2004 Legislative Session: 5th Session, 37th Parliament
The following electronic version is for informational purposes
The printed version remains the official version.
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 2004
Volume 20, Number 6
|Introductions by Members||8553|
|Statements (Standing Order 25B)||8553|
|Recognition of work of Surrey police officers and citizens|
|Employment in Cariboo area|
|Small business in Victoria|
|Funding for RAV line|
|Hon. G. Campbell|
|Passenger rail service to B.C. interior communities|
|Hon. K. Falcon|
|Release of report on B.C. forest fires|
|Hon. G. Campbell|
|Hon. G. Collins|
|Safety of farmed salmon|
|Hon. J. van Dongen|
|Reports from Committees||8557|
|Select Standing Committee on Crown Corporations, third report|
|Point of Privilege||8557|
Hon. G. Collins
|Hon. G. Cheema|
|Throne Speech Debate (continued)||8559|
|Hon. G. Plant|
|Hon. C. Clark|
|Hon. K. Falcon|
|Hon. S. Hagen|
|Hon. S. Brice|
[ Page 8553 ]
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 2004
The House met at 2:03 p.m.
Introductions by Members
Hon. S. Brice: Both the Minister of State for Immigration and Multicultural Services and I would like to welcome to the gallery an important leader in mental health in this province. He and his family are to be commended for both leadership and dedication in promoting mental wellness in the workplace. Just recently his company, Coast Capital Savings, has launched an initiative to train 20 human resource counsellors so they will be better equipped to help managers and employees recognize and deal appropriately with depression and anxiety. He is also leading the way in his work to create a research chair in depression at the University of British Columbia. Would the House please welcome Mr. Lloyd Craig, CEO of Coast Capital Savings and chair of the B.C. Business and Economic Round Table on Mental Health.
Hon. C. Clark: I am delighted today to be able to welcome to the gallery, for the first time since Mark Rose was their MLA, Margaret and Art Wilkinson — both of whom have the freedom of the city of Port Moody, both of whom have led and inspired a generation of people in our community to do better and to serve the people that we live next door to. I hope the House will make them welcome.
H. Bloy: It's my pleasure today to introduce two young people in the gallery with us. They are recently engaged: Ms. Jennifer Sutherland and Mr. Dennis Fynn. I have known Dennis for almost 20 years, watching him grow up and go to school and scouting with my family. Would the House please make them welcome today.
(Standing Order 25b)
RECOGNITION OF WORK OF SURREY
POLICE OFFICERS AND CITIZENS
D. Hayer: There continues to be a great deal of concern about crime and violence in our community, but I know we are making progress. In fact, we have some of the most dedicated police officers in the province in Surrey, and particularly in my riding of Surrey-Tynehead, battling these cancers on our society.
Recently RCMP assistant commissioner Gary Forbes, along with the mayor and MLAs for Surrey–Green Timbers and Surrey-Whalley and myself, honoured 15 outstanding Surrey officers for deeds that were far and away beyond the call of duty.
They have spent countless hours on murder investigations, crime prevention and making Surrey a better, safer place to live and to do business in. In addition, there were certificates of recognition given to civilians who chose to take action rather than sit idly by. These acts by police officers and citizens alike are reassuring, and they demonstrate that dedication to the community and to help others is alive and well in Surrey.
Receiving RCMP commendations were Cpl. Peter Cross, Cpl. Robert Parker, Const. Gordon Reid, Const. Duane Rolls, Const. Margo Halliday, Const. Jose Carlos, Const. Perry Olson, Const. Christian Bichler, Const. Kurt Neuman, Const. Rudy Exantus, Const. Rob Lewis, Const. Mike Hall, Const. Bruce Crabb, Const. Graham Morgan and Const. Paul Dadwal.
Civilians honoured were Simon Prodromidis, Andrew Henderson and Andrew Cilliers, who all were cited for courage and selflessness when they dragged a man to safety from a burning car, while Geoff Beaumont was honoured for alerting police to a vehicle and operator who was involved in a marijuana smuggling operation along the U.S. border.
Also honoured was Cpl. Fred Nicks for his above-and-beyond work on Project Evenhanded, and civilian Teresa Campbell was recognized for her work with youth in the Surrey school district and the Surrey RCMP school liaison program. I would ask the House to join me in congratulating these fine police officers and citizens who by their own actions deserve these awards.
EMPLOYMENT IN CARIBOO AREA
W. Cobb: Forest fires were breathing down our necks; pine beetles are infesting our forest; trading partners are restricting our beef and our lumber. It has been a challenging year for the Cariboo. We needed some good news, and it has arrived from Stats Canada. People in the Cariboo are finally getting back on the job. Employment numbers in our region have improved dramatically. Our unemployment rate is currently at 9.8 percent and closing on the 7.3 percent average. The rate has improved by 3 percentage points in the past seven months. It is encouraging to see that fewer Cariboo residents are looking for work, but there is an even better signal for us. The Stats Canada rate tells us how many people are actively employed, and that number is climbing beyond any level in the past two years.
In January our employment rate was at a low of 58 percent, but now it is outperforming the provincial average and sits at 63 percent. In the past year the Cariboo region generated a total of 3,300 new jobs. To put that in perspective, that was the third-highest in the province. Only the Thompson-Okanagan and the northeast have job creation numbers above ours.
These regions are all in the heartlands, where Premier Gordon Campbell pledged to focus B.C.'s economic renewal. The plan is clearly paying dividends in our area. Success is being felt all across B.C. There were 77,000 new jobs created in 2003 — tops in Canada. B.C. has increased its job creation numbers by a whopping 8.1 percent, well above the Canadian increase of 5.5 percent. It is clear. B.C. is recovering from a decade of decline.
[ Page 8554 ]
SMALL BUSINESS IN VICTORIA
S. Orr: Two-minute statements are used for a huge variety of reasons. For me it's usually a time to brag about good things happening in Victoria-Hillside.
Small business is big business in my riding, and I have many success stories. This month, one in particular jumped out at me. It's a lighting store called Illuminations. Three years ago a couple called Bob and Wendy McRichie moved to Victoria. They had been working very successfully around the world in the computer industry, and, in fact, Bob still does. They decided to move back to B.C. where they had lived before and take a chance once again.
This couple are very astute in business and saw changes happening here with a change in government. They took a huge risk, and knowing nothing about the lighting business, they bought a store that had been in business since 1975. It was a modest store with six employees. They then took all their expertise in their computer business and in customer service, and with the boosts in our economy and the construction industry combined, they applied their knowledge to this new business.
Today, three years later — during the time of this government — they employ 24 young people whom they took great pride in training to a very high level of customer service, and they now all have good jobs. The crowning glory is that last month they won in Dallas, Texas, the equivalent of the Academy Awards in lighting. There is such a thing. They were selected from literally thousands and thousands of lighting stores throughout North America for the award for lighting showroom, which is the equivalent of best picture.
Yes, here in my riding of Victoria-Hillside, Illuminations is the best in the west. Well done to Illuminations lighting store. You have just proved to me once again that small business rocks.
Mr. Speaker: That concludes member statements.
FUNDING FOR RAV LINE
J. MacPhail: On Friday the federal government said it had an agreement to divert $60 million from the rural infrastructure fund to the Richmond-Airport-Vancouver rapid transit line. "News to us," said the Minister of State for Mining. "We're still in negotiations," said the Minister of Small Business. Then today the Minister of Small Business says the federal release is "flat wrong," to quote him.
Now, this news release didn't come out of group action Quebec. It's a very thoughtful news release, and it says specifically that the money was going to be diverted. To the Premier: why did his government come to an agreement to divert rural money to the RAV line and then deny it only when it was exposed?
Hon. G. Campbell: The press release from the federal government was wrong. Let me say that again. It was wrong.
I visited with the Prime Minister in July of 2003. I pointed out to him explicitly that we would not touch one cent of infrastructure money for rural British Columbia. I met with Minister Rock and I said to him that we will not touch one cent of infrastructure money for rural British Columbia. I talked with three mayors from the greater Vancouver regional district, who suggested it might be a good idea to do that. I said: "Just so you're clear, we will not touch one cent of infrastructure money for rural British Columbia."
The member opposite should be aware of this. We will not touch one cent of infrastructure money for rural British Columbia for the RAV line. We have said that to the federal government. That is our commitment to the people of rural British Columbia. More importantly, it was the federal government's commitment back to British Columbia, and we intend to hold them to that commitment.
Mr. Speaker: The Leader of the Opposition has a supplementary question.
J. MacPhail: Well, it looks like once again the federal Liberals are making life miserable for B.C. Liberals. I know it's tough — that relationship between the federal Liberals and the B.C. Liberals — but this news release, which as far as I know hasn't been asked to be withdrawn, is very clear. It's not a news release where one federal body is skimming off 15 percent and transferring the money to another federal body. It's very clear. It's a couple of days old, and it's very specific on the commitments….
Mr. Speaker: Order, please, hon. members.
J. MacPhail: The governments of Canada and British Columbia have already agreed to use $60 million of the province's allocation under the MRIF for the Richmond-Airport-Vancouver rapid transit project line.
Now, if the Premier is standing up and saying the Prime Minister didn't tell the truth or if he's saying the minister responsible for the program didn't tell the truth…. Or is he saying that this is just another example of the federal Liberals playing fast and loose with tax dollars? Is the Premier now, with his vehement denial, accusing the federal government…
Mr. Speaker: Order, please.
J. MacPhail: …of lying about this agreement to redirect money from rural communities to the RAV line? Who is telling the truth — the Liberal Premier of
[ Page 8555 ]
B.C.? Or who's not telling the truth — the Prime Minister of Canada?
Hon. G. Campbell: Well, again let me tell you that in the discussions we had with both the minister responsible and the Prime Minister, it was always clear that in British Columbia we felt rebuilding the rural infrastructure that was left to fall under the previous government was one of the critical priorities we had. That's why this government said to the federal government that our top transportation priority for a Canada–British Columbia partnership was the Kicking Horse Canyon upgrade, and that's why the federal government has committed to that partnership with the people of British Columbia.
Let me simply say again: the new federal minister got it wrong. We can't say it any clearer than that. They got it wrong. There will not be one cent of rural infrastructure money that goes to the RAV line between Vancouver, Richmond and the airport — period.
Mr. Speaker: Leader of the Opposition has a further supplementary.
J. MacPhail: Oh boy. I'm sure the Prime Minister of Canada is very nervous today, because what this Premier is saying is that the federal government isn't telling the truth about where federal tax dollars are going. With friends like that, hmm, who needs enemies? Here's the release, and it said that the minister of state for infrastructure…
Mr. Speaker: Order, please. Order, please, hon. members. Let us hear the questions.
J. MacPhail: …today announced that negotiations with each province had been concluded just last week. So I take it that the Premier is saying someone's not telling the truth — that's exactly what he's saying — and that the details of this agreement, as listed here, are not the truth.
Again to the Premier: when he found out that the federal government was lying to the rural residents of British Columbia….
Mr. Speaker: Order, please.
J. MacPhail: When he found that out, did he write to the Prime Minister and tell him that he was lying? When did he do that, Mr. Speaker?
Mr. Speaker: Order, please. Order, please.
To the Leader of the Opposition and to all members of the House, let us keep our language temperate and parliamentary.
Hon. G. Campbell: I heard about this release on Friday. I communicated with my deputy minister, who happens to be in Ottawa today, and I said: "By the way, the federal government has got its press release wrong. There will not be one cent of rural infrastructure dollars that will be going to the RAV line — period."
PASSENGER RAIL SERVICE TO
B.C. INTERIOR COMMUNITIES
J. Kwan: Right now, CN is taking proposals from private operators to run a passenger rail service that the Liberals had shut down in 2002, leaving communities like Lillooet and Quesnel without regular passenger service. But in the request for proposals issued by B.C. Rail's new owner, CN, those communities are not even included on the map of the B.C. Rail network.
To the Minister of Transportation: how can rural British Columbians have any trust in what the government says about the sale of B.C. Rail when the communities have disappeared off CN's map of B.C.?
Hon. K. Falcon: I missed the last little bit. What was the map? Well, no, I wasn't able to catch that last bit, but let me just say….
Hon. K. Falcon: My goodness. I'm shocked.
Mr. Speaker: Order, please. Order, please. The Minister of Transportation has the floor.
Hon. K. Falcon: The member opposite should be very happy to know that in the course of undertaking that process, we ensured and wanted to make sure that the process would be absolutely scrupulous and aboveboard. That's why we've got a former assistant deputy minister of the Attorney General's office overseeing that process to make sure it's absolutely aboveboard and above reproach, and it will be great for rural British Columbia.
Mr. Speaker: The member for Vancouver–Mount Pleasant has a supplementary question.
J. Kwan: You know, it's troubling. It's very troubling to hear from this Liberal government who make light of the fact that the rural communities are not even on the map of the CN's request for proposal for passenger rail.
Mr. Speaker: Order, please.
J. Kwan: This is a government that sold B.C. Rail…
[ Page 8556 ]
Mr. Speaker: Order, please.
J. Kwan: …and sold the community out. This is the Liberal government who promised….
Mr. Speaker: Order, please, hon. members. Order, please. Let us hear the question. We can't hear the question up here. Please begin again.
J. Kwan: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
This is a government that promised they would not sell B.C. Rail, and they sold B.C. Rail. Now, with the request for proposal, rural communities are not even on the map in the request for proposal for passenger rail services. How can this minister sit back and laugh at a question that rural community mayors are asking: "Where are we, and how can we have any faith in the request for proposal when we're not even on the map for consideration?" So before CN shuts out rural British Columbians, will the Minister of Transportation demand that his friends at the CN put small communities back on the passenger rail line?
Mr. Speaker: Order, please. Order, please.
Hon. K. Falcon: I think one of the things that the member should take heart in is the fact that we are actually going to ensure there is a commercially viable tourism passenger rail service once again in British Columbia. Now, I understand how difficult it is for this member, because they always feel a need to insert themselves politically into things. I would remind this member that one of the reasons why, sadly, there was no passenger rail service or it was discontinued under B.C. Rail is that it was losing $10 million a year. The true strength of rural communities is going to be when we have a commercially viable tourism passenger rail in B.C. again, and that's exactly what we're going to do through the CN–B.C. Rail partnership.
Mr. Speaker: Order, please.
RELEASE OF REPORT ON
B.C. FOREST FIRES
K. Krueger: Communities in my constituency and across British Columbia were hard hit by the devastating forest fire season last summer, and the constituents of Kamloops–North Thompson and all across the province have been eagerly awaiting the results of the inquiry by Mr. Gary Filmon and his recommendations. It's my understanding that Mr. Filmon's report was submitted to the Premier's office earlier today. I wonder if the Premier could update the people of British Columbia, particularly Kamloops–North Thompson, as to when we expect that the report will be made public.
Hon. G. Campbell: Mr. Filmon's report was due yesterday. I am not aware that it's in the office, but I'm sure it will be in the office today. As I said when we commissioned Mr. Filmon initially, the government would like a few days to review the report, but I can tell the member and all the members of the House and the communities involved that that report will be made public by the end of this month.
R. Nijjar: The Carole James NDP budget proposes balancing the budget not this year, not next year, not three years from now, not four years from now. They propose to balance their budget not until 2010. The NDP Carole James budget would give British Columbia taxpayers the highest income tax rate of all jurisdictions not only in North America but around the world. Astonishingly, British Columbians of the lowest income would be hit with a 40 percent tax increase.
Would the Minister of Finance please tell us what a Carole James NDP budget would do to British Columbia?
Hon. G. Collins: I think if anybody wanted to know what kind of an impact that kind of an NDP Carole James budget would have on British Columbia, all they need to do is look back at the decade of the nineties and see what kind of effect that policy had on the province and the people in British Columbia. We went from having the number one economy in Canada to number ten. We went from being number one in job creation to the last. We saw people's incomes go down as their taxes rose, and we saw community services decay across the province.
If that's what British Columbians want, they know who they can vote for. They can vote for Carole James in the next election.
SAFETY OF FARMED SALMON
B. Belsey: My question is to the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries.
A recent study funded by a U.S.–based environmental group claimed there were high or harmful levels of PCBs in farmed salmon, and all British Columbians demand to know that their food is safe. I expect that the farmed salmon industry is going to play a major part in the economies of coastal British Columbia. Can the minister tell my constituents that, in fact, farmed salmon is safe to eat?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Food safety is the responsibility of Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Canada. They have assured the public that farmed salmon is safe to eat. In fact, the presence
[ Page 8557 ]
of organic compounds in farmed salmon is about 1/80 of the acceptable limit.
I think it's very unfortunate when anti–salmon farming groups engage in deliberate misinformation campaigns of the public, when in fact nutritionists are actually becoming concerned that these kinds of campaigns will encourage the public not to eat salmon — both farmed and wild salmon.
I can assure the public that farmed salmon is safe. We're pleased to support the industry in communities like Prince Rupert. It's an environmentally sustainable industry. We look forward to managed growth in farmed salmon production in British Columbia.
[End of question period.]
Reports from Committees
K. Stewart: I have the honour to present the third report of the Select Standing Committee on Crown Corporations for the fourth session, respecting a review of the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission and the British Columbia Housing Management Commission.
I move that the report be taken as read and received.
K. Stewart: I ask leave of the House to permit the moving of a motion to adopt the report.
K. Stewart: I move the report be adopted, and in moving the adoption of the report, I wish to make the following comments.
