2008 Legislative Session: Fourth Session, 38th Parliament
The following electronic version is for informational purposes
The printed version remains the official version.
MONDAY, MARCH 10, 2008
Volume 28, Number 4
|Introductions by Members||10339|
|Fort St. John medal winners
| Hon. R.
|Introductions by Members||10339|
|Message of appreciation
| Hon. C.
|Introduction and First Reading of Bills||10340|
|Housing Statutes Amendment Act,
2008 (Bill 10)
| Hon. R.
|Statements (Standing Order 25B)||10341|
|Status of women
|Agriculture Safety Awareness Week
|B.C. amateur hockey tournaments
| G. Coons
|Sexual exploitation of children
| I. Black
|North Cariboo Community Campus
|Ethel Tibbits Awards in Richmond
| J. Yap
|Government relationship with Ken
| C. James
| Hon. W.
| J. Kwan
| L. Krog
|Second Reading of Bills||10348|
|Forests and Range Statutes
Amendment Act, 2008 (Bill 8)
| Hon. R.
| C. Wyse
| Hon. R.
|Point of Privilege (Reservation of Right)||10355|
|Second Reading of Bills||10356|
|Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
Amendment Act, 2008 (Bill 9)
| Hon. P.
| L. Krog
| C. Wyse
| Hon. P.
|Local Government Statutes
Amendment Act, 2008 (Bill 7)
| Hon. I.
| C. Wyse
| J. Kwan
| Hon. I.
|Electoral Reform Referendum 2009
Act (Bill 6)
| Hon. W.
|Committee of the Whole House||10371|
|Ministerial Accountability Bases
Act, 2007-2008 (Bill 5)
| Hon. M.
|Report and Third Reading of Bills||10375|
|Ministerial Accountability Bases
Act, 2007-2008 (Bill 5)
|Committee of Supply||10376|
|Estimates: Ministry of
| Hon. K.
Proceedings in the Douglas Fir Room
|Committee of Supply||10378|
|Estimates: Ministry of Small
Business and Revenue and Minister Responsible for Regulatory Reform
| Hon. R.
| J. Brar
[ Page 10339 ]
MONDAY, MARCH 10, 2008
The House met at 1:33 p.m.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
Introductions by Members
Hon. M. de Jong: Today we are really thrilled to have representatives from the government caucus members' constituency offices, the constituency assistants who serve not only the members of this assembly but British Columbians so well. We hope that all members will take advantage of this opportunity to both welcome them and express our thanks for the tremendous work they do.
Hon. G. Campbell: I just did want to say how much we appreciate the work that all of our constituency assistants do across the province, whether it's on the opposition side, I'm sure, or our side. They are the true front-line workers for all government services in British Columbia, and I want to say how much we all appreciate the work that they do on behalf of the people of the province of British Columbia.
C. James: Today in the Legislature we have ESL teacher Frances Embury with three of her students, who are touring the buildings. Frances is tutoring three women who've come from South Korea with their children, so their children can learn English in our B.C. school system. They'll be returning to Korea to reunite with their families at the end of the school term, and some of them are looking at perhaps coming back in September. So please make welcome Frances Embury, Bu Ja Hwang, Mi Ran Yoo and Jeung Eun Jang.
Hon. G. Campbell: I am pleased to welcome back to the legislative precinct the MLA for Kelowna-Mission. [Applause.]
D. Chudnovsky: It's wonderful to see in the gallery today guests of mine who are here visiting, my brother-in-law Gavin Herman and sister-in-law Shirley Herman. It's a wonderful treat to have them here visiting us in B.C. They've been doing some travelling.
Together with them is a cousin and great friend, Brian Taylor, who is visiting us from Birmingham in England. He is the most progressive minister I've ever met and also one of the funniest. Accompanying them is my partner Ruth Herman, who, as you all know, is the best political organizer in the known universe. Would you welcome them all, please.
FORT ST. JOHN MEDAL WINNERS
Hon. R. Neufeld: I'm proud to say that this last weekend, a Fort St. John native was winning international accolades. Denny Morrison captured the gold medal at the world single distance speed skating championship. Denny won the men's 1,500-metre event on Sunday in Nagano, Japan. On Saturday, Denny also won a bronze medal in the 1,000-metre event.
Canada ended the competition with nine medals. It's great to see our speed skating team is on the right track to own the podium at the 2010 Olympics right here in British Columbia. Could we please give Denny and the team a round of applause.
Last Thursday I was also able to introduce two bands from my school district in Fort St. John. They were competing at BandFest here in Victoria by invitation. I want to also send congratulations to those youngsters and individuals. Both of them won gold while they were here in Victoria.
I think that's just great for young people to come all the way from Fort St. John down here, compete and go home with two gold medals. Would we give them a round of applause too, please.
Introductions by Members
D. MacKay: Last night I was watching television, and I couldn't help but notice some shots from back east in the province of Ontario, where people were trying to move that heavy snow. Certainly, I can understand why people would want to come out to British Columbia for a visit during this time of the year.
I had lunch today with a couple of people I met a few years ago from Lake Simcoe. Jim and Mary Roberts are in the precinct today, and I'd ask the House to please give them a warm welcome.
Hon. M. Coell: I have three guests in the legislative precinct this afternoon: Karen Mooney, who has worked on my campaign since 1981, her daughter Jennifer Collard and her husband John Collard. Would the House please make them all welcome.
Hon. P. Bell: Joining us in the gallery today is a good friend and a good supporter, Dennis Jackson from Prince George. Would the House please make him very welcome.
B. Bennett: Did you know that it takes 12 hours to drive to Cranbrook from Vancouver while it only takes eight hours to drive to Prince George from Vancouver? There is a gentleman in the House here today, Jerry Sobe, who is the program director for the restorative justice program in Cranbrook and district, who drove all the way down here just so he could come in here today, watch us in question period and see how democracy works. So please help me make Jerry welcome.
MESSAGE OF APPRECIATION
S. Hawkins: If I may say, it's great to be back. If I can, I just want to say thank you for your support, Mr. Speaker, and to everyone in this chamber for the last….
[ Page 10340 ]
It's been almost five months. Time flies when you're having fun. I've really appreciated all the thoughts, the prayers, the cards, the gifts.
You know, oftentimes in this chamber there's a clashing, but when someone is ill, the place comes together. I can't think of better friends and family than people in these precincts. So I thank you, Mr. Speaker, the Premier, the Leader of the Opposition and all my colleagues. Thanks for all your support.
M. Farnworth: It's my sad duty to inform the House of the passing on Saturday of one of our most distinguished members in recent years. That is Mark Rose, who was the MLA for Coquitlam-Moody from 1983 to 1991.
Mark was my predecessor. He was a great friend and a mentor to me in politics. He was born on March 5 in Vancouver in 1924. He served as a councillor — or at that time an alderman — in what was the district of Coquitlam prior to running first in a federal election in 1965, but being successful in the federal election of 1968 and serving as an MP for Fraser Valley West, which at that time took in from Port Moody all the way up the valley out to Langley. He served until 1975, when he lost in 1975. Then he returned in 1979 and served federally until 1983, when he entered this House.
Mark established a reputation here as someone with a great sense of humour and a very, very sharp wit. But he was a man who used it not to be mean but to make a point in a good-natured way. That was very much, I think, the hallmark by which he was known around these chambers.
Someone who respected the institution, he respected all members on both sides of the House. He had a great, great sense of this place about him, and he really was a remarkable individual. He was Opposition House Leader from '86 to '91.
He had a tremendous musical talent, which served the opposition extremely well during the annual press gallery skit. He composed a number of skits for the press gallery, some of them quite remarkable and some of them always remarkable — often modelled on some of his favourite operetta musicals, usually around Gilbert and Sullivan. They were extremely well done. I know my colleague from Kamloops knows all about them, as does the member from Comox, who had the privilege of serving with him.
His musical career served him well in retirement in Vernon, where he played in a band, I believe with the member from Kamloops as well — quite the musicians, both of them.
He's survived by his wife Isabel and his daughters. I just want to ask you, hon. Speaker, that we send condolences to his family, because his was a rare talent and a rare presence that graced this chamber.
Hon. C. Richmond: I just want to add a few comments to what the Opposition House Leader said. I had the pleasure of serving in this House for several years with Mark, as did my colleague the Minister of Tourism, Sport and the Arts.
I made a few comments about Mark on Thursday, but they were kind comments, so I just want to add a couple of things. As the member for Port Coquitlam–Burke Mountain said, he was Opposition House Leader for quite a while. At the time, I was Government House Leader, so we had a lot to talk about every day.
Naturally we didn't always agree on everything, because he was on that side and I was on this side, but we always had the utmost respect for each other. Mark was a gentleman and a man of his word. When he said something, you could count on it.
He was an accomplished musician. Although I did little gigs around here with Mark, we never managed to play in the same band together. He never made an application to join the Kamloops Rube Band. I'm sure he would have been qualified. I have no doubt about it.
Hon. C. Richmond: But he was a great guy, and I enjoyed him very much. He became a good friend, and I will miss him very much.
First Reading of Bills
AMENDMENT ACT, 2008
Hon. R. Coleman presented a message from His Honour the Lieutenant-Governor: a bill intituled Housing Statutes Amendment Act, 2008.
Hon. R. Coleman: I move that Bill 10 be introduced and read a first time now.
Hon. R. Coleman: Today I introduce Bill 10, which proposes amendments to the Local Government Act, the Community Charter, the Vancouver Charter, the Architects Act, and the Engineers and Geoscientists Act of British Columbia.
The amendments in this bill will create safer building and a greener building code by improving the way buildings and construction are regulated. This bill allows local governments to enact bylaws to conserve energy and water, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve building accessibility for persons with disabilities. It is the first step to a greener B.C. building code, with much more to come in the weeks ahead.
I move that the bill be placed on the orders of the day for second reading at the next sitting of the House after today.
Bill 10, Housing Statutes Amendment Act, 2008, introduced, read a first time and ordered to be placed
[ Page 10341 ]
on orders of the day for second reading at the next sitting of the House after today.
(Standing Order 25B)
STATUS OF WOMEN
C. Trevena: Saturday was International Women's Day. There were Women's Day celebrations throughout the weekend, but it should also perhaps be a time to reflect for women. We've been celebrating this day for almost 100 years. We as women have come far, but I don't think far enough.
We are persons, although I think if you'd asked a woman 100 years ago if she was a person, she would have told you she was. It just took the courts some time to catch up. We have the vote, and there are 17 of us elected women in this chamber. We go to university, and we get degrees, and we go to work. In most households, both the man and the woman have to work. In the majority of those households, it will be the woman who, on top of the largely underpaid work, will still deal with the cooking, the cleaning and the child care.
But it's not because of these slightly cynical sighs do I suggest that Canadian women may want to pause in their celebration this year for International Women's Day, at least for a couple of months, because pay equity day doesn't actually fall until May 10. It's going to take until May 10 for Canadian women to earn what Canadian men earned in 2007. Canadian women earned 64 percent of what men earned, so it takes 17 months to earn what a man earns in 12. That's just the average; 60 percent of women earn less than $25,000 a year.
When we talk about poverty, we are usually talking about women — single moms trying to raise their kids on a couple of minimum-wage jobs, struggling to pay the rent and get groceries on the table. So for many women, we're still not even talking about equality. We are talking about simple survival, keeping afloat in this consumerist society with the high cost of living, while other families watch MVP: The Secret Lives of Hockey Wives or the isn't-it-so-delightful teen-pregnancy movie Juno.
Maybe we haven't come as far as any of us had thought. Perhaps the sisterhood of today should look back to the fighters of a century ago or maybe even just 40 years ago, and pick up the pens and the placards and demand a full and equal place for all women in all parts of society.
AGRICULTURE SAFETY AWARENESS WEEK
V. Roddick: Manage more than just your back. This is the theme of the Agriculture Safety Awareness Week campaign that is being recognized from March 12 to 18. During Agriculture Safety Awareness Week, we recognize worker safety, health care, economic productivity, meeting regulatory obligations and, most importantly, the moral obligation we have to preserve our most important asset — our people.
The goal of this year's campaign is to encourage farmers and ranchers to think through their work and find ways to reduce risk. Our government has made huge progress in the area of protecting farmworkers. The Farm and Ranch Safety and Health Association, FRSHA, now works directly with farm labour contractors on safety education and through its field safety coordinators. Many injuries can be prevented through proper design of work environment, redesign of tools and appropriate worker training.
Once high-risk activities are recognized, steps can be taken to prevent or control occurrence and severity of accidents in agriculture. This includes working with major labour contractors to provide in-house training to their workers and ensuring appropriate health and safety programs are in place.
I would thank all members of the House for joining me in recognizing Agriculture Safety Awareness Week because, of course, we all have to eat to live.
B.C. AMATEUR HOCKEY TOURNAMENTS
G. Coons: I'd like to take this opportunity to talk about some very exciting events coming up in a number of our communities. During spring break the B.C. Amateur Hockey Association championships will swing into action in 16 of our communities throughout the province, from peewee division to juveniles, both males and females participating to show who can bring home the bragging rights.
I approach this topic today as I finally reminisce about my travels to many provincial championships in my past capacity as the northwest coaching coordinator for B.C. Amateur Hockey. I do want to mention that Rupert is the host for this year's girls bantam-A provincials, and I know that Rupert will rock for five straight days as the eight girls teams pull into town. Three local players, Sage Vanier, Tristen Repole and Kelcie German, will lace up for the first time.
I remember back in 1982 when women's hockey was first officially recognized in our province. It was the year of the infamous Vancouver Canuck race for the title. The towels were waving throughout the province, and B.C. Amateur Hockey finally, after six decades of encouragement, threw in the towel and welcomed girls to the ranks. To their credit, they immediately took a leadership role and promoted women's hockey at the next B.C. Winter Games.
I wish to acknowledge and thank the horde of organizers and volunteers in all of the host communities from Cranbrook, Chase, Dawson Creek, Nanaimo, Vernon, Kitimat, Summerland, Beaver Valley, Mackenzie, Vancouver, Prince George, Victoria, Kamloops, Comox Valley and especially Prince Rupert for making these tournaments happen.
Hockey is a lifelong activity that must ensure fun and positive experiences are combined with the teachings of skill and technique. I encourage everyone to
[ Page 10342 ]
head down to their host arena and take in a game or two. I wish all the players the best of luck, along with a tidbit of advice: carry your stick low, keep your head up and, most of all, have fun.
SEXUAL EXPLOITATION OF
CHILDREN AND YOUTH
I. Black: Sexual abuse can be broadly defined as the exploitation of an individual through prostitution, pornography and the exchange of drugs, alcohol, transportation or shelter. This, of course, has serious adverse impacts on the victims, their families and our communities. The unacceptable nature of this abuse, this exploitation, becomes dark and viscerally repugnant when you contemplate the victim as being a child.
Our Lieutenant-Governor has agreed to the government's request to proclaim March 10 to 16 as Stop the Sexual Exploitation of Children and Youth Awareness Week. The fuchsia-coloured ribbon that I'm wearing today symbolizes the efforts in preventing the exploitation of children and youth, because it is a combination of red, for red-light districts, and purple, the provincial colour of violence prevention.
The week recognizes the importance of supporting communities to develop prevention, education, enforcement and intervention strategies to address the sexual exploitation of children and youth. A variety of school and community-based events are being held throughout the province to support local programs, raise awareness and provide networking opportunities for the outreach and social workers who do this crucial work with an emotional fortitude that I can't begin to comprehend.
This exploitation of kids is so wrong and so profoundly disturbing at every level of humanity. Crushing it today and preventing it from recurring in the future will only happen if communities, individuals, police and government work together. We have to own this in our communities, teach our youth and the adults who have youngsters in their charge the awareness and self-defence against creating, encouraging or engaging in the circumstances and behaviours that lead to the crime of abusing kids.
I would like all members to join me in offering encouragement and appreciation to all the organizations in B.C., including many in the Tri-Cities like PLEA and Children of the Streets and the PoCoMo Youth Services Society, for constantly reminding those of us in a position of authority and leadership of the existence of this exploitation and for their tireless and cooperative energy at making this reality become a thing of the past.
NORTH CARIBOO COMMUNITY CAMPUS
B. Simpson: I stand today to speak about the North Cariboo Community Campus. That campus in the city of Quesnel is a beacon for cooperation. It's a community effort, it's an institutional effort, and it is also a political effort that over the years has transpired into a beautiful campus. It sits overlooking the Quesnel River.
I first encountered this ten years ago when the current mayor was then a city councillor and was selling $10 tickets on street corners for anybody who wanted to get involved in a thing called the post-secondary council. Nobody believed that it would come to fruition, but the NDP government of the day actually set land aside. Then that was followed through by the current government, who helped that campus to be built. As the Minister of Education and the Minister of Advanced Education know, this group did not stop there. They tactfully but persistently continued to lobby for what they call phase 2 of that campus.
The phase 2 campus would give the community a trades and technology centre and what they call a magnet centre for an agricultural focus to attract people to the community. They're currently offering trades and technology through one of our local high schools that has been closed. They have 132 people across six trade groups. We are now attracting people from out of town into the community who, once they see how beautiful Quesnel is, decide that they're going to relocate there.
So it's now become a relocation initiative as well as an economic development initiative for us. The community advocated for the phase 2 at the Finance Committee and in a recent visit with the Minister of Education. Kudos to that group to continue the community effort, to not sit back on their laurels once they got the first phase, and to continue to participate in the future of our community and what we need to develop that community and diversify our economy. I ask the House to join me today and say a heartfelt thanks to the post-secondary advisory council in Quesnel.
ETHEL TIBBITS AWARDS IN RICHMOND
J. Yap: On this Monday following International Women's Day, I rise to recognize the hard work, dedication and community spirit of a group of women from my community of Richmond.
Last Monday I was honoured to join 300 fellow Richmond citizens and attend the 15th annual Ethel Tibbits women of distinction awards. Organized by the staff at the Richmond Review, the awards are a formal way of thanking those women who have excelled in a variety of ways around our community.
The award is named in honour of the Richmond Review's pioneering editor, Ethel Tibbits, who took over the helm in 1934 and was not afraid to speak her mind and stand up for the injustices that she saw going on around her. Although she was outspoken on many issues, she'll be remembered most for her series of editorials condemning the internment of Japanese Canadians following the events at Pearl Harbor. She was a woman who spoke out when others remained silent and was a true hero for many.
This year there were many great nominees, and the awards went to a very deserving group indeed. Nikki Avendano won the youth award for contributions to volunteering and youth leadership. Robert Alexander
[ Page 10343 ]
McMath Secondary School teacher Manninagh L'Abbe took home the community award for her dedication to her students and encouraging student involvement in the community. Stephanie Kennedy won the sports award for her continued involvement both locally and provincially in the sport of cheerleading.
Lennie Tan won the award for excellence in arts for her use of music therapy in the rehabilitation of people with both emotional and physical needs. Elizabeth Specht, executive director of Volunteer Richmond, won the business award for excellent management of the non-profit organization.
This year's fundraiser raised a record $20,000 for local charities, including the women's safe haven Nova House, Richmond Hospital's maternity ward and the Ethel Tibbits scholarship endowment fund. All in all, it was an excellent event to honour those who dedicate themselves to continually improving our community.
WITH KEN DOBELL
C. James: Just a few moments ago British Columbians learned that a special prosecutor approved a charge against one of the Premier's top advisers, Ken Dobell. Terrence Robertson has recommended that Ken Dobell be charged for violating the Lobbyists Registration Act. He also concluded that there is a substantial likelihood of conviction for influence-peddling under the Criminal Code.
My question is to the Premier. He knew Ken Dobell was lobbying. He knew that Ken Dobell was wearing many hats and doing many projects. Why didn't he do something to stop it?
Hon. W. Oppal: Mr. Dobell is scheduled to appear in court in Vancouver on the 12th of March. In the circumstances, it would not be appropriate to comment.
Mr. Speaker: The Leader of the Opposition has a supplemental.
C. James: This is about the Premier's behaviour. Last time I checked, the Premier's behaviour wasn't in front of the courts.
It took the opposition raising questions of conflict of interest and lobbying violations before we saw this government do anything, before we saw absolutely any kind of investigation occur. The Premier sat back and watched his top adviser break the rules. This goes to the heart of the Premier's integrity and the integrity in his office.
So my question is to the Premier. How can British Columbians have any trust in the ethics of the Premier's office when a special prosecutor has said there is substantial likelihood of influence-peddling, and the Premier did nothing about it?
Hon. W. Oppal: The special prosecutor has also said that it would not be appropriate to comment on the circumstances of the case at this time.
Mr. Speaker: The Leader of the Opposition has a further supplemental.
C. James: You know, once again, we see the government doing what they always do, which is trying to hide behind being able to answer any questions.
This is not about the case. This is about the Premier.
Mr. Speaker: Members.
C. James: This is about the Premier's integrity. This is about the integrity of the Premier's office.
The Premier had his deputy, Jessica McDonald, investigate the charges of conflict and lobbying. And what did she come back and say? She came back and said that Ken Dobell was acting with the utmost integrity and that everything was fine. Clearly, she was wrong.
The entire investigation was a whitewash. The special prosecutor has concluded that Ken Dobell could be convicted of influence-peddling.
Again, my question to the Premier: these illegal activities took place in his office with his knowledge, so how can British Columbians trust a Premier when he allowed these illegal activities to go on under his watch?
Hon. W. Oppal: Mr. Dobell is scheduled to make his first appearance in Vancouver Provincial Court on the morning of March 12, 2008. As this matter is before the court, it would not be appropriate to comment on the circumstances of the case at this time.
In the meantime I would recommend to members of the opposition to read the report of the special prosecutor.
M. Karagianis: I have a matter that is not before the courts. In early January it was revealed that Mr. Ken Dobell has expanded his business and is now lobbying on behalf of Cubic Transportation Systems.
In light of the report of the special prosecutor, will the government commit today to suspending all meetings and activities with Mr. Dobell, including those activities that involve lobbying public government agencies such as TransLink?
Hon. W. Oppal: I don't know what part of my previous answer the opposition doesn't understand, but the matter is before the court. A judge will hear the case. A judge will make the appropriate finding.
Mr. Speaker: The member has a supplemental.
M. Karagianis: This has nothing to do with the courts or any appearance before the courts.
[ Page 10344 ]
I am asking the government if they will commit today to cease all future meetings and activities regarding Mr. Ken Dobell, his lobbying efforts to this government and, specifically and especially, to TransLink on behalf of Cubic Transportation Systems. Very simple question. Will they please commit to discontinue all future meetings and activities with Mr. Dobell until this matter is resolved?
Hon. W. Oppal: Hon. Speaker, these are not my words. These are the words of the criminal justice branch and the special prosecutor who was assigned in the case.
It is not appropriate to comment on any of these matters that are before the court. The opposition member can word the question any way she wants, but the fact is she's asking us to comment on matters, directly or indirectly, that are still before the court.
J. Kwan: Let's be clear. Jessica McDonald was asked by the Premier to investigate the conflict-of-interest allegations related to Ken Dobell. She cleared Ken Dobell of conflict of interest not once but twice.
My question is to the Premier. How could it be that his top person cleared Ken Dobell of conflict of interest when the Crown prosecutor is now making charges against him? Why did the Premier stand by and let Jessica McDonald clear Ken Dobell of conflict of interest in his office?
Hon. W. Oppal: Why don't we wait for the matter to come to court? Why don't we just wait for the matter to come to court…?
Mr. Speaker: Members.
Hon. W. Oppal: Of course, it's easier to speculate in this assembly, isn't it? Let's stop playing cheap politics with this. This matter….
Mr. Speaker: Attorney, just take your seat for a second.
Hon. W. Oppal: This matter is before the Provincial Court of British Columbia. There's a very good reason why we have a sub judice rule, so as to have a separation of power and to respect those separations of powers that we have. We don't comment on matters that are before the court. There will be lots of time afterwards to comment on these cases.
Mr. Speaker: The member has a supplemental.
J. Kwan: My question is to the Premier. Will the Premier tell this House and British Columbians what other involvements is Ken Dobell involved in with this government, and will he actually set aside all Ken Dobell's responsibilities until the court date?
Hon. W. Oppal: The matter is before the Provincial Court. It is not appropriate to comment on the circumstances of the case at the time.
Mr. Speaker: Members. Members.
M. Farnworth: To the Attorney General. If a minister of the Crown was facing charges recommended by a special prosecutor, we would hope the Premier would ask that they stand aside. So my question to the Attorney General is: why does he not think it's appropriate, then, that Mr. Dobell — a senior political aide, a former senior political aide of this Premier — step aside from any lobbying activity, any meetings with the provincial government, any meetings with any publicly funded agency until this matter is cleared up?
Hon. W. Oppal: As a former member of the executive of government, that member should know better than to ask that question.
Mr. Speaker: Members.
The member has a supplemental. Proceed.
M. Farnworth: Well, if the Attorney General doesn't get the appearance of someone facing charges continuing to lobby public agencies, perhaps the Premier of British Columbia might get it. Until this matter has been cleared up before the courts, will the Premier tell this House that it is unacceptable for Mr. Dobell to lobby in any way, shape or form any member of this government, any publicly funded agency until this issue has been dealt with by the courts of British Columbia?
Hon. W. Oppal: Well, it's apparent to me that the hon. member has not read the report of the special prosecutor and the statement of the criminal justice branch, which is issued independent of our office. Mr. Dobell is scheduled to make his first appearance at the Vancouver Provincial Court on the morning of March 12, 2008. As this matter is before the court, it would not be appropriate to comment on the circumstances of the case at this time.
Mr. Speaker: I remind members: it's four times we've asked this question.
S. Simpson: I realize the question has been asked a number of times. Unfortunately, the government has refused to answer the question.
My question is to the Premier. It's very clear Mr. Dobell is now before the courts. The special prosecutor has said that there's more than enough evidence to pursue a conviction. Will the Premier commit to this House today that he will sever all relationships
[ Page 10345 ]
between this government and Mr. Dobell until this matter is settled by the courts?
Hon. W. Oppal: You see, the difficulty with that question is that whatever takes place in a courtroom is inseparable from what that member has asked. We don't know what the court is going to say. We don't know what the court's ultimate disposition will be. In those circumstances, it is improper for us to comment as to what the court may or may not do. We are not free to speculate as to what a court will do. It's inappropriate to comment. I don't know what part of that the opposition members don't understand.
Mr. Speaker: The member has a supplemental.
S. Simpson: I would assume that any minister over there or senior deputy or senior official in this government that was facing the circumstances that Mr. Dobell faces today — facing charges in front of the court for influence-peddling — would be stepping aside their position until this matter was settled.
Why is there a double standard for Mr. Dobell, and will the Premier stand up and say that there is no double standard and that he and his government will not deal with Mr. Dobell until this matter is settled in the courts?
Hon. W. Oppal: I would assume that the member can read the report of the special prosecutor, who is independent of government. If the member read the report, he would understand why the recommendation is made by the criminal justice branch not to comment any further on the matter.
D. Chudnovsky: The Premier is in charge. The buck stops there, in that seat. We ask the Premier to stand today in this House and say that the relationship with Mr. Dobell will be ended today until this is cleared up. Will the Premier answer the House?
Hon. W. Oppal: Actually, the buck stops in the courtroom. There's a difference between a courtroom and this body here, and the opposition members should know that.
Mr. Speaker: The member has a supplemental.
D. Chudnovsky: The courtrooms try trials. The government is here in this room, and that man is in charge of the government. It's his responsibility to answer to this House. We ask him to answer to this House. Will the government take the action it can take? Will the Premier take the action he can take and sever the relationship with Mr. Dobell?
Hon. W. Oppal: We….
Mr. Speaker: Members.
Hon. W. Oppal: We believe in the rule of law. We think it's appropriate.
Hon. W. Oppal: I notice that they laugh at that, when we talk about the rule of law. Obviously, they don't believe in the rule of law.
The rule of law dictates that we wait for the judge to make his or her decision before any further action is taken. At this stage….
Mr. Speaker: Members.
Hon. W. Oppal: I think the member for Surrey–Panorama Ridge wants to say something, so I'll sit down.
Mr. Speaker: Members.
N. Macdonald: What we're talking about here is the appearance that this creates. The Premier has to answer this question. Does he think that it's okay for Ken Dobell to continue in his role with this hanging over the government's head? Is that in any way appropriate?
Hon. W. Oppal: You know, what we think about a particular set of circumstances and how we speculate on what may or may not take place in a courtroom is irrelevant. What is relevant is that we adhere to the principle of the rule of law. The rule of law under which we live is far too important to be compromised by political opportunism, which is taking place right now in this House.
Mr. Speaker: The member has a supplemental.
N. Macdonald: This has everything to do with public confidence. Will the Premier sever all relationships with Ken Dobell immediately?
Hon. W. Oppal: I wonder if it ever occurred to the members opposite that, at this stage, Mr. Dobell is innocent. He is presumed to be innocent.
Mr. Speaker: Members.
Hon. W. Oppal: That's a fundamental principle in our criminal law. You should understand that. We're hearing….
Mr. Speaker: Attorney, just take your seat for a second.
[ Page 10346 ]
Hon. W. Oppal: We are all sworn to uphold the law. Under our law, every person is presumed to be innocent until the contrary is proved. The Crown has to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That hasn't been done.
The fact that something may or may not happen to Ken Dobell down the road is completely irrelevant, and it's totally improper for anyone in this House, let alone lawmakers, to be talking about this.
Mr. Speaker: We're just going to wait for some silence.
B. Simpson: The Attorney General keeps speaking about the rule of law. He keeps asking if this side has actually read the briefing and the backgrounders on this, and the answer is yes. That's why we're in the House asking questions of ethical conduct and ethical standards that ought to apply to anyone who gets government money, particularly anyone who gets government money from the Premier's office, and who has stated publicly that he did not do the right thing in this case, that he did do something that was wrong — that there is going to be an investigation for further wrongdoing.
This is a matter of ethical standards of the Premier's office. Again to the Premier: will the Premier ask Mr. Dobell to step aside? Will he sever all relationships with Mr. Dobell until this matter is cleared up once and for all?
Hon. W. Oppal: I assume, if the member opposite has read the report as he says he has, that he's ignoring the last two lines of the report. I'll read them again: "Mr. Dobell is scheduled to make his first appearance in Vancouver Provincial Court on the morning of March 12, 2008. As this matter is before the court, it would not be appropriate to comment on the circumstances of the case at this time." I don't know what part of that the members opposite don't understand.
Mr. Speaker: Member has a supplemental.
B. Simpson: Well, the reason that there's persistent comment, the reason that there'll be a persistent buzz in the public and the reason that we'll keep asking the questions is because right now there's a question of the ethical conduct in the Premier's office for continuing a relationship with Mr. Dobell.
We're not commenting on what will happen in the courtroom. We're not commenting on anything. We're commenting on the fact that Mr. Dobell has already indicated that he did not follow the laws in the lobbyists registry. He's already indicated that he has done wrong.
For highest ethical standards, the Premier should do the single most important thing today: stand up and sever the relationship. Then we can get into the court system with the highest ethical standard.
Hon. W. Oppal: Let me see if I've got this right. The Premier should step in now and impose some kind of penalty on something that's not yet before the courts. Never mind about the presumption of innocence. Never mind….
Mr. Speaker: Members, the Attorney hasn't finished.
Hon. W. Oppal: Never mind that it's the Provincial Court judge who has the ultimate authority to decide what to do with Mr. Dobell. But you know, according to that member opposite, the Premier should step in right now and circumvent whatever the judge is going to do.
Mr. Speaker: Members.
Just take your seat, Attorney.
Hon. W. Oppal: That round of applause and the approval of that question indicate to me how much respect they have for the presumption of innocence and the rule of law.
R. Fleming: We know that Mr. Dobell is before the courts. We don't need to hear that over and over again from the Attorney General. What we're asking about today….
Mr. Speaker: Members.
Just take your seat, Member. Just take your seat for a second.
Mr. Speaker: Members.
R. Fleming: What we're asking about today is why Mr. Dobell continues to make money from lobbying this government, the government that he is so closely tied to.
Attorney General, I'm not asking you to comment on the serious charges before the courts. We're asking the Premier — and this is a question for him — to show good judgment and leadership and sever the relationship today, once and for all, with Mr. Dobell until this matter is cleared before the courts.
Hon. W. Oppal: So let's see if we've got this right. We're not going to prejudge this case. We believe in the rule of law, but the Premier should do this and he should do that, and let's ignore the court proceedings for the time being.
[ Page 10347 ]
Never mind the rule of law. Never mind the presumption of innocence. Never mind the fact that it's the judge who ultimately will decide what's going to happen to Mr. Dobell and what won't happen to Mr. Dobell. Let's prejudge all of it and do it in here.
Mr. Speaker: The member has a supplemental.
R. Fleming: There is ample precedent in this Legislative Assembly of ministers…
Mr. Speaker: Members.
R. Fleming: …stepping aside while they're before the courts facing charges similar to what is occurring today. Conflict is about actual and perceived conflict. Until the prosecution is complete regarding these serious charges about ethics and lobbying, he shouldn't be working. That's the point the opposition is trying to make.
Again, to the Attorney General….
R. Fleming: He shouldn't be working with this government.
Again, the question is to the Attorney General. Will he take…
Mr. Speaker: Members.
R. Fleming: …the precedented steps that have been done by ministers and deputy ministers before and order and sever ties between this government and their highest-paid adviser, who has ties to this government?
Hon. W. Oppal: You know, in the 1990s Stephen Owen….
Mr. Speaker: Members.
Take your seat. Sit down.
Hon. W. Oppal: In the 1990s Stephen Owen conducted an inquiry, and he gave advice to the government of the day. The government of the day, to its credit, passed a Crown Counsel Act. What it did was place the prosecution of cases outside the political realm, wherein the criminal justice branch is responsible for the prosecution of cases.
But in certain circumstances where there may be a perception of bias, there's a provision for the appointment of a special prosecutor so as to take it all out of the political realm. That's what's happened in this case. The special prosecutor has given us, through the criminal justice branch, certain advice, and we plan to adhere to it.
Mr. Speaker: Members.
L. Krog: What the Attorney General doesn't seem to understand is that the special prosecutor has stated in his summary very clearly that Mr. Dobell is willing to waive the Offence Act limitation period and enter a plea of guilty for failing to register as a lobbyist under the Lobbyists Registration Act. The question is the sentencing.
The real question is the integrity of government, the integrity of the Premier's office. Mr. Dobell was his special appointee. If Mr. Dobell was a police officer being charged, he'd be suspended with pay right now.
All the opposition is asking of this Premier is that he demonstrate some leadership here today in this House and tell this House that Mr. Dobell's activities are suspended.
Hon. W. Oppal: Well, I must say that I'm somewhat disappointed by the question from that member, because I expected better. He was here in the '90s when the Crown Counsel Act was passed. He understands why the Crown Counsel Act was passed. He understands why we have special prosecutors. He understands fully why, if we're going to follow the rule of law, we take politics out of it. He fully understands all of that. So I'll resile to the previous answer I gave, and that is that we're not commenting upon this case until it's fully finalized in a courtroom.
[End of question period.]
D. MacKay: I have a petition here on behalf of 2,100 people in the Bulkley Valley who are concerned about people having to sell their homes, leave their friends and move to a centre where they can receive a life-sustaining treatment. They are asking the health care partners in Bulkley Valley to take the necessary steps to bring in a dialysis machine for the Bulkley Valley District Hospital.
Mr. Speaker: Members.
G. Coons: It's hard to hear in here. Two petitions to present, hon. Speaker.
Mr. Speaker: Proceed.
G. Coons: A petition from 260 people in the Prince Rupert area wanting to pass legislation banning the sale of poisonous antifreeze and another petition from 388 residents of Galiano Island who would like to place
[ Page 10348 ]
a moratorium on ferry fares until a legislative committee is in place.
Orders of the Day
Hon. M. de Jong: In Committee A, I call Committee of Supply. For the information of members, we'll be discussing the estimates of the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue. In this chamber I call second reading of Bill 8, the Forests and Range Statutes Amendment Act.
Second Reading of Bills
FORESTS AND RANGE STATUTES
AMENDMENT ACT, 2008
Hon. R. Coleman: I move Bill 8 be read a second time now.
Bill 8 makes important amendments to three statutes: the Wildfire Act, the Forest Act, and the Forests and Range Practices Act.
Amendments to the Wildfire Act. Under this bill, communities are asked to ensure the highest standards for fire protection apply to areas they regulate. It asks them to ensure that a strong, local bylaw or wildfire act will apply in these areas. It clarifies obligations for forest operators or other individuals conducting activities in local government boundaries, so that if there's a forest fire, people will know who to contact for firefighting services — the local government or the province — and how it will be coordinated.
This is important where local government boundaries include large areas of forest but they do not have the capacity to respond to fires in all parts of their district. With these changes, wildfires may be quickly actioned by the appropriate authority.
This act also responds to the needs of first nations who wish to practise their rights to harvest timber for domestic use, such as building their own homes. The right to harvest timber for domestic purposes has been upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Sappier decision. We're expanding the free use permit process to include domestic use by first nations and to increase the amount of timber that can be harvested.
It also streamlines administration. It supports the coast forest action plan by reducing red tape, meaning industry is more competitive. It streamlines the marking of timber transported by water. It no longer needs to have forest workers hammer timber marks in every stick of boom, where it is dangerous to do so. It simplifies the operations and addresses worker safety at the same time.
[K. Whittred in the chair.]
On the B.C. Timber Sales side, it allows for greater flexibility to pursue new opportunities for B.C. Timber Sales. For example, it would enable B.C. Timber Sales to develop a business relationship with a first nation or group to bring more wood to market. With more flexible financial controls, BCTS could develop a collaborative timber sale licence and be paid for expenses and help the first nation in order to build its capacity.
It supports a new relationship with first nations, allows more timber to market and actually deals with an issue that is near and dear to both first nations and licensees — each other.
There are some other administrative amendments which ensure that forest licensees consistently report all cost information to the government in a timely manner. That data is necessary to support the market pricing system, which is important to our relationship with the United States under softwood and also to identify what the price of the value of the commodity should be to government.
The Forest and Range Practices Act, which is going to be updated, is related to the rules around the forest stewardship plans and their approval, review and replacement. Amendments increase the opportunity for the public to review and give input and a requirement for government approval.
Amendments also strengthen sustainable forest management by ensuring all significant harvest of timber affected by fire, pest or disease is governed by a forest stewardship plan. This ensures harvest reflects government objectives for the conservation of forest and range values. At the same time, salvage harvest for forest health purposes can be conducted promptly.
The bill continues the work of this government in ensuring the sound management of forest resources and the forest sector in British Columbia.
B. Simpson: As usual, amendment acts are…. It's very difficult to determine what the true purpose is without an awful lot of work and some debate in the House, so my comments with respect to this act are perfunctory. I will be looking at various details in the act as we go through it. But the act does give us an opportunity to say what is not being addressed in here.
As the minister starts out, he talks about the Wildfire Act and the changes with respect to bylaws for local government. What local governments really need are more resources to address the fuel that is building up all around their communities. What they need is more assistance from the government to complete their wildfire plans but then, once they're completed, to actually get the resources that they need to be able to reduce the fuel loading on their land base.
The minister could come back and say: "Well, they're giving community forests out. They're giving all kinds of things out to try and help that happen." But the issue here has been raised by the community of Logan Lake, through the UBCM — that there are fundamental issues of liability. There are fundamental issues concerning who bears the brunt of the costs.
As an example, if a municipality is the owner of a wildfire plan and has made that wildfire plan for their interface, then they're required to expend municipal tax dollars to extend outside their borders into Crown land and other land, because that's the requirement that necessitates getting the funding. You have to have
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some of your own money on the table. There's a funding formula.
The municipalities are saying: why should they take tax dollars from the municipal property tax base to do work outside of the municipal boundaries? That's not an appropriate use of municipal tax dollars. That issue is not addressed in this bill. It's not a fix that has been given, and there are no resources for the communities to address that. The issue of liability is there, and it's something that we're going to have to canvass in the debate.
I need to understand, from the minister's perspective and his staff when we get into third reading on this, if this is a transfer of liability to municipalities and to local governments by the fact that they have to have a bylaw. As the minister indicates, it gives them the ability to do first response. They don't have to wait for ministry. But as the industry has pointed out to the minister on many occasions, the Wildfire Act is an act to pass liability downward and away from government.
I can tell you that I have had local governments approach me and ask me whether or not that's what this is doing. It's making that liability not just pass to the licensees and to the people who are doing the work on the land base. Are we now passing liability for wildfire and all of the consequences of a wildfire onto local government and municipalities?
Rather than fixing the problem that was raised through the UBCM's first interface fire report, we're actually, potentially exacerbating it. Again, that will be something that we will canvass during the debate to make sure that is clearly understood, not by just the members of this House but by the local governments that need that clarification.
One aspect of this bill, as the minister points out, is in response to a court finding with respect to first nations having access to the forests surrounding them for their own use. It's the free use permits on the land base, independent of things like forest and range agreements.
What this bill does not address — and the minister well knows, as does his staff, as does the staff in the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and various other land use ministries — is that first nations have a fundamental problem with the structure of forest and range agreements and forest and range opportunities. They don't like them. They take them because there's cash upfront and, in many cases, it's the only way they get access to the land base. But they don't like them. They have been asking this government to fundamentally change them since they first put them in place.
The Nadleh First Nation has worked with the ministry and the minister's staff for a long time now and cannot get an answer as to how they get an economic access to their land base that will work for them and make them viable. They can't get answers from the government. They want fundamental change to forest range agreements and forest range opportunities. The free use permit is nice. It's a nice addition; it's a nice correction. It does not address what their issues are.
In fact, there was a report out recently. I know the minister likes to wax eloquent about all the numbers of forest and range agreements and all the volume that's out there, but a report entitled Aboriginal Forestry Enterprise Roadmap that was published last week makes the following comments: "It is true that a few first nations have achieved modest success in forestry in B.C., but this is not the case for the vast majority. The job creation record of first nations is about 3 percent of the industry standard."
Here are the actual numbers. Of the 70,000 people employed in B.C., only 934 jobs from first nations communities. Instead of getting an industry average of a thousand jobs for every cubic metre, the first nations only get 34.7 jobs. That's what needs to be addressed, and it's not addressed in here.
Again, the report states: "Cash received from government was inadequate to the real costs of developing their forest and range tenures." That is a significant issue for forest range agreements, where the upfront cash — which the Supreme Court of British Columbia has ruled was not a constitutional formula-based approach to giving that cash out in the first place — is simply not sufficient for the first nations to build the capacity they need to maximize even the small volumes of tenure that they're given.
So the tenure size is a problem. The cash upfront is a problem. And, as the minister well knows, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs has pointed out time and time again that these call into question judicial and constitutional arguments. They bring that to the fore once again, because the first nations do not believe that these agreements are either constitutional or judicially fair to them based on findings.
Bill 8 doesn't do that; it doesn't address that. That's an immediate need of the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs has asked and, in fact, has roasted a few ministers as a result of that. It's not addressed in this bill. So while free use permits are a nice thing to have, the real issue is not addressed.
Let's talk about the streamlining of timber marking. I was trying to figure out — because the press release is a bit disconnected from the bill — where the bill does actually address the coast recovery plan. I'm thankful the minister's pointing that out. It's in the streamlining of marking of timber.
Now, I get that there are safety considerations with marking timber on the water, but one of the things that we will be canvassing here is the full range of streamlining for marking timber. If you read the compliance and enforcement annual reports, you'll find that one of the biggest problems that they have is improperly or not-marked timber. So in streamlining, in order to achieve one goal, we may be exacerbating a problem that exists already. We may be making that problem worse.
In particular, when we look at some of the issues around the MPS system — the market pricing system — the timely data collection, driving stumpage prices, etc., unmarked, poorly marked, improperly marked timber is a significant problem, particularly on the coast, but it's a problem also in the interior. Streamlining that further could actually exacerbate that situation,
[ Page 10350 ]
all in the name of somehow giving efficiencies to the companies.
We should remember who the companies are on the coast now. Most of the companies on the coast now have collapsed down to being log exporters and land developers, save one major company. As a consequence, their manipulating the system to their benefit under the guise of efficiencies has great benefit to their shareholders, but I'm not sure that it necessarily benefits British Columbians.
We have significant problems with how we address the stumpage system just now. That flared up, and it goes to the whole market pricing system and timely data collection. I find that almost laughable, given what has been revealed over the last little while and what I've been aware of since last fall. That is the fact that in the interior we are kiln-drying whole logs in order to drive us to 25-cent stumpage.
You have this market pricing system, but the minister, through his staff, has allowed two companies and two companies only to go from what was supposed to be a pilot project to fix a grading-rule problem into actually booking kiln-dried logs and therefore driving the stumpage prices down as just part of how they do business. Tolko did not get that opportunity. Others did not get the opportunity to do that.
B. Simpson: I see that I've got a reaction from the minister. I look forward to his response to it, but I think I have the floor.
As a consequence to that ad hoc approach, there's got to be a question there about how the timely data collection influences true pricing relative to some of the commitments that this minister has made in an ad hoc fashion all around the province. "We're going to change the point of appraisal." "We're going to have B.C. Timber Sales put out a big volume," as the Minister of Agriculture somehow managed to do up in Mackenzie area. All of that impacts the market pricing system at a much higher level than timely data collection. I look forward to that discussion.
With respect to B.C. Timber Sales. B.C. Timber Sales' problems go much deeper than the relationship with first nations. B.C. Timber Sales is struggling, as an entity, to meet its stated objectives. It's struggling, as an entity, because on the one hand — and we've canvassed this in estimates debate — it's supposed to maximize revenue to the Crown. It's supposed to do it at the least cost possible, and yet at the same time, somehow it's supposed to set the market pricing system. The connection between B.C. Timber Sales and its role in the marketplace and the market pricing system needs to be canvassed. Again, timely data collection for the market pricing system just simply doesn't address the real issues that are out on the land base.
I mostly want to concentrate on the forest stewardship plan aspect of this and the minister's claim and the claim in the press release that this bill is going to actually improve public review and the government approval process for forest stewardship plans. I dispute that claim. I don't believe it does that at all. What it does is guarantee automatic approval of these forest stewardship plans so that we turn them from five-year plans into ten-year plans.
Now, these forest stewardship plans have a sordid history. These are part of the so-called results-based codes under the Forest and Range Practices Act. They have been a problem from the start. We had to canvass those problems in here in question period.
We had a report from the Forest Practices Board that pointed out that these forest stewardship plans were becoming legal documents that had very little to do with stewardship on the land base and that these plans have objectives in them that are the minimum objectives required by government but don't give anybody — the public or even the Ministry of Forests — any inkling of what the actual results were beyond the land base.
We have examples, around this province, of forest stewardship plans for vast tracts of British Columbia that are collapsed down into one very tiny document, a few pages that simply say, "We will meet the minimum legal objectives that the Crown requires for us," and in a language such that the public does not understand what is being said.
In the case of the Cariboo land use plan, there was huge backlash by the people who were involved in that, because they kept saying they did not believe that, in the Cariboo-Chilcotin land use plan, the objectives that were so hard-fought and won at the core process table were going to be protected under these plans. And they still don't believe that.
In fact, Ministry of Forests staff said, in a presentation up in the Clayoquot Sound that they did to the folks who are managing that land use plan going forward, that they could not guarantee the protection of the objectives in the Clayoquot Sound land use plan. We've had a more specific example recently, a Forest Practices Board investigation into a forest stewardship plan that was done on the Stillwater and the Sunshine Coast.
They agree that this was done in November of last year. They agree that these plans have a difficult format, that it's difficult for the public to interpret and provide meaningful comment on forest stewardship plans. They state, in this case, that this one particular plan covered all of the licensee's coastal operations, including Vancouver Island, the Queen Charlotte Islands and the mainland — one plan.
Now, can you imagine the watershed component of that plan, in which they put one objective for watershed management, and that is that the sum total of activities in the watershed will not exceed what a municipal water system could accommodate, as long as it doesn't unduly restrict the flow of timber from the province of British Columbia?
Imagine how many watersheds there are in the Queen Charlotte Islands, on Vancouver Island, on the coast — how many community watersheds, let alone
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other watersheds that don't feed communities but that feed our fish stocks, that feed our ocean systems. All of those, covered under one statement in this one plan.
There is a fundamental problem with forest stewardship plans. The public does not like them. The Forest Practices Board has made it known that they don't like them. In the case of this Stillwater plan, they actually call into question whether or not the objectives that were so hard-fought and negotiated in the Stillwater pilot project were actually carried into the forest stewardship plan. They're very concerned about that.
So what do we get? We get in this bill that the minister must roll these plans over for five more years if minimum criteria are met. That is not what the public wants. What the public wants is for these plans to be opened up as quickly as possible. They want these plans to be put into plainer English, less legalese. They want them written by foresters, not lawyers. They want them to be understood by the public so that the public knows what's happening on the land base. And they want to go back to notification. When a licensee or a tenure holder is going to operate in their area, they get notification, and they get the ability to put public comment into that.
Does that do this in this bill? Not on your life. It rolls these bad plans, these ill-formed legalese documents, over automatically for another five years. The minister must do that, provided minimum criteria are met.
Well, what's at risk? Again, the Forest Practices Board put out a special investigation in January of this year, called High Retention Harvesting and Timber Sustainability on the British Columbia Coast. They open up their comments with a very interesting statement from a forester by the name of Hamish Kimmons.
He stated: "Timber mining is not necessarily an inappropriate management goal. However, its danger for the forestry profession is not inherent in the practice itself, but only when it occurs consciously or unconsciously under the guise of sustained yield. To do so further diminishes the credibility of foresters in the eyes of the public and the scientific community."
The Forest Practices Board pointed out that, in the number of cutblocks they investigated, we were mining the prime timber from those cutblocks, to the long-term detriment of those forests to even have economic value, let alone all of the other values that are there. We were actually mining them so that we took away future economic value.
I'll say it in this House, and I've said it publicly: we are mining our forests with impunity today. We are mining our forests in the interior. We are mining our forests on the coast. We are mining private lands on the coast that this government released so that that could happen with impunity.
That has to stop. This Forest Range Practices Act actually allows that to happen because the government has allowed such wiggle room and legalese in those plans that a due diligence defence applies. There are no standards that they can be held accountable to other than minimum legal objectives, which are prescribed and constrained by "unduly clauses" and as long as is practicable or wherever practicable.
So we vehemently oppose any movement on the part of the government to take these forest stewardship plans and roll them over for another five years without massive public consultation and a massive reworking of these plans so that the public can understand what it is that's going to happen on their land base, so that they can give meaningful comment to what is going to happen on their land base and so that they get due notification on a consistent basis whenever a licensee or a tenure holder is going to come in and operate in their watershed, their backyard or their viewscape. That has to happen, and it's not in this bill.
There's another aspect of this bill that I will be canvassing during debate and that the minister didn't point out. And that is that there's an amendment for being able to retroactively apply — to an approved forest stewardship plan — a downgraded standard for stocking and for silviculture.
Again, I'll canvass this with the minister. My concern right now, particularly in the mountain pine beetle area, is that we are accruing a massive silviculture liability. The companies have that silviculture liability on their books, and they're carrying it forward. It's in the tens of millions of dollars and could accrue, according to the minister's own documentation in the Mountain Pine Beetle Task Force document…. It could amount to a billion dollars in accrued liability in the mountain pine beetle area alone.
That liability is driven by the standards for what we expect we regrow our forests to today. Those standards are high standards. A licensee that goes and cuts has to put the forest back and get it to what's called a free-growing state. The number of stems per hectare, the girth of those stems and the health of those stems are all part of that.
In this bill there's an inclusion of clauses that will allow those standards to be downgraded, even if a forest stewardship plan has expired. You can retroactively go back and downgrade those standards in a forest stewardship plan.
What that means in plain English is that I can say and get my forest stewardship plan approved and get my right to cut approved on the basis of established high standards for silviculture and regrowth of that forest in my plan. If something happens a little bit later on…. I've already cut the trees. I've already got my economic value off the trees. But if something happens later on and I cannot meet those standards, I can come to this government, and I can say: "Hmm. Can't meet those standards."
I can get the Council of Forest Industries to go and lobby the government that we all can't meet the standards, because climate change is making it very difficult for us to get plantations to come back. It's becoming cost-prohibitive for us to keep going in and trying to get those plantations. So I can go to the minister, and I can say: "Look, I want those standards downgraded, and we'll put the downgraded standards into
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the plan that I was approved for." That's what this bill indicates. That's what we'll be canvassing when we get into the debate on this bill.
This bill doesn't do what people need done on our land base. It doesn't restore confidence to the public by fundamentally changing these forest stewardship plans. That's what the public wants. It's not what the minister is doing.
It doesn't give first nations the ability to get access to the land base in a meaningful way through a fundamental change to the forest and range agreements and the forest and range opportunities.
It doesn't address the issues that communities want for more resources for wildfire protection, for clarification of liability and for clarification of who's obligated for land outside the municipal boundary. It doesn't do that.
I have questions with a government of the day, a sympathetic administration of the worst possible kind when it comes to the forest industry and the land base, streamlining further all of the regulations with respect to timber marking. That should scare British Columbians, and we will be canvassing that further.
I look forward to the debate on a clause-by-clause…. Well, I don't really. It will be an interesting debate on a clause-by-clause basis. I will be bringing these questions and concerns into that, and I will concede the floor to the member for North Island.
Hon. B. Penner: I seek leave to make an introduction.
Introductions by Members
Hon. B. Penner: It's an honour for me to introduce a club which I joined about 13 years ago. I think it was in the spring of 1995 that I became a member of the Chilliwack Rotary Club.
Today we're honoured to have their presence here. There's a large contingent seated in the gallery. I understand that they're here to find out why my attendance has dipped over the last 12 years or so since I got elected to come to this place.
Hon. K. Krueger: Thanks for putting up with him.
Hon. B. Penner: Actually, it's these guys that have to put up with me now. This fact-finding tour is led by none other than their president, Barrie McMaster, who cut his teeth here as a reporter covering the machinations of the W.A.C. Bennett government when he then worked for the predecessor radio station that today we call CKNW.
He's joined in this fact-finding tour by my former vice-principal Bob Hagkull, who I think is still trying to find out where I went when I was missing from some of those school classes in Sardis Secondary School back in the early 1980s.
I ask that you please wish this group well on their fact-finding tour here in Victoria.
C. Trevena: I'll keep my remarks short on this. I just wanted to raise a few concerns that I have with Bill 8, the Forests and Range Statutes Amendment Act. Firstly, the issue of how it's dealing with first nations and the first nations forests and range act. I have a number of first nations in my constituency, a number of whom have forest and range agreements. What I hear from many of them is the fact that although they have the forest and range agreements, they really don't get much benefit out of them.
I'm looking forward to hearing the discussion as we get to committee stage, because what I see in this act is that it doesn't help those first nations who have these forest and range agreements to really benefit from them. There is always a concern of having the forest and range agreement when a first nation is discussing treaty anyway and what the implications of the agreement will have for their treaty, but there is always the hope that it will help the economic viability of the first nation. Many first nations enter these agreements thinking that there's going to be something that's going to really benefit their people, that there is a way they can access their resource, get the land and actually use it.
What is very sad and what I've seen throughout my constituency is that on the whole, first nations aren't in a position to benefit from these agreements and aren't in a position to benefit themselves from the access to the land. It ends up that if they are having access to the timber to harvest it, they tend to contract out. They haven't got the skills to develop this themselves. They haven't got the skills to go into the skilled side of the logging industry. They haven't got the money or the resources to truly invest in what a proper logging operation means in what are often very, very small areas of land.
My colleague from Cariboo North quoted some very sad statistics that we have with this. Whereas usually there are a thousand jobs per cubic metre, among first nations there are only 34.7 jobs. I think that's very telling. I think that's one of the very troubling things with both the forest and range agreements and the fact that it appears that this bill will not address those concerns.
We do need to make sure that first nations can have full access to their land and to their traditional territories, which will obviously come through treaty. But we also need to make sure that people have the capacity so that if they have access to the land, whether it is through a forest and range agreement, they actually do have the ability and the resource and the capacity to best use that.
At the moment they don't have that, and there is nothing in this that will give them that support. There's a lot of support that is needed. There's a lot of willingness to learn, but there is a huge capacity deficit, really.
There are one or two people who are skilled, and there are people who've been working in the industry for many, many years. There is no question about that. There are many people who've been working in the industry for many years, but it isn't enough. It isn't enough to take a first nation which is small in numbers and really benefit economically from these agreements.
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I would hope that in discussion in committee stage, this can be addressed — that the government will look at moving on with this — so that first nations can really get benefits from the land base and can make sure that they are sharing in the wealth of British Columbia as they most rightly deserve.
The other issue that I have with this, in what is clearly an omnibus bill — and so I'm just picking out a couple of the items in the omnibus bill — is the forest stewardship lands. These have had a very bad reputation. I've talked to — whether it's foresters, people in the Forest Service, woodlot operators…. Right across the board, there has been a real problem with forest stewardship plans, how they work, what is expected of them and how they'll work in the future.
It's very troubling that this seems to be just rolling over into a bigger deal, rather than looking at what the problem is and saying, "Okay, how are we going to address this?" and making sure there was a solution. It looks like it's just pushing on for another few years. We're going to keep on with more of the same problems, which won't really address the problems that those who are dealing with this regularly face and that the big companies face.
One of the issues I have with the whole bill itself is as an omnibus bill. We do talk very often in this House about the crisis in the forest industry, the crisis on the coast, and what's happening in B.C. and what's happening with B.C.'s main industry, which is still forestry and which supports many, many people in my own communities.
Again, this bill just doesn't address that. It sort of picks and chooses and cherry-picks a few things here and there, but it isn't looking at some of the substantial changes that we really need to be looking at — and looking at community by community and region by region — to see how we can move forward and make forestry into an industry which is going to take us through the 21st century as well as it took us through the 20th century. There are possibilities there, and I think we have to work very hard to achieve them.
In this bill, I don't see that the government is looking at trying to find changes and find new ways of doing things. It looks like it is mainly tweaking some of the things that it set up and not really looking at the broader picture of how to best look at the whole scene of what is happening in forestry on the coast.
With that, I'll take my seat and look forward to committee stage.
C. Wyse: It is indeed my privilege as well as my responsibility to be up in the House today to talk about Bill 8 and to share with the House a meeting that took place up in Cariboo South that involved the Minister of Forests and Range along with the Minister of Aboriginal Relations. It specifically was dealing with issues around forestry.
It is important that this House recognize that this bill, as I would understand it at this moment in time, leaves the working relationship with first nations on any forest relation act, forestry range opportunities, still highly undefined with first nations.
Where I am from, the Tsilhqot'in served information with me very shortly after being elected that unless issues were dealt with around their requests, issues and questions, any development in the Chilcotin was going to be subject to great obstacles, as their interests were not being dealt with.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
The ministers — both of them; I was pleased — attended a meeting. It looked like there may be resolutions upon a specific issue out in the Chilcotin. But recent conversations I've had with the first nations leadership in Cariboo South on this item would indicate that is not moving along as well as what all of us here would have hoped would be the case.
Clearly, the incident that I'm talking about in my riding indicates the need for government to be in a position to deal with first nations around these types of agreements. It would be my understanding of the legislation, as it reads at this moment in time, that it falls very short of doing that.
If what I have experienced as an MLA is at all representative of what is happening across the entire province, it indicates that this omnibus bill still falls way short, at least on this one important issue. I wish the House to be aware that on that issue alone, I have very severe and strong reservations on the inadequacy of this particular bill. I'm hoping that as we move into the next stage with more detail, we can either clarify the concerns around this item or make the necessary amendments. Otherwise, this bill falls very, very short of what is necessary to deal with this one item.
Mr. Speaker: Seeing no further speakers, the Minister of Forests closes debate.
Hon. R. Coleman: I always find it interesting when I hear the NDP talking about a miscellaneous statutes amendment act on forestry, and they decide that they…. I walk away with this really bad feeling that they don't like the industry, don't like forest-dependent communities, don't like the people that work in them and don't like the businesses supported by them. It's just bizarre.
The member for North Island gets up and complains about forest stewardship plans, but without flexibility and a land base we wouldn't be finding wood for Neucel today, which is a major employer in her riding in Port Alice.
I sit and listen to this thing about the Filmon report, the cooperative thing and wildfires, and $21 million has been given to local communities to do wildfire plans. A whole bunch of them have completed those. A number are already in process. There's $20 million additional for fuel management.
In addition to fuel management, I was struck by the comment of the member for Cariboo North about Logan Lake, because we've been giving Logan Lake forest workers out of season for the last few years to implement their forest plan. The mayor of Logan Lake
[ Page 10354 ]
and her council come to me at UBCM every year and thank me for what we're doing with their community. They applaud that and have actually given us an award from that community because of what we've done with them. I know you don't like to hear about success. As you go through this, you've sort of got to wonder.
The member for Cariboo South gets up and brings up a deal on which he stood in a room and thanked me in front of first nations for our leadership. He thanked me and the Minister of Aboriginal Relations for coming to Williams Lake and solving a problem. Then he stands up in the House and says: "It's not going so well, and I don't see how this legislation is fixing it."
Well, I've got news for the member for Cariboo South. It's got nothing to do with the legislation. The deal is done; the commitment is made. We're working through the details.
I don't need a piece of legislation to follow along on that deal whatsoever. If you're going to get up and debate a bill, get your facts straight. Understand the circumstance, and for heaven's sake, don't get up and say this legislation doesn't fix the problem — it's already been fixed, and the negotiations are going on — after, in front of the press and the local community, you've thanked the minister and the other minister, of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation.
As we go through this bill, I'm sure we'll wander off, as we usually do, on a number of issues that have nothing to do with regard to the issues and the sections of the bill, which we often do in committee stage with these folks.
I want to talk about a couple of issues that the members seemed to want to take a shot at. Forest and range opportunities are not called forest and range agreements anymore, hon. Members. It's forest and range opportunities. Why? By agreement with the First Nations Forestry Council and the first nations leadership, we changed the language and the name of the agreements to meet their expectations under the new relationship.
As we did this, let's be clear about something. This is really, I think, very important. Since September of 2002 we've signed agreements with 149 first nations. We're providing over $200 million in revenue-sharing and access to 33 million cubic metres of wood.
The member for Cariboo North likes to quote the Aboriginal Forest Industries Council report that summarizes some opinions with regard to first nations and their survey with regard to the number of jobs per cubic metre today.
But let me tell you something, hon. Members. This is about capacity-building. This is starting from scratch to build a relationship in an industry. That will take some time. The fact of the matter, though, is that the First Nations Forestry Council and I have been working through a process for a number of months now, headed toward how we're dealing with pricing and building relationships with the land base.
They asked us, quite frankly, to allow for B.C. Timber Sales to be one of the partners that might be able to form a joint venture with them to move wood, and the members seem to be opposed to that.
In addition to that, this is the interesting one I've got to remind the members of. I know you don't like to hear about the 1990s up to 2001. But do you know that in that period of time, you didn't actually give one dollar in revenue-sharing and access to any money for first nations in British Columbia? Did you know you ignored them completely? Did you know you didn't build a relationship?
Now, it may take some time for success, but there's one thing that this side of the House is committed to. That is making sure the forest and range opportunities we're working on with first nations in British Columbia are successful in the short term and in the long term, given the length of tenure and everything — that we're actually working on it with them today.
And oh, a little surprise for you. I don't need legislation to make those changes that we're already working on today. So a little surprise for you. The work is getting done.
Maybe you might want to sit down with some members of the First Nations Forestry Council who actually know what's going on in the province of British Columbia versus taking shots at the first nations who…. It disgusts me when it's always a shot at the first nations' ability to perform, when I believe first nations can get the job done, can build these capacity relationships with government and with industry. They can do it because we actually work with them.
You get these comments and these debates, and you can't let them sit there — like the issue around kiln-drying. First thing I would suggest to the members that have made comments about this one is find out who was in the room and had the opportunity to participate in the pilot, who decided to participate in the pilot and who decided not to participate in the pilot. That might be the first note.
The second thing the member might want to do is talk to industry and find out what the ministry is doing today to balance that, to make it fair and make it work for all industry. I know the member doesn't like the notion of kiln-drying, to see what it reflects with a log yard, with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of cubic metres of wood sitting in it.
What happens when the weather warms up and the wood cracks and we've charged stumpage on a level of wood that isn't as good as what they thought they bought? I know you don't like that. I know you'd rather see the industry go broke.
I know you'd rather see them be able to stand up in the House and defame the industry rather than actually see that the government and you, hon. Member, could actually work cooperatively, given the fact that you have an absolutely huge, huge forest-dependent community in your own riding. Those companies are trying to survive and build a future for forestry in British Columbia, and they do it in spite of the local MLA trying to demean and put down their actual ability to do the job.
On reforestation, another comment. Last year we planted a record 276 million trees in the province.
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Imagine that. We do reforestation, we do get on the land base, and we will continue to get on the land base.
Then there's the member for North Island. We thought we might want to not handle the wood as often as when we transport by water, because every time we touch it, it costs about $4 to $6 a cubic metre. We thought we might want to streamline that process, handle the wood once, make it fair to all, keep the costs in line so that the competitive nature of the coastal forest industry could be there.
Hon. R. Neufeld: Jobs.
Hon. R. Coleman: Jobs, futures, investment…. I know the member doesn't like it because it's part of the coast forest action plan, which is enhancing a shift to second growth, which encourages hardwood harvesting, which uses innovation to develop markets for hemlock and balsam, which promotes the value-added sector, which supports competitive pulp and paper sector, which improves the viability of first nations tenures, which examines the option to provide land use certainty and streamlines the administrative processes like timber marking.
Shocking. We're doing what we said that the industry asked us to do — and the communities on the coast said you wanted to — about streamlining the way we handle the wood on the coast of British Columbia.
So get up and tell your communities you don't support it. It's fine. You know, we put millions of dollars in FPInnovations, we put millions of dollars into the forest action plan, and we're going to continue to invest with the value-added sector.
Oh, by the way, all of those initiatives, every single dollar — whether it was the millions to the wood guys on the value-added side, whether it was the money for FPInnovations, whether it was the money to enhance how we manage on the coast, whether it was the $640 million we put into pine beetle….
Oh, by the way, in that dark decade we talked about, all you did was let the beetle kill — invested nothing, did nothing to deal with the beetle. And $650 million is a lot of money that you didn't actually have any interest in saving forest-dependent communities with.
You know what they did? They voted against every single dollar for every community, for every plan for economic development, for every single stick of seedling to be planted in the interior and other places of British Columbia; against FPInnovations for innovations for technology and opportunities, against technologies to improve the pulp and paper sector and against other issues with regards to forests.
Every single time a dollar or initiative has been brought to this House, those people have voted against it. They don't actually believe in forestry in the province of British Columbia. They actually just sit there and say: "Oh, I don't care about China. I don't care because you took FPInnovations and FII under the coast action plan and invested in it. Who cares if the Canadian lumber sales to China, mainly from B.C., are up 58 percent by volume and 46 percent by value in first half of 2007?" You wouldn't want to make an investment. You just spend your time with negativity.
It's incredible. This is the opposition that is actually going to — they've already said it — abrogate the softwood lumber deal, and they'd put every single high-valued cap industry that has value-added stuff in British Columbia out of business overnight if they ever did that. So anybody in the forest sector that's adding value to timber in the province better realize this. The NDP do not want you in business. They do not want you to be successful, because they do not believe in standing up for the industry in British Columbia.
I find the second reading of these things as interesting as I don't find the committee stage, but I also understand that the opposition will want to go through it item by item, and I'm happy to do that. Maybe we can get an opportunity for them to understand the significant financial, the significant personal commitment to forestry in British Columbia that this government has, which they continue to not support.
I know they will be arguing against anything and everything that will streamline and build opportunity so we can attract the best investment and have a strong future in forestry in the province of British Columbia.
With that, I move second reading of Bill 8.
Hon. R. Coleman: I move that the bill be referred to the Committee of the Whole House at the next sitting of the House after today.
Bill 8, Forests and Range Statutes Amendment Act, 2008, read a second time and referred to a Committee of the Whole House for consideration at the next sitting of the House after today.
Point of Privilege
(Reservation of Right)
Hon. B. Penner: I'm just waiting to hear if the member is intending to make his point now. Or is he reserving his right to raise it later?
B. Simpson: My apologies. I reserve the right to raise a point of privilege.
Mr. Speaker: Members, I'll do the recognizing.
Member for Cariboo North.
B. Simpson: My apologies, Mr. Speaker. I reserve the right to raise a point of privilege.
Hon. B. Penner: Thank you for that clarification.
I now call second reading of Bill 9, Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Amendment Act, 2008.
[ Page 10356 ]
Second Reading of Bills
PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO ANIMALS
AMENDMENT ACT, 2008
Hon. P. Bell: Okay, now it's time for happy bucks. We've got a great-news bill here. I move that Bill 9 now be read a second time.
[K. Whittred in the chair.]
This bill amends the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act establishes the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the BCSPCA, and gives it the legal authority to assist animals that are in distress or abandoned. The act also makes it an offence under provincial law to cause or permit an animal to be in distress and provides penalties to persons who neglect to properly care for their animals.
The BCSPCA was first established in 1895. This year marks the 113th year that the BCSPCA has been of service to British Columbians. Last week I had the honour of introducing to the House the president of the BCSPCA, Marguerite Vogel; CEO Craig Daniell; Marcie Moriarty, the general manager of cruelty investigations; and Lorie Chortyk, the general manager of community relations for the BCSPCA.
This organization provides a tremendous number of services to British Columbians and deals with issues as the primary enforcement and compliance officer for domesticated animals throughout the province and also deals with exotic species from time to time. They provide a tremendous service to our province and are a well-respected entity.
As I said in my remarks out on the front steps when we announced this initiative, the SPCA has one of the best organizations in terms of working with the political arms of government to encourage behaviour change and changes in legislation and policy. They have done a fantastic job of working with us over the past couple of years to develop this piece of legislation.
I want to go through some numbers that I think are particularly relevant for members of the House and put them on the record. In 2007 they rescued 41,884 injured, homeless, neglected and abused animals — companion, farm or wild. They reunited 5,911 lost animals — including 4,681 dogs, 1,111 cats, 23 rabbits and one MLA — with their anxious families. Oh, sorry. I added that in by accident.
They transported 3,739 animals, and 1,183 of these animals were transported through Pet Express, which is an animal transport vehicle provided by a local company. They found new loving homes for 20,067 homeless animals just last year. They helped 1,864 injured and orphaned wild animals, which included a wide variety. Most were rehabilitated right here in Metchosin on Vancouver Island.
They conducted 4,647 cruelty investigations. They removed 1,501 animals from dangerous or neglected situations through cruelty investigations and rescued an additional 4,007 injured animals. They did execute 103 warrants under the Criminal Code of Canada, the PCA Act and the Offence Act. They submitted 57 charges of animal cruelty and neglect to Crown counsel. Most importantly of all, they received 182,657,764 hits on their website from lovers of animals all over the world.
They are an organization that provides tremendous services to British Columbians — highly respected — and I'm very pleased that we were able to bring this amendment forward. It is a broadly and actively supported organization by the public of B.C.
The SPCA has over 4,000 volunteers, and I will say that one of those happens to be from the Bell family. My oldest daughter has become officially eligible to become a small-animal cuddler. She is working on her authority to start walking dogs, and I believe that soon she'll be graduating from that as well. They have 80,000 donors in British Columbia, all dedicated towards ensuring that animals are treated humanely.
The province highly values the services the BCSPCA provides to the animals and citizens of B.C. and is committed to ensuring that the BCSPCA has the legal authority it needs to be able to carry out its mandate effectively and efficiently. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act was last amended in 1994. The changes made at that time were quite extensive and gave the act a new look. The two most significant changes at that time were the establishment of the definition of "distress" and the establishment of an offence.
The definition of distress established a clear standard of care that animal owners and caregivers were required to provide their animals. The BCSPCA has identified a number of areas where operational experience has shown that the act needs to be adjusted and where updates need to be made to ensure British Columbia's animal welfare legislation is consistent with the standards across Canada.
[S. Hammell in the chair.]
These amendments will refine the definition of "distress" to include situations where an animal's health or well-being is affected by inadequate ventilation, space, care or veterinary treatment; authorize agents operating in remote areas to obtain warrants by telephone; clarify the authority of agents to seize evidence of an offence; clarify the authority of agents to take abandoned animals into custody; clarify the BCSPCA's authority to hold and dispose of animals and the obligation of animal owners to reimburse the society for its care-related costs; provide immunity from legal proceedings for damages to persons performing duties or exercising powers under the act; and update provisions relating to corporate structure and obligations.
In addition, the amendments will also stiffen the penalties that can be imposed against persons who cause or permit an animal to be in distress. This is an important change because it recognizes the seriousness of the offence and the concern that all British Columbi-
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ans feel when persons deliberately neglect their obligations to properly care for animals in their care.
The BCSPCA and its many supporters have told us that they believed the existing fines in the act provided were not sufficient, and we've heard that message loud and clear. The amendments will increase the maximum fine that can be levied against a person convicted of the offence to $5,000 from the existing $2,000. If they repeat the offence, they will be liable for a fine of up to $10,000.
In addition to fines, persons who mistreat animals can be jailed for up to six months and can be prohibited from owning or having custody or control of an animal for a period of time determined by the court, potentially including life.
Those are serious penalties, and we expect that they will encourage people to properly care for and carry out their obligations towards animals in their care. We also expect these changes will send a signal regarding what the consequences should be if they choose not to do that.
These are very simple but worthwhile amendments, and I hope that all members of the House will join me in supporting them. It gives me great pleasure to move second reading.
L. Krog: I am delighted to rise in the debate here today, and I was delighted to hear the self-congratulatory message from the Minister of Agriculture. I want to say to him on a personal level that I congratulate his daughter for taking the steps to become a master of cuddling small animals. I hope after the election in May 2009 she'll be able to cuddle larger animals.
You know, it's pretty difficult for a member of the opposition to stand in this chamber and say anything critical about a bill that might, in fact, improve the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and that would enhance the work of the SPCA. I think we're talking about an organization that, with the exception perhaps of some knuckle-draggers in this province who have no respect for any kind of life, enjoys the support of all British Columbians.
I'm reminded of the fact that the former member for North Vancouver–Lonsdale told me once that he got the most positive response to his constituency newsletter when he published a picture in it of him with the family cat on his lap. He was a vigorous supporter, as was a member from Burnaby — I can't remember which one — who supported the private member's bill, as I recall, to see that tenants could have pets.
I think every one of us understands the importance of pets and animals. Indeed, how we treat pets and animals — whether we're raising them simply as companions, raising them for food production or for recreational use — is extremely important.
I must admit, though, that I was somewhat disappointed when this bill was introduced that it didn't contain what I thought would have been a very sensible provision. It would have been a recognition of the hard work of the member for Alberni-Qualicum. I noted with interest in the throne speech that the government happily, after pooh-poohing the concept, decided it would bring forward legislation to prevent smoking in cars with children under the age of 16. I didn't mind them stealing the opposition's idea. I thought it was a fine thing for them to do, and I compliment the minister for doing it.
I would have thought that the Minister of Agriculture could have taken that one further step — given that the government, apparently, has been working on this for a number of years — and included provisions of what the member for Alberni-Qualicum referred to as Andre's bill: the Promotion of Safe Antifreeze Act, 2007.
That would have been a sensible, welcomed and decent thing to do. It is one thing to praise the work of the SPCA, but it is another thing to deny them a request that was so widely and broadly and popularly supported across British Columbia. It's a simple matter. It was environmentally sensitive. It was the right thing to do and, if passed, would have prevented the horrible deaths of thousands of cats in this province.
The job of the opposition is to criticize, and it is arguably, in the simplest proposition, to oppose. So, as much as the opposition is delighted to see the government bring forward this legislation, one has to ask: why did it take so long? The SPCA, my constituents, and I'm sure, the Minister of Agriculture's constituents and thousands of people across British Columbia, if my e-mails and letters are any indication, have been promoting this kind of legislative change year after year.
This government has now had nearly seven years in its electoral mandate to bring this forward. These are not difficult concepts. This is not a difficult piece of legislation. I don't think the draftspersons in the Ministry of the Attorney General's branch had to spend weeks and months and years working on this stuff. It's pretty straightforward.
It is about doing the right thing for animals in this province. It is about respecting the work of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It is about respecting the work they do. It is about respecting the affection and feelings that literally hundreds of thousands of British Columbians have for their pets or, if they're working in agriculture, for the animals they raise for consumption or use — for the horse breeders, for the sheep breeders, for all of those people.
Every thinking British Columbian supports this legislation. Every caring British Columbian supports this legislation. Yet it has taken the government such a very long time to simply do the right thing. And it is the right thing.
But, as is true of most legislative changes, the average person in the public is going to ask the question: "This is good, but is the government really sincere about it?" That is where the opposition does have to question the government.
For a number of years, the government was providing roughly $71,000 to the SPCA to help fund its operations. The rest of its budget was raised by caring British Columbians, by pet owners, by all those people who work in the SPCA doing the fundraising, the car washes, the asks, the calendars, the pet calendars — all of those things.
[ Page 10358 ]
In 2003-2004, to his credit — and I think it's fair to give credit here — the Solicitor General added a further $475,000 from the gaming proceeds to the base budget. That brought it up to a grand total of $546,550. To paraphrase what I heard once in the parliamentary Finance Committee, that's not even a rounding error in the Minister of Health's budget. That brought it, as I say, up to $571,000 by 2004-2005, and then it dropped again by close to $50,000, and it has dropped again in 2006-2007.
The fact is that on one side the minister is saying: "Look, we're doing the right thing. Congratulate us. Aren't we just the best government in the world? All the pet owners in British Columbia should love us. And all those people who work with animals should love us." The truth is that they're not putting their money where their mouth is. Those of us who work in this business understand that it's one thing to have the high-sounding phrases, it's one thing to have great throne speeches, but the real issue is: are you prepared to pay for it?
I've looked through this bill very carefully. What I do see is an increase in fines — absolutely appropriate and long overdue. That's a great thing. But is the SPCA going to have the money that it needs to do the kind of enforcement that this bill will enable them to do? Is the SPCA going to be able to go out and find those individuals and relieve the distress of animals, so that a person who does commit an offence can be liable to a fine of $2,000 or imprisonment for not more than six months? That's under section 23.
Under section 24, are they going to be able to fine them? Are they going to be able to enforce it so that we can fine them up to $5,000 and $10,000 on a subsequent offence? Are we going to be able to do it, or will it just be an empty statute sitting on the books with little or no enforcement?
A very wise police officer spoke to my law 11 class a very, very long time ago and said that a law that can't be enforced is a bad law. This is a good law because it can be enforced. The question is: will it be enforced? Will the government step up to the plate and enforce this legislation?
Subject to the kinds of natural and intelligent questions the opposition is always putting forward during committee stage of a bill, this bill is going to pass through this House in fairly ready order. In that sense, I want to congratulate the minister, in fairness. I say this quite sincerely. I'm glad he's brought it forward. It is the right thing to do, but that doesn't change the perspective of the opposition — that is, are we going to do something useful with it? Are we actually going to do the right thing by the animals of this province?
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
I think every one of us is conscious of all the literature surrounding the importance of contact with animals in terms of health, particularly for seniors. All of us are conscious of the joy that the pets of our families bring us. I can tell you, hon. Speaker, that there are pets at the Krog household. On tough days, there's nothing that reaches you quite so warmly as a small furry animal. They don't expect much. They don't criticize, and they're not mad at you for having missed another evening at home. They're just delighted to see you.
If this is to succeed, I would love to hear the minister, when he closes debate, as I said earlier, indicate that the government is going to put its money where its mouth is. Otherwise, all this is and was, was a great photo opportunity on the front steps of the Legislature, which I went out and watched. It was a wonderful event. That's all it's going to be if we don't carry forward and do the right thing.
I encourage the minister, now that he's found his political courage on this issue, to take one further step. Do the right thing. Pay homage to the member for Alberni-Qualicum. Ban the use of antifreeze that will in fact kill animals in this province. It's a very simple thing. It's good for the environment, consistent with the throne speech and consistent with what the Premier has had to say.
Goodness, I'll be forced to stand up again in this chamber and compliment the government if they do it. The member for Alberni-Qualicum will clap and cheer. We'll all cheer. I just say to the minister — pardon the pun — we've opened the barn door. You're welcome to come on through. Get out there in the sunshine of political support that you'll enjoy if you do the right thing on this.
The opposition will support this. The opposition is pleased that the hard work and efforts of thousands and thousands of British Columbians to force the government to do this have, in fact, borne fruit. We are delighted on this side of the House, and we're glad the government has finally, after a long period of lobbying, done the right thing for the animals of British Columbia.
The next step is up to the minister; it's up to the government. Show us the money. Show us the money.
C. Wyse: I would like to acknowledge the minister for the work that he has done in this area. I am appreciative of the communications that have taken place between the minister and me on various items around animals and their care and well-being. I have found his openness very gratifying, and I wish to acknowledge that right from the beginning to the minister in the House.
I would like to not only share here the efforts of the minister with the work that has been done to date but also draw attention to correspondence that I receive in a connected deal with the animal cruelty aspect of it. That is the meat industry regulations. With the changes that have taken place in it, I get correspondence from constituents. It's not only from the Cariboo area and, specifically, Cariboo South, but I also get them from around the province.
It shows that with the changes in the meat industry regulations, it may also be contributing to the manner in which farm animals are now being slaughtered. It's an area that I hope the minister, as he moves through
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all the complexity of these items, will also find time to address.
With that, I thank the House and the minister for hearing the concerns from my area.
Mr. Speaker: Seeing no further speakers, the Minister of Agriculture and Lands closes debate.
Hon. P. Bell: Thanks very much to the member for Cariboo South. He earns a happy buck for his comments, although the Rotary folks have now left. The member for Nanaimo, I think, is probably going to be fined for some of his comments.
I just want to highlight one thing that the member for Nanaimo said. He said it not just once but twice, actually. It really caught my attention. And there may have been a third time. I'll have to go back and check Hansard. It shows the fundamental difference between the NDP and this government. What he said was: "They're not putting their money where their mouth is."
Government doesn't have any money. It is the taxpayers' money. It is the people of British Columbia's money. It is their money. It is not the government's money.
Fundamentally, that's where the opposition and this government really go down different paths. The member opposite, when he was in government, believed that it was his money, and that's how he managed this government. That's why the debt doubled from $17 billion to $34 billion in the ten years that they were on this side of the House. Ultimately, it is an attitude that says that it is government's money that is fundamentally at the root of the poor fiscal policy that took place during those years.
However, this is a good-news day for the SPCA. It's a great-news day for the pets and the animals of British Columbia.
Hon. P. Bell: I move that the bill be referred to a Committee of the Whole House to be considered at the next sitting of the House after today.
Bill 9, Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Amendment Act, 2008, read a second time and referred to a Committee of the Whole House for consideration at the next sitting of the House after today.
Hon. B. Penner: I now call for second reading debate, Bill 7, Local Government Statutes Amendment Act, 2008.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT STATUTES
AMENDMENT ACT, 2008
Hon. I. Chong: I move that Bill 7, entitled the Local Government Statutes Amendment Act, 2008, be read for a second time now, and I am pleased to offer my comments to the House in respect of this bill.
All of us in this House recognize the importance of local governments in our communities. We all value that they do make our B.C. communities the best place to live and the best place to work. Our government is committed to supporting local governments in becoming even more socially responsive and environmentally sustainable.
We have the same goals for all of our communities, but we do not take the same approach to each one. Courtenay is not the same as Peachland; Fort St. James is not the same as Trail. That's why we work with local governments very closely. We listen to their feedback, and we design programs and legislation that best meet their needs.
We have consulted with the Union of B.C. Municipalities — UBCM is their acronym — on this very legislation. The UBCM provides valuable insight into what tools local governments need to make effective improvements in their own communities.
While each local government is unique, with distinct challenges and distinct opportunities, we know that they share many common interests, many common concerns. The Local Government Statutes Amendment Act, 2008, will address some of these common interests but will also embrace communities' diverse needs and diverse interests.
The Local Government Statutes Amendment Act, 2008, recognizes the importance of supporting local government to improve transparency and accountability to the public in local government elections and to provide electors with more voting opportunities. Under these legislative improvements, more election campaigns will be subject to the financing disclosure rules and will become more transparent, more accountable. The new rules mean that people or groups that run campaigns in support of candidates need to report financial contributions once they receive $500 in contributions.
[S. Hammell in the chair.]
The new rules also provide local governments with the authority to post on their websites the names of campaign contributors and the amounts they've contributed — information that has previously only been available upon request at local government offices. British Columbia is one of the few provinces to recognize civic electoral parties in local election finance rules.
As well, these legislative changes will increase the level of public commitment required to stand for local office by requiring candidates to make a solemn commitment to take office if elected. Through this, local governments will be empowered to provide more flexibility for voters, to allow more opportunities for advanced voting and for mail ballot voting, allowing more opportunities for resident and non-resident property electors to vote.
To protect the personal privacy of those voters, we are limiting the release of copies of documents that contain personal information related to voting day.
The Local Government Statutes Amendment Act, 2008, also provides legislative improvements to streamline administrative processes. These changes are
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mostly related to improving our own internal processes to make them more effective and efficient for the benefit of local government and taxpayers — for example, by reducing the number of improvement district bylaws that have to be registered with the province and eliminating a step in approval of regional district tax requisitions.
These and other changes are relatively minor but necessary to update or maintain the framework of local government legislation and to let local governments deal effectively with a variety of issues they face.
Finally, the Local Government Statutes Amendment Act, 2008, brings a new opportunity for the communities of Elkford, Fernie, Sparwood and the regional district of East Kootenay to share municipal property tax revenues from coalmining properties in the Elk Valley. The local governments negotiated the new agreement in consultation with Elk Valley Coal Corp. and with the support of staff from my ministry, the Ministry of Community Services.
This agreement is a shining example of how local governments, the province and industry can work together for the benefit of residents and communities. The Local Government Statutes Amendment Act, 2008, brings balance, certainty and new opportunities for local governments and their communities around British Columbia, and I ask that all members lend their support to this worthwhile and necessary piece of legislation.
With that, I am pleased to move second reading of Bill 7.
C. Wyse: It is my pleasure as critic to respond to this particular bill, the Local Government Statutes Amendment Act.
An overguiding statement to assist the House. An amendment act, as my hon. colleague has mentioned, is exactly that. It is a collection of a variety of different amendments, many of which are meant to streamline and make improvements to how local governments go ahead and deliver governance to their various communities.
The vast majority of this legislation, if not all of the legislation, is supportable as presented. However, I will explain briefly where the legislation stops very, very short, in our estimation, of what in actual fact is required. Therefore, it raises questions that I wish to draw the minister's attention to, where concerns exist with the legislation. However, let me return to highlight three or four different points within the legislation which, in our judgment, are laudable and are worthy of the support of this side of the House also.
One of the aspects is the change of a possibility for local governments, if they so wish, by bylaw to increase the number of nominators from the mandated two to the possibility of requiring ten nominators. For those communities that are over 5,000, the local government likewise can consider making the number of nominators required be 25.
As there is a wide range of communities, as well as a wide range of interest in serving for local government, some of the communities here in British Columbia have a very, very large number of people seeking office, and the ballot becomes exceptionally long. In doing such, the intent of this particular measure is to provide the opportunity, should it be required in order for clarity of the ballot, for the local government to raise the standard of the number of nominators being required for someone to run.
It is an attempt to balance off the individual's right to run for office in as unencumbered a fashion as possible, that being the requirement of two nominators. However, at the same time it also allows for the process not to become so bogged down as to leave a system in place that in actual fact it becomes difficult if not impossible for the electorate at large to work through ballots that are exceptionally large and cumbersome. So an attempt to balance off two principles is contained in the legislation.
The second thing that I would like to highlight is the move to streamline local service provisions for local electoral areas to be able to hook into services. For the urban part of the province, there may be a lack of understanding of the significance of this particular item, but in the more rural part of the province it allows, with a much more streamlined process, the ability for people who wish at a later date to access a local specified service to become involved in that service in a much less encumbered process.
It is a move that balances off a very, very cumbersome process that presently exists, while protecting the rights of individuals that are also within the new, expanded area to join the service. Again, very supportable.
The tax-sharing agreement that has been referred to by the minister is an agreement that has been worked out between industry and the communities that she has mentioned. They are on side with the agreement. They have, in essence, said: "This is what we're looking to do." The minister, in her wisdom, has agreed to go along with that — again, parts of the bill that are well worth recognizing.
It's the last part of the bill where the concerns begin to come to mind. As the minister referred to, her legislation is looking at expanding civic electoral policy. It's a start, but it stops way short of what is being requested, for example, by the city of Vancouver council. Again in November of 2007 that body unanimously looked at a much broader expansion of those responsibilities for organizations that are involved in elections.
There are civic groups that likewise have been petitioning the minister and her ministry for at least three years to make those improvements for openness and transparency where civic organizations are involved in the elections.
To give you an idea of why the legislation, in our judgment on this side of the House, requires more than what has been put into place, I would like the minister, as well as all of my colleagues in the House, to be aware of this fact, which I found very interesting. In the U.S. presidential election of 2004, for each eligible voter the sum of money that was spent in 2004 was $2.78. In the Vancouver civic election of 2005, the sum of money
[ Page 10361 ]
that was spent by the three parties that were running…. In total, they spent $9.71 per eligible voter. There was no openness and accountability upon the sums of money and where they had come from and how they had been spent and where they were being applied.
The existing legislation falls short, as it stands, to define the sums of money, to make it transparent. At the same time, the existing legislation also restricts the knowledge that is obtained by looking at the information that is filed — its use. In actual fact, the existing legislation, though it now defines the civic organizations in it, doesn't limit their ability to make unlimited sums of money in anonymous fashions, nor does it allow anyone who wishes to look at that information to determine how those funds may have been used in the overall campaign.
Now, I have mentioned that Vancouver city council unanimously — that's something that doesn't happen very often in Vancouver if my look at records on items of this nature occurs…. They have recommended that the minister amend the Vancouver Charter portion that would allow the points that I'm making to be covered.
It would be our intention…. If the minister is not willing, I will have time on this side of the House to introduce amendments to the existing legislation that will provide the opportunity for this House to debate obtaining those items. I would also like the House to be aware that, in my office as critic, I have not only received inquiries on this item from Vancouver, but I have also heard the same requests being made from the individuals from the broader area of the larger communities here in the lower mainland.
On this side of the House it is clear to us that the openness and transparency around these items that apply to the senior levels of government, provincially and federally, are now required to be dealt with and extended to the local levels of government. When you look upon the example in which, in the Vancouver civic election, three times the sum of money was spent per eligible voter in the 2005 election as compared to what was spent in the presidential election of the United States, arguably the most powerful country in the world, it then suggests to this side of the House that the openness and transparency and accountability needs to also be extended beyond just the senior levels of government.
As I mentioned earlier, I wish to commend the minister for this particular statute. It is highly supportable in the vast aspects and parts that she is introducing to this House, and we will do such. However, I do also make mention that there are parts of this particular bill where it is our judgment that the bill does not go far enough, and we will be introducing amendments to make improvements to an already good bill, and turn it into a better and best bill.
D. Thorne: I just wanted to very briefly go over some of my concerns with Bill 7. It's around the unincorporated organizations — or incorporated organizations, for that matter.
I am afraid that this bill just does not cover the issues that I have been very concerned about and the people in my community have been concerned about because of personal circumstances that we all went through in the last municipal election with a group that ran a number of people for mayor and council in the Tri-Cities. They did not incorporate, so they would be referred to as an unincorporated organization.
In the end, when moneys had to be reported, they did not do that because they did not have to do that. Our side of the House brought that up a number of times here in the Legislature and made it very, very clear that this was an area that needed to be looked at and cleared up well in advance of the next municipal election.
Naturally, we assumed — people in my riding and probably across the province, because I'm sure Coquitlam is not the only city or municipality that has had these issues — that this would be covered in this bill. I would like to know where in this bill it is defined what incorporated and unincorporated organizations may or may not do in terms of declaring their finances. There are no sections that appear to deal with restrictions on corporate donations.
We do have section 88, which is already in there, providing that donations from corporations must be classified as such, but these amendments I see here today don't appear to correct this oversight. Without that, this bill could be interpreted so that a corporation may still make contributions through persons other than a financial agent; make anonymous contributions of more than $50 and also make more than one anonymous contribution that will total more than $50; make multiple anonymous contributions to the same elector organization or campaign organizer in relation to one or more elections; and make a contribution — and this is probably the most concerning — indirectly, giving money, property or services to a person or an unincorporated organization for that person or organization to make as a campaign contribution.
I cannot see how what we see in front of us in Bill 7 is going to solve the problem that we had in Coquitlam when we had a number of candidates — seven or eight; I forget exactly how many — and a great deal of money raised and used to run those people for city council and mayor. Nobody in the community ever was told or found out where the money came from, who was supporting this group of people. We were told that the reason for that was because they didn't register. They were an unregistered group. Well, why would anybody register a group if they don't have to worry about defining where they get their money and having everybody know about it?
Those are my concerns. If I don't get any answers before we go into the third reading at committee stage, then I will be bringing it up again at committee stage, because I think this is a very important thing. There's a lot of concern, and this is the place for it to be covered. We will be bringing forward amendments to cover that if in fact I'm right about this bill.
M. Farnworth: It's my pleasure to rise today and take my place in the debate on the community statutes amendment act — potentially an important piece of
[ Page 10362 ]
legislation. I say potentially because if it deals with the issue around electoral financing reform and plugging the loophole that you could drive a truck through, then it will be a good piece of legislation. If it doesn't, it will fall far short of what's required and will be a huge disappointment to many people who have been looking for this issue to be dealt with.
I want to raise this issue with the minister and just remind her of the issues that we're concerned about. In the last municipal election in 2005 the rules were very clear. If you're an incorporated organization, function as a municipal political party, campaign as a municipal political party and advertise as a municipal political party, you have to disclose where your donations are coming from. Seems straightforward.
If you don't register as a local political party or a municipal political party and yet a bunch of you get together and wear common name tags, as Coquitlam First did in Coquitlam and the Tri-Cities, and if you all sit in the same leaflet saying "Coquitlam First" but you don't register…. If fundraisers are held and moneys transferred to Coquitlam First in a generic sort of name not specifying individual donors, you don't have to disclose where that money came from. You don't have to disclose who the individuals are making the donations.
Some $100,000 in money was not properly…. It may have been technically, but it did not comply with the spirit of the act and was not disclosed. We saw a campaign, a disingenuous campaign, to try and somehow say: "Oh no, no, no. The Privacy Act says you can't disclose."
That is just nonsense. The Privacy Act does not prevent the disclosure of campaign donations. It is just nonsense to say that it prevents the act. In fact, the act was meant to ensure the disclosure of donations, and it was a major failing in the legislation, as it then stood, which came to light in the last municipal election in the city of Coquitlam through an organization called Coquitlam First.
There were other organizations, such as Delta First. They were registered, but Coquitlam First did not. So you had huge sums of money that were not identified as to where it came from. We raised that in this House. I raised it with the minister in the estimates debate, I believe, in 2007 and 2006. The minister indicated that she would look into the matter but made no promises about legislation.
Well, here we are. There is legislation, and I hope this issue is addressed. It needs to be addressed. We asked the minister questions in question period on this particular piece of legislation. The opposition has stated its case in estimates debate; it's stated its case in question period.
It has been clear that before the municipal elections in November of '08, the public must have confidence that whether you are running as a municipal political party or as a true independent not affiliated with any political party, we have transparency — transparency in where those donations are coming from, transparency in how much money is being spent and transparency in the process.
So we cannot have a situation as we had in the last election, where people who played by the rules, who were registered political parties — whether they were on the Left or they were on the Right — who fully disclosed everything. Instead you had organizations such as Coquitlam First, which acted like a political party, which campaigned like a political party, which distributed literature like a political party, which advertised like a political party and had its members run around with little labels on them as though they were a political party. Yet because they didn't register, they were able to avoid the full disclosure of moneys and donations, and that's not right.
We want to ensure that that loophole is plugged in this legislation, and I can tell the minister that at second reading debate, those issues need to be addressed by the time we get to committee stage. I hope the minister is able to satisfy this side of the House and the public that those issues have been dealt with in this bill, that in a clause-by-clause debate she will be able to provide the answers so that we will know and have confidence that in this fall's municipal elections — regardless of who you are, regardless of what political party you are — there will be full and open transparency.
As I said at the beginning of my remarks, if we have that — if we have those questions answered to our full confidence — then this will in fact be a good piece of legislation. But if we don't have satisfactory answers and those questions are still left hanging, then this piece of legislation will not do what we expect it to do, and the public will have been shortchanged — severely shortchanged.
With that, I take my place and yield to other members who have other concerns around this particular piece of legislation.
S. Simpson: I'm pleased to stand and just take a couple of minutes to reference one aspect of what I believe is an oversight in the legislation. It has been spoken about by my colleague the critic and the member for Cariboo South. In particular, I want to speak about Vancouver, because it is my home and I've watched and been a keen observer of municipal and civic politics in Vancouver for many, many years.
Transparency is always an issue, and my colleagues spoke about that in relation to Coquitlam and other communities. But the issue I want to speak to a little bit here is the question of spending limits. It's something that's not incorporated into this bill, but it's something that is a fundamental issue in Vancouver, and I'm sure that there are other communities where it's starting to become a growing concern.
We have a situation in Vancouver where there are unbelievable amounts of money being spent on local elections. The expectation this year is that whoever the mayoralty candidates are for the major parties, they will spend millions of dollars, potentially, on this campaign — levels of money that years ago would have been unexpected and unforeseen.
What that means is that in terms of mayoralty candidates or in terms of council candidates, because
[ Page 10363 ]
there's no limit on spending, the notion of independent candidates having any capacity or role to be able to run in Vancouver is pretty much negated. They really don't have a role or a position. They don't have any ability to seriously run. So we have created a situation where money, in fact, is the determining factor, in large part, in the ability to get elected in the city of Vancouver.
We know that at both the federal and provincial levels a good job has been done, where I believe spending limits have been put in place, and they're regulated. We have a situation where candidates are afforded enough dollars to be able to run a reasonable campaign, to be able to get out and communicate with their voters, but not so much money that, in fact, money overtakes ideas and political debate in determining elections.
It's good enough federally and provincially, and it's the right thing to do federally and provincially. I would argue that particularly in our larger municipal jurisdictions the notion of spending limits also makes sense — in places like Vancouver certainly. I'm sure there are other communities where, if it's not a concern today, it will be a concern in short order.
This bill doesn't get us to that place. I believe it is an oversight. I look forward to having some discussion in committee stage on this question with the minister about why the minister chose not to include some limits on spending, since it is a practice that we adhere to here in the provincial Legislature and that clearly the federal politicians adhere to as well, and why it's not something that should be adhered to in our local jurisdictions, particularly those larger jurisdictions like the city of Vancouver.
I would hope that the minister may be able to make some comment on this in her closing remarks around second reading when that comes. More importantly, I hope the minister would consider an amendment to the legislation to bring the question of spending limits to the table — to put some limitation on spending so that it does not become a question of how big your financial backers are, how much money you have to run for office in the city of Vancouver but, more importantly, what ideas you have to make Vancouver a better place — and to ensure that people have enough money to be able to communicate and make their case but not so much money that they overwhelm those much more important aspects of an election, which are about ideas and debate and qualifications.
I look forward to the minister's comments on that. I look forward to being able to pursue this discussion further in committee stage. With that I will take my place.
M. Sather: It's my pleasure to respond on second reading to Bill 7, Local Government Statutes Amendment Act, 2008.
I'm looking at this largely as a bit of a learning experience in terms of what the government has in mind, in terms of what the minister has in mind. I have some questions. I don't have huge objections to it, but I do want to hear, as we discuss second reading and the minister's wrap-up and particularly in committee stage, what the government is thinking about it.
I would echo the comments of the member for Vancouver-Hastings about spending limits. Even in little old Maple Ridge we've experienced, in the last municipal election, spending by a candidate that was, certainly, much greater than we've come to expect. Whether you're in the millions or in the tens of thousands, depending on where you live, can make a substantial difference to the outcome. So we do want to see some level playing field.
It would be nice if there were some limits set on local government spending as well. I will be interested to hear what the minister's thinking is around that. The loopholes that appear to be there allowing for unlimited anonymous contributions, as well — the lack of transparency in an anonymous contribution…. At higher levels of government there are limits on the amounts that you can donate anonymously. That is as it should be, I would say, and I would like to hear more about that. Also, if the donors are recorded, the information can't be made public except at the discretion of the candidate.
I still get the feeling a little bit sometimes that municipal elections are a bit of a Wild West show compared to the more regulated elections that we have at the provincial and federal level. It's fine to have some flexibility and openness, I guess, but on the other hand, we want to ensure that there's fairness, openness and accountability.
The one other section that I just wanted to comment on is on non-resident property owners and voting. This has been kind of an issue in municipal elections, I think, since forever. I don't have a strong view on it, but I do sometimes wonder about it in terms of a level playing field where one person can…. They can't vote more than once in a given municipal election, of course, but they can vote more than once within the province.
I guess it goes back to: if you pay taxes there, you should be able to vote. I suppose that's the main rationale for it. Again, at provincial and federal levels, we all pay taxes as well. Some of us pay taxes in different localities, but we're restricted on where we can vote. Noting that the Vancouver Electoral Reform Commission had recommended getting rid of non-resident property electors, I'm interested to hear if the government has considered that.
Obviously, they didn't incorporate it. In fact, it appears to make it easier, actually. You don't have to obtain a certificate of eligibility that you previously did. I'm just wondering, again, what the minister's thoughts are around that.
Those were the comments that I wanted to make. Looking forward, as I say, to hearing what the minister has to say. With that, I'll take my seat and pass the position over to another member of my caucus that wants to speak on this issue.
G. Gentner: I rise because I, too, have some grave concerns relative to the forthcoming local government amendments.
To begin on a lighter note, I suppose, I have to defend the rights of Mr. Floatie. I have to defend the
[ Page 10364 ]
rights of Mr. Peanut and those who wish to make a point in the city of Kamloops. That is, I believe, under section 6, for example. It requires a candidate to provide, along with their nomination documents, a solemn declaration regarding their intention to take office if elected.
Now, I think that is the intent of all, but my experience in municipal elections…. It does allow those who use it as a vehicle to make a point in municipal elections. A lot of different opportunities are there, and we have to question ourselves. Is the point of elections there in order for you strictly to be elected, or is it your democratic right to use an election to express your opinion?
You know, we have been elected on this side; you have been elected on that side. When I think back to when I first ran for municipal election, I have to express some naivety that I was running to make a point, and I did make some good points. I was not elected at that particular time, but I didn't run strictly with the belief that I was going to be elected. I think it undermines in many ways the potential of why we run civically.
Also, I question another section where some municipalities might, and some municipalities won't, come forward with the notion of allowing governments to provide the public access through the Internet, etc., towards the disclosure documents. You can't have some democracy in one municipality and say another municipality will or will not. I think it's universal. Some municipalities, obviously, who won't allow that disclosure may be those with members on that council who are reluctant to show full disclosure because of the political interests of those who contribute to their campaigns. So I think that part is flawed.
My overall concern here, though, is that of the purpose of municipal government. There are a lot of different things municipal government does. I don't think this act, this amendment, treats local government seriously. If it did, it would understand what the main precepts of local government are.
When we delegate authority as a province originally to local government, the most important function of local government is to do with land use. I don't think there's a province that has land values such as British Columbia — in particular the lower mainland of course.
I believe that is the major precept of the functions of local government, and contributions have got to be totally transparent. They've got to be open, because some of the major contributors to local government are developers, speculators, those who wish to flip property and make money. So why wouldn't you allow a process in place where full disclosure will be allowed?
I remember the time when I was a city councillor, and we would be going through the public hearing process. The proponent for a development was up making his or her pitch, and it was blatantly obvious that some members of council that were very supportive of the proponent or that development were the same…. Maybe it was just coincidental, but it was interesting to see that most were the receivers of political contributions from that same developer.
Now, I'm not going to say we should completely disallow that, because some members opposite will say: "Oh my God, the NDP receives money from some agencies that you may not believe are in your best interests." But I do believe that it should be publicly disclosed where the money went at all times. I believe that's one of the major principles of a transparent, democratic society — so everybody at a public hearing fully understands and appreciates that the proponent that is putting forward an argument to develop a parcel of land is also the person or company that has donated money. Some would call it an organization that's bought a council.
I think it's very important that those cards are put on the table at all times. Hopefully, the minister will perhaps recant this act and maybe make it better. I think about the movie years ago called Chinatown, where we had Jack Nicholson and the backroom deals that were made there. You get a little cynical about all that, of course. That's Hollywood.
In the real world there is a connect with those who own land, those who develop land and those who are able to buy a council. I believe that in the best interests of all of those people, particularly those who live adjacent to a particular development who would be highly impacted by a development…. They have a right, just like everybody else, where the money was spent during the previous election.
That concludes my initial preliminary remarks to this act.
J. Kwan: I rise to enter into the debate for Bill 7, the Local Government Statutes Amendment Act, 2008. I have two issues that I want to raise related to this bill. I am dismayed to see that the remedies are not really there to address these two issues.
One is the issue that my colleague from Vancouver-Hastings has already raised in Vancouver, and that is the issue around spending limits. As we know, the issues around electioneering are very much influenced by how much financial backing you have, although it should not be that way.
[K. Whittred in the chair.]
I acknowledge that there needs to be some spending in the election process, but it should not be on the basis of who can spend the most in order to affect the election result. Yet I fear that that's what we've seen in the last number of years in Vancouver. There have been several occasions where one particular party, the NPA, would actually outspend its competition. You've got to ask the question: is that the premise on which we want to see our officials elected in the city of Vancouver — in fact, any elected officials, for that matter?
In spite of that, this Local Government Statutes Amendment Act, while it addresses some of the issues around contributions, does not address the issue around limits with respect to spending. I think that to ensure democracy is at play, we actually put forward
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spending limits. I know that this is not an issue, necessarily, for all municipalities, and I acknowledge that fully. But for some municipalities, it is a big issue, particularly in those larger communities.
I think that it's high time, in 2008, that we brought in legislation that brings forward spending limits in the local government elections. That's one issue, and I look forward to the minister's response with respect to that aspect.
The other one relates to the authority of some segments of the community to, frankly, vote twice at an election. I'm speaking of the fact that businesses in local governments…. In my case, I'll talk about the city of Vancouver. If you own a business in the city of Vancouver, you would be able to vote in the city of Vancouver. But if you reside outside of the city of Vancouver, you would also be able to vote in the municipality in which you reside. So that's two votes for one person. I don't think there are any other categories to which that applies for any other individual.
I think that we have to make a choice. I'm not opposed to the idea that if you own a business in the city of Vancouver, for example, you get to choose. Either you choose to vote in the place where you reside, or you choose to vote in the place where you own a business. But you should not have the opportunity to actually vote twice — in other words, to have two votes — in that electoral cycle, which is now the case in Bill 7 and has been the case for some time.
In fact, if anything, Bill 7 just enables that — makes it easier for business owners to actually have the opportunity to vote twice in an electoral cycle. I think that's just wrong. I think there's something fundamentally wrong about that. In a democracy we all should have the right to vote, but we should only get to vote once. We don't have the opportunity to have double the voting opportunities, and that is the case. There is no remedy here within this bill related to that issue. It's been a concern for me for quite some time, frankly.
I think it's high time now, given this opportunity here in 2008, for these things to be remedied for 2009. We know that there's going to be a major election coming up for local governments in 2009, and we have the opportunity to ensure that these issues are addressed for that electoral cycle and for future years. So I am disappointed to see in the legislation that these two items are not addressed, and I do think that they should be.
I also look forward to when my good colleague the critic for local government brings forward the amendments related to a whole host of issues that he identified earlier. I won't belabour them, as he spoke eloquently to them. I support them 100 percent, with respect to those amendments.
I hope the government will find, within their deliberations, that those are sensible amendments and, in fact, should be adopted and accepted so that we can actually address these concerns in time for the 2008 electoral cycle — 2009 is the provincial one — coming up in November. There is time to do it. At least, for anybody who says, "Gee, you know, we're already into March, and we don't have enough time to do that," I think that there is enough time to do that. We can remedy these items for that election cycle.
B. Ralston: I rise to speak, on second reading, to Bill 7, Local Government Statutes Amendment Act, 2008. We do have a lot of time in this chamber because we aren't going to be bothered with any estimates here in this chamber. We'll have ample time to debate the many amendments that'll be brought, which I think is a good thing. This is an important bill, although they may appear, on the face of it, to be minor amendments.
Unfortunately, the opportunity hasn't been taken here to bring about some real and necessary changes in municipal elections. Increasingly, the municipal arena and cities are the level of government where most and many citizens turn to look to solve their immediate concerns.
Like many members here, I sat on a city council. I sat on Surrey council for several terms. That is a level of government that increasingly has broader responsibilities, certainly in the lower mainland. The city of Surrey is involved in important decisions of land use, of transportation. The city has taken some important initiatives in crime prevention and some leadership there.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
In a city like Surrey, which is the second-largest city by population in the province — some 425,000 citizens, approximately, and continuing to grow — running for civic office is an increasingly expensive task. This legislation, unfortunately, hasn't taken the step that many other jurisdictions have and that certainly exists at the federal and provincial levels for good reason — spending limits on candidates and parties who seek support for office at the city level.
There are very good reasons. In fact, it does make the process more fair. I think it's widely regarded…. That was the motivation when Prime Minister Chrétien introduced public funding of elections and the electoral process at the federal level and, certainly, for the more modest attempts that have been undertaken at the provincial level here.
There are, as we all are aware when we campaign, limits to spending in individual constituency campaigns, and there is a limit overall for each party as to what they can spend at the provincial level. Particularly, understandably, a lot of the money is spent on media, but there's a limit there.
Not only does it provide a fairer and more balanced arena for political debate in an election, but it also indirectly is a service to political parties, because it does place a limit on what they have to do in fundraising, so perhaps they can devote their attention to other parts of the election rather than solely on fundraising.
It's said sometimes that in the American process a Congress member, he or she, may spend up to 50 percent of their time — they're elected every two years — raising money for the next election. That, it's widely believed, has distorted the system in the United States
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in many ways. One can well imagine if members here had to spend 50 percent of their time on fundraising….
Legislative limits on spending at the city level, I think, would be an important addition to this legislation, and because, as we know, there are no estimates here — we're not going to be interrupted; we're solely here in this chamber doing legislation — we'll have lots of time for reasoned consideration of those amendments.
I urge the minister not to be timid, to consider accepting those amendments that will come forward. Maybe they weren't considered by ministry staff, or maybe there wasn't a sufficiently strong lobby, but I think that once this word goes out to various municipal officials and to the public, there will be some support for that position.
Secondly, I rise also to speak specifically about the political landscape in Surrey. The mayor, and I'm wondering…. I intend to pursue this further at the committee stage. The mayor of Surrey, Dianne Watts, who was elected last time, has given her public declaration and notice of intention to lead a political grouping. She says that grouping falls short of being a political party. In other words, its members won't be subject to what's sometimes called party discipline, which we are familiar with here in the Legislature. So it's a political grouping. They will run together.
The question arises…. To be fair, I don't think she has been asked this issue, and given that this legislation has come on very recently, I haven't had time to approach her myself. But in a city of 425,000, where this grouping is not really a party, one wonders whether it will be placed in the same situation as Coquitlam First or some of the other political groupings that have been mentioned, where there's not an obligation to engage in public disclosure. The legislation doesn't catch that kind of position where you run together, you campaign together and you're identifiable to the public as a group, yet you don't call yourself a political party or a group that enforces discipline. Therefore, would you be caught by these regulations or not? It's not clear.
Of course, the mayor may wish or, when she responds to this, may say that her group will make voluntary declaration. I suppose that's sufficient in a personal sense, but I think the better public policy approach is to close this loophole, as the member for Port Coquitlam–Burke Mountain has said, and make sure that the legislation applies to those groups.
If people are to have the kind of openness and transparency and, I suppose, general respect for the political process that we would like, I think that kind of legislation is important. After all, in the municipal setting a single vote of a municipal council on a rezoning application can vastly, just by virtue of the change in zoning, increase the value of that piece of property. So an owner or a group of owners or a company that owns that piece of property can, as a result of a single vote in a municipal or city council, reap a substantial financial reward.
In order that matters are transparent, I think the public is entitled to know what pressures may have been brought to bear in terms of support for the position that the council is taking. It can then be decided in the public arena as to whether that's the way or the kind of legislation or kind of legislators or councillors that people wish to support or not. At least the opportunity is there to have that kind of debate.
I join with my colleagues in expressing concern that this legislation doesn't address for the larger cities in the province what appears to be a strategy by some to skirt the disclosure provisions and not engage with the real spirit of the act. The minister, in my view, would be wise to consider the amendments that are coming forward.
One interpretation of some of the disclosure provisions…. The critic will be pursuing this further, and I am troubled by it — the suggestion that on one reading of a number of the provisions, anonymous donations will be permitted under the act. We'll be looking to the minister to clarify or not on those provisions of the act that may permit or may not, depending on the reading that's taken of the amendments, anonymous donations.
Obviously, anonymous donations are something that no one, I don't think, would support. I mean, obviously, if there are small amounts at a collective gathering, but even under the federal and provincial rules there are real restrictions on that. I don't think it's an unnecessarily bureaucratic approach. It's simply to close the loophole of anonymity that might otherwise be used.
Those are the comments that I wanted to make on this bill, and I thank the House for listening to me at this point. With that, I'll conclude my remarks.
B. Bennett: I am standing here today in support of Bill 7, the Local Government Statutes Amendment Act, 2008. Specifically, I'd like to speak to the portion of the bill called part 8, the "Elk Valley tax sharing agreement."
It's a fairly technical bill, and this portion of the bill is especially technical. I suppose it is innocuous to most members of the House, but is of considerable importance to the people who live in the East Kootenay and, in particular, in the Elk Valley. I would want to go on record disagreeing with the member for Delta North that the minister should — I think he used the word — "recant" this legislation. I hope this legislation passes. It is very, very important to people who live in the Elk Valley in my riding.
The communities of Fernie, Sparwood and Elkford are home to the workers and their families who depend on the southeast B.C. coal industry. That industry is an industry that I've talked about lots in this House over the seven years that I've been here, and I'll continue to talk about the coal industry very proudly.
Although some politicians, I've noticed, call it dirty coal, apparently in an ill-conceived attempt to pander to the naive urban voter who, with all due respect, often doesn't know where his food comes from, let alone the metal in his laptop or his Volvo…. This industry pays millions in taxes in this province and actually accounts, in the southeast, for one-half of 1 percent of the GDP for all of Canada. It's a very important part of our regional, provincial and national economy, and it
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provides some of the best jobs in this province, especially in rural British Columbia.
I've stood here many times before. I've talked about the importance of hunting, something that's very important to rural people, and had my private member's bill, the heritage right to hunt and fish, passed in 2002. I've stood here and talked about the federal firearms law and how so many of us on this side of the House, unlike the opposition, don't support that federal firearms law.
I've talked about Steamboat Hill in the riding of East Kootenay, and thanks to the Minister of Transportation and to the Premier, that terrible corner has been improved and is now just a bad memory to us in the East Kootenay. I've spoken in this House about the need for a strong, regional hospital and a strong, regional college. Both have happened. Not without some patience from the people of East Kootenay. We're now over that hump, and we have a great regional hospital and a great regional college.
I've also stood here and talked about the need for jobs. I remember back when we were first elected that we talked a lot about the need for jobs in places like Cranbrook and the Elk Valley, and we were struggling with the smothering weight of the regulations and taxes that were levied against the people of the province in the 1990s.
So it is my pleasure to be here today speaking in support of this legislation that will renew the Elk Valley tax sharing agreement. In fact, it will extend that agreement to areas of the valley and will allow yet more provincial tax dollars to stay in the Elk Valley. They'll be used to improve the lives of my constituents.
The Elk Valley tax sharing agreement was actually a creature of the Social Credit government in 1982 and a result of the good work of the former MLA from Kootenay Terry Segarty. So I'm very proud to be here today to help build on the great legacy that Terry has left for us.
Although the agreement's formula for calculating what share of provincial taxes actually stays in the Elk Valley is very complex — it's even byzantine — the principle supporting the agreement is not complicated at all.
Basically, the Elk Valley Coal Corp. pays municipal taxes on much of its lands, and a portion of this tax, based on the assessment, is split between Fernie, Sparwood, Elkford and the regional district of East Kootenay. Since 1991 there has been no increase to that tax levy from the existing agreements. The communities have received the same property tax revenue from the mines for the past 17 years.
Notably during the years of the NDP governments, the governments that professed to be so supportive of working people and rural communities, no increase was forthcoming. Fernie, Sparwood and Elