost of millions of dollars, a municipal auditor general that was neither called for nor needed by municipalities. But that's our priority.
Rather than go in and try to repair some of the damage that we have done in the last ten years to the social network of this province, instead we've said, "You know what? We want to create a new auditor general," to go in and push local government around and find out how they're doing their business and perhaps at some point find a way to levy a business agenda on tampering with tax rates.
It seems to me that this is neither the time nor place to be spending this kind of money on efforts such as this. If it's needed, in consultation with local government in the future, fine. Albeit, I want to see that discussion happen on the floor of the UBCM. I want to see that consultation take place with communities. I want to hear from communities and from local governments less fears and less concern and anxiety about what this actually means.
At the same time, I want to be assured that all of the other critical issues that this government has been guilty of in the last ten years, 11 years — all of the underfunding, all of, I think, the really misplaced priorities that this government has demonstrated and none more so than in the last year since the new Premier came into leadership in her party….
If I had confidence in what I have seen there, then there might be a rationale for the kind of money that's being spent here. But I think these dollars could be more wisely spent in other ways, in other places.
It's pretty easy to stand up and say that this bill is not needed. The expenditures that the government is undertaking at this time, I believe, are not a high priority — certainly not a high priority for most British Columbians. They have the ability every three years to vote out anyone in their local government that they feel is not managing their affairs properly.
Spending these millions of dollars — $2.6 million annually — which, coincidentally, would cover about two more courtrooms to help us deal with the pressures on the justice system and the catastrophically bad job that this government has done in managing the justice system….
[D. Horne in the chair.]
That money would be better spent there, in making sure that communities feel confidence in the justice system, rather than this auditor general for local government, which people have not called for and which in some ways is a bit of a mystery as to what it really expects to carry out and why it would be put in place.
I will say that I'm not clear. When you read the language of the bill, again, so many questions pop up. I've just canvassed a couple of things here that I think really need to be answered as well.
It would appear that the auditor general's appointment itself will be done by an audit council. That audit council will be appointed by the minister responsible. So we have this very tight little circle, where the audit council will be put in place by the minister and report to the minister. We will have that audit council then recommending to the Lieutenant-Governor, who will be the auditor general, and they will report to each other.
So within the minister's tight circle of influence, we will have the council and the auditor general reporting on the business of local government — no independence whatsoever, unlike the custom and tradition of auditors general. And in fact, I think, for the purposes of transparency and accountability, the necessity for arm's-length independence of an auditor general's office…. We don't have that in this particular bill. We have a very tight circle.
If you go back to the actual premise that the government has said around accountability and transparency…. Well, the very independence of this office is in question because of the tight nature of the relationship between the minister, the council and the auditor general himself of the local government.
In reading the bill a little bit further, I noted that it says: "The auditor general may identify and develop and publish or otherwise provide information about recommended practices…." What would that be — "recommended practices"?
I've been in local government. Whose recommended practices are those? In fact, are these the local government's own recommended practices? Are these the practices recommended of other local governments, the UBCM? There is a body that, in fact, looks into these kinds of things to ensure that all local governments are staying in step with new accounting practices, in step with what other municipalities are doing to better provide services, but this now is going to become one of the responsibilities of the new local government auditor general.
Further, it says here, that the auditor general, "if per-
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mitted by regulation, may, on request of a local government and in accordance with the regulations, enter into an agreement to conduct a performance audit of the operations of the local government…." Well, that's already present. That is a redundant activity of this new office, because in fact, these existing accountability measures are already in place for local government.
I don't understand the purpose of being repetitious. If those accountability measures are already in existence, why the repetitive nature and need for us to put this in place twice? What is the purpose of that? That's just on a cursory read.
I further went on to look at some of the other clauses, and many of these I presume and expect and hope will be canvassed very, very thoroughly at the committee stage. If we look at the audit council, which ultimately is going to be responsible for appointing the auditor general for local government at the behest of the minister….
In looking at the criteria here, it's very evident to me that this is not about having local government expertise come in and help to inform other local government. This is, in fact, about finding a way to impose the minister's needs and requirements and views — and perhaps by the business community, who have been the only ones who have requested this particular office. No one else in the chain of connections here has requested this other than the business community.
But the whole purpose here of this audit council is to control this information. They control what the auditor general does, how it's done, where it's done, what kinds of activities the auditor general will undertake, and all of this reported directly to the minister.
So this is all very much within one minister's purview, one minister's area of responsibility, lacking any kind of independence. It does go on to say that before making recommendations there may be some consultation with the Union of B.C. Municipalities.
I will say, unlike many bills that say "must" and "shall" — and we have seen lots of those kinds of changes made by the government to enforce their own views on ministries and some aspects of government services…. The consultation here is mostly after the fact, because we know that the Union of B.C. Municipalities was not consulted about this. So there has been not any consultation except after the fact. It looks like much of the continuing consultation in the future will be after the fact.
The audit council is directly responsible to the minister, and that language goes on in laying out everything from remuneration to recommending who will be appointed and how the auditor general might be suspended or removed. No clarity here on what that might mean in the future. But certainly, at this point there's been no recommendation in here, no connection to whether or not there will be costs levied to municipalities. I've heard that from many municipal leaders.
The audit council will meet at least three times a year. One wonders what the remuneration for this group will be. It would appear that, like many of the other bodies that this government has put in place over the last ten years, they will recommend their own remuneration and will recommend their own terms of reference, and they will pretty much…. Like other very questionable and highly paid organizations this government has created, they could, in fact, have all kinds of authority that I think is misplaced.
If we then go on to look at what it is that this auditor general is expected to undertake, again you can see all the very many pitfalls where, at the end of the day, the minister will have ultimate authority over what the auditor general does and produces in the way of reporting. So before publishing a report on municipal investigations, "the auditor general must submit the proposed final report to the audit council and the audit council may provide comments to the auditor general on the report."
Well, that is exactly the kind of lack of independence that has led this government into problems already in their 11 years in office. This again indicates that this will be a very close-knit little relationship between the auditor general, the council that oversees this and, one would of course say, automatically with the minister, as well, because in all cases all of this goes directly to the minister. So I'm very concerned about this particular clause, and I'll be looking forward to an explanation from the government as to what that might mean.
Going on to the general provisions, again, there are a whole number of general provisions in Bill 20 that I think bear scrutiny and some answers from government. Certainly, I would think that the lack of independence overall for every one of these general provisions and the general responsibility of this all being very exclusively in the minister's hands says that there are all kinds of opportunities here for the government to tamper with tax policy, to override municipal decisions, to in fact interfere with the autonomy and responsibility of local elected government. So I don't see any reason why I would be able to support this bill.
I do appreciate and respect local government, and I believe that in this case this is not a bill or an office or a function that in any way is going to be a benefit to them. If I were to hear different from municipalities, if I felt confidence in the government's ability to be respectful of this, I would feel differently. But they have not been respectful of the Auditor General's reports given to them, and I doubt, in the future, that we will see this as any other thing than an opportunity to tamper with tax policy.
D. Barnett: Today I stand here in support of this bill.
I will say to my colleagues across the floor: I thank you for bringing up my comments, which I did say — that we did not need this, as we had processes in place.
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But you know, I took time. I listened to my constituents. I re-read the bill. I sought information, and I sought input. Today I can say that after talking with my colleagues in local government in the Cariboo-Chilcotin, who all support this bill, who all support this auditor general…. I have listened to my constituents, and I have made a good decision. This is a good piece of legislation. That's what a good MLA does: keeps their mind open and listens to their constituents.
It's interesting that many, many years ago, probably 20 years ago, the provincial government didn't even have an auditor general.
D. Barnett: Well, take a look. Listen. Years ago we didn't have auditors general. We have them now. Probably the opposition didn't believe in those in those days either. But time changes, needs change, and we have to be with change.
I think that the opposition should take a better look at this and listen to their constituents. I know many local governments who are in support of this. I can tell you why: because they understand the importance, as we do, of transparency to our taxpayers.
I heard from across the floor today many times that this is pushed by business. In my communities it's not pushed by business, and by this government it's not pushed by business. It's pushed by taxpayers. I don't care whether you're businessmen, you're a lawyer, you're a doctor, you're a mother, you're a housekeeper, or you're just a great homemaker. There's only one taxpayer. That taxpayer pays for everything that happens in this country, believe you me. We don't have more than one. So continuously to pick on business really bothers me.
Believe it or not, jobs are the most important thing to keep our country moving, to keep our tax dollars coming, and to keep our communities healthy, wealthy and a great place to live. So I think it's time we all realized that business is important. It is the backbone of the country.
I think that another thing we have to look at is the inspector of municipalities that I've heard so much about. The inspector of municipalities does a great job, but this type of auditor is not what the inspector of municipalities does. If you take a look at what he does, some of the things he does…. He looks after the borrowing bylaws. He looks after the Municipal Finance Authority.
There is a role for our auditor for the government. There is a role for the inspector of municipalities, and this is a different role. This is called value for money. My communities have said that they are quite happy with this. They actually have asked the minister already to be some of the first to receive this audit, value for money, and I find that very exciting.
So yes, I changed my mind. Yes, my local governments convinced me and my taxpayers that this was in their best interest. For the opposition, if you would like, I have a copy of the press release. I'm really happy to share it with all of you here today, believe you me.
Something else that the opposition should maybe look at when they say this government over here has done nothing for local governments. I was there for almost 18 years. I was there when the Socreds were in government, I was there when the members across the room were in government, and I was there when this government was in government. Senior governments help local governments in many ways, but I can tell you that since 2001 there has been $3 billion in new funding provided for local governments. In partnership with the federal government, there has been $5 billion in total provided for local governments.
There has also been more than $493 million in traffic fine revenues back to communities since 2001. So when I hear that the government of the day is not taking care and helping local government, I find that very difficult to accept, believe you me.
Value for money. What is that? It's a great topic, one that, believe it or not, is proactive in nature. You know, I find it very interesting, and I have found it for a long time in other things I've done in my career, that for governments to be proactive really upsets people because they don't understand how important it is to think for the future, to work for the future.
We all know, as I have said, that there's one taxpayer. We all know that the way we're going to move ahead in this province and in this country is to spend wisely and together, with knowledge. I believe this is one way that we can improve our livelihood and improve how dollars are spent by local governments. They agree that it's time we started looking at how we can do things better, where we can find better tools. In essence, at the end of the day, I believe this will be a benefit to all.
I also think that maybe we should take a look at Bill 20 itself and some of the key messages. You know, B.C. has a strong local government accountability framework. Yes, it does. This is not what this is about. This is about value for money. This is about learning, sharing and maybe doing things better because somebody from the outside looking in can help. This office at its core reflects recognition, as I said a few minutes ago, that there's only one taxpayer, and all levels of government have a responsibility to ensure that British Columbians receive the best possible returns on their taxpayer dollars.
Nowadays there is no requirement for local governments to undergo performance or value-for-money audits. The audits they do now, as I'm sure most here know, are done to see whether the books are balanced. It took this money in, it put that money out, and at the end of the day: did your books balance? Yes. I have never seen a local government in my time where the books did not
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balance, but it is not value for money.
You know, the federal governments and provincial governments are very accountable to the taxpayers through the way our Auditor General does his reports. I hear across the row saying that we don't pay any attention. We do pay attention. What that Auditor General tells government is very important. What it does is keep us accountable, and it keeps the opposition also accountable because, in essence, if we are not accountable to what the Auditor General tells us, we are reminded on a daily basis, believe you me. I don't think anybody will dispute that point.
Bill 20 sets out the key design elements of the AGLG in establishing what the AGLG will and will not do. It conducts performance, value-for-money audits only; creates a separate, independent office that does not report to the Legislature; supports, not duplicates, the strong accountability framework currently in place for local governments; has a mandate more limited than that of the Office of the Auditor General of B.C. but is similarly restricted to making recommendations rather than imposing solutions; and does not restrict local government's ability to make policy decisions about taxation, land use and other services by second-guessing policy choices.
The AGLG's mandate will cover municipalities, regional districts, the two Metro Vancouver water and sewage boards and the various bodies controlled by those 190 local governments.
Our first priority is to allow the office to undertake the important work of performance audits on municipalities and regional districts. However, in future other local governments or special purpose local bodies such as the Islands Trust and the Okanagan Basin Water Board could come under AGLG oversight.
Our government is committed to working collaboratively with municipalities to keep costs low for taxpayers. We have consulted with stakeholders, including the Union of B.C. Municipalities, business groups and other affected parties, to determine how best to structure the role of the AGLG. Stakeholders will continue to be a key component as we work to establish the new office. We also asked local governments for their input on the potential role, purpose, function, reporting and scope of the proposed office.
As part of this legislation, the AGLG will report through an audit council made up of at least five persons with expertise for terms up to three years. The Union of B.C. Municipalities has provided valuable input on the composition of the audit council. Other groups invited to provide input on the council's composition include the Local Government Management Association, B.C. Business Council, government finance officers association, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and B.C. Chamber of Commerce.
Remember, the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business…. You know, I hear, when the opposition talks about these organizations: "Business, business, business." Business, as I've said before, is what keeps this province going. I find it so insensitive when I hear from across the room that business is what pushed the minister and the Premier, and especially the Premier, to decide that this was a great thing to do for the taxpayers of the province of British Columbia. I don't think there's anybody that I know of that doesn't support business, because they understand the most important thing in this province is still jobs, jobs, jobs.
The audit council's first order of business will be to make a recommendation to the minister on the appointment of an auditor general for local government. That is the council — assisting local governments. Local governments have played an important role in the process leading up to this bill. It is not the AGLG's mandate to impose solutions, as I've said, on local governments. Rather, it will be up to local governments to decide what actions to take following from recommendations made by the AGLG.
In talking to local governments in my area, they are quite excited about that part. They think it is good, they think they will learn, and they believe that they will help the taxpayers in many ways and make their communities stronger and healthier.
Local governments will still have an unrestricted ability to make policy decisions about taxation, land use and services they provide. But they will learn from each other, and that is what they want to do.
I want to read what my community leaders have said about their support for this municipal auditor general. The 100 Mile House mayor Mitch Campsall, Cariboo regional district chair Al Richmond and Williams Lake mayor Kerry Cook have all come out in support of the B.C. government's proposed municipal auditor general.
"We believe that transparency is important. As the mayor of 100 Mile House, I welcome this at no cost to taxpayers. We are open and transparent" — 100 Mile House mayor Mitch Campsall.
"The CRD welcomes any opportunity to examine ways to deliver services to our residents as efficiently as possible. We actively seek out opportunities to improve our service delivery methods and believe the AGLG is an opportunity for all local governments to share and benefit from best practices" — Cariboo regional district chair Al Richmond.
"I believe in the importance of being open, transparent and accountable to the taxpayers. We welcome input on how we can be more efficient and effective and learn from other communities as we plan for the years ahead" — Williams Lake mayor Kerry Cook.
I'm proud of these community leaders who have come forward, who at first did not really agree with this auditor
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general. Like, I've said things, and I was opposed to it, but you know what? We sat down, we took a good look, we had many discussions, and as other issues come forward, we said: "You know, this is being proactive, this is in the best interest of the taxpayer, and this is our responsibility."
Mr. Speaker, I am supporting this bill. Whether my colleagues would like to go out into the world and say that the MLA for Cariboo-Chilcotin changed her mind…. Yes, I did change my mind, but I changed it for all the right reasons, not for the wrong reasons. I encourage everyone to take a good look, to listen, to talk to their communities' leaders and to talk to their constituents to see what they think about transparency and openness and value for money. I think once you do that, you will understand the importance of good governance. That's what this is all about.
K. Corrigan: I am also rising to speak on Bill 20, the bill before the House. Well, I have certainly listened and talked to community leaders in my community, and they are not at all supportive of the establishment of an auditor general for local government. Certainly in my community there is not support from the local government leaders.
[D. Black in the chair.]
Efficiency in government and wise use of taxpayers' money are something that we all agree on. We all agree that we want to have the efficient and transparent and effective use of taxpayers' money. There is no disagreement in this House on that issue. But the issue is whether or not this bill was originally planned for that, whether this bill delivers that, whether this bill is necessary and whether this bill is an effective use of $2.6 million or more of taxpayers' money.
Well, to answer those questions, I think we have to ask, and we have to find out: what was the genesis of this bill? The members on the other side of the House are all now talking about transparency and how this is a wonderful addition, but the reality was that this came about as a result of a campaign promise by a candidate for the Liberal Party who ended up being the Premier.
She made the promise because some of the largest businesses in this province — not the small businesses, but the largest businesses in the province — had a taxpayer revolt and said: "We don't want to pay our taxes." That is where this bill originated. They said: "We want taxes of the largest industrial businesses to go down and for residential taxes to go up." That's where this started. It is as simple as that. That was the trigger for this legislation that everybody is back-pedalling on and trying to justify now. It was a promise made in a campaign for the leadership of the Liberal Party….
K. Corrigan: They're feeling a little sensitive on this particular issue.
It was a promise that I don't believe was based on deep thinking or solid research. It was a promise. It was a promise during the campaign to "fund the office as part of the Auditor General's office. The office will provide advice on financial decisions and provide a measure of accountability." And here's the part that concerns municipal leaders and concerns many around this province: "Review the municipal taxation formula."
That was and continued for some time to be the reason for the promise that the now Premier of this province made. So now we have a candidate that gets elected, and she's made a promise, and the promise has to be kept.
Why were local leaders suspicious about this piece of legislation? Many local leaders were worried that the province wants to dictate local policy and taxes because of her campaign promise. I point out that the campaign promise was vigorously supported by groups like the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, and I'll quote in a minute what they said about this and why it is that some local government leaders were a little suspicious about the purpose of this promise.
I'll quote Mayor Greg Moore, mayor of Port Coquitlam and now chair of Metro Vancouver, when he said: "I think the fear comes because we've heard in the past from the government and from other groups that we need the municipal auditor general to review tax policy. We say that needs to be done by locally elected officials, not by an unelected official in Victoria."
I can understand those concerns, when you consider what was the basis of the legislation and when you consider, for example, that the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, which is a fine organization but had a perspective on this which was, "The addition of a municipal auditor general is an important part of the B.C. chamber's policy on creating equity in the property tax system," which again goes back to wanting to lower the largest businesses' taxes and increase residential taxpayers' taxes.
I've heard many members on the other side saying that municipalities welcome the municipal auditor general, but I certainly haven't heard it from my municipalities. What I am hearing from many different sources is: "You know, it is really hard for us publicly to oppose this. So thank you very much for the opposition that you might bring and the comments that you might make, because we think this is a waste of time, and we think it's unnecessary." I've heard that from many different quarters.
In fact, the response from the UBCM was a question. Their question was essentially: "What gap are you trying to fill? Where did this come from? Why are you doing this?" And I think the problem was that the homework had not been done. There certainly was no consultation with the UBCM — none. No gap had been identified. But unfortunately, the Premier had made a hasty promise in
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a leadership campaign, so it must be so.
I think the UBCM usually…. I don't always agree with every decision that they make, but I think for the most part the UBCM is pretty reasonable in its dealings with the provincial government. But the UBCM was perplexed. They didn't understand it. They didn't understand why there had been no consultation. And they said: "What is the problem you're trying to address?"
Well, the problem was that the Premier had made a promise in a leadership campaign that there was going to be some realignment of taxes and that the business taxes were going to go down at those large businesses and that the residential taxes were going to go up, and she had a problem now.
So there started to be a back-pedalling by government. By the time we got to the Union of B.C. Municipalities AGM in September, the minister responsible was left with the unenviable task of trying to explain to a suspicious and perplexed group of municipal politicians what this is all about.
I would quote the mayor of Burnaby, who at the time said: "First of all I want to express my undying admiration for Deputy Minister Fast and Minister Chong in attempting to find some policy basis for this thoughtless campaign process." I think that puts it in a nutshell.
So then we had back-pedalling, and we had to create a law which created…. We had to create the auditor general for local government, because the Premier had promised it, without having a rationale. Now we get the rationale after the fact.
You know, I've heard members from across the floor talking about how with this act, with the creation of this office, municipalities can learn from each other. Well, they can learn from each other, and they do learn from each other. That is one of the primary functions of the Union of B.C. Municipalities.
The Union of B.C. Municipalities has committees that work on problems. They work collaboratively. There are task forces. It has committees that work on best practices. That sharing goes on all the time in an effective way. And not only does it happen at the Union of B.C. Municipalities; it happens at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which is an umbrella organization of municipalities all across the country that work together cooperatively to develop best practices. I have seen, over the years, as I have attended FCM conferences, that there have been task forces on a whole variety of practices — environmental practices and on a whole variety of areas.
Cooperation and seeking best practices have existed, and they continue to exist. So the question continues to be: where is the gap? And what is the need that we need to build a new government bureaucracy with a starting budget of $2.6 million? And that's just a start.
The purpose is stated to be performance audits. But with regard to that, I would turn to a source that has a great deal of expertise in municipal law: the law firm of Young and Anderson, which has been providing legal advice to municipalities for decades now and specializes in providing advice on municipal law.
Young and Anderson has pointed out what many others have pointed out, that both the existing inspector of municipalities, which is a provincial government entity, and every municipal council already have the authority to require the municipal auditor to provide reports in addition to the annual financial statements.
"Under the Community Charter, the municipal auditor," Young and Anderson reports, "has the power and duty" — power and duty — "to conduct the examinations necessary to prepare all such reports. This includes reports on, to use the language of the provincial Auditor General Act, whether the government 'is operating economically, efficiently and effectively.'" That is in relation to any particular municipal project or program, or just generally.
The power, Young and Anderson points out, is already there to do what is being covered by this act. So we could allow the municipal inspector to continue on and do that work and save ourselves $2.6 million.
You know, I hear from the other side of the House: "Where are you going to find the savings?" Well, I'll start with one. Let's not spend $2.6 million on setting up a redundant office when we already have the powers there within existing agencies.
"In addition, municipal councils," Young and Anderson goes on to point out, "have authority to appoint select committees to inquire into any matter and report those findings to the council. Such committees have the authority to summon witnesses and compel them to give evidence under oath respecting that matter." Young and Anderson again says: "Such committees could even be used to make recommendations to the council on the most cost-effective way to carry out a proposed program or a project before any expenditures are made."
So when we are asking this question on where the gap is in terms of municipalities, whole areas of what the proposed Auditor General for Local Government Act is going to cover are already covered through existing structures, such as the inspector of municipalities.
When we're asking the question of where the gap is in terms of municipal accountability, it is certainly not that municipal finances are in bad shape, as has been said here before. They cannot and do not run a deficit. In fact, some municipalities, like my municipality, have a large reserve of money. In my community the municipality doesn't borrow money at all. It borrows from its internal reserves, which is far different than the provincial government. So if we want to compare the financial position of local governments with the province, we can. We can look at debt, and we can look at $80 billion of contractual obligations that have ballooned under the
[ Page 9142 ]
But you know, I think what we should be looking at and what we should be respecting and emulating are bodies like the Municipal Finance Authority. The Municipal Finance Authority is an organization run by municipalities. It was created in 1970 to contribute to the financial well-being of local governments throughout British Columbia.
The MFA pools the borrowing and investment needs of B.C. communities and, through a collective structure, is able to provide a range of low-cost and flexible financial services. It pools the resources of local governments so that local governments can borrow money at an advantageous rate, and it has been a huge success. It provides long-term and short-term financing and investment managing. It has a triple-A credit rating. It has raised over $5 billion for community capital projects. It has pooled their long-term borrowing needs to negotiate low interest rates and favourable terms each year, and it has saved B.C. taxpayers millions of dollars in debt repayments, due to its very high credit rating.
That is the kind of effective structure that municipalities have put in place in order to be an effective…. That's what municipalities have put in place through cooperation. It's a cooperative approach, as opposed to this top-down approach of imposing a municipal auditor on municipalities.
I wanted to also spend just a couple of minutes talking about what is really my major concern about this piece of legislation and the way that this office of the auditor general for local government has been set up. If this was going to be set up, then it should have been set up in an accountable and democratic way, but clearly, it is not that. It is not democratic, it is not independent, and it is not transparent. That is the primary reason why I oppose this bill.
How is the auditor general for municipalities going to be selected? Is it going to be selected by an all-party committee of the Legislature, the way the provincial Auditor General is? No. Is the auditor general going to be selected by those that are actually going to be audited? Is it going to be selected by the municipalities? No. How is the auditor general going to be selected? Well, the municipal auditor general is going to be selected by something called an audit council.
How is the audit council going to be put together? Well, surprise of surprises, the audit council is going to be put together by the minister and by cabinet. In other words, the decision is going to be made by cabinet behind closed doors, and that is not transparent and open.
You know, it's surprisingly similar to the way the TransLink board has been put together. The TransLink board is essentially controlled by the provincial government. They found in the area of transportation that they really didn't like democracy. This government really didn't like democracy when it came to running transportation in the Lower Mainland, so it decided to put together a board that was essentially controlled and appointed by the provincial government, so that we wouldn't have to mess with pesky local councillors and mayors and transparency, openness and democracy, because that's not the best friend of this government.
What we're going to have, then, is an auditor general that is not going to be appointed by the municipalities which are being audited. In fact, I think that is unique. I don't believe that there is another auditor general which is responsible for auditing organizations that don't have any say about who that auditor is or any control of the audit process.
I believe the call has already gone out for those prospective members of the audit council. It has been pointed out before — the slightly presumptuous behaviour of this government to say that we will…. Before we've gone through perhaps the show of democracy here — because it's a foregone conclusion — and before we even pass the legislation, they’ve put the call out for prospective members of the audit council. That's pretty, pretty unique.
This auditor is not going to be answerable to, or in any way have input other than advice from, the UBCM, which may or may not be taken. The auditor is going to be appointed by the audit council, and it's going to be appointed by the minister. I find that quite astounding.
You know, I mentioned TransLink a minute ago. Another interesting part of this is that the Mayors Council has been asking for TransLink to be audited. So if we have to have this piece of legislation, then perhaps TransLink, at least, should be covered by the new municipal auditor general. But nope, that's not going to happen either. You're not even going to have the ability to have an audit of TransLink by this new appointee of the provincial government.
I find it astounding, as well, that government could be bringing in a municipal government auditor and saying that there needs to be a tightening up of the finances of local governments that seem to be doing just fine, thank you very much, when at the same time I have sat at meeting after meeting of the Public Accounts Committee, where essentially this government has simply ignored recommendations of the provincial Auditor General. So it seems pretty strange to me that there's a feeling that we need to have an Auditor General for Local Government Act. I'm sure that there won't be any concerns whatsoever if any of the recommendations are ignored.
Finally, I just wanted to mention that it is unclear as well. The provincial government has said that it's going to cover the costs of the office, but it is not clear at all whether or not, in the case where a local government actually makes a request for the auditor to come in and do some work, that's going to be paid for by the local government or the provincial government. My suspicion is that the local government is going to end up having to pay for any
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work that it actually wants done.
In conclusion, I think that there is a universal belief among politicians that we support efficiency. We certainly support efficiency and effective use of taxpayers' money on this side of the House, but this came about as a result of a tax revolt by some of the largest businesses in this province, lobbying our now Premier, and it was a promise to those people.
We are now saddled, as a result of that probably fairly offhand promise, with having to justify and put in a local auditor general, done without the request of the municipalities who it will cover, done without consultation. The purpose was to change the tax rates — at least that's what the business organizations thought at the time. Government has had to back-pedal.
To me, this is not a priority. It is not a good use of $2.5 million of taxpayers' money. It is a duplication of powers that already exist. This is non-democratic. The processes that have been put in place are non-democratic and not transparent. For those reasons, I'm not going to be supporting the bill.
Deputy Speaker: I recognize the member for Kelowna–Lake Country. [Applause.]
N. Letnick: What a nice welcome. Nice to be back in the House with all my colleagues. I'm here to represent the priorities of the people of Kelowna–Lake Country and, of course, the Okanagan and all of British Columbia.
Specifically to the bill, Bill 20, I just want to touch briefly on my nine years of experience on municipal councils. I had the privilege of serving, under three different mayors, on three different councils — one in Banff, and here locally in British Columbia in Kelowna. I can tell you that from my experience with municipal councils, we had a lot of opportunities to make some very important decisions on behalf of our citizens.
I remember building a new city hall. I remember also making the decision to invest $44 million in a new water facility. I remember expanding our sewage treatment by $60 million. Another one was looking at our garbage contract and who should get the contract and whether we should go private or keep it in-house. Right now I know that the city of Kelowna is thinking about whether or not we should proceed with a convention centre in the middle of the Okanagan.
N. Letnick: The member from Kamloops, of course, doesn't want the competition, but on this side of the House we like competition. Competition is good. It really drives efficiencies and makes us more effective. I'm sure there'll be enough business for Kamloops as well as for Kelowna if we actually go ahead with that — as long, of course, as the people of Kelowna get as much subsidy for our convention centre as other places around the province have gotten.
K. Krueger: There you go. That's Kelowna.
N. Letnick: There we go, of course.
Having said that, I'd just like to say that all those decisions were made with the best intentions, with the best information we had, with excellent administrators who provided us with that information. Notwithstanding that, it always was a question as to whether or not somebody else, somewhere else, was doing this better and whether or not we were providing the best answer for our taxpayers.
There are always different approaches. I believe that by looking at those different approaches and comparing best practices throughout municipalities, we do improve what we offer to our citizens.
In this case, I see the role of the auditor general for local government doing exactly that: helping out by doing the research, looking at other municipalities, not only in British Columbia but throughout Canada and maybe elsewhere as well, that could advise municipalities on value for dollars, whether or not the decisions that have been made and are about to be made — for instance, like I said, the new city hall, garbage contract, $44 million for a pool, convention centres and other like examples — are the best decisions, value for dollars for local taxpayers.
You know, that's important, not only because of making the right decisions. If you look at the dollars that British Columbians spend in tax dollars, I believe they have every right to know whether or not their property taxes are being spent and invested wisely.
I just pulled out some numbers today. The numbers show me that the same taxpayer who pays, on average, $4,000 per year in income taxes pays, on average, $1,700 per year in property taxes. Now, that's not for school. That's for property taxes for municipal and regional district purposes. So we have all these checks and balances for $4,000 on average per year but hardly anything on the $1,700 in property taxes. Again, it's another indication to me that the role of auditor general for local government is badly needed and that now is its time.
There are no requirements for governments to undergo performance or value-for-money audits, and this will help us move forward with that. The recommendation that's being put forward through this legislation, I believe, will go a long way in helping that out.
We've heard a lot on this side — actually, on both sides of the House — about the differences between this particular position, the auditor general for local government, and also the position of the Auditor General for the province and also the role of the inspector of municipalities. So I wanted, again, to find out whether or not there was
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some overlap there. The information I got made me comfortable in coming to you today, Madam Speaker, to say that there isn't — that there are significant differences between the roles and responsibilities.
How is the AGLG, which is the auditor general for local government, different from the auditing that local governments have already done or from their financial plans and annual reports? The difference is that local governments are already mandated to have an annual audit.
I actually sat on the audit committees for both councils that I sat on, both in Alberta and here, and I can tell you that the auditors do an excellent job of looking over our financial statements. And the audit committees, usually made up of the mayor and a councillor and one other, usually do a good job of grilling the auditors. This is different than what the auditor general for local government is being proposed for, which is the value-for-money key.
The other one is the position of the inspector of municipalities and whether or not there was some overlap there as well, and I wanted to find out. What I got back was that the inspector's primary role is to approve local government long-term capital borrowing and other financial instruments, such as the development cost charges. DCCs, of course, are a big issue in any municipality.
It could be a perceived conflict of interest for the inspector to approve borrowing for a project and then judge whether or not local government has implemented that project most effectively and efficiently. Therefore, there is a difference in the roles. Because of that, I'm confident that there is no significant overlap, and that position should continue in process.
What about the Ombudsperson? That's another person that was brought up as a potential person that could review local government actions. The purpose and mandate of the two offices are quite different, as I've found out here.
The AGLG is a separate office that undertakes professional value-for-money operations reviews of local governments. The AGLG chooses which operations and local governments to audit, consistent with the objectives and criteria established through their service plans.
The Ombudsperson, on the other hand, reviews the administrative fairness of government's actions — in other words, how people, individuals, are treated — and acts in direct response to the complaints of individual citizens. Once again, we have a different role that cannot be satisfied by putting the job of the AGLG underneath the Ombudsperson.
Lastly, the other one, which is fairly obvious, is the role of the Auditor General. Again, I had the privilege of sitting on a committee with members of both sides of the House which received reports from the Auditor General over the last two years, so I have kind of an inkling as to what the Auditor General does. But just to make sure, I wanted to get an answer from government on that. The answer is the provincial Auditor General's focus is on activities of the provincial government and entities that it controls and reports to the Legislature.
The auditor general for local government is focused on the operations of local governments, which are separate from government. Establishing a separate office reflects the principle that local governments, as a separate order of government, are elected by and directly accountable to their communities rather than being accountable to the Legislature.
So once again, I appreciate the comments brought forward by the members of the opposition and their review of perhaps other areas that could take in the mandate of the auditor general for local government. But I guess I've come to a different conclusion: that it would not fall properly under those three offices.
Another thing that came to mind was that back at the UBCM, James Baker, the mayor of one of my two municipalities, asked for a meeting with the Premier. He and his council were very adamantly opposed to the auditor general for local government position. Once we had a discussion with the Premier, he actually left the meeting volunteering to be a pilot project municipality — completely switched from being opposed, to being in favour.
The position was that he didn't quite, I believe, understand the primary role of the auditor general for local government, which is to assist him and his council in giving his taxpayers, his ratepayers, the best possible service, the best possible value for their tax dollars. Once he's had a full discussion, a more fulsome discussion, on the issue, he was offering, and I communicated with him again today just to be sure, to be a pilot project — to welcome the auditor general to look at whatever they're doing in the district of Lake Country and use his or her offices to help taxpayers in my riding. So I'm very comforted in knowing that.
I also understand that one of the members opposite used the Kelowna council or Kelowna mayor as opposed to this position. I checked that up since then, and apparently the previous mayor and previous council did say that they were opposed back in the summer.
However, there has been a wholesale change in council in Kelowna. I haven't had a chance to talk with them, but I will communicate with them and discuss the issue with them and see whether or not they're of the same mind as the previous council was and, if so, why and then communicate that to the minister. Hopefully, they have changed their position since. If not, then at least we'll have an idea as to why.
So these are all good points that the opposition brings up. One point that I think was not proper was the point from the member for Burnaby–Deer Lake saying that the whole purpose of this is to re-evaluate the tax formula. I couldn't find anything in the mandate of the position saying that that's their job. So while I appreciate that perhaps that was a discussion that was made some time ago,
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in the legislation that's in front of us, that's exactly something which is not there.
I just got a note saying to please go as long as I can. As those who know me…. Yeah. Hopefully, the note helps me to go even further than I was expecting to go. I haven't mentioned my grandkids yet, because I don't have any. So, Melanie….
N. Letnick: Well, how about I do that? I've never tried a filibuster before. I usually like to keep to the point and keep my speeches short, like the Minister of Health.
N. Letnick: Well, we could talk about Kamloops. I'll tell you what. How about…?
N. Letnick: I can't do it in French because I haven't given the speech to the Speaker ahead of time, and I know I'll get into trouble if I do so. So how about if I make a few partisan comments? How about that? I know that really likes to get things going. I was doing well. Well, I got the note, and it said stretch it.
N. Letnick: No, no. That's my outside voice. How's that? Look. The expectation is this.
N. Letnick: Why? There are no secrets. This is a transparent democracy. There are no secrets. What else would you like to know?
So look, we have different ways of approaching this, and that's not unheard of. A lot of times when we look at this, it's not the what but the how. I think that in many cases the what is similar. Like both sides of the House, we all want to do what's in the best interest of our constituents.
We all want to do what really we believe is in the best interest of British Columbians. Sometimes we might disagree on how to do that, and that's exactly what I think we have here. I think we can all agree that making sure there is best value for tax dollars for municipalities is something we can agree on. We believe on this side of the House that the role of the auditor general for local government is one way of doing that. Members on the other side of the House disagree and have said they're going to vote against it, and I respect that — just like we all agree that expanding the economy is something that we all want to achieve.
We, on this side of the House, believe that lowering taxes and putting more money in people's jeans is the best way to expand the economy, because that way the money continues to circulate in the economy. It's used; it's invested. People like entrepreneurs have an opportunity to expand their businesses and hire more people, and those jobs create more money, which expands the economy.
The people on the other side of the House, however, believe that to achieve their goals — and I have to bring this back to Bill 20 very quickly — you raise taxes and therefore lower the opportunity for entrepreneurs and make the economy smaller, which in the long run will actually turn out not to achieve the outcomes of the members of both sides of the House.
What does this have to do with Bill 20? I'm searching for that; it's coming. It's coming. It is in retort to a statement that was made this morning that this will not achieve the end. I believe that it will achieve exactly that.
Who else agrees with us that the role of auditor general for local government can actually make a difference? Well, there are other jurisdictions in the country. In Quebec, municipalities with a population of over 100,000 are required to have a municipal auditor general or an auditor general for local government act.
Since I mentioned Quebec, may I now say some words in French? Probably, if I want to.
[French was spoken.]
How about that? Is that enough?
On the French side of the ledger, Quebeckers. Of course, people in the Legislature know or should know that I was born in Montreal but quickly decided that British Columbia was a nice place to move to, so I made my way out west. I stopped in Banff for a few years and then finally made it here to God's country.
Quebec has definitely had this role in place before, and we are not inventing the wheel there. Halifax is required to have a municipal auditor general. Nova Scotia is on its way to implementing a provincewide office for other municipalities. Toronto, a city of great population, is required to have a municipal auditor general, as well, and other Ontario municipalities are being given the option to adopt an MAG position. So, again, Madam Speaker, this is something that other municipalities have decided to go ahead and undergo — performance or value-for-money audits.
The role of auditor general, the primary purpose, is to help local governments by offering neutral, non-binding advice that will assist them in spending more effectively and improving program effectiveness. So this office is independent. It does not report to the Legislature, as opposed to our own Auditor General, who does. It does not duplicate the strong accountability framework currently in place for local governments. It has a mandate more
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limited than that of the Office of the Auditor General of B.C. but is similarly restricted to making recommendations rather than imposing solutions. It does not restrict local government's ability to make policy decisions about taxation, land use and other services by second-guessing policy choices.
Our government is committed to working collaboratively with municipalities to keep costs low for taxpayers, and as part of the legislation, the AGLG reports through an audit council made up of at least five persons with expertise for terms of up to three years.
So in closing, Madam Speaker…. I don't know what time it is, but I'm going to have to close it anyway, because if I continue talking, I'm going to have to bring up more examples on how we have different philosophies in how to achieve similar ends, like the Canada Line. We approved it; they did not. But I wouldn't want to go into that because that would probably be against protocol. Or talking about fast ferries and how we did — right? — that kind of stuff….
How about ignoring the Okanagan? We've invested five times the amount of money in the Okanagan that they did in the '90s. I wouldn't want to talk about that either.
N. Letnick: Elevators? Validators, yeah.
Let me end with this. Just to repeat, I had the privilege of serving communities for nine years as a local city councillor. I would have loved to have had this office in place at that time. I believe that the majority of people around British Columbia that serve in this role, if they are opposed to it now, will see the same positive benefit to them that the mayor and council of the district of Lake Country did and, once it's in place, will be asking the new auditor general for local government to look at their particular issues and see if they could have any advice for improvement, to make sure that their citizens have the best possible projects and the best value for local tax dollars.
C. Trevena: Like everybody else, it's a pleasure to be back. I was going to congratulate the member for Kelowna–Lake Country for not following the playbook of his side for so long. I mean, we started to get a few original thoughts in the beginning.
Unfortunately, too, after more than a decade of his own government, to be desperately grasping at straws of things that happened over 20 years ago to round off his speech — which I'd thought initially was quite a thoughtful contribution to this debate — I think, is a sad indictment that really, there is clearly no substance in this bill. If somebody who has a thoughtful response to it can't continue the discussion for that long and has to go back to — as he himself described — partisan gibes and little niblets and a few quotes from his public affairs section, it is a little sad.
I won't spend my time going on about the many, many infractions that we see this government having played — whether it is the fact that we still don't know what's going to happen with the B.C. Rail scandal or the overspend at the convention centre or what happened with Boss Power or what has been happening with seniors. The list could go on and on, and I could be standing here for half an hour talking just about the failings of this government.
However, we are supposed to be speaking about Bill 20, and I will direct some of my thoughts to that. But we'll take great pleasure in coming back and commenting about the failures of this government, because this side of the House thinks that after 11 years this government has truly failed the people of B.C.
This piece of legislation is offering nothing to help people improve their lives. It's offering nothing to the local governments which it's supposed to serve. In fact, it is really another $2 million program, a minimum $2 million, we're estimating, for the glory of a Premier — or perhaps the mistake of a Premier. We understand that it was brought into inception when the Premier was running for the leadership. It was suggested to her. She grabbed onto the bauble and said: "Yes, let's go with this." She came into office and now is trying to make good on her leadership promise without actually having any real research on it, any real validation or any real justification.
The auditor general for local government is there, we hear, because local governments need to be accountable. On this side of the House we completely believe in accountability, and we completely believe in transparency. I think it's very unfortunate, when we're talking about the accountability and transparency, to have this discussion with this government, because we had in question period raised an issue where some information was requested from the government, and we got blank pages.
We had a report that was issued in September to the Premier's office. We only find out about it in February. This is not a transparent, nor an accountable, government. We have daily examples of lack of accountability and lack of transparency. So the audacity of the government to preach to the elected officials and municipal governments that they need to be accountable and transparent, I think, really is gross hypocrisy.
But this is the reason, we are told, that we need to have this Auditor General for Local Government Act, that we need to have a greater transparency and a greater level of accountability.
I've already cited some of the examples where we have had no transparency and no accountability. The list is endless. We have egregious examples where this government has just ignored the public interest, has kept things hidden. And this was supposed to be the government that
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was going to have open cabinet meetings. Everything was going to be open to the public. Now we have a farce.
We changed the freedom-of-information laws in the earlier part of this session, back in the fall, which again gave us lots of opportunity to talk about how this government talks about one thing and then acts another. There is very little freedom of information. There's very little access to information, and there is absolutely no accountability. The only accountability we get, I would say, is at the polls, and we're hoping that at that time the measure of their accountability is really, truly measured.
The question one has to have is that the government itself has a very poor record. It is not the creature of openness that it pretends to be. So will this auditor general for local government bill increase accountability and transparency for local governments? I would say that it does not. I would say that it is adding another layer of government, another layer of bureaucracy, on local governments — local governments that are already extremely overstretched.
There are many people in this Legislature who have been members of local government, who've sat on councils, who have been mayors, who have been school trustees, who have been active in their own community doing that. I will say I have not done that. I, like others, though, have talked very frequently and continue to talk very frequently with locally elected officials. It's part of my job as an MLA to talk regularly with other people who are elected to represent our constituents as well as talking to individual constituents who look to us for our services.
What I hear and what I've heard for the last ten years…. Before I was elected, I heard it in conversation with friends who are in council, friends who are on regional districts. What I have heard for the last ten years, and it has got worse and worse, is that local governments get everything downloaded on them, that they don't have the ability to make choices. They don't have the ability to be accountable because they are getting more and more responsibilities, duties and costs — specifically costs — downloaded upon them. So they are very fearful, those with whom I've talked.
I have nine municipalities in my constituency, and I have two regional districts and a number of First Nations there — but specifically, nine municipalities and two regional districts. I've talked to many people who were elected to those nine municipalities and regional districts about this specific bill. They say to me: "Why?" That's really the question. I won't say that 100 percent of people are opposed to it. There are obviously going to be individuals in each council who think that maybe there is some credibility there, or maybe it's a given because the government does have a majority.
The government has already started to act on this bill as though it was a reality, by saying that they're appointing to the board that is going to appoint the auditor general. So the people I'm talking to sadly see that this is another imposition that is going to be a reality and are starting to adjust their minds to that and saying: "Well, okay. If we're going to have to live with it, we're going to have to live with it." But many of them are very disappointed that once again they are getting another level downloaded upon them when they could see a much better use for the money.
They tell me, many people, that there is already a huge amount of accountability for local governments. Local governments and local government officials, elected councillors and mayors, regional directors have a huge amount of oversight. Local government has to balance its books. It would be very nice if this province, if this government was able to do that. But we have had a record number of deficits under the 11 years of this government — an absolute record, an outrageous number that makes their arguments of economic credibility incredulous, absolutely incredulous.
C. Trevena: It is very interesting, Madam Speaker, that you can tell that you're actually getting under their skin when they start heckling.
Unlike this government, local governments have to balance their books. That is a huge level of accountability. Unlike this government, Madam Speaker, when they want to do a project, instead of going to the private sector, instead of spending on P3, mortgaging the whole province to the hilt for many generations to come, municipal governments have to have a referendum.
If they have a major capital project, they've got to go to their electorate and say, "Should we do this? Will you support us?" — unlike this government that will spend millions of dollars on a convention centre over the budget. They will spend on a roof for a sports stadium when we have huge needs elsewhere in the province. They will spend on projects that are, in their own eyes, their little bit of glory when we have great need.
And did they have to go to the people for this? No. In fact the only time the people had a voice on anything that this government did was in the HST referendum when they said they didn't want it. And has this government acted on it? Has this government been accountable and listened to the people? No. It has completely ignored them — absolutely ignored them.
Local government has to be accountable. If there is a referendum and the people of the local municipalities say no, the local government has to listen. For B.C., when the people of B.C. — millions of people of B.C. — say no, this government just turns a deaf ear and says: "Oh well, we may deal with it later on. Just wait a few months. Wait another year. It will all be fine."
Local governments have to consult on financial plans. They have to issue reports annually, and we're talking
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about an auditor general for local government. They have to produce external audits.
Anybody who goes through the duties and the requirements of local government, who goes through the Community Charter and sees what local government has to do, would say: "They're pretty accountable. They're pretty open. They're pretty transparent. They're pretty accessible." Most municipalities have open meetings. You can go along. You can ask your local councillors. You can ask your mayors questions in public sessions beforehand.
These are accountable elected officials. These are people who really are listening and who are doing their best under extremely, extremely trying circumstances. And if that's not enough, if the public oversight isn't enough, if that public accountability isn't enough, there is other oversight.
There is an inspector of municipalities who has investigative powers and can hold inquiries, so there is greater oversight already. And there is, of course, the provincial Auditor General that can audit local governments, can audit other levels of government and can audit other areas.
So just from what is already in existence, this Bill 20 is unnecessary. It's an unnecessary burden, I would say, on local governments. An independent voice is there, and an independent office is there with the Auditor General. So why do we have it?
We have it because, as I mentioned earlier, the Premier was running for the leadership of her party, made a promise, ten months on thought it was about time to deliver on that promise and produced this. Didn't consult, like local government is supposed to do. Didn't consult with the main body that represents local government.
I think most people in this chamber attended the Union of British Columbia Municipalities meeting back in September. We do, because we have the duty to discuss with our elected representatives in their forum what the issues are that concern them. We have the ability at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities to work with our elected representatives, meeting with ministers, having discussions. That is their chance for debate.
I was there during the municipal auditor general debate, and it was angry. People were furious with this government for bringing this in. And I would imagine that many other people in this chamber were there, including members of the government side, who say they have been listening to people but clearly did not listen to the Union of British Columbia Municipalities at that time that said: "Why do we need this? What is the purpose?"
Well, we've heard different reasons for the purpose. What it seems to me one of the purposes is…. It's not the oversight for municipal government, because I've said that there are many other opportunities for oversight for that government. More than anything, I'd say it's not giving independence; it's centralizing control.
This auditor general, unlike the Auditor General for the province of B.C., for whom I would hope this House holds great respect as an independent office, an independent body that has produced reports with great insight into what is happening in this province, again for accountability….
It would be very nice if the government actually acted upon some of the recommendations that come there. We could go to Public Accounts sometime and listen in on the meetings. You can see the times when the province has been very slow in acting upon recommendations from our Auditor General.
So that's the independent body. This auditor general for local government, an independent voice for local government, an independent auditor for local government — no. This auditor general responds directly, reports directly to the minister. And while I hope that the minister is, you know, doing due diligence, it doesn't give the sense of independence that one would expect an auditor to have. An auditor is supposed to be independent. An auditor is not supposed to be reporting directly to a minister.
Further, this auditor, the local government auditor that's suggested in this bill, is selected by an audit council, and this audit council, as we've learned, is already being created despite the fact that we are still only in second reading of this bill.
We still have to go through the committee stage. We have to have the full debate here, go through the committee stage, possibly have amendments to it, discuss how it's going to take place before we have the vote on it, at which time it is not guaranteed that it will pass because we continually hear about how the government side has the ability to have a free vote. And if the government side is doing as it's saying and consulting with the people in their own communities that many backbench MLAs…. I'm sure that many of them will really listen to the people who they represent and vote on their conscience — come on to our side of the House. So this may get defeated.
However, in its arrogance, in its continued arrogance, this government has said that it is going to start appointing the audit council. Who appoints the audit council? The minister and cabinet. And we all know that when you want to find out anything from the government that might be of use, might be important, we have the sometimes genuine but very useful claim of cabinet confidentiality. We can't find out what is happening because it's cabinet confidentiality.
Is this where this is going to end up: in information that, when we apply for it, is either going to be cabinet confidentiality or we have to apply through a freedom-of-information request that will take months to fill and then will come out with many, many blank pages like so many of the freedom-of-information requests that are provided by this government that defies the concept of free information?
Madam Speaker, I think that the control is very worry-
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ing. I think it is an added level of concern on the whole reason of having this auditor general. It is not reporting to the Legislature. It's not reporting to the Union of British Columbia Municipalities. She or he will be reporting to the minister.
Now, as I mentioned, I represent a large constituency. I'm very proud to represent the North Island. It is the most wondrous constituency, with nine municipalities — different sizes. Campbell River is the largest. I would say that maybe Tahsis is now the smallest. We've just had the census figures.
We have a number of municipalities, and I've talked to mayors and municipal councils in many of them, and I'd like to just give a few quotes. One said to me: "We already have checks and balances, more than in any other jurisdiction." Another told me: "This is not a priority for us. There are many better places to spend money, particularly if we can have it."
Another one. As soon as I said, "I want to talk about the municipal auditor general," he actually burst into laughter and just said: "Well, that's another ridiculous waste of money by this government." Another described it as "redundant, downloading and a waste of my staff resources." One just simply said, "I don't believe it will work."
[L. Reid in the chair.]
We've had some discussion about where this came from, the genesis of it. It was a campaign promise, a leadership campaign promise. It came from, however, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the B.C. Chamber of Commerce. Both of these organizations absolutely have the right to express their voice. They have the right to say what they think is important. But they are not the voice of local government. They represent businesses, and that's quite justified. They represent quite large businesses, and that is also quite justified. But that they should be listened to at the expense of local government, Madam Speaker, I think is really, really very troubling.
We are in, I think it's quite safe to say, a financial mess. We have had 11 years of complete financial mismanagement by this government. We see the pundits saying that to believe the budget that's going to come down next week is like believing in the Easter Bunny. I think that we on this side of the House are very aware of all the failed economic policies of this government and the failure for our communities. It has been a financial mess.
We've got a massive deficit, we've had years of debt, and so we are going to spend now. We are being asked to approve a bill that is going to cost us a bit more than $2½ million a year. It's not just the local governments that could find better use for $2½ million a year; I'd have thought this government could find better use for $2½ million a year.
At question period the new Minister of Justice and Attorney General had no answer on problems in the court system. Well, $2½ million dollars a year would help fund our courts. It would help fund legal aid to give people access to the court system. It could help fund some of the people who have been kicked off child subsidy for child care. It could help fund access to youth justice that's just been shut down.
C. Trevena: If the member for Kamloops–North Thompson wants to participate in the debate, maybe he should just participate in the debate rather than continue to heckle various members on this side.
Madam Speaker, $2½ million would go a long way to help in many areas, and it would also help municipalities. Unfortunately, we heard from another member of the government side, one of the other backbenchers who used to be a mayor and has done a rapid U-turn on this, having obviously gotten her knuckles slapped for saying that she was opposed to an auditor general and suddenly has come around. The member for Cariboo-Chilcotin finally says: "Oh, this is the most wonderful thing, and I've changed my mind. It's the best thing since sliced bread."
She mentioned that it's a matter of priorities. Politics is a matter of priorities. I think that the government has got its priorities completely skewed by putting an emphasis on this. I would say most municipalities would agree with that and that the money that is being used would be better used elsewhere. If the government wanted to invest in transparency and accountability, maybe it should look at its own practice and put its own house in order before it starts to impose more duties and more responsibilities on local government.
J. Yap: It's great to be back today, on Valentine's Day, after a few months of adjournment and back on a day that is dedicated to love. I can feel the love coming from other members across the way here in the House. It's good to be back to engage in healthy democratic debate.
You know, it occurred to me that it was very meaningful that we had a great celebration today as we honoured our Queen and inducted the Black Rod — again, thanks to the Speaker and His Honour the Lieutenant-Governor for this — because we get to debate, as we do at this time, this bill, Bill 20, in a free and democratic Westminster system of government. We should always remind ourselves that this is very special and that we should cherish what we have.
This new tradition, this new symbol, the Black Rod which we celebrated early today — very meaningful that as we start our session we recognize Her Majesty and today commence our proceedings as we also celebrate the
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So I'm honoured to take my place in this debate, in second reading of Bill 20, the Auditor General for Local Government Act, or AGLG for short. I'll be speaking in support of this bill, which I believe is the right thing to do for British Columbia.
I want to start off by thanking the Minister for Community, Sport and Cultural Development for her work, her leadership in bringing forward this bill, which I believe strikes the right balance as we try to encourage and find more efficiencies and more effective ways for our local governments, that level of government which touches people across our province every hour of every day. It's important that we provide one more tool to local government to achieve value for money as they do their important work.
Before I get to the substance of my comments, I was listening intently to our colleague from North Island. She was doing a fairly set-piece speech. As she was wrapping up she started to talk about a topic that is near and dear to my heart, which is the fact that this government, this side of the House, is very proud of running on our economic record over the last 11 years. I need to respond to some of the points that she made.
I believe, trying to paraphrase here, that she made the point that we're at a point of 11 years of financial mismanagement and financial mess. Those were her words. Yet let's go back to remind British Columbians of what it was like when those folks sat on this side of the House, when they were the government. I just quickly jotted down a few reminders here, if you'll indulge me.
First of all, under the NDP we, over the course of the decade of the '90s, grew to the highest taxes anywhere in North America, in personal or corporate taxes. That's the record of that group.
They basically shut down our economy so that we were uncompetitive. The rest of North America was growing. The rest of North America, every other jurisdiction in North America, was seeing growth, was seeing economic prosperity, but not here in B.C.
Fifty thousand people had to leave British Columbia to find hope, to do better, to get a job, to look after their families — 50,000 people in the '90s left British Columbia. That's the legacy of this group.
Deputy Speaker: Members. Members.
J. Yap: Yes, I thank the minister. Consecutive year after year of missing financial targets and getting downgrades, one after the other, losing the triple-A credit rating, losing British Columbia's place as a safe place to do business, to invest.
That is what we need to keep reminding British Columbians, that this is the group that brought high taxes that led to economic decline here in B.C. and that led to people moving away from B.C., making our great province a have-not province — a province that had been sending money to other regions — a recipient of transfer payments. That's the legacy of the opposition when they were in government.
I just want to share that because the member for North Island made those comments. I just need to set the record straight, to read into the record that today, after 11 years of great financial stewardship, British Columbia stands as a harbour for safe investment in the world — right here in British Columbia.
We retained our triple-A credit rating in spite of all of the challenges. In spite of all of what the other side talks about, we provide — this government, our Premier — the financial stewardship that British Columbians can count on. And we now have an economy that is recovering from the toughest recession in a generation, in 2008-09.
Yes, it's not been easy. Yes, there are more people that are looking for work than was the case four years ago, but we're on the road to recovery. We have great initiatives. We have a great strategy as a government. Our job strategy is working. We are encouraging investment. Investors from around the world are looking for where they can place their investment to create jobs, and it is right here in British Columbia.
I just wanted to clarify and to make it clear for British Columbians who may be tuned in and watching this, hearing the comments of the previous speaker, the member for North Island, talk about financial management. We're proud on this side to stand by our record of financial stewardship and management for the province of British Columbia, and the results speak for themselves.
We hope that, as this debate goes on, members of the opposition will see that this actually is a piece of legislation that they should support. We're talking about providing a tool to encourage more efficiency, value for money, at the local government level. The member for Cariboo-Chilcotin said — and I'm sure other members said it, but I recall her saying it — that there is only one taxpayer. We want to ensure that that one taxpayer is receiving value for money.
I believe this bill, Bill 20, provides the right balance in terms of an office of an auditor general that will be independent of local government. We've heard a lot from the other side about the independence of this office. This office will be independent. This office, the auditor general for local government, will be independent from the auditee, the local government, be it a city or a town or a regional district that will receive a review, that will have the auditor general for local government — his or her people — come in and provide some suggestions, after review, on how they can do better.
How can we argue against wanting to encourage local government to try to do better? Effectively, that's what
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members of the opposition have been spending their debate time saying, that we don't want to encourage local governments. Many of them are doing a great job. But we want to ensure that for the one taxpayer, in an era of growing services provided by local governments throughout the province…. More local governments have chosen to take on more, and budgets are larger.
The members on the other side are correct. There are checks and balances on the financial budgetary side. What we're talking about here, with the creation of this independent office of an auditor general, is to try to help enhance value for money, the operations which are increasingly complex and far-reaching within communities, of local government.
It's beyond me why members of the opposition would be so opposed to wanting to assist local government, to try to provide one more avenue for local government, for councillors and mayors, to get advice on how they can do better with their resources, with their constituents' and taxpayers' resources.
You know, I understand. The member for North Island and others have referred to the anxiety that is felt by some members of local government about this new office and how it would work. I understand that change is not easy. Now that we're debating the office and how this would work, we can have a healthy discussion of how the auditor general for local government will operate.
Some of the principles have already been made quite clear. This is not going to be a financial audit. This is a value-for-money audit. It's not an audit in the sense of a financial auditor doing a financial audit. It'll be an audit to look at value for money, to find efficiencies — an operational audit. These will be suggestions that will be provided to members of local government.
Now, what mayor or councillor will not want suggestions to try to do better? They will not be imposed. These reports will be provided to local government, to councils, to the mayor, to the councillors to review and to see where in their operation they can do better. They will have the opportunity before the report is finalized to look at the findings and discuss, I'm sure, with the auditors, the people that will do the review, their side or their response to whatever findings are going into the report. Then the report will not be a big surprise. They will have the opportunity to review the report before it's tabled.
Again, I must emphasize this is in the spirit of wanting to encourage local government, a very important level of government, to find efficiencies to achieve better value for money on behalf of their constituents, who are also our constituents.
I mentioned that I understand that change is not easy, and I can speak from a little bit of experience. Prior to entering politics I had a career in financial services. I was a banker. I had the opportunity to be employed by a sizeable financial institution. Part of my career I did spend in the audit department. At that time it was called the inspection department. I was a bank auditor.
I can tell you that when I first started, my first few days on the job, it was exciting, as it always is with a new opportunity. I had this in my mind: that as an auditor I was going to go and try and find fault. A mentor of mine, who was the senior auditor, pulled me aside one day, early in my days as an auditor, and said that it's not so much about finding fault, although that happens from time to time, but it's about listening. I said: "What do you mean, it's about listening?"
The word "auditor" has the word "audit" in it — audit as in auditory. It dawned on me that, yes, that's right: an auditor listens. That for me gave me a lot more clarity as I spent those years, almost three years in total, working as an auditor. Most of the time an auditor spends his or her time listening to auditees, listening to what the issues are. While as a banker you'd look at financial audits and procedural audits, there were also operational and efficiency audits that we did.
I can recall firsthand that auditees may have a sense of anxiety when the auditors come in and want to try and help. You can almost find a bit of humour in that. "We're auditors. We're here to help you." But invariably, at the end of the audit, the folks we went to see, whether it was a department or a branch of the bank that I happened to work for, would feel that it was a worthwhile experience and that they learned and gained from the week or two weeks that the auditors, myself sometimes included, spent doing the audit.
I know from personal experience, from a period of my career spent doing this work, that it adds value, and it will add value when the auditor general for local government goes to communities, goes to cities, towns and regional districts and provides that value-added review, that second or third opinion, and listens and provides suggestions on how to improve.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
There is lots of support for the creation of an auditor general for local government. As we debate this, I'm really interested in the aspersions that seem to come from members on the other side about: "Oh, this is something that business wants." You know, if it's something business wants, there must be some other agenda going on here. Yes, business wants to ensure that the system of financial management of a very important part of every community, the local government, is running in an efficient, value-for-money manner.
We have heard from many commentators and from some local government officials, elected officials, who have spoken in support of an auditor general for local government. Let me share a few here, very quickly. I know the hour is near.
[ Page 9152 ]
First of all, here's a quote from the mayor of Coquitlam. The mayor of Coquitlam, Mayor Richard Stewart — this is a direct quote — says: "The office of the auditor general for local government holds the potential for giving local governments an additional tool in ensuring that we are serving our communities as efficiently as possible." It's a tool.
One more quote, if I may, Mr. Speaker. Here's one from business, from the voice of small and medium-sized business, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
J. Yap: Yes. The voice for small business. We know that members of the opposition are against small business, so let me just quote their director of provincial affairs, Shachi Kurl. She says: "Having an auditor general for local government to do performance audits and really review that and look at where we're actually seeing good practices involved is something that I think municipalities will benefit from and that taxpayers will benefit from."
I look forward to hearing some of the other assertions from members on the other side.
As we look at the principle of this bill, Bill 20, the Auditor General for Local Government Act, this is a good piece of legislation which I support, which I'll be voting in favour of and which I truly believe is in the best interests of all British Columbians.
J. Yap moved adjournment of debate.
Hon I. Chong moved adjournment of the House.
Mr. Speaker: This House stands adjourned until 1:30 tomorrow afternoon.
The House adjourned at 6:24 p.m.
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