I would like to thank all those members who worked so hard in presenting these reports and the staff that were involved with it also. I'd like to say that I've been pleased with the work of the committee. We're starting to get to a point where the reports are becoming more relevant and that the future reports will be concentrating on the board and governance aspects of the Crown corporations.
With that, I move the report be adopted.
Point of Privilege
J. MacPhail: Hon. Speaker, you will recall that last Tuesday I sought leave to reserve my right to proceed on three privilege motions. I would like to address the second of those motions today — now.
I have material to support the motion I intend to bring, and I would like to table the supporting documentation with you, as well as the summary of the brief comments that I have in support of the motion I am bringing today.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to present to you what I believe will be a prima facie case for the argument that the member for Surrey–White Rock breached the privileges of this House by misleading this assembly. I will make the case that the member for Surrey–White Rock — the former Minister of Children and Family Development — misled this assembly by hiding the appointment of Doug Walls to a senior ministry appointment. I have attempted to keep my presentation brief and non-argumentative in accordance with the rules.
On March 24 of last year I asked the member for Surrey–White Rock, who was then the Minister of Children and Family Development, for a list of the CEOs of the regional authorities. The member for Surrey–White Rock provided a list of the names of the interim authorities but did not include the CEO for the Interim Authority for Community Living. When I specifically asked for information as to who was the interim CEO for community living, he replied with the following statement: "Currently, the senior government representative is Elaine Murray. They will be going through a selection process sometime in the next number of months."
Mr. Speaker, I have as evidence for you…. I refer you to the Hansard record of the estimates debate for the Ministry of Children and Family Development from March 24, 2003. I will turn in all these exhibits at the end, Mr. Speaker, if that's okay.
I'd like to further point out that during this debate, the former minister, the member for Surrey–White Rock, was staffed by the former deputy minister, Mr. Chris Haynes, and that the member sought information from his deputy minister during this exchange. As further evidence of this exchange, I submit for your consideration a video recording obtained from Hansard Services of that same estimates debate.
Yet the member's response to my question was an entirely misleading statement. The fact is that the chair of the Interim Authority for Community Living B.C., David Driscoll, had written to the Deputy Minister of Children and Family Development on January 23, 2003, to advise that Doug Walls was the acting CEO. The opposition has obtained a copy of this letter confirming the appointment of Mr. Walls, and I will table that letter to supplement this presentation.
In this letter, Mr. Driscoll informs Mr. Haynes: "Effective immediately, Doug Walls will be acting as CEO." The letter also asks that Mr. Walls be included "in any conversations, meetings, appointments, discussions or any other aspects of business relating to transition activities where the involvement of the CEO of an interim authority, regional planning committee or aboriginal planning committee is required or desirable."
As a further exhibit, I attach the signature page from the Interim Authority for Community Living B.C.'s financial statements dated May 9, 2003, which confirms that the January 23, 2003, letter appointing Doug Walls as interim CEO was accurate. Again, I quote from the letter: "…for the purposes of the interim authority's bylaws and for purposes of all ministry-related activity and involvement, he" — Mr. Walls —
[ Page 8558 ]
"has been designated as the CEO." As of January 23, 2003, Mr. Walls was designated the CEO for all ministry-related activities. Yet when I asked the question a mere two months later, the member provided me with the name of Ms. Murray, clearing misleading this House.
As further evidence of Mr. Walls's de facto role as acting CEO, I attach an extract of the minutes for a July 16, 2002, meeting of the Community Living Coalition that indicate that the interim CEO of the community living authority would not be eligible to apply for the permanent position. This policy as stated in the minutes, which I also submit for your consideration, suggest a possible explanation for the secret appointment of Mr. Walls in January 2003 and the pains taken by the former minister, the member for Surrey–White Rock, including misleading the House, to insist that Mr. Walls was not interim CEO of the Interim Authority for Community Living.
Acknowledging what was going on in fact and in reality — that Mr. Walls was acting as CEO — would have made Mr. Walls ineligible to head the permanent authority to be established in June 2004. Mr. Doug Walls was appointed as acting CEO of the Interim Authority in January 2003. The member, when asked in his former capacity as Minister of Children and Family Development about this appointment, clearly misled this House, providing the name of a civil servant instead of that of Mr. Walls. As all members know, since this incident the member for Surrey–White Rock has resigned as Minister of Children and Family Development.
While the Government House Leader may try to argue that the member's resignation nullifies my motion, parliamentary procedure is very clear on this matter, and I will quote from Erskine May as evidence. In the section dealing with ministerial accountability to Parliament, Erskine May, twenty-second edition, states on page 63 a number of resolutions, including the resolution that "it is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister." Erskine May makes it absolutely clear at page 64 of the twenty-second edition that ministers offering "their resignation will not affect the right of the House to proceed against them in a case of alleged contempt, as it might proceed against any other member."
This House functions when the opposition and, by extension, the citizens of this province can rely upon what we are being told. My submission to you is that in this case that has not happened and that a committee must be struck to examine the conduct of the comments of the member for Surrey–White Rock. I believe that the material I have cited clearly illustrates that there is a compelling and prima facie case for striking the committee that is being requested today. For your consideration, I put forward to you a motion that, if you consider proper, you can put before the House. I include these exhibits and my remarks. Thanks very much.
Mr. Speaker: Hon. members, at this time the Chair will entertain a response from the government side or a notice of response from the government side. Then I will consider all remarks.
Hon. G. Collins: As I said last week, I reserve the right of government's reply at a later date.
Mr. Speaker: So noted.
Hon. G. Cheema: Today we celebrate Multiculturalism Week, a week in which we celebrate our cultural differences as British Columbians. Diversity and a cultural harmony make British Columbia a healthy, safe and prosperous province. As a result of our diverse and thriving province, our children will live in harmony and will be free to build upon the foundation of acceptance.
Our government encourages everyone to take an active part in our province's social, cultural and economic affairs. Diverse communities are a significant part of the social and economic fabric of this province and are the driving force behind the growth of our labour market. Immigration is an important part of our history. The diversity of our population translates directly into economic opportunity for all British Columbians.
Today our government reaffirms its commitment to provide a climate where all people are full participants in all aspects of our society. Through acceptance and respect, our government has created and will maintain a climate that favours progress and prosperity for all. We are a province that's rich in history and opportunity. Our Premier has built bridges between British Columbia's communities and diverse countries around the world. We know that during the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, we will be welcoming people from all over the world, from all backgrounds, from all cultural histories and from all traditions. Those visitors will see their reflection in the cultural and social life of this province. They will see their culture accepted and respected in communities throughout the province.
Our government recognizes diversity as a valuable asset which we cherish and celebrate. British Columbians who speak many languages and understand many cultures make it easier for our province to participate globally and ensure a prosperous future for our children. We are a part of the global community, and we are more competitive and moving at a much faster rate than anyone could have imagined.
I would ask all members, their families, friends and neighbours to celebrate with each other as we recognize this important week.
[ Page 8559 ]
J. Kwan: I rise to respond to the ministerial statement. I am pleased to join with the minister in celebrating Multiculturalism Week. Indeed, I'm proud to say that it was the former NDP government that first introduced Multiculturalism Week in British Columbia. The NDP government was very committed to not only celebrating this province's rich diversity but also to working for social justice and equality for all British Columbians through programs that worked to combat racism and discrimination and highlight our multicultural heritage.
Multiculturalism is one of the most important defining features of this country. Language, culture and religion all help define us as human beings and give us our sense of identity. Multiculturalism recognizes that the sense of identity is both a treasure to be cherished and a gift that we can share with each other. It is an important approach that understands that all of us gain when we create the conditions in which people of different backgrounds — culture, linguistic, ethnic and others — are able to live in harmony with each other.
Here in British Columbia we have tremendous examples of the powerfully positive impact that multiculturalism can have when diversity is not just tolerated but celebrated. Our province, which continues to be more diverse day by day, has always been multicultural. Long before explorers started arriving on the shores of North America, the first nations were multicultural, multi-ethnic and multilingual.
With the subsequent wave of immigration to this country and this province, our society has been built by the growing diversity and enriched by the new reality of a nation that's shaped by many cultural traditions. When leaders in this country decided to officially recognize that reality, the word "multiculturalism" was coined to indicate a strongly held belief that it was a philosophy and a practice worth preserving and celebrating. It is important not only that we simply celebrate the diversity of British Columbians and our communities but also that we take steps to ensure multiculturalism is something that all British Columbians, whether they are visible minorities or not, share in the experience of. It is important that all British Columbians can appreciate the multiple cultural, educational and economic benefits of diverse societies.
Government has an important role to play in this — promoting the acceptance of diversity, defending human rights, combatting racism and funding important settlement, integration and language programs. A government that cared about multiculturalism would also ensure that refugees in this province had the necessary legal assistance and not sacrifice them in a funding dispute with the federal government. The reality is that this minister is presiding over a budget that is only $9.33 million. This is a government that has provided a budget of $32 million for sport and culture, but only $9 million for multiculturalism, and I think that speaks volumes. This is also, I might point out, just half of what the former NDP government devoted to multiculturalism and immigration settlement programs.
I represent a riding that I dare say has one of the most ethnic, multicultural communities in all of Canada. It is reported that we have some 76 languages in Vancouver–Mount Pleasant. I think that it is a tribute to Vancouver–Mount Pleasant and its people to show that we not only tolerate each other, but we promote the differences and celebrate them with much respect and understanding. We are very fortunate to live in a country and a province that value sharing our cultures, the acceptance of diversity and racial harmony.
Orders of the Day
Hon. G. Collins: I call Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne.
Throne Speech Debate
[J. Weisbeck in the chair.]
L. Mayencourt: It is indeed a great pleasure to rejoin you in this debate on the Speech from the Throne. To begin with, I want to thank very sincerely the people of Vancouver-Burrard. It's a wonderful opportunity that I have to be in this House, to be able to represent their views, to be able to work with my colleagues here in this Legislature, and I owe them a great debt for the privilege of being able to represent them here. It has definitely been one of the most exciting two and a half years of my life, and I look forward to serving them well into 2005.
I also want to acknowledge and thank the guests that I brought here for the throne speech. I was joined here by Francois Giroux, Stephan Mouttee, Zdenky Burkhard, Chris Garvey, Capt. John Murray from the Salvation Army and Lt.-Col. Don Copple. I raise them because the theme of the throne speech has really been about bringing out the very best in British Columbia. These folks are, to my mind, some of the very best people that I know in the world. They come from my riding, and they contribute so much to our communities. I really want to thank them for joining us on that very important day.
We talked a little bit on Thursday about some of the wonderful things that are happening in Vancouver-Burrard. I just want to revisit those for a second. I'm so proud that my riding is going to be home to a new and expanded trade and convention centre that will open in 2008. That's something that's very important to my community.
In many ways, in the 1990s, from 1995 through to 2001, the trade and convention centre had become a bit of a political football for the previous government. It was about a Premier's agenda — Premier Glen Clark's agenda — to make sure that he was getting exactly what he wanted in the way he wanted. I'm so glad our government took the politics out of it, because it really wasn't about politics. It was about jobs, good jobs, for
[ Page 8560 ]
British Columbians not just in Vancouver-Burrard but throughout the lower mainland.
I'm also proud of the work that has begun and is continuing on our brand-new school. The Minister of Education was very helpful in making sure that we got that new school to meet the needs of the people in Vancouver-Burrard. There are a whole new bunch of families that are down in Yaletown and in the Concord Pacific lands. I am very proud of that. I'm glad that our government is able to fund that and to work with Vancouver school board in a productive way to ensure that we meet the needs of the 350 students who will attend that school in 2004.
I'm also proud of the fact that we have a new building going up on the waterfront, right beside the new trade and convention centre. It's the brand-new Shaw Tower, and it is going to be the tallest building in British Columbia — perhaps the tallest building in western Canada. It's a very beautiful testament to the change in our economy. It is a testament to the work of this government that they felt it was important enough — or they felt secure enough — to invest that kind of money in that kind of endeavour and give jobs to people but also bring the beauty to the shores of Burrard Inlet.
There are a couple of other projects that are much smaller in nature, but they also touch the very heart of my community. They are such projects as the Coast Foundation's new project with B.C. Housing Foundation to provide more housing for mentally ill members of the Coast Foundation. We're trying to reach out and work with those community groups to ensure that we're providing good, safe, affordable housing for those who live with mental health problems.
We're also doing that in a number of other areas. I'm very proud to see some of the work that's going on with Haro Park, which is a seniors residence in my community. I know we're working very hard with the health authorities to try and ensure that we meet the needs of those residents. Also, at Yaletown House and, more recently, on the corner of Davie and Jervis streets we see the development of the Knights of Columbus building, which is going to house a good number of seniors in our community. Seniors are a really important part of my community, as I have spoken on many occasions in this House. I'm always glad to be able to work with them and see if we can do a better job of meeting their needs.
The throne speech was a very important document for me, because the throne speech is really about some important values. It's about people. It's about caring and compassionate people and citizens in our communities — people that give us strength, make our communities whole, make our communities welcoming places — and communities that come out and talk to us about the ways this government can ensure it meets the needs of its citizenry well into the future.
One of the great pleasures I have as a member of the Finance Committee is to go out and tour the province and meet with people across this province. In fact, one of the pleasurable parts of it is that I travel with my colleagues, and I also travel with the Leader of the Opposition. I was very surprised, having done that for the past three years, to see the new Carole James budget, which is called B.C. Solutions Budget 2004. It's subtitled "Getting Ready for 2010." Then, as if two titles aren't enough, they're given another subheading called "We've invited the world, they're coming, and the place is a mess." I think the subtitle that actually works much better is: "The Premier invited the world, they're coming, and Carole James and the NDP have a plan to mess it all up."
This budget here calls for tax increases. Let me detail one thing that makes sense to every citizen in British Columbia. Today the province of British Columbia is collecting $4.9 billion from personal income taxes. Carole James has a plan. It will be $7.8 billion. Guess where that money's coming from. It's coming out of your wallet. It's coming out of your pockets. It's coming out of your kids' mouths. It's not good enough. We're not going to let that particular budget become a reality.
In 2001 we invited British Columbians into a new era of good governance. We invited them to participate in creating a balanced budget — something we will be doing, I'm assured by the Finance minister, tomorrow. We went out and visited British Columbians for the past three years on the Finance Committee with the Leader of the Opposition, and they told us in three successive years: "Stay the course. You're on the right track. It's tough medicine, but it's something we need for this province to get us back on track." They told us to stay the course. Carole James and the NDP want to destroy all of that, and we're not going to let them.
I want to speak about some other citizens in my community and some work I'm doing, because it's important work. In the past year I and a number of citizens in Vancouver-Burrard have been working with Family Services of Greater Vancouver. We're working together on creating an interagency committee to create an integrated youth services facility in my riding of Vancouver-Burrard. Why? Because when kids leave Montreal or Chilliwack or Fort St. John and head for British Columbia, they all head for Granville Street. They all head for my neighbourhood. They do that because it's viewed by those young people as the heart of British Columbia's cultural and entertainment zone.
This province has not really been able to deal with some of the issues that street youth face every day. We think we can do something like creating an integrated youth services building which will make a difference in the people's lives — in those street youth there, who are coming to British Columbia, who are coming to Vancouver — and make sure we do what we can to get them on the right track, so they can build successful lives and make it back to their homes.
On Thursday when I was concluding my comments, I mentioned an individual in my community by the name of Ray Peterson. We were getting towards the end of the day, and the members had to get back to their constituencies, so I had to cut it off a little short. I didn't give Ray enough of a blast in the Legislature. I want to tell you why this man is important.
[ Page 8561 ]
He runs the community police office on Granville Street. The man is one of my heroes, because he works with street youth so effectively. Ray has made it his personal mission to work with street youth that have arrived from Kamloops, from Montreal, from Fort St. John — from all across this province and from all across Canada — to do his very best to stabilize those kids' lives, to get them into good shelter, to make sure they have a meal in their stomachs and then to work with them to get them back home, to repatriate them to their moms and their dads and their families, places where they can be protected and looked after.
Many hundreds of those kids have come through the Granville Street community police office, met Ray Peterson and made it back home. I personally have been in Ray's office and gone through letters that have come from a mom in Kamloops, thanking Ray for spending the $70 to send their daughter home. They sent the money back to Ray as a tribute so that he can continue his work.
When you have heroes like that in your community, you are doing what this throne speech has been saying all along. We are bringing out the very best in British Columbians. Ray Peterson is one of those very best people. I salute him and the workers that work with him.
I want to talk about another event I went to just a few weeks ago: Arts Umbrella. Arts Umbrella was founded 25 years ago, and boy, those 25 years have zipped by, because I can remember almost every year of them. There was a woman at the head of that organization by the name of Carol Henriquez. This province and this country have honoured Carol Henriquez for her continual contribution to kids in this province.
I was amazed, Mr. Speaker. Carol is retiring this year — and believe me, she's way too young to be doing that; we'll just have to find her another project — but she has been there for 25 years as the executive director. In that 25 years, half a million British Columbia kids — from wee tots up to 15 years old — have gone through Arts Umbrella. They've been exposed to dance, to visual arts, to singing, to all kinds of things. They are part of what we are doing with our commitment to LegaciesNow They are part of bringing out the very best in British Columbians. If kids get exposed to arts and culture, they have an opportunity to succeed. They have an opportunity to express themselves. They have an opportunity to be appreciated. It's always great to do that.
It was a great pleasure to be there with the Premier and with other members of this Legislature. I want to tell you something that was really great. We were at that event, and it was very moving because literally hundreds of her students were there saying thank you to her. Thousands of members of our community were there saying: "Thank you for the contribution you've made through Arts Umbrella." One by one they got up and thanked her. Then the Premier got up, and the Lieutenant-Governor got up. When the Premier spoke, he made a commitment. He delivered a half-million dollars to ensure the work of the Arts Umbrella throughout this province, so the Arts Umbrella will affect kids all across British Columbia.
I think that's an important commitment. It says this government cares about arts and culture. It cares about little kids. It wants them to build successful lives. We know that when they're involved in those sorts of activities, they are going to have great lives. I want to thank you for the opportunity to mention Carol.
One other thing that I got to do…. Boy, a couple of weeks ago was a week of acknowledgments, because I also got to go and watch Joe Cohen, who is known to many British Columbians, get acknowledgment from the police board in Vancouver. It's so amazing. Joe must be 85 years old. For much of the last 40 years he has been a steadfast volunteer in the city of Vancouver promoting activities that support the Vancouver police department. Boy, it was amazing. They did it up right. Joe had a 15-motorcycle honorary guard that drove him in Vancouver in a police car with sirens wailing. When he got to the front of the Hotel Vancouver, there was a complete mounted squad there at full attention. Then there were pipe bands and everything.
They really did it. They pulled out all the stops to make sure that Joe Cohen knew he was greatly appreciated not only by the police department in Vancouver but also by thousands and thousands of British Columbians who saw the contribution of this man. Joe Cohen is the guy that brought Sony to Canada. You know, in addition to making some pretty good change for himself and his family, he gave back to his community over and over again over those 40 years. It was wonderful to see the acknowledgment of that man.
Then I got an opportunity to be at the Justice Institute of British Columbia's dinner the other day. You know, they honoured three people in our community that I think are pretty fantastic. We honoured Beckie Harcourt for her bravery in saving her husband's life and making it possible for Mike Harcourt to walk today anywhere he wants to and continue to contribute as a British Columbian. We honoured Justice Frank Iacobucci. Man, I was really moved by his acceptance speech. It was really incredible the way this man talked about his family and his community, and it was so nice to see someone so appreciative of this award.
Then we honoured the Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell, former Prime Minister of Canada. That is one incredible person inside of that person. There's a great spirit of togetherness, of caring about her province, of caring about her country and a commitment to democracy not just in British Columbia, not just in Canada, but around the world. It was a great pleasure to be there for that.
Hon. G. Bruce: You had a busy week.
L. Mayencourt: I had a busy week — you bet. That's one of the beauties of Vancouver-Burrard. There's always something going on.
[ Page 8562 ]
It's also about a community acknowledging what we are acknowledging in this throne speech. We're acknowledging the very best in British Columbia.
British Columbia, through this government, is bringing out the very best in our economy. We're eliminating unnecessary red tape. We're doing things to improve consumer protection. We've improved the budget for education. We've made a commitment to advanced education that has never been made in this Legislature by anybody ever before — the way this has been done in this Legislature.
We are going to increase the student spaces by 25,000 additional spaces, and that is something to work towards. That's something that we in this caucus heard about over and over again when we travelled the province on the Finance Committee. They said: "Make a big commitment, a huge commitment, to advanced education." Well, we did; 25,000 kids are going to be able to further their education and make a better life for themselves. So we've heard lots about that, and I'm very glad to be part of a government that sees that as such an important part.
Also, I want to talk about the commitment that the Minister of Education has made to safer schools. As many of you know, I had the privilege of being the chair of the safe schools task force, and we heard over and over about how we can do a better job in protecting kids and making our schools safer. We're doing that in this throne speech. We're making it safer for kids. We're making safer communities. We're bringing out the very best in all British Columbians.
Hon. G. Plant: Last week's throne speech is the fourth major throne speech of our government's term of office. I am privileged to have the opportunity to respond to that speech as the member, for nearly eight years now, for the constituency of Richmond-Steveston.
Every throne speech is a chance to chart a course, to remind us of where we have been and to lay out a plan for the way ahead. This throne speech does all that and more. It sets goals that will guide government for the last third of our mandate and on to the end of the decade.
We promised a new era of hope and prosperity, and we are delivering on that promise for the people of British Columbia. We have built the foundation for economic renewal, and we are seeing the results: job creation, economic growth, private sector investment, and a growing spirit of optimism and confidence that we have turned the corner as a province and that anything is possible.
We have been staying true to the course that was charted in the New Era document that represented our commitment to the people in the last election campaign. First and foremost, this is a plan about renewing the economy. Our plan included tax reductions, and we have delivered tax reductions. Our plan included a commitment to reduce unnecessary red tape, and we have reduced thousands upon thousands of unnecessary regulations. Our plan included a commitment to modernize labour law, and we have delivered on that commitment. Our plan included a commitment to renew the transportation infrastructure, which is necessary for goods and services to move across this province, and we are delivering on that commitment.
A critical component of any plan for economic renewal is the imposition of fiscal discipline on government. In the short term, deficits and debts mean simply that we're borrowing to pay for today's services from people who will come along later. We're borrowing to pay for today's services with the dollars that we will take and we will need to take from our children and our grandchildren. Sooner or later these dollars have to be repaid. That's why we say that deficits are simply deferred taxes.
It may work once in a while in the short run, but in the long run, without fiscal discipline, governments who borrow, governments who run deficit after deficit, end up spending money on interest payments to their creditors when they should be spending our precious tax dollars on services to citizens. The simple fact is that when we took office, the fiscal commitments which former administrations had hard-wired into government could not be sustained by the provincial economy. We commissioned an independent panel, and they reported that the provincial government had inherited a structural deficit of $3 billion.
Some change of course was and is essential, and it continues to be essential if we are to have the hope we need and must have of attracting the investment that is the keystone of prosperity. It is not sustainable to increase spending on government programs when the economy is falling behind, so we needed to make some tough decisions. We made them, but they were moderate, they were balanced, and they were necessary.
Three years ago some argued that we should balance the budget in our first year in office. In fact, I heard that argument from many. But yielding to that argument would have required unprincipled, across-the-board spending reductions without much ability to control their impact either on services or on the people who benefit from them. So instead we made a commitment to a three-year plan, and we have been following that plan.
That expression, "following that plan," is a new experience for citizens in British Columbia, because that was certainly not the experience under the former government. I remember sitting in this chamber when I was in opposition and listening to NDP Finance minister after NDP Finance minister deliver budget speeches, where every year it seemed there was a new plan, a new framework or a new something or other created with new targets, new goals and all the while a sort of toxic amnesia about the previous year's plan that allowed that year's Finance minister to forget all about the commitments that had been made a short 12 months ago.
All that has changed over the past two and a half years. Each year since 2001 the Finance minister has stood up in this House, tabled a budget and set targets
[ Page 8563 ]
for the deficit. We have met those targets. We made a plan, and we have kept to the plan. We have kept to the plan even when unforeseen challenges like fires or SARS or BSE have come along just when you wish they wouldn't. We have made the plan, and we have kept the plan, because that was our commitment to the people of British Columbia. Tomorrow the Finance minister will stand here in this House and do exactly what we promised to do three years ago: table a truly balanced budget.
Mr. Speaker, I wanted to remind you of just a few of the new-era commitments taken directly from the 2001 platform document. We said: "…a B.C. Liberal government will…pass real balanced-budget legislation to make balanced budgets mandatory by our third full budget and to hold all ministers individually accountable." We have done exactly that.
We said that a B.C. Liberal government would pass real truth-in-budgeting legislation that ensures all provincial finances are fully, accurately and honestly reported under generally accepted accounting principles. That is exactly what we have done and will do tomorrow.
We said that a B.C. Liberal government would honestly balance the budget without cutting funding for health care or education, and we have done exactly that. Mr. Speaker, those promises were there in writing. They were on page 8 of the New Era document. They have been the road map we have followed and will continue to follow throne speech after throne speech and budget after budget throughout this term of office.
Our decisions have been made against the framework of priorities that is both principled and pragmatic. We expressly committed, as I've said, to protect health care and education funding. The constituents I represent tell me that these are the most important social spending priorities of government. We committed to protect these program areas, and we have. We have done better than that. Health care funding has increased massively, largely as a result of the need to fund wage settlements with health care providers, and as I will show in a minute, education funding has been increased at a time when public school enrolment continues to decline.
The fact that these increases have meant, nonetheless, that health authorities and school districts have had to make difficult decisions is some evidence of the extent to which expenditure growth in these areas has simply been out of control both in absolute terms and in terms of the capacity of our economy to support the delivery of these services. But as we continue to maintain fiscal discipline, we will see the rewards. Mr. Speaker, we are seeing the rewards. We inherited the worst-performing economy in the country, and we have turned that around. On every indicator, we're moving up the ranks of provinces. When you start from dead last, it's a long climb, but we're making great progress.
What better measure of prosperity is there than jobs? Well, let's look at jobs. More people are working than ever before in British Columbia, and over the past two years 159,900 jobs have been created in British Columbia. Our 8.8 percent increase in employment is the highest in Canada and well ahead of our fellow provinces and the national average. This will continue. The economy will continue to grow. Revenues to government will increase, debt-service costs will decline, and our ability to support critically important public programs will grow. That is what it means to promise and to deliver a new era of hope and prosperity.
We've done more than that. We've challenged the status quo in critically important public institutions, because the status quo is never more than yesterday's answers to yesterday's problems. Here, too, we are seeing the results of a willingness to embrace new thinking. Our reorganization of health authorities has reduced bureaucracy so that more health care dollars go to patients. Our education reforms ensure that parents have a voice at the table when the education decisions about their children are made. Our reform in social assistance has focused on helping those who can work to get work, and it provides for those who cannot. Institutional reform in the provision of services to children and families at risk, which is needed to ensure that those services respond to the needs of communities, is underway and will continue.
The administrative justice project has helped guide the reform of dozens of provincial adjudicative agencies, ensuring that tribunals focus on serving citizens fairly, effectively and affordably. When you challenge the status quo, you have to expect that those who have an investment in the way things are done will defend that investment. Change can be unsettling. Change which affects us directly and challenges what feels like entitlement can be more unsettling still. But if we allow our fear of change to control our decisions, we will never make progress. For a decade in British Columbia we fell behind, but at last we are moving forward again.
Some politicians promise democratic reform; we have delivered. We recognized the need for democratic renewal, and we have embraced that challenge with initiatives that have made us a leader in governments and electoral reform — fixed election dates, free votes, parliamentary calendars, televised cabinet meetings and a legislated budget date. After two and a half years some of these initiatives feel like old hat, but they were new, they were necessary, and they have helped change the face of government in ways that were long overdue in British Columbia.
Now we have the Citizens' Assembly. A man and a woman have been chosen randomly from every constituency in British Columbia and are now at work weekend after weekend, giving up their time so that they can learn about our electoral system, about the way we elect MLAs and the job that is done for them — for the people — by those MLAs. Over the course of the year ahead this assembly of citizens will be asked to answer the question of whether there would be a better way to elect our legislators than the familiar
[ Page 8564 ]
first-past-the-post method which has governed elections in British Columbia, with one or two exceptions, for as long as there has been a province of British Columbia.
If the citizens in the Citizens' Assembly decide that there is a better way to elect our legislators than the way we have been doing it, then we will ask the citizens of the province, in a provincewide referendum that we will conduct at the time of the next general election in May of 2005 — 15 months from tomorrow — to vote on that alternative. If the vote passes by a margin of 60 percent and in a majority of constituencies, then the people of British Columbia will have spoken — the voice that needs to be spoken for change — and our electoral system will be changed.
No one could doubt that the existing electoral system, that old first-past-the-post system, worked to our advantage in 2001. We were elected with 58.8 percent of the popular vote, and we ended up with 77 out of 79 seats in this chamber. Obviously, any government driven only by self-interest might have forgotten that promise, that new-era promise, to create a citizens' assembly, but we have not. To take the risk of change in these circumstances and to assign the responsibility for designing our electoral system to the people it is intended to serve was the right thing to promise, and it is the right thing to do.
At the top of our vision for a new era was a top-notch education system for students of all ages. The constituency I represent, one of three constituencies in the city of Richmond, is blessed by a school district with leadership at all levels — from administrators and teachers to staff and students, in board offices, classrooms and parent advisory councils. Richmond school district has reason to be proud of its achievements. Its levels of graduation are among the highest in the province. It has great success in producing students that are ready for post-secondary opportunities both in the lower mainland and around the world. It has a remarkable track record of adjusting to pretty serious and profound demographic change over a pretty short period of time with harmony and stability.
Over the last year I've been meeting regularly with parent advisory committees at the elementary schools and the secondary schools in my constituency. When I attend a PAC meeting, I meet passionately committed parents and teachers, and they have concerns about change, and they have concerns about funding. The good news is that those concerns are heard in this throne speech. This throne speech recognizes our continuing commitment to education, our recognition that education is the key to unlocking the promise of British Columbia for our children and the opportunities they will inherit.
The reforms we have enacted to date, from the protection of volunteers to the creation of new school planning councils and a new set of graduation requirements, are being implemented and phased in, and that implementation will continue. But what we know from the throne speech, in addition to this, is that over the next three years K-to-12 education funding will increase by more than $313 million — from $4.86 billion this year to $5.2 billion in 2006-07. All this is at a time when across the province as a whole enrolment is declining, and in fact it has declined by more than 21,000 students in the past five years. Next year's operating funding per student is projected to be $6,748. That's an increase of $904 per student since 1998.
Declining enrolments are not just about numbers; they're about a reality. They're about a reality that in the schools in my community, elementary schools that a decade or so ago were full to the brim are now half empty. Some elementary schools that weren't that crowded ten or 15 years ago have become busy. High schools face challenges in predicting where their students will come from. These challenges leave school boards with tough decisions, but we are doing our part as government to give the school boards of British Columbia the tools they need and the additional resources they need to help meet those challenges.
In my community, in addition to the increase in operating funding, our government has committed to fund a new secondary school for the Steveston community. The Richmond school board will have all the challenges that school boards have when they have to meet all the expectations of all the parents who have ideas about what that facility should look like and how it should be designed. I am certainly confident that the school board will meet those challenges, and I will do whatever I can to help ensure that a new Steveston secondary school meets the needs of the students and parents in the community it will serve.
When I go to PAC meetings and talk a little bit about what we're doing and hear questions about what we're doing for K-to-12 education, I also hear questions and concerns about what lies ahead for the parents' kids when they reach the end of high school and face the prospect of post-secondary education. Parents know that this is what they want for their kids, but they also know that achieving access to post-secondary education has become a bit more of a challenge than it ought to be.
We've actually done our part over the last two years to help address this challenge. We've added 6,000 spaces to post-secondary schools across the province, but more is needed. My son graduated from high school last year. I watched as he and his friends dealt with the anticipation of some uncertainty about not knowing what percentage grade point average would be needed to get admission into Kwantlen, UBC, SFU or any other institution. Those numbers are pretty high. In fact, I think those numbers are higher than they ought to be. To say to someone that you need an 81 percent average to get access to the first-year arts program at the University of Victoria may work for some kids, but for others it may prove to be a hill too steep to climb. That's not something we want for our kids, and it's not something we want for the people of British Columbia.
The throne speech makes two hugely important commitments to those kids and the kids who will fol-
[ Page 8565 ]
low them: 25,000 new student spaces to B.C.'s colleges, universities and institutes by 2010. That's a bold goal, but I'm sure going to work as hard as I can to help meet it. To say to the kids of British Columbia that a 75 percent average is good enough for university is also to make a bold commitment to ensure that all kids know that if they apply themselves, if they study from time to time — and I've had some personal experience watching that challenge — if they sit down and do that work, then they can in fact get access to the programs they believe are going to create the path to success for them and their future. This throne speech sets great targets for post-secondary education, and we all should commit in this chamber to working to make those targets a reality.
Over the past two and a half years we have also worked hard to maintain our new-era commitment to ensure that all British Columbians have equal access to legal representation and justice. We have much to be proud of in our justice system. We have a constitutional framework that protects liberty and human rights, and a strong and independent judiciary that upholds those fundamentally important rights and upholds them fearlessly.
But the fact is that the traditional approach to justice too often and in too many cases produces a system that puts process before people. So what have we done to respond to that reality? Well, we have done some things that lie within our powers. We have reformed administrative tribunals to focus on service to citizens. We've emphasized the use of technology to reduce unnecessary barriers of physical access so that people can fax documents, and soon they'll be able to e-mail documents instead of having to travel to a courthouse to file them.
We're changing institutions. We're changing institutions by doing things like taking minor bylaw disputes out of the court system and putting them into bylaw forums, where they can be dealt with effectively and fairly and without the burden of process or cost that is associated with traditional court proceedings. We've made it easier for people to get justice by doing things like reforming the way in which maintenance and support orders could be enforced for people who have maintenance and support obligations in different provinces of Canada.
There is much more to do. We have spent a great deal of time over the last two and a half years working with the Legal Services Society to help them develop the tools that are needed to encourage people to solve their disputes in a timely and effective way without going to court, if that can be achieved in a way that's consistent with justice. We know that when people take ownership for the resolution of their disputes and grievances, when they pursue alternate dispute resolutions like mediation or conciliation, when they just sit down and try to talk things over, they can get results that work for them — that work for them in the short term and that work for them in the long term.
The traditional adversarial litigation model is still an essential core of our justice system, but it is not the way to deal with every case. We can improve access to justice, and we can improve it without just throwing more money at it, but we will only improve access to justice if we are willing to rethink justice, to make justice citizen-focused, not lawyer-focused, to ensure that we are governed by the rule of law and not by the rule of lawyers.
There's more to do on this front. For the past year the Justice Review Task Force has been working on initiatives to enhance access to justice in the Provincial Court. For too long the $10,000 limit in provincial small claims cases has represented a barrier of access to all those who have claims just above $10,000 but who could not afford to pay lawyers to argue those cases in the Supreme Court according to the rules that exist for that court.
We've been looking at initiatives like raising the small claims court limit, perhaps introducing further streamlined processes for small claims cases even to the extent of reforming the Supreme Court rules to create expedited processes for other civil claims. All of this and more is necessary if we are to make access to justice a reality for British Columbians. There is more we have to do to make our criminal justice system begin to look like a system and less like what it has been: a collection of fiercely independent and only occasionally interdependent institutions that have a hard time working with one another.
We have announced just today a backlog reduction initiative in Vancouver to help make sure that when criminal cases are set down for trial at 222 Main Street in downtown Vancouver, the busiest criminal court in the province, we get those cases to trial as soon as we can. When you get cases to trial soon, particularly when you get criminal cases to trial soon, witnesses' memories are intact, people are more inclined to feel accountable for their wrongdoing, and the system as a whole will ensure that people have confidence that it is helping to keep our communities safe, as it should be. All of this and more is part of the work that lies ahead in the justice ministry.
The throne speech talks about our relations with first nations. We took office with a commitment to engage the people of British Columbia directly in a conversation about their vision and their principles for the treaty process. We kept that commitment. We conducted a provincewide referendum. In the past year we have acted on the input the people of British Columbia gave us in their answers to the referendum questions. We have put the people's principles to work at treaty tables with unprecedented success — three AIPs last year and the fourth, which is imminent. For the first time in a decade of negotiations under the B.C. Treaty Commission process, final agreements are within reach. We have done a great deal, as the throne speech set out, to help make a difference in the economic and social lives of aboriginal people today.
Mr. Speaker, there is a plan for the future, and it is working now. There is good news wherever we choose to look for it. The lower mainland is consistently rec-
[ Page 8566 ]
ognized as one of the most livable places in the world. My home city of Richmond wins prizes for livability. Its citizens enjoy long and healthy lives, there are economic opportunities across a range of sectors, and if you take us all together for just a moment and reflect on these facts, we must be doing many things right. That's not to say there are no challenges. There will always be challenges, but strong communities contain within them the resources to meet those challenges.
My job gives me many opportunities to meet the people who help make strong communities. In January, I met with three individuals who do just that. They represent a new organization called Virsa — Sikh alliance against youth violence. Virsa was formed in December 2002 by members of the Sikh community concerned with what appears to be an escalating level of violence among Indo-Canadian youth. Virsa is a group of community leaders and parents who are willing to do what it takes to help address this problem. Its goal is to help coordinate information, education, training and support services for members of the Indo-Canadian community in British Columbia; to provide youth with opportunities and promote values; to build self-esteem, self-pride and leadership.
It's groups like this who identify the challenges that we face in our communities, who take ownership of the problems and look for ways to resolve them that have my highest admiration and should have the admiration of all of us in this chamber. Groups like this, day by day, in the work they do are helping all of us to realize on the throne speech commitment of 2001, the throne speech commitments of 2002, 2003 and 2004 — a new era of hope and prosperity for all British Columbians.
Hon. C. Clark: It's a pleasure to speak in response to the throne speech today. It is a pleasure to speak to it because the throne speech throws out a challenge for all of us — that is, a challenge to bring out the best in ourselves, the best in our families, the best in our communities and the best in our province. I think one of the challenges we face is that we hear often about all the things that are going wrong, but we need to remember — every British Columbian needs to remember — how blessed we are to live in British Columbia. People will literally risk their lives to come and make their home in this province. People have been coming from all over the world for hundreds of years because of the hope and opportunity that British Columbia represents today and has always represented for people around the world.
This is a beautiful place full of resources, full of forestry resources and minerals under the ground, full of rich land, the beauty of the seas, the beauty of the mountains — all of the assets that we will present to people from around the world when they come to British Columbia in 2010 for the Olympics.
It's also a free society. It is a safe society. It is a place where you know you can walk out your door in the evening and get home safe afterward. That's not true for many people all over the world. It's a place where we know we can choose our own government. It is a place where we know we can send our children to school in the morning and know they will come home safe at the end of the day. It's a place where we have the world's best health care system, a public education system that is second to none, a province filled with strong communities where people care about one another and are prepared to look out for their neighbours. It is a place full of energetic, innovative people full of ideas, always looking for the next opportunity. That's what British Columbia has always been and what we will continue to be.
In the throne speech we talked about how we want British Columbians to be the best they can be. A friend of mine came to me the day after the throne speech and said: "Gosh, you know, I don't know if I want to be the best I can be. It sounds like a lot of work. I just want the government to let me be, just be." I thought: there's nothing really the matter with that either — just to be. You know what he is? He's a guy who goes home for lunch every day, comes home from work at 5 o'clock every day. His wife doesn't work, or doesn't work outside the home. Do you know what he does? When he goes home for lunch, he has lunch with his kids. When he goes home at the end of the night, he doesn't sit down and watch cartoons with them, because he's not exhausted at the end of the day. He plays with them, reads to them and gives them all the attention they need. He says, "I don't want to be the best I can be; I just want to be," but to me he's a great parent.
That's really being something. If there is something we could be the best at, surely it's to be the best possible parents we can, to make sure our kids get the best start in life, because a child will never, ever have a parent as good as the one they're born to. Some do, actually. Some children who are adopted — and I see some adoptive parents sitting in this House — are fortunate to find loving, caring families, families that might even perhaps be better than the families and the homes they left. For most kids the best place for them to be is with their families and in their homes, whether that is an adoptive home or a biological family. That's where kids need to be.
What better thing can we do as citizens than make sure we raise our children with the right kinds of values and ethics, with all the skills they're going to need to navigate a really incredibly complex world? What better can we do as a society than make sure our kids all have the tools they need to be able to fulfil every single ability they have? In this throne speech the commitment our government has made is one that puts education at the centre of our government's vision.
Education is an investment in kids. Education gives kids all of the tools they'll need to succeed. If you look around the world and find the richest societies, the most democratic societies, the most civil societies, the safest societies, the strongest communities, those are all societies that have the best education systems, the best public education systems you will find anywhere. At the heart of British Columbia's success is its people, first of all. Second, it's the education we've provided to our citizens.
[ Page 8567 ]
Our education system is continuing to get better year after year. Graduation rates are improving, not just overall, but graduation rates for aboriginal kids are improving. Success rates for kids across the board are growing — not just more kids getting scholarships, because that's true, but kids who used to perhaps not meet expectations. More of them are now beginning to meet expectations.
Higher levels of satisfaction about what's going on in classrooms amongst teachers, amongst students, amongst parents. More parental involvement at schools across the province, where more parents get more say in how their children should be educated. More choices for children. Any child can attend any school in British Columbia that they choose provided there is space. We are leading the country in so many regards in our public education system, and that is something that every citizen of British Columbia deserves from its government. Citizens in British Columbia deserve to know that we are investing in the next generation of children and that we will give them all the tools they need to succeed not just in British Columbia but in Canada and around the world.
This year we will see the first truly balanced budget that British Columbia has had in many, many years. A balanced budget isn't just an exercise in bean-counting, in the bottom line. A balanced budget is an exercise in ensuring that we make sure the next generation of kids has choices to make. Our generation of citizens consumes not just all the resources that we take in as a government but more, and that's been the source of our growing deficit and debt over the last 20 years. We have an obligation to that next generation to make sure we leave them some choices, to make sure they have more options than just having to pay off the credit card bill that we've created for them. So we have to balance our budget. We have to get our fiscal house in order for their benefit.
We have to create jobs. British Columbia is now number one in job creation across the country. We have led Canada in creating more jobs than any other province. Over 100,000 new jobs have been created here, and that means more people are able to put food on the table, pay their mortgage, take care of their families and provide stability. Forestry, mining, and all of the resource industries that are so critical to British Columbia are receiving focus from this government to ensure that they can continue to drive our economy, because when forestry and mining are doing well, our social services can continue to be supported.
The Ministry of Children and Family Development is not an economic ministry, but the people we serve certainly benefit from a stronger provincial economy. It translates directly into communities that are more confident; it translates directly into families that are healthier and self-sustaining. That's a legacy, I think, of the member for Surrey–White Rock. He brought his best to this portfolio. He provided a vision and dedication to make sure that our ministry moved forward into a more productive course. He provided focus and vision that hasn't been in this ministry for many years. So to talk a little bit about this ministry in the context of the throne speech, I want to make it clear that my job as minister is to build on the incredible foundation built by my predecessor — the blueprint he created, a vision for the future, a solid vision that is broadly supported in the community.
Here are some of the bests that he helped establish in this ministry. The best place for a child is in a responsible, caring family in a safe and inclusive community. Every child in this province deserves the best possible start in life. The greatest number of vulnerable people need to achieve the best possible outcomes in overcoming their challenges. The best way to make use of a community's knowledge and strengths is to make those decisions based in communities. Now, those are all of the bests, all of the challenges that he set out for us.
I can't tell you that we've met all of those goals yet, but we are doing better. Better social work, increased community input and innovative programs are starting to produce incredibly positive results. More children in British Columbia are able to remain safe and secure in their own biological or adoptive homes. Family support programs are working; fewer children have to be removed from their families and put into government care. Risks to children and families are identified early before those problems become crises. Reforms are starting to improve the lives of children and adults who need support to ensure their safety and well-being.
But there is one clear and very important best in this ministry's accomplishments. In just two and a half years we have created the best working partnership between a family-serving ministry and aboriginal communities in British Columbia. That partnership is based on a common goal of responsibility to ensure that aboriginal communities have the resources, skills and opportunity to safely care for their own kids in their own communities, to care for them in the context of their own families and their culture in a way that draws on the traditional strengths of extended families.
As part of that partnership, we now have a sound working relationship with every aboriginal band and tribal council in British Columbia. That has never happened before. This is hard work for everyone involved. It's been hard work for the ministry; it's been hard work for aboriginal communities. There have been bumps along the road, and I'm sure there will continue to be bumps in the road for us. But we are building solid, trusting, durable relationships with aboriginal communities. It has to be done. It is the best way to do it, and I believe it is the only way to do it.
Our responsibility in this ministry is to protect the safety and well-being of children at risk of neglect, abuse or harm. Children thrive best in the safety and security of a caring home and family. Long-term outcomes for children are best when those links can be maintained. Placing children safely with extended family, friends and communities is often the best option. That's true in non-aboriginal communities, and it's true
[ Page 8568 ]
in aboriginal communities as well. Removal of a child from a family has to be the last resort. Cultural, racial, linguistic and religious heritage are key considerations when determining how we should help a child and their family.
The number of children that the government has taken into care is down by 15 percent since July 2001. That's because social workers now have more tools at their disposal to be able to try and support families. Obviously, if a child is seriously at risk of harm or neglect, that child needs to be removed from their home. But the choice for a social worker can't just simply be between taking children out of their home or leaving them in. A social worker also has to have a range of other tools available to try and build supports around families to give them the skills and the capacity they need to make sure their children are safe there.
This is a big break with tradition. The number of children that were taken from their homes and placed in permanent government care rose steadily from 1995 to 2001. Our success in breaking that pattern speaks to the skill and dedication of the front-line staff in the Ministry of Children and Family Development. Their job requires them to make decisions that take them to the very edge of their professional knowledge. They do that knowing it is impossible to make a 100 percent accurate prediction of human behaviour. They do that knowing that if their decision is wrong, hindsight is always 20-20. They make those decisions knowing that from time to time, their decisions might be called into question. They make life-changing decisions for children every day.
It is frightening enough to be a parent, in my case, of one child and know that I make decisions on behalf of my child that can affect his life for the rest of his life every day. Imagine if you were a social worker and you did that not just for your own children but for other children. To every day make decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives is a tremendously difficult job and a tremendously rewarding one but not one that everyone can take on. The social workers that work on the front lines for the Ministry of Children and Family Development deserve our support. They deserve to know that we respect and value the contribution they make, that we will honour their judgment and the experience they bring to their jobs, and that we will stand by them when sometimes those decisions are difficult.
Now, in other areas of the ministry we also have some encouraging results. Not only are there fewer children that are being brought into care, there are fewer kids going to jail. The number of youth in custody has declined 60 percent since 1995. Improved treatments and alternatives to custody, such as family group conferencing and restorative justice involving both the offender and those that are harmed, are working for most minor offenders. Custodial sentences are usually reserved for a small number of youth who commit very serious crimes. The youth crime rate has dropped by more than 50 percent since 1991 and continues to decline. Those are very positive trends, trends that we hope will continue.
As I said, we have a strong working partnership with aboriginal communities. The number of aboriginal children in care almost doubled between 1997 and 2001. It was up to 4,300. That is a tragedy. It is a failure of policy, and it is a failure of government. Since 2001 that number is finally starting to dip. Last month it was less than 4,200 children, but it is still far, far too high. Far too many of those children have been separated not only from their parents but also from their communities, their culture and their roots.
We've started a new program called A Child's Roots are Forever, and about 2,700 case files of aboriginal children are now being reviewed by Ministry of Children and Family Development staff and aboriginal workers. We are going through every single one of those files individually, because our view is that we don't need to say: "How do we fix the system?" We need to say: "How do we fix the situation for this child?" We need to recognize that every single one of those children isn't a file. They are children, they are unique, and each one of them will have a solution that can work for them.
We need to know if it is in a child's best interest to return to their communities, their extended families and their parents, so we are moving to regional and aboriginal governance, which will help us build a system that does a better job of helping aboriginal families before they break down. If they do break down, the system we want to create will find better ways to keep those kids in their extended families in their communities so they aren't cut off from their roots.
We've worked hard in this ministry on adoption. More children are now in permanent and loving homes as a result of adoption. Adoption of children from permanent foster care to what we call "forever families" — children who have moved to loving, permanent families where they feel they have some certainty — doubled last year. Now 338 more children have permanent homes, and that is the highest annual placement since the early 1980s. That's quite an achievement.
Adoption doesn't just change the lives of the children who are adopted; it changes the lives of the entire family who are blessed to take those children in. I know the stories of many, many adoptive parents who talk about the change in their lives when their adoptive child comes permanently into their home. It's a gift, and it's a blessing.
B.C. is changing the way services are designed and delivered to support adults with developmental disabilities. Extensive consultations with families and organizations have shown a very broad support for a community-based way of delivering services. The old system was rigid and bureaucratic. With the Interim Authority for Community Living, we are building a responsive system that makes sense to the people in the community who use the services that we provide. The provincial community living authority is a groundbreaking response to community demands for greater control over services.
[ Page 8569 ]
Groups like Inclusion International, a UN-recognized disability organization, say that what we are doing in British Columbia is truly unique. The B.C. Association for Community Living, advocates for 30 years on behalf of children and adults with developmental disabilities, says the same thing. They call it the third wave of deinstitutionalization. British Columbia is leading the world in handing back control for these services to communities. If these services are indeed intended to be reflective of communities, then surely they should be controlled by communities.
We are investing in the earliest years for kids. Research all over the world tells us that children's earliest months and years are the most important time of their lives, and if we invest in those years, it will make a difference for an entire lifetime. Previously, my job was to make sure children had access to a strong, healthy public education system. Well, early childhood development is the other side of that responsibility — supporting young children before they get into our education system, giving them the best possible start in school and in life by identifying and dealing with problems early.
A child's entire platform for learning may be set by the time they are six years old. We have an obligation as a society to make sure that platform is as big and rich as it possibly can be, because that's where a child's opportunities will come from. We want to give parents the tools they need to help their children maximize their absolute potential.
Annual investment in provincewide early childhood development programs has increased by $50 million since we took government. These investments have been made across the seven child-serving ministries of the B.C. government. Early literacy programs, neighbourhood houses, family support centres — these are the community-based services that target the unique needs of local children and families. Services like Children First learning initiatives are operating in communities across the province under that banner, and these initiatives are showing us at the ground level what services are available to communities and what gaps need to be filled. Thirty-eight aboriginal communities are benefiting from funding that allows them to deliver ECD services that meet their community and cultural needs.
We've provided $10 million in a grant to the Success by 6 partnership between the ministry, the United Way of the Lower Mainland and Credit Union Central of British Columbia. It's a partnership that supports the expansion of a successful community-based program promoting healthy development of children before they turn six. Many of the Children First initiatives are working in partnership with Success by 6 to make the best use of resources.
In addition to that, more families of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder are also receiving services. We have increased funding for autism services by $21.8 million. More importantly, or just as importantly, that funding is being made flexible, so parents can choose the best therapy for their children based on what those children need. In addition to that, we have supported $30.1 million in additional funding to school districts this year to support children with autism.
There is much we still need to learn about the implications of this baffling condition. We are continuing to work with experts across the field to make sure we are taking advantage of the best practices and the most current research and are applying that as soon as we possibly can to help every child and give them the best possible start that we can.
It is a tragic fact in British Columbia that 320 children are born with fetal alcohol syndrome every year, and they will struggle with the effects of that for the rest of their lives. Fetal alcohol syndrome is something that is entirely preventable. Dozens of aboriginal communities across the province are trying to deal with these issues as well. That's why we are working on programs like Healthier Babies–Brighter Futures in Burns Lake, which takes a three-pronged approach to help deal with fetal alcohol syndrome. It has three prongs to it: community awareness, community education and community mobilization. They are supporting high-risk women and their families, and it is a great example of how an entire community can focus itself on a single goal.
It is incumbent on us as a generation to leave this province a better place than we found it. In the throne speech this week we talked a little bit about the things we can do to try and make our province a better place. We have an obligation to make it a better place, where our children will have more choices or as many choices as we do about building the kind of society they want to live in.
We have an obligation to make sure we don't make all the choices for them and don't just leave them with a big credit card bill. That's why we're balancing the budget. We have an obligation to make sure this is a place where they have the opportunity to fulfil every gift they are given. That's why we are investing in education and early childhood development.
This is a land of opportunity. British Columbia has always been a place where people from around the world have looked and hoped that they might be able to build a better future for themselves and for their children. It is a place that can be filled with hope and prosperity for generations to come — if we do our job right, if we take our obligations seriously, if we remember that children need to be at the centre of our agenda and if we remember that investing in children is an investment in our future.
Hon. K. Falcon: Mr. Speaker and my colleagues, I am indeed proud to stand here today to speak on the vision put forward by our government in the throne speech delivered last week. I'm proud because one of the things we have done here in government is something that was very common when I was in the private sector — that is, you lay out your three-year plans as to
[ Page 8570 ]
where you expect to see government over the next few years, and you actually do something that's novel in government: you stick to those plans. You build in enough flexibility that you can make some strategic changes, but you stay within the scope of the entire plan. That is so hugely important.
I'm also proud to be the member that has the honour of serving a community called Cloverdale. Surrey-Cloverdale is one of the finest communities in the province. All of us in Cloverdale recognize that 2003 really was an extraordinary year in British Columbia — extraordinary because we had some challenges this province has never seen. They've been enunciated quite clearly from some of my colleagues — fires, floods, drought. We had to deal with SARS and BSE. I mean, these are not small challenges. They are in fact very large challenges. I'm also proud of this province because the volunteers, the workers, the public service and those who rose to the challenge to meet those challenges we faced did so in a really extraordinary way.
When we were elected in 2001, it was clear to me and to my colleagues that we were going to have to make some tough decisions, that we were going to have to change course in British Columbia. We did that. Not all of those decisions were easy. Not all of those decisions were decisions that were universally rejoiced. In fact, I can tell you that there are many folks that kept saying to us: "You know, you ought to stay with the way you were doing it before. We don't like this change." I had to remind some of these folks that actually, if we kept doing things the same way we always did them, we would get exactly the same result. What was that result? That result was that British Columbia, this great province, for the first time in its history had become a have-not province under the previous government. Our goal was to make sure we moved from have-not province and number ten in the country in economic growth back up to where British Columbia ought to be, and that's leading.
Our Premier, right from the very beginning, was always clear to us. He said: "We are going to be judged on jobs. It's all about jobs." The tough decisions we're making, the dramatic tax cut we gave on our first day in office of 25 percent to every British Columbian, the efforts we're making and still make in reducing unnecessary regulation in this province…. We're already two-thirds of the way to achieving our one-third reduction, which represents over 90,000 regulations thus far. All of those decisions were being made because we wanted to create a climate that would create jobs.
You know, that's why today I'm so pleased to see that the Premier was right. We will be judged, and I'm pleased we will be judged, because today in British Columbia we have the strongest job creation record in the entire country. Over 160,000 jobs have been created since we got elected in 2001. More than 83,000 jobs were created in 2003. If you think about that in light of all the other challenges I just outlined that we faced in 2003, with the floods and the fires and SARS and everything else, that really is a spectacular figure.
We've got more people moving into British Columbia than moving out for the first time in six years. Net in-migration has returned to British Columbia, and boy, we all know how that is so very important to bring back the young, talented people that were moving out of British Columbia under the previous government.
We've seen the number of small businesses increase in British Columbia last year. One of the strongest increases in the country was in small business. We've seen B.C. families' income posting the largest gains in 20 years, right here in British Columbia. Those are families in my communities, and I can tell you it makes a difference in their lives. B.C. is the only province where consumer confidence leads the country. That is so very important because a lot of the folks are looking around, and they're seeing the unemployment rate starting to drop dramatically. They're seeing their friends, their colleagues and their spouses go back to work, and they're feeling excited about the future of British Columbia.
As the announcements just keep rolling out — being awarded the 2006 World Junior Hockey Championships and what that's going to mean in terms of investment and tourism in the province, the 2010 Olympics and what that is going to mean and already is starting to mean in British Columbia — it's starting to get people really excited.
Tomorrow our Premier and his Finance minister, in particular our Finance minister, are going to stand up, and they're going to introduce something that this House has not seen very often — in fact, far too rarely in British Columbia. They are going to be introducing a balanced budget, one of only four balanced budgets in the last 25 years in this House.
More importantly than that — not just that it's a balanced budget — because our government passed truth-in-budgeting legislation that said we were going to keep our books the same way we tell small business people and the public they have to keep their books — according to generally accepted accounting principles — it will be, I believe, the first honestly balanced budget in the province in 30 or 40 years. And that's something that I am very, very proud of.
The opposition, of course, doesn't seem to understand this. They actually don't understand why that's important. They don't understand why it's important to families in Cloverdale and families up north and families across this province. They don't understand why it's important to small businesses, and 98 percent of business in B.C. is small business. They don't understand the philosophy of ours — that we believe taxpayer money is better left in the taxpayers' pockets, because they can make their spending decisions a lot more effectively than government can on their behalf. They don't understand how to be responsible with taxpayer dollars. That was clearly demonstrated over the last decade of despair. They certainly don't understand that a strong economy, where we have more British Columbians at work and in the workplace, means that
[ Page 8571 ]
we're generating more tax revenues so that we can actually fund a first-class health care and education system. They don't get any of that.
Never was that more hit home than when I saw the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives release their so-called alternative budget. What a joyous piece of work this was. If this doesn't just beat it all, I don't know what does. For those in the viewing audience that may not understand the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, they are what I call the NDP think tank. This is the left-wing farm team that comes up with all the kooky socialist ideas that keep our two members of the opposition going. It is just tragic, what they've come forward with.
I call this the Carole James NDP budget, and the Carole James NDP budget is quite fascinating. I've only got time to cover a few of the high points, or shall we say low points. But some of the key things that they talk about are hitting what they used to always call the working folks, the working families. Remember that government used to talk about how they're for the working families? Well, over the last decade we know what they did to the working families. They devastated them. The working families were utterly devastated in British Columbia.
Under the new Carole James NDP budget plan, they intend that people who earn between $32,000 and $65,000 a year would face income tax increases of more than 40 percent. Well, there's a real kick in the teeth for working families. They want to increase gas taxes up 5 cents a litre, and they want to take every penny of that and plow it into the lower mainland, yet again ignoring rural-resource British Columbia as they did over the last decade — totally unacceptable.
The NDP plan would also give B.C. once again — under the NDP they had it before we came into power — the highest tax rate in North America, and they would run deficits every single year right up to 2010. We all know in this House that they would continue running them well after 2010 too. But they're honest enough to tell us that they have no hope of balancing the budget under a Carole James budget. You know, folks, it almost leaves me speechless. But this is really wonderful news, because I intend to go out and every group I speak to, I'm going to remind them about the Carole James economic budget. I'm going to remind them that the NDP government actually spent hundreds of thousands of our taxpayer dollars just before the last election, firing a cheque off to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives so that they could come forward with that kind of silliness that would only return British Columbia right back to the bottom again. That's certainly not where we're going to go in British Columbia.
We actually have a situation, thankfully, where B.C. is moving in the right direction, and we're on track to be the leader again in 2004. Scotiabank came out with a survey that says British Columbia is going to be the number two province in economic growth in 2004. There are others that say we're going to lead the country in 2004-05. That's the kind of independent evaluations you're starting to hear.
Another key element of this throne speech that I really want to touch on is education, because education is very important in Surrey. It's important because Surrey has the largest school district in the province — larger than Vancouver, folks — and Surrey has had the challenges over the years of dealing with a fast-growing school district. The funding formula under the NDP was a very broken, impossible-to-understand funding formula. Under the leadership of our Education minister and the Premier, we moved over to a funding formula that made the funding decisions on a per-pupil basis. That has been very important in Surrey, a growing community. It has meant hundreds of dollars more per pupil in funding in the Surrey community.
The throne speech also laid out that over the next three years we will be investing an additional $313 million in K-to-12 education, and that is in spite of the fact that we actually have declining enrolment across the province. That is hugely important, and that also demonstrates the benefits of the strong fiscal discipline that has been demonstrated as a result of the leadership of our Finance minister.
The Surrey school district has received more than $16 million in extra funding since 2001. The community of Cloverdale, which I am proud to represent and where our families have been growing exponentially…. On any drive through my community, you will see housing developments going up all over the place — new housing, new townhomes, new apartments. It is really quite extraordinary, and our government is meeting that challenge. We have opened two new elementary schools in the last couple of years in my community of Cloverdale: Morgan Elementary and A.J. McLellan Elementary. Grandview Heights Elementary, which is an existing elementary school, is being completely renovated in the upcoming budget year. Our government is living up to our commitment to reinvest in education as our financial situation continues to improve.
I'm also proud of the commitment that we're making to advanced education. You heard in the throne speech that we are committing to 25,000 new seats in advanced education institutions by 2010. That is an extraordinarily bold promise, and it's a commitment that I really look forward to seeing fulfilled. That's going to mean a lot in Surrey also. The contemplated Cloverdale trades and technology campus of Kwantlen University College in Cloverdale will, I am certain, be a part of that exciting growth. We've invested $3.5 million on roadwork, which is largely completed, and we're looking forward to the ministry bringing forward plans so we can get building construction started and get students into that trades and technology education program.
I do also want to take a moment to speak, if I could, on transportation, the ministry of which I am now proud to take over the reins from the previous member, who did an outstanding job as Minister of Trans-
[ Page 8572 ]
portation and, frankly, has left me with most of the heavy lifting having been carried out by the former member.
We have some very exciting things happening in transportation, and one of the things I'm most proud of is the fact that we're actually investing in transportation the way our grandparents used to — that is, we're paying as we go. We're not doing it the old NDP way where you borrow money you don't have and you have your grandchildren paying the costs. We're doing it pay as you go. That's why we put in a 3.5-cent surtax on the gas tax. We said to British Columbians: "We're going to do this, and we're going to make sure every penny and more goes into transportation infrastructure." That's exactly what we do in British Columbia. We collect $637 million in gasoline tax in British Columbia, and we invest almost $750 million in transportation — more than we take in. That's making a difference throughout British Columbia.
We're investing over a billion dollars in transportation infrastructure across the province during a three-year period. The vast majority of that is going to be in rural British Columbia. I'm proud of that fact. I'm proud of the fact that we're contributing over $600 million to the Kicking Horse Canyon, widening four lanes from Golden to Yoho Park further down the line. That is going to make an extraordinary difference in an area of transportation that has had a very high — unacceptably high — crash rate over the years.
In the lower mainland we recognize that congestion costs anywhere in the range of $800 million to $1.5 billion a year for commuters and truckers. That's why, in Surrey and our surrounding communities, we're excited about moving forward and exploring options for what is called the Gateway project to help move the flow of tourists, goods and commuters in a really thoughtful way that looks at the entire lower mainland and starts to make decisions that will benefit all of us.
That could include twinning the Port Mann Bridge. It could include widening Highway 1 right up to 200th Street in Langley and all the way down to First Avenue in Vancouver. It could include a north and south perimeter road, which would act as an excellent conduit, particularly for truck traffic, to be able to get to the Delta ports and get to the border crossings without having to go through a lot of the cities. Our border infrastructure projects investments, which total over $200 million, will include widening Highway 10 to four lanes in Surrey and widening Highway 15, which is commonly known as 176th Street, to four lanes to make sure we can get the truck traffic efficiently to the border and make sure that our commuter traffic also can move through Surrey in a speedy and safe manner.
The other thing that we're doing in transportation, of course, has to do with the very exciting B.C. Rail–CN partnership that we announced earlier in the year. I believe the CN–B.C. Rail partnership is going to offer extraordinary opportunity, particularly to northern British Columbia. Just think about what it's going to mean when 600 new centre-beam cars are added to the rolling stock of the B.C. Rail–CN partnership; what it's going to mean when 1,500 refurbished cars also get added to that rolling stock; what it's going to mean when we can ship our goods to Chicago on the Chicago express line that will allow our goods to get into that most important market two to three days faster than it took us before; what it's going to mean for productivity and what it's going to mean for our shippers in getting goods to their customers a lot faster than they were able to before; and what the lower costs for shippers are going to mean — an average of 7 percent reduced cost for the shippers. That is going to be very exciting.
I'm also excited about the fact that we're going to have a new wheel plant opening up in Prince George, and the jobs it's going to bring in Prince George, and that the northern regional office for the CN–B.C. Rail partnership will be centred in Prince George. That's going to create some real opportunities for Prince George to become the northern hub of our railway operations here in British Columbia.
I'm proud of a deal that's created a $135 million northern development initiative to ensure that northerners have access to funds and that northerners will determine where they ought to invest those funds for the benefit of northern British Columbia. That is something that I think I'm also very, very proud of.
Also, of course, Prince Rupert, which has so much potential in the province of British Columbia. That's why we will be investing $17.5 million in the port of Prince Rupert to encourage them towards containerization, and that's why CN is going to invest $15 million to upgrade the tracks to ensure that the port of Prince Rupert is capable of taking advantage of the fact that it can get goods to Asia and from Asia several days faster than the other existing ports in British Columbia.
All of that is tying into something that we're starting to see in British Columbia: a return of pride, a sense of growing confidence in British Columbia's economy, a sense of communities working together and a real sense of growing spirit around 2010. I just want to talk for a moment about what that has meant to my community by giving you a specific example. I was fortunate to witness firsthand the combination of all of those things — the Spirit of 2010, communities working together, and the excitement and hope that our youth offer all of us in British Columbia.
Last month I was pleased to organize and chair and host a fundraiser for a young girl named Brittany Reimer in my riding in Cloverdale. Brittany is a 16-year-old swimmer who attends Lord Tweedsmuir high school in my riding. She's the youngest member on Canada's national swim team, and she holds six Canadian records in swimming. This young girl, at age 16, is going to be competing in the Athens Olympics this summer in August, which is an extraordinary feat.
Her parents, Tim and Mary, are good folks. They are good folks who have struggled and made sacrifices for their daughter so that she could have every opportunity to become the great athlete she has become. It's been a struggle in a whole number of ways, particu-
[ Page 8573 ]
larly financial. What we wanted to do was host a fundraiser to raise some money so that we could get a laptop for Brittany, so that when she's training outside of the country in Australia, she could stay in touch with her school work. That's obviously very important to her. We also wanted to raise some money so that we could send the parents to watch their 16-year-old daughter compete in the Olympics in Athens, something they did not have the financial resources to do and something that I knew the community of Cloverdale would get behind supporting.
We held a fundraiser, and the Premier of the province was good enough to come by. I'll tell you, that was tough. He's got a very, very tough schedule, but he attended there, and it was really an electric night. We raised $25,000, and I tell you, that family is so excited that they are going to be able, for the first time, to see their daughter compete outside of the lower mainland and compete at the highest level in the Olympics in Athens this summer.
I do want to take a moment to thank the Premier. You should know in this Legislature that when the Premier came into that room, it was electric. When he spoke about the fact that we've got young Brittany Reimers right across the province that are going to set the world ablaze as a result of 2010, he was exactly right. I saw all those young children looking up at the Premier, and I saw them looking up at Brittany Reimer standing next to the Premier, and you could see the hope and the excitement in their eyes. That, to me, really summarized what the Spirit of 2010 is all about.
To summarize the throne speech, I want to say this. We made some iron-clad commitments to British Columbians when we ran for office. We said we'd have a balanced budget in our third year, and we're delivering a balanced budget in our third year. We said we would pass truth-in-budgeting legislation to make sure we kept that budget honestly balanced in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles, and that's exactly what you will see tomorrow in the budget being introduced by our Finance minister.
We said that we would cut unnecessary red tape and regulation by one-third in our first three years. Ladies and gentlemen, we're two-thirds of the way there. We have eliminated over 90,000 regulations, and we will hit that target of one-third reduction in our first three years. We said we would judge ourselves on job creation, and you know, folks, we have the strongest job creation record in the country. I think that speaks to the success of that plan.
In conclusion, it's a pleasure to have had the opportunity to speak on the throne speech and to respond to the throne speech as it lays out a vision and a foundation, once again, for growth, prosperity, initiative and excitement in British Columbia.
Hon. S. Hagen: As I reflect on the government's priorities and commitments outlined in the Speech from the Throne, I am proud as a member of the Comox Valley and as the MLA for the Comox Valley, and I'm proud of my constituency's achievements in bringing out the best of what British Columbia has to offer. I represent a riding that I truly believe is the most beautiful place in the province. I'm proud to represent the people of the Comox Valley. The theme of this year's throne speech is bringing out the best, and I would like to spend a few minutes talking about how our plan will bring out the best of the Comox Valley.
I'm proud to be part of a government that is so focused on supporting this prosperity I see in the Comox Valley communities. In Comox Valley we have successes. We have economic success, we have environmental success, we have education success, and we have cultural success. The Comox Valley is growing fast. Courtenay, in fact, is one of the province's fastest-growing municipalities, growing an estimated 5.7 percent in the year 2003.
Real estate sales began to rise immediately following the May 2001 election, and the area continues to be a leader in sales in B.C. Housing starts have doubled in Courtenay over the same period as last year. In fact, they are at the highest levels of the Vancouver Island Real Estate Board. It's the highest level they've seen in terms of total sales and average price since they started keeping records. Recently there was a story on CH News on homebuilders working seven days a week in the Comox Valley just to keep up with the demand for housing. Five years ago, if you had seen that story, you would have thought that it was from somewhere else like Alberta, but not anymore.
Expansion of the Comox airport, which will open in April of 2004, is a huge asset to the Comox Valley community. It's a $10.9 million expansion project, and we'll soon have international airport status. It boasts the second-largest runway in British Columbia, second only to Vancouver.
The Mount Washington Alpine Resort is the third most-visited ski resort in B.C., with more than 400,000 skier visits in the year 2003. The mountain development plan will see the opening of a new condo-hotel; 400 acres of newly developed slope, the Outback, with a $3 million lift; and the building of a new Nordic training centre for the 2010 Olympics. Then there's the Kingfisher Oceanside Resort and Spa. If you want a weekend or a week getaway, that's the place to go.
Between now and 2010 it is our goal to create 25,000 new student spaces in post-secondary institutions throughout the province. That's great news for North Island College and its prospective students.
The budget for education will grow by $313 million over the next three years — money that will help school district 71, money they will use to help our children and grandchildren succeed.
New legislation will modernize the regulatory requirements in agriculture, environmental management and the real estate and resource sectors. That's important to the Comox Valley, because there are many farms and many people living in the area who depend on the land base for their survival.
The province is increasing its efforts to open up new markets for B.C.'s forest products. That, combined
[ Page 8574 ]
with the market-based timber pricing system for the coastal forest industry, will make for substantial gains in the valley, a place dependent on the forest industry.
I'm confident that 2004 will be a year we can move forward on offshore oil and gas exploration and coalbed methane. Comox Valley–based Priority Ventures is hopeful that will happen as well, as they have many potential sites ready to be tapped for coalbed methane. This is an industry that will create more jobs and more opportunities for people in Cumberland, Courtenay, Comox and the entire Comox Valley.
Comox Valley is a dream recreation location — skiing in the morning, golfing in the afternoon, sailing in the evening, and that could be day 1. Day 2, dive the waters off Cape Lazo in the morning, visit the Sid Williams Theatre and perhaps go for a nice dinner at one of our fine restaurants in the evening.
Many seniors move to the Comox Valley to retire. They depend on the excellent services of St. Joseph's Hospital and many other care facilities in the area, so I am pleased to see we will pursue new strategies to increase the supply of seniors housing, options for independent living and expansion of home care services.
As I said, Mr. Speaker, I live in one of the most beautiful places in the province. It's small-town living with big-city amenities. It's the place I will live for the rest of my life, so it's easy to be passionate about it. The Comox Valley is a vibrant, growing community, and the Comox Valley is only going to get better, thanks to the plan laid out in this week's throne speech.
I would be remiss as the local MLA for the Comox Valley if I didn't talk about the success that income assistance clients in this area have had in finding employment that secures a better future for themselves and their families. At the beginning of this government's mandate, over 1,800 people were not able to find work in my riding, and they were receiving income assistance. Today I'm proud to say that the number has dropped by over 70 percent to less than 500 people. In addition to my pride as MLA in the successes that residents of the Comox Valley are achieving, I'm also proud of my role as Minister of Human Resources and that I have the opportunity to serve the needs and interests of all British Columbians.
Under the direction and leadership of our Premier, we have created an income assistance system that provides assistance to those most in need while helping people who are able to work achieve sustainable employment. We have invested $300 million in a full suite of employment programs specialized to help clients improve their lives and overcome barriers to employment. As they become job-ready, our job placement service providers then assist clients in obtaining sustainable employment. There are currently about 10,000 job vacancies across British Columbia for income assistance clients through job placement service providers. In my riding alone there are at least 25 job openings today ready to be filled and many more opportunities constituents can tap into by networking in the local job market.
Giving people on income assistance the employment programs and job opportunities they need ensures that income assistance clients are finding jobs. In fact, since June of '01 nearly 87,000 British Columbians have moved from dependence to self-reliance, while we have doubled our spending on programs and services for those who need assistance the most. People with disabilities or multiple barriers to employment now have more opportunities than ever before to reach their goals and foster their own success in this province. In the past year, the ministry has also taken the new approach of identifying areas where further supports are needed for clients with barriers to employment and tailoring programs to meet those needs. Programs like the bridging employment program for clients who have experienced violence or abuse are even designed to address the additional barriers faced by clients due to language or culture, such as the special bridging programs for aboriginal women.
I've talked about the numbers, but as I like to say, these numbers are really about people's lives. Let me give you a couple of examples of the people we have helped. One is a first nations woman who has struggled through alcoholism and cycling on and off the welfare system. Through Job Wave, one of the ministry's job placement providers, this woman was finally able to take control of her future. Job Wave helped her improve her computer skills and provided the new work clothes and transportation she needed to get job interviews. She now holds a full-time position working for this government, supporting herself and her son, and says that she loves her job.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
Another example from up-Island is a mother of two on income assistance, who until a year ago was feeling the pressures of finding employment in a smaller community and feared she would need to move her family to a larger city. Her circumstances changed when she met the staff at the Parksville office of Destinations, a ministry employment program provider that focuses on job placement in the tourism industry. Her work experience had always been as an office administrator, but with her great attitude and people skills, Destinations saw her potential and was able to help her secure employment at a local oceanside resort. Now she is working full-time making more than minimum wage and recently received full medical and dental benefits for her children and herself through her new employer.
The best part of these women's stories is how our programs have improved not only their lives but also the lives of their children. These kinds of success stories make me proud, in my new role as Minister of Human Resources, of the incredibly positive impact our ministry can have to foster and enrich a person's potential. I'm truly looking forward to the coming year and the chance to continue building on the achievements of my predecessor in this ministry.
[ Page 8575 ]
As Minister of Human Resources, these achievements start right here, with our growing anticipation for the Olympics and the opportunities the games bring for my ministry's clients to contribute by bringing out their best in the Spirit of 2010. The 2010 Olympic Winter Games will provide once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for 25,000 British Columbians to volunteer and a chance to showcase our province's volunteer spirit on the international stage. Volunteering can give our income assistance clients and our young people both the work experience and the confidence they need to find employment.
The 2010 Paralympic Winter Games also provide a magnificent venue for people with disabilities to spotlight their athletic skill and talent when all too often these individuals get recognized for their disabilities rather than their abilities. Participation in the 2010 Paralympics supports one of the government's primary goals: to create greater opportunities for people with disabilities to contribute more fully in their communities and to further their achievements in life.
When the Premier launched Achieve B.C. this past year, he said that our future will be built on our ability to provide people with the resources and the tools they need to progress, to create the kind of world that they want — whether it's in their town, in their region, in their province or in their country. In my ministry we are doing just that. I believe I speak for all British Columbians in stressing that it remains a priority for British Columbia to have assistance available for those in need while providing people who are able to work and who want to work the opportunity to contribute to their communities.
It is my priority over the coming months to visit as many of these communities around the province as I can. I want to see firsthand the improvements the B.C. employment and assistance program is making in people's lives and find ways that we can continue to be proactive in adapting to meet our clients' specific needs, because there are no resources in this great province as important as our human resources.
As the Premier said, our future is indeed being built on our ability to help people achieve. As a province we are as strong as the people who live here. When people are working and bringing out their best through employment, they are improving their self-respect, improving the quality of life of their families, improving their communities, improving the economy and improving British Columbia for the future.
R. Lee: It's a privilege and a pleasure to respond to the Speech from the Throne once again. It's indeed an honour for me to stand here representing the people of Burnaby North. As you know, with a population of 200,000 Burnaby is the third-largest city in British Columbia. Residents in Burnaby enjoy many multicultural activities throughout the year. On January 22 the Chinese Canadian community celebrated the lunar Year of the Monkey. May the year bring all British Columbians prosperity and happiness.
The throne speech has talked about bringing out the best in British Columbia — the best in our education, in our economy, in our resources, in our spirit and in our people. I would like to add that we should also bring out the best from our diverse multicultural society and the best from the immigrants who have chosen to live in this the most magnificent place on Earth — beautiful British Columbia.
Over the past two and a half years this government has laid out the path to achieve the best in B.C. It has worked hard through challenges — expected and unexpected — breaking through the years of inefficiencies, unaccountability and lack of openness. Now we are closer than ever. For the first time in years the provincial government's budget is balanced. B.C.'s unemployment rate is down well below the national average, with new jobs being constantly created. Our economic growth increase is third-largest in the country. Small business and consumer confidence are up. Family incomes enjoyed the largest increase in 20 years. For the first time in six years there's a net inflow of people to B.C.
The throne speech talked about bringing out the best in our education. It is important to concentrate on K-to-12 education as well as on higher education. The education system is there for our children, our future, and like the Premier said, it is the best job creation program ever invented. Over the past two years we have increased funding to education, committing to at least another $313 million over the next three years. Another $611 million will go towards building, expanding and upgrading schools all around the province.
This government is going to target such subjects as literacy, fine arts and first nations school involvement. We are going to do that through such programs as Success by 6, the Premier's advisory panel on literacy and increased funding towards relevant programs.
I believe the parents have a role to play in education. I am pleased to assist parents in Burnaby to be better informed. To this end, two education forums will be organized in the next two months to help parents understand the school system.
This government has further committed to bringing out the best in our higher education. We have committed to add 25,000 new student spaces across the province. That's on top of the 6,000 that were created in the last two years. We're also committed to an increase in the Advanced Education budget of $105 million by 2006-07. It's important that we continue to concentrate our task on advanced education and our arts programs, our high-tech and trades programs, and promoting student exchange programs.
Through student exchanges we are building ties with nations all over the world. When those students go home, they will be taking their experience with them, and when the time comes, they will be advocates of British Columbia and Canada in their own countries. They will buy our products, and it will increase opportunities to expand our export sector.
This government is also committed to bringing out the best in our economy. The results of our hard work have started to show in 2003. B.C. is leading the coun-
[ Page 8576 ]
try in job creation with 77,000 jobs created last year and 154,000 in the last two years. Subsequently, the unemployment rate is down to 6.8 percent in December 2003 — well below the national average. Housing starts are up by 25 percent. Business incorporations are up 9.3 percent. Economic growth is projected to be the fourth-largest increase in Canada, and our consumer confidence is on the rise. These are the indicators of a healthy economy, improving the lives of British Columbians on an everyday basis.
This government has been prudent to concentrate and re-evaluate its key resources, such as its forests, oil and gas, agriculture, softwood lumber and other natural resources. The trade missions by the Premier to China and India, commitments to furthering the arts, engineering and high-tech sectors are all part of furthering the growth and stimulation of B.C.'s economy.
I participated in the trade mission to China last November. Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing and Tianjin are cities in China experiencing tremendous growth and transformation. I believe that businesses in British Columbia will be able to capture a fair share of the opportunities there if our industries and the resource sectors are competitive.
On top of those efforts, on top of those successes, British Columbians will be able to take advantage of the 2010 Olympics, an event that brings pride, world recognition and excitement to all British Columbians. This will bring recognition to local athletes, boost local businesses, increase investment and expand the quality of life for many. The tourism industry will benefit exponentially both in the short term and in the long term.
Long after the games are over, British Columbia will be remembered for its beauty, its hospitality and its people. I'm proud and excited we have won the bid for the 2010 Olympics and Paralympic Winter Games. I want to join my fellow British Columbians to welcome the world to our amazing province.
The same can also be said about the 2009 World Police and Fire Games. I'm incredibly proud. I would like to thank Jeff Clark and Miles Ritchie, two British Columbians, two Burnaby firefighters, for bringing the 2009 World Police and Fire Games. My colleagues and I have been behind this from the beginning, as it will bring economic revenues to the city in terms of tourism and hospitality. It will also showcase the beauty that's the city of Burnaby, and British Columbia. My colleagues in Burnaby have helped increase the awareness for the 2009 games. We have hosted the selection committee, and we are incredibly happy that our efforts paid off.
Good things come in threes. For the first time ever, the 2006 World Junior Hockey Championship games are being hosted in B.C. It's another proud moment for all British Columbians and their athletes. It's another chance for our young people to showcase their skills in front of the world. Thanks to this government's dedication and to the support of British Columbians, we are able to take part in and benefit from those truly amazing events. I wish the best of luck to all the athletes and teams.
Although this past year has been full of success stories, achievements and results, it has also been a year of challenges and natural devastations, some of which will leave a lasting effect. We have seen people's homes and communities destroyed by wildfires spreading through Okanagan Valley. We have seen SARS and mad cow disease. We have seen floods and we have seen droughts. Those are the types of events that no one could have predicted and are nearly impossible to prevent.
Those were the events that have only been overcome through hard work, support, pulling together and dedication by all British Columbians. I was pleased to be able to personally assist as a part of the community to do our part in helping those in need. As part of the community's activities, fundraising for the North Thompson forest fire relief fund, we visited Kamloops, McLure, Louis Creek and Barriere. I can never forget the devastating fire destruction in those areas. Many thanks to the volunteer firefighters, the communities, the neighbours and everyone else involved for being there and for staying strong and supportive to their families, neighbours and strangers.
Some of the biggest challenges in British Columbia have come from the health care sector. This government has been dedicated to improving the health care levels and building a sustainable health care system. This government has created more nursing spaces. It has increased doctors', nurses' and health support workers' salaries by $1.2 billion. It has directed more funding toward the patients.
The challenges arise because the demands constantly outgrow the funding. This government wants to concentrate its funding on the patients — on improving their services, creating more spaces and having state-of-the-art equipment. However, those efforts are constantly sabotaged by the demands and strikes, pulling money away from the patients and increasing the tax burden and debt, which in turn gets passed on to every British Columbian. I join this government in urging all others to be in the same spirit in a united effort to do their parts for the patients and the long-term sustainability of the public health care system.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all the volunteers across this province. Volunteers are the glue to our communities. They take part in reading programs, coaching sports, mentoring students, helping seniors. They are the driving force for children, youth, seniors, substance abuse, new immigrants, police stations, fire stations and rescues. On any given day you can find them in schools, hospitals, community centres, the Legions, Optimist Clubs, Lions Clubs, Rotary Clubs. The volunteers' contributions to the communities and to this province are irreplaceable, immeasurable and indispensable. Volunteers light up many lives. I am pleased to see that in April of this year, Burnaby will have a festival of volunteers to celebrate the contributions of volunteers and help the non-profit organizations recruit more helping hands.
[ Page 8577 ]
As a representative for Burnaby North, I'm happy to say that my riding has been contributing to the overall direction of the province. The creation of the eBay call centre in our community is expected to provide close to 800 jobs. Last year this government provided $4.7 million to our city to upgrade 32 kilometres of sanitary and storm sewer pipelines. Our various community programs are helping many of my constituents to better their lives.
I've been fortunate to be able to host coffee chats and open houses and attend many community events. I'm proud that this government is fiscally responsible, accountable and transparent. This is a government that has already fulfilled over 90 percent of its election platform and is in the right direction to fulfil the rest. This is a government that has a mandate, a vision, and it brings in sustainability and solutions rather than a short-term outlook and maintenance. I believe the overall majority of British Columbians will agree that this is the true spirit of British Columbia.
B. Penner: It's a pleasure for me to take my place and respond to the Speech from the Throne that we heard last week. I'd like to follow on the excellent comments from my colleague the member for Burnaby North.
It's true that the overriding theme of the Speech from the Throne was bringing out the best in British Columbians. Clearly, we're starting to see that happen throughout our economy and the province, if we look back over the past 12 months. I'd also like to reflect on some of the other throne speeches we've heard since the 2001 provincial election. The underlying message in all of those speeches had to do with bringing out the best in British Columbians and returning a new era of hope and prosperity to British Columbia. I believe the record is pretty clear that this government is living up to the commitments made in the throne speech.
I know from time to time, and certainly under the past government, there wasn't a whole lot of meaning for me when it came to throne speech day. Why was that? It wasn't because I had any resentment for the role that the Crown had in having the Queen's representative here to deliver a speech on behalf of the government. Rather, it was my never-ending disappointment with the previous government in not living up to the commitments that were made in the throne speech. Time and time again, the previous government would make certain commitments in the Speech from the Throne only to fail to deliver on those very commitments.
One particular comment comes to mind about fiscal responsibility and balancing the budget. We saw how the last government doubled the provincial debt in a mere ten years, despite continually promising to live within their means and to balance the budget. They would say what they had to say in order to get through a new cycle, but they didn't have a plan to back it up.
In contrast, you've heard throne speeches from the Lieutenant-Governor here since the 2001 election where, in fact, the government has met its commitments or in many cases actually exceeded them. First and foremost, this government committed to getting our fiscal house in order. We had a significant mess to clean up. As I've just mentioned, the provincial debt had been doubled in a mere ten years. To state it differently, it took the NDP government just a few years to do what it had taken previous governments 100 years to do, and that was to acquire $17 billion in new debt that is left for our future generations to deal with. That's a significant burden.
To put it in some context, the annual interest payments alone on the total provincial debt amount to more than we spend on advanced education every year. As the speaker from Burnaby North alluded to, a good education program is really the best job creation program a province or a country can have. To be frittering away our money on interest payments, in many cases to banks located outside of this province, is really not a sound economic strategy. Therefore, I certainly salute and am proud to be part of a government that has taken significant and meaningful steps to balance the budget not just for one year, but to balance it in future years in a sustainable way — not just one-offs, but doing it year after year.
There are a number of positive indicators to support my statement, and it's the optimism expressed in the Speech from the Throne that things are getting better in British Columbia, and that the economic policies laid out in previous throne speeches and in budgets are actually bearing fruit. I think the old adage certainly applies — that people vote with their feet.
We saw in the decade of the 1990s under the previous government, when they imposed a tax regime that gave British Columbians the highest marginal tax rates of any jurisdiction in North America…. We saw what that did. We saw that British Columbia lost some of our best and brightest and certainly our young people to other jurisdictions, either going south or going east — certainly in contrast to that old adage about: "Go west, young man." Well, I'm very pleased to report that according to Statistics Canada, in the third quarter of last year, for the first time in 2003 and for the first time in six years, more people were moving to British Columbia from the rest of Canada than were leaving the province. That's a big turnaround because, certainly in the area that I come from in Chilliwack, we saw in the late 1990s how many farmers were pulling up stakes and moving to Alberta. Other people were pulling up stakes and moving to Alberta.
My constituency assistant, who had worked for me for five years, pulled up stakes and moved to Alberta. When her husband wasn't able to get a satisfactory employment offer here, he took a job in Alberta. Much to my regret and I think to the chagrin of the family, they felt they were obliged to follow through on that employment opportunity in Alberta and leave Chilliwack and the Fraser Valley. I know it was upsetting for their children to be pulled out of high school and to be relocated.
Our community in Chilliwack certainly felt the effects of the negative economic policies imposed by the
[ Page 8578 ]
previous NDP regime. People did vote with their feet. Happily, a number of people also voted at the ballot box in 2001 and installed a different government — this government — which has taken steps to correct the wrong-headed thinking of the past, lower our taxes, reduce the regulatory burden and invite people back into our province. The fact that 2,614 people from the rest of Canada moved back to British Columbia in the third quarter of 2003 is solid proof that our plan is working.
There are other indicators as well. It's no surprise, given that 2,600 people decided to come back to British Columbia, that they came back because there were jobs here. The economy is growing, as evidenced by the fact that for two years running British Columbia has led the rest of Canada in terms of job creation and job growth. That's a pretty significant record, again, when you compare it to what happened in the 1990s when British Columbians had to adjust to being near to last place in Canada in terms of economic performance.
In fact, this improvement has continued. Just last month Statistics Canada reported a net increase in the number of people working in British Columbia of 1,000 positions. That's building on the 83,400 jobs created in all of 2003, and of course, that job creation record built on the previous year when I think there was something like 77,000 new jobs created in 2002. So since January 2002, British Columbia has seen an increase in employment of 159,000 positions. That's a remarkable employment record, and that's what's drawing people back to British Columbia. It's what's giving hope and optimism to our young people, so that they know they have a future and can stay in British Columbia and pursue their dreams, build a family and look forward to contributing to society.
Further evidence of a strengthening economy going forward are reports released in recent weeks by two leading financial institutions in Canada: the Toronto-Dominion Bank as well as the Scotiabank. Their in-house economists have both predicted that in the coming year British Columbia will be near the top of the pack in terms of economic growth in Canada, second only to Alberta. Again, to put that in contrast, by the end of the last decade under the NDP government, British Columbia had sunk to last place in Canada in terms of economic growth. We started the nineties being in first place, and because of the highest taxes in North America, we dropped to dead last in terms of that measurement of economic growth.
In order to turn that around, we took some bold and creative steps — cut taxes, reduced the regulatory burden — and we're on track to reduce it by one-third within a few months. Look what's happened. We're now poised, according to two leading financial institutions in Canada, to be the number two province in Canada in terms of economic growth. Our goal is still to be number one, but certainly number two is better than being number ten in this race. So stay tuned. There are more good things to come, and I'm confident that if we stay the course and keep pursuing the right choices for British Columbians, even though they may be difficult choices and at times politically unpopular choices, they will be the right choices if they get us back to number one in terms of economic growth in the country.
Further evidence, further indicators of B.C.'s economic renewal come from the number of housing starts — absolutely phenomenal results. Last year construction in the province totalled something like — let me just check the number before I give you the wrong one — $6.4 billion in construction permits. That's $6.4 billion in one year. I believe that was a record number for the year 2003. The number of residential permits was up 16.2 percent, and it was almost double the national rate of increase in housing starts — again, a measurement showing us leading the country and certainly ahead of the pack.
How are we doing so far this year? Well, I'm glad you asked. According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, housing starts in British Columbia were up 94 percent last month compared to the previous January in 2003. As I've already indicated, 2003 was a pretty phenomenal year in terms of the construction of new homes and other dwellings in British Columbia, so we're on track to have another phenomenal year.
People don't decide to build a new house, and people don't decide to take out a mortgage and invest in their future unless they have confidence in the future. The fact that so many people are choosing to go out on a limb and build a new home and invest their savings in a new home, to me, is a strong indication that people have some courage, some optimism and some faith in the economic course that we're on in this province. Again, I think that bodes well.
I think, Mr. Speaker, you were a member of a previous government that imposed a tax on real estate transactions, and so the more real estate that changes hands, the more activity that takes place, the more revenue government garners. I'm sure the Minister of Finance will have something to say about that tomorrow. All of that bodes well in terms of getting our fiscal house in order when you see that amount of investment taking place in that key sector, the housing sector in British Columbia.
It's not just about statistics; it's not just about figures reported by Statistics Canada or Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation or various banks. It's about the bottom line for families. How have all these policies we've implemented over the past couple of years affected families? I'm pleased to report that family income in British Columbia is up, and it's up significantly. At the end of the day, families have more resources, more dollars left in their pockets that they can choose to spend looking out for their own family's interest. I think that is an extremely important indicator, an extremely important measurement in terms of how well we're doing governing this economy in British Columbia.
According to B.C. Stats, average B.C. family income posted the largest gain in 20 years following the 2001
[ Page 8579 ]
election. After-tax family income in British Columbia was up 4.7 percent in the year 2001 to $57,581 on average, the third-strongest increase in Canada and the largest increase in after-tax income for B.C. families, as I said, in the last two decades. The average income tax paid by B.C. families decreased by 13.5 percent, the largest decrease in 20 years, as a result, again, of the economic measures this government has implemented.
I take a lot of heart in the fact that families in British Columbia are being left with more dollars that they can make decisions about how to spend — whether they want to spend it on going shopping, going on vacation with their family or with their kids, investing in a small business or doing something else. All of those things are positive indicators of the course we're on.
I just came across this little item on my desk a few minutes ago. It's a news release from the B.C. Chamber of Commerce. As you know, it represents small businesses across this great province of ours. I'll read a few excerpts from this news release, headlined "Balanced Budget a Defining Moment for British Columbians." John Winter, who is the president of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, says: "This is a defining moment for this government and for all British Columbians. When we elected the B.C. Liberals, they promised they would balance the budget and put the legislative mechanisms in place to hold themselves accountable," referring to the statutory requirement to balance the books and the Budget Transparency and Accountability Act. "If there is one promise in the New Era document the Liberals had to keep, it was balancing the budget and doing so using accounting principles widely accepted in major corporations. B.C. isn't just open for business; we're very much back in business," said John Winter.
Then he goes on to list some of the indicators I've already talked about, which are B.C. leading the nation in job creation, showing an 8.1 percent increase in employment levels over those two years compared to the national average of a 5.5 percent increase in the number of people working; real estate sales totalling $24 billion in 2003, which was a 22 percent increase from 2002; business incorporations up, which means more people again are deciding that now is the time to take a chance, to take a risk, to invest in the future and get into business and see if they can do better for their families. The number of business incorporations was up 9 percent last year, the largest annual increase in a decade.
B.C., Mr. Winter points out, has moved from being the second-highest tax jurisdiction in Canada to one of the most competitive, noting that as a result B.C.'s gross domestic product in 2004 is forecast to grow at a rate between 3 percent and 3.5 percent, second only to Alberta. We've done all that in the context of still increasing health care spending to record levels — an extra $2 billion annually being pumped into the health care system — and protecting, maintaining and enhancing funding for education. That's not an easy circle to try and square. We've been able to do it, but only through strong fiscal discipline, courageous leadership from the Premier and the Minister of Finance, and a lot of discipline on the part of every minister and all the MLAs in this House who support that agenda in terms of staying the course.
We've been buffeted by a few shocks along the way. Members here have already noted the forest fires we had last year and the extra costs those imposed on government — something like $470 million over and above what's annually budgeted for fighting forest fires. We've talked about BSE and mad cow disease. That was certainly a shock to the ranchers and the farming industry in our province, and that necessitated some extra payments on behalf of the province, through the Ministry of Agriculture, in order to support our farmers in their time of need. We know that we also faced a downturn in tourism, partly still a fallout from September 11, 2001, as well as the SARS outbreak in China and in Toronto, and that scared off some tourism from British Columbia. But those things are coming back.
The economic plan that the government has put forward is resilient, and it's been able to withstand those shocks. Still, we're told that the budget for 2003-04, which was presented here last February, is on track. At the end of the day, when you net it all out, the bottom line will be roughly what was projected last year. That's good news, and frankly, it bodes well for the budget we're all anticipating tomorrow afternoon, which as we know is legally required to be a balanced budget.
If we can get through a year like we've just come through last year, where the world was full of surprises, I think it suggests we'll be able to get through this coming year as well. Of course, I'm not trying to tempt fate. I certainly don't want to see a repeat of the forest fire situation or the floods that followed the drought and the BSE and SARS scares, but if we could withstand what happened last year, I have a fair bit of optimism that we'll be able to stand whatever Mother Nature and the Lord Almighty have to throw at us this coming year. That's the good news. That's the course that the government is on. That's our agenda.
You heard in the throne speech the government's commitment to open up something like 25,000 additional post-secondary spaces by 2010. I'm a person who certainly benefited from post-secondary education, starting off at a community college in the Fraser Valley. If it wasn't for that institution, I'm quite sure I would not have gone on to university. It certainly, for me, bridged the gap between our public post-secondary education system and advanced education. It made it easy for me to make that choice, to try it out and to see how it would work.
I'm hopeful that as part of these 25,000 additional spaces, we may see some of those spaces located at the former Canadian Forces Base in Chilliwack. Most members of this House will know that that military base, which was the only land-based military base in British Columbia, was closed a few years ago. It's a great asset essentially sitting idle now, and the RCMP have taken advantage of it to a certain extent, using it
[ Page 8580 ]
for training, but there's certainly an underutilized potential out there.
One of the opportunities we're exploring as a government is utilizing some of the training spaces available — relatively new buildings — and using that as a campus for the University College of the Fraser Valley, who have signed a memorandum of understanding with, I believe, Beijing Normal University in China to establish a campus in North America for that university. This would be a huge opportunity. It would help build a bridge from Canada to the Pacific Rim and establish some direct links, some direct connections to that huge growing economy in China. The more we can do, frankly, to get ourselves connected to that growing economy and make them think of us first when they think of North America, the better off we all will be.
That's a huge opportunity for us, and my colleague the member for Chilliwack-Sumas, Minister of Small Business, I know, has put in many hours pursuing that dream and that opportunity for Chilliwack. I certainly salute him for doing that. If we can succeed in this initiative, this will have ramifications far beyond the Fraser Valley — frankly, far beyond British Columbia. It could be a huge asset for Canada to establish this bridge to the Pacific and across the Pacific to China and get those linkages reaffirmed or affirmed in a very solid and tangible way.
Those are some of the positive things this government is embarking on. But I think in order to measure our successes to date, you do need to put things in perspective, and context is important. I've talked a little bit about the past in terms of what the previous government tried to do and what those results were, but it's interesting to note that they still haven't learned the errors of their ways. It's quite shocking to me that somebody like the NDP could go through the election drubbing they took in 2001, when they were reduced to just two seats in this chamber because of the outrage that British Columbians felt about how that government had performed in office. It's quite amazing they could go through that experience and not learn from the errors of their ways, which was that taxing and spending and borrowing wasn't what led to economic prosperity and wasn't what British Columbians wanted.
Proof that they haven't learned the errors of their ways is contained in the NDP's shadow budget, prepared for them by their so-called economic think tank, or farm team, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. They put out this document last week, called B.C. Solutions Budget 2004, where on the title page they say that the province is in a mess. I would agree that the province was in a mess as a result of the NDP's reign of error back in the 1990s, but as I've already indicated, we are well on our way to cleaning up that mess. Tomorrow the Minister of Finance will indicate how, certainly in terms of the budget, we have now turned the corner and have put things back in black.
Let's talk a little bit about what this NDP-funded economic farm team has put together. They are suggesting, if you can believe it, about a $2.2 billion or $2.3 billion increase in taxation in one year. Even at that, even increasing government taxation by $2.3 billion a year, they still say they wouldn't get to a balanced budget until many years hence — not next year, not the year after that, not the year after that or the year after that. Not till 2010 would they say they would balance the budget.
It reminds me a little bit of that Creedence Clearwater song, Someday Never Comes. Certainly, for the NDP, someday never comes when it comes to getting around to truly balancing the budget in a sustainable way, in a way that's not dependent upon one-time pension accounting changes or one-time revenue blips based on an energy crisis in California. That's what we saw from the previous government — always having an excuse for putting off the day of making the tough decisions to really balance the budget in a meaningful way.
That's why B.C.'s debt doubled in the last ten years, frankly. It doubled because they couldn't get around to facing the fact that they needed to balance the budget in a given year. They always put it off for another day. As you know, Mr. Speaker, there's never a better time to do the right thing than this very moment. But for them it was always easier just to pass the buck and duck and weave and dodge and tax a bit more and spend a bit more and even more in an attempt to curry favour with certain special interest groups.
We saw exactly where that got the province — last place in economic growth, doubling the provincial debt in ten years, highest marginal tax rates in North America. Still, despite all that effort on their part to borrow and spend in order to buy popularity, they ended up with two seats after the last election. That's probably more seats than they deserved, but nevertheless that was the outcome of the election.
It just shocks me to no end that they haven't learned the error of their ways and that they would be associated with this kind of trip backward, a huge leap backward in terms of increasing B.C.'s taxes again by $2.3 billion a year and borrowing more money and spending more money on certain special interest groups in an attempt to buy favour with those groups. Again, we saw that that simply didn't work. The result for all of us has been disastrous.
A few other highlights out of this NDP shadow budget that I think bear some mention. Overall, they're talking about increasing taxes by a whopping 27 percent. It gets even more startling when you look at specific segments.
You know how much effort has gone into retaining doctors in British Columbia. We've given them very significant pay increases in this province in order to retain them. Under the NDP, they would increase their B.C. component of the provincial income tax by over 100 percent. Do you think doctors are going to be impressed by that? Or think about nurses. Nurses, after the 23 percent increase that we gave them, are now the highest paid in Canada. Some of those nurses are right near the top of the income scale in terms of the current tax structure. Under the NDP's plan, you'd see their
[ Page 8581 ]
taxes go up 60 percent, maybe more. Do you think they're going to be impressed? Do you think that's going to help us retain and attract nurses to British Columbia like we have done in the last two years? Absolutely not. It would be a huge step backwards. Even teachers and social workers, who earn between $32,000 and $65,000 a year, would see a 40 percent increase in the B.C. component of their income tax.
I think those groups that the NDP thinks always will stand up and salute them and support them would be pretty disheartened and pretty upset and pretty unlikely to support them if they knew the facts of what the NDP's real agenda is, which is to take more money out of their pockets so that they can spend it on special interest groups. Gasoline taxes are projected to go up $300 million a year, or another 5 cents a litre. Who knows if they would stop there?
Just at a time when we're starting to see people coming back to British Columbia, people voting with their feet and coming back to our province because they see a good future for them here, the NDP would turn that all around by making it so costly for people here that they may think twice about locating to British Columbia. Of course, as businesses leave and people leave, the opportunities for the rest of us would decrease as well, putting more pressure on the people left to carry the burden.
I can't say strongly enough how much I disagree with the policy direction suggested by the NDP shadow budget as prepared by their friends at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Let's not forget that one of the last acts of the dying NDP government in 2001 was to shovel out the back door of this Legislature $200,000 in terms of an untendered contract to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives to prop up this think tank in order to give them ideas, when they knew they were going to be in opposition. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has produced exactly what the NDP expected them to do and, frankly, used B.C. taxpayers' money to pay them to do, which is to produce this kind of a budget idea for the NDP. I think all members of this House, if they had time to think about it, would reject that alternate budget proposal in the strongest possible terms.
Tomorrow we will see something much more reasonable, something much more thought-out and something much more acceptable to the vast majority of British Columbians, and that is a budget that's balanced on a sustainable basis — not due to a one-time accounting change which resulted in more than a billion dollars showing up on the revenue side of the ledger for the NDP one year or more than a billion dollars in windfall sales to California, like they did in one year and then ratcheted up spending as if that windfall were going to continue every year thereafter. Rather, you're going to see a budget plan that projects how we're going to balance the budget going forward and have modest surpluses so that we can start to make choices.
You can make a lot more choices when you have more money than when you have less money. Certainly, my situation is like that. When I got out of university and started to get a paycheque, I had more choices that I could make than when I was a student. I abhor debt. Sometimes it's necessary, but I certainly don't like taking it on more than I need to. That's why tomorrow will be a day I'm eagerly looking forward to, when we start to see us turning a corner and, instead of going deeper into debt, we start talking about what we do with the surplus that we'll start to produce in this province — whether we start to put it toward reducing the existing debt, whether we start to cut taxes even further to stimulate the economy even more or whether we look to invest in certain key priorities like infrastructure around the province or important social services. All of those things are the choices you get to make if you have the money and if you have a surplus.
I know there are other members of the House anxious to speak, and I am certainly anxious to hear what they have to say, so at this point I'll yield the floor and say I certainly intend to support the Speech from the Throne.
Hon. S. Brice: It is an honour to stand here as the member for Saanich South to address the Speech from the Throne and to make comment.
Obviously, each of us represents communities we're very proud of. Saanich South is the community I represent, and when I reflect on it, I feel truly honoured to be their representative. It is a riding that bumps up against the urban and the rural here on southern Vancouver Island. It expands from a very developed area close to the city centre way out to the farmlands of Central Saanich, from the beautiful Blenkinsop Valley out to the Gorge waterway. I know the people who live in Saanich South do watch our proceedings closely and make contact with me through the office. They would want me to incorporate some of their thoughts as I reflect on this Speech from the Throne.
The theme of the Speech from the Throne — bringing out the best — is an absolutely inspired expression at this time in our province's history. A tremendous amount of work has been done to lay the groundwork so that this year ahead can, indeed, bring out the best. There are a number of aspects of this speech that have been referred to by many members in the House. Some I would choose to make particular mention of are those relating to health, technology, education and the economy.
The health care system that we have built up in this country, which we're so proud of as Canadians and British Columbians, we have grown over the last years to realize is troubled in its sustainability. I think our government and our Minister of Health have taken very seriously the need to look at the health care system so that we can pass on, for the years ahead, a system that will meet the needs of patients. We know that even with our investment of $10.7 billion a year, we still hear from our constituents. I hear from folks of Saanich South that waiting lists continue to be long and that waiting to see specialists is sometimes unduly
[ Page 8582 ]
lengthy. With that we know we cannot continue to proceed as we always have. I think our government has shown true leadership and, in bringing together the counterparts across the country, has made the issue of the sustainability of the health care system a huge priority.
The role that the professionals play is obvious. We have done our utmost to attract the very best professionals. We have increased the number of doctors, the number of nurses, and we have certainly brought very, very skilled professionals to this province. But there needs to be a paradigm shift. We cannot, as citizens, be constantly looking to the system to do what many of us should be doing for ourselves, and that is taking upon ourselves the responsibility of looking after our own health care.
With this in mind I had been taking some particular interest in fitness and wellness and had come upon some pretty startling statistics. I compiled these and presented them to the Attorney General and, through his ministry and through cabinet, have actually had a proclamation. Some of the statistics were particularly startling to me. The national rate of obesity has doubled since 1985, childhood obesity has nearly tripled, and 55 percent of British Columbians can be classified as overweight or obese. There are 2,000 British Columbians that die prematurely each year from obesity-related illnesses. It's estimated that obesity-related illnesses cost the provincial economy as much as $830 million a year, and these costs may soon overtake the costs of tobacco-related illnesses. Thirty-eight percent of British Columbians are inactive, and 47 percent are insufficiently active for optimal health benefits.
The estimated costs of physical inactivity to the provincial economy are approximately $500 million a year. This translates into a number of illnesses that have a huge impact on our public, such things as heart disease, stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, breast cancer, osteoporosis, depression, anxiety and stress. These prevent people from having full and productive lives.
With those statistics and with our alarming cost to our health care system, we have in this province declared that April 4 will be Physical Fitness Day. I would certainly urge all members of this House, plus those who are following this from their homes, to make a personal commitment to address physical fitness for their own health benefits and also to assist in these hugely increasing costs to the provincial budgets.
The area of health care I am putting particular focus on now, of course, are the areas through my ministerial responsibilities that I have been charged with, and those are mental health and addiction services. I think this government and the Premier in particular must be recognized for keeping mental health high on the public agenda and for recognizing that addictions and mental health are so often combined. In fact, it has been said that potentially 70 percent of those suffering from a mental illness also have an addictions problem.
The previous Minister of State for Mental Health must be recognized for the tremendous work that he did in establishing a tremendous support network throughout the province of professionals, agencies and all those involved in mental health. I must say that everywhere I go, it is brought to my attention that the former Minister of State for Mental Health established a tremendous groundwork for us to operate from. I will be looking to build on that and to certainly maintain that momentum.
One of the key things in this office is to make sure the issues of mental health are dealt with through the ministries that also deal with mental health issues. The Ministries of Children and Family Development, Human Resources, the Solicitor General and the various health entities all have a role to play in mental health. Certainly, the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the former Minister of Children and Family Development must be given credit for bringing in a children and youth mental health act, and that is the very first children and youth mental health act in the country. The former minister certainly should be recognized for that.
As I leave my thoughts about the health care system…. I mean, obviously, every year as the budget comes out, we see the impacts and the amount of dollars that we invest in that very, very important area, but we know that we have to be rethinking how we as citizens draw on that precious resource.
Technology is mentioned in the Speech from the Throne and bringing out the best in technology, and we certainly have gone a long way to do that. In this province 10,000 businesses are in the high-tech sector and 45,000 jobs are in that area as well. The Vancouver Island Technology Park, which is in my riding of Saanich South, employs 500 people and adds approximately $40 million annually to our local economy.
That is why, with this vibrant, high-tech economy and all the government has done — for instance, personal and business tax cuts to encourage investment and to attract skilled workers…. There have been changes to the Small Business Venture Capital Act that have helped increase access to capital for companies throughout the province. There was the launching of the leading-edge B.C. partnership with the industry to market B.C. technology, expertise and opportunities in key national and international markets, the establishment of a leading-edge endowment fund, and the announcement of funding to double the number of graduates in computer science and electrical and computer engineering.
Now, with that commitment to technology it is particularly distressing, as the member for Chilliwack-Kent points out, that the shadow budget, as he referred to it, has been brought forward. We see just exactly what the NDP would have in mind. I think that in excess of 40 and 50 percent increase in taxes will send a chill through this technology industry, the industry that we have been working hard to attract — to bring people to this province, to bring high-paying jobs.
[ Page 8583 ]
Once it becomes even suggested that there would be a chance the NDP would bring in the draconian measures as outlined in that budget, I would say it would spell disaster for any future development in the technology industry of this province. It must be stopped at every opportunity.
The Speech from the Throne touches on education in many ways that speak to a lot of the things that brought me into public life. As a former elementary school teacher, it was our Premier's commitment to education that certainly spoke to me and encouraged me to get into the provincial Legislature. The investments that have been made in the K-to-12 system, despite declining enrolments, the increased funding…. In my own riding of Saanich South, I have been attending three groundbreaking ceremonies, just in the last six months, of either major improvements or new construction, showing this government's commitment to the K-to-12 system.
The post-secondary system, of course, got very exciting news in the Speech from the Throne and the commitment of an additional 25,000 spaces by 2010. This, of course, is great news for British Columbia families. As has been pointed out, this increased capacity should say that any young person who goes to school in this province, who works hard and can achieve a 75 percent average should be given at least the opportunity to enter a post-secondary institution and prepare for their own future.
The focus on education wasn't just limited, though, to institutional education in the Speech from the Throne. There was mention of lifelong literacy and the importance of the ability of our citizens to be able to function, to fill out such things as job applications and driver's licences, to be able to use at least a basic literacy in their worklife. The lack of literacy can be attributed to all kinds of reasons, such as learning disabilities and lack of opportunities, and we must give every citizen a second, a third or a fourth chance to go back and regain their literacy skills. If we look in our prisons and if we look at our unemployment rolls, the correlation between poor literacy and poor performance is absolutely…. The case can be made. Once again, kudos to our Premier for highlighting this and for taking something which seems so obvious and seems so paramount to a good and civilized society — a reasonable level of literacy…. We will become known as the jurisdiction that cares sufficiently for its citizens, that holds literacy as a high goal.
The next phase, of course, of revitalizing our economy, as outlined in the Speech from the Throne, is possible because of our government planning and the hard work of our dedicated professional public service. All of the existing programs and, indeed, the exciting directions outlined in the throne speech are delivered by the incredible people who have chosen to make their careers in the public domain. Teachers, who patiently guide our children through the intricacies of learning to read; nurses, whose healing touch supports our seniors at times of illness; foresters, whose professional knowledge and ethics protect our valuable resource; or clerical staff, who patiently respond to public demands — these are the people who are the face of government service. To them we say thank you from the hundreds of thousands of British Columbians that they serve, because without their hard work and dedication, all the programs that we debate in this chamber are simply on paper. They breathe life into the programs we prepare and provide for all of our citizens in British Columbia.
In conclusion, I, too, look forward to tomorrow and to the Minister of Finance's introduction of the budget speech that we all know will come in, keeping our promise of a balanced budget. A one-time-only, moment-in-time, balanced budget would not be something to celebrate. We will be able to celebrate because not only do we anticipate that the Minister of Finance will be bringing in a balanced budget, but we have brought in legislation to support that this will now be the way government conducts its financial affairs in British Columbia. We all know that in our homes and our businesses, we can't operate on one-year wonders. Nothing begins or ends at the beginning or the end of a business year or cycle. We make commitments within that cycle that have to be funded in the years out.
I have every confidence, as I look forward to that budget speech tomorrow, that not only will we be able to say that the budget is balanced, but I'll have confidence that we have set in motion a tremendous promise to the future citizens of our province that it won't be up for grabs or up to the whim of a particular party that might come along and decide to cast that aside. We have an obligation not only to 2004 and the remainder of this government's term but for the years ahead. I definitely look forward to that tomorrow. Thank you for the indulgence of the members of this House as I have made my comments to the Speech from the Throne.
B. Suffredine: We began in 2001 following a decade of decline. People were leaving the province in droves; businesses were closing. In one community in my riding, Creston, there were over 20 vacant stores on one street — their main shopping street called Canyon Street. I remember it very well, because the town council actually got together and put a composite picture of all the vacant spaces, one after the other, so that the whole street looked like a vacant street. I think it was 21 that they actually had in their series, which made up about four feet worth of pictures. Land was for sale everywhere, but there were hardly any takers. It's now coming on three years later. We've had nothing in terms of good luck. We've had natural disasters, floods, fires, BSE, SARS, a drought, 9/11. Times simply couldn't have been more challenging.
During the previous government's time, prices for energy rose and with them the revenues, but they still couldn't manage, even with increasing revenues. Deficit after deficit left us deep in debt. It doubled the debt, if I remember correctly. But worse than that, they actually committed and signed contracts to spend more money than they were getting even after they left of-
[ Page 8584 ]
fice. It's taken some time to get things under control. But we've got a plan, and we've been sticking to it, and that's not an easy thing to do.
Change is never easy. Getting our finances in order meant making some sacrifices in the short term, but those sacrifices will be worth it. Most people understand that in their own lives. They know that if they spend more than they earn, it won't work. It won't last very long. They can get that, too, in their own towns and cities. Most people that live in a local small community understand that the municipal governments can't spend more than they take in. But for some reason, the minute they start to think about the province or the federal government, that logic no longer applies. They don't think the principles that you can't keep spending more than you earn apply.
The plan to stimulate the economy that we've adopted was all about increasing the revenues to government while getting our spending under control. The results are just beginning to show, but we now lead the nation in job creation. Unemployment is below the national rate; 80,000 people in British Columbia no longer depend on assistance. Those people are typically employed and earning two to three times as much as they used to receive. Helping people get the skills they need and motivating them to succeed is very important.
Before I got up to speak, I was speaking to the member for Peace River South, and he encouraged me to talk about northern B.C. I've got to tell you that I don't mind talking about northern B.C. Northern B.C. has much to celebrate in the throne speech. I'm glad they do, because revenues from our vast resources on realizing the opportunities in the north will benefit us all. They'll benefit us by giving us money to invest in health care, education and transportation services so my friend in northern B.C. can have the paved roads that he's been looking for.
Creating opportunities anywhere in the province benefits us all. High-paying jobs in the north will also create opportunities for people from all over the province who want to go to that region to live and work and get one of those high-paying jobs. Developing transportation and shipping opportunities for the north will certainly help people who want to reach Asian markets with products to ship from all over the province: coal from the East Kootenay — I know my friend from the East Kootenay wants to see how much we can take advantage of the coal opportunities; lumber from local mills in places like Creston and Meadow Creek; and metals from mines, which don't exist in the Kootenays very much anymore but I hope will soon now that we are starting to see the reinvestment in mining.
Reallocation of the annual allowable cut is of immense importance to us in the Kootenays. For decades the American version of free trade has meant constant disputes for us. Creating a system based on the free market will help end the inability to say we subsidize our lumber industry and let us compete on a level playing field. That process will create new opportunities for communities to participate in the industry. It will also create new salvage opportunities to increase utilization of the trees we cut and to expand value-added products. That means more net income to British Columbians than we get for logs or dimension lumber. It's time to diversify our markets so we don't depend so much on one customer.
I also note that we're going to be acting on the recommendations of Mr. Filmon, and I say that's vital. We certainly don't want to ever experience a fire season like 2003 again, but if we do have an extended period of drought like we had, we need to be ready. Reduced fuel loading in the forests and being ready with local resources are examples of improvements that are possible.
Now, the announcement that 50 percent of all new energy requirements of B.C. Hydro will be generated from green energy sources means a number of opportunities for people in the Kootenays. Last year the $200 million Brilliant expansion project began, and that's one project that's already creating jobs for people in my riding.
B. Penner: That's a brilliant project.
B. Suffredine: It's a brilliant project. I agree with him.
There are all kinds of opportunities waiting. There are actually small hydro-generation projects that are very near approval, one of them at a place I know of called Enterprise Creek near Silverton. I know that the village of New Denver was looking at whether or not they might get a licence and develop power on Wilson Creek. There are all kinds of opportunities, because the region is full of the types of terrain that make it easy to develop a green energy project.
The next thing in the throne speech that I find of tremendous value to people all over the province is the Spirit of 2010 business strategy. That will ensure that businesses throughout the province can take full advantage of Olympic opportunities leading up to and following the 2010 games. Where are the opportunities greater than in tourism in the Kootenays, where most of the winter resorts in B.C. are?
Everyone should remember that the Olympics are 17 days in February a little less than six years from today. Following them will be the Paralympics, so there's about a month of opportunity. There's an old saying that opportunity knocks but once; opportunities of Olympic magnitude come only once in a lifetime. The Kootenays can benefit for the next 2,184 days in the lead-up to the Olympics and for years after the events end if they manage it correctly.
Now, there were a couple of lines in the throne speech that I think were largely overlooked but are of immense importance to people who live in the heartlands of British Columbia. The throne speech said that we were going to reinstate funding for forest recreation roads and rec sites, and that's big news for the Kootenays. There are a lot of people in rod and gun clubs who are outdoorsmen in the place that I live, who really value those sites and were worried about the fact that we weren't continuing to fund them. Reinstate-
[ Page 8585 ]
ment of forest rec sites is a valuable asset to outdoorsmen and people who enjoy outdoor recreation.
The next item is that there's $70 million into early childhood development. That's a recognition that is long overdue. The fact is that children in their preschool years learn faster than at any other time in their life. It's real proof of a government and a Premier thinking long term.
Now, probably the most important thing in the throne speech to my constituents is the broadband initiative. For my constituents in the Kootenays, some of the best news is in the strategy to bridge the digital divide. Of the 171 communities to get broadband access, many will be in the Kootenays. In fact, those communities include Edgewood, Fauquier, Burton, Nakusp, New Denver, Meadow Creek, Silverton, Slocan, Winlaw, Salmo, Lister, Wynndel, Crawford Bay and Kaslo. Access like that will make living and working in the Kootenays a real option for people from diverse walks of life who traditionally live in cities, and those opportunities are just beginning.
I did want to talk a little bit about the 25,000 new spaces at universities and colleges that have been proposed by 2010. I was really surprised to hear Carole James, the leader of the opposition, criticize this as not enough and not fast enough. Then I saw the Carole James budget proposed by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, where the plan is to raise taxes dramatically and borrow the money to fund new spaces in universities.
I guess you might understand why I was suspect of this position as no more than talk. When the NDP were in office, they crippled the universities by freezing tuitions and failed to provide any increased funding. They focused on votes instead of putting students first. Now they are the champions of more funding, but all borrowed. No one really did the numbers, but it's actually $2.5 billion annually that must come from taxpayers or be borrowed to fund that commitment. With a cost of $10,000 annually per student for each place created, it's easy for some to say, "Do more sooner," but it has to be sustainable. The goal we've set is ambitious but fair.
Noting the time, I move the adjournment of debate.
B. Suffredine moved adjournment of debate.
Hon. J. van Dongen: Pursuant to the standing orders, I move that the House do now adjourn.
Hon. J. van Dongen moved adjournment of the House.
Mr. Speaker: The House is adjourned until 10 a.m. tomorrow.
The House adjourned at 5:54 p.m.
[ Return to: Legislative Assembly Home Page ]
Hansard Services publishes transcripts both in print and on the Internet. Chamber debates are broadcast on television and webcast on the Internet.
TV channel guide • Broadcast schedule
2004: British Columbia Hansard Services, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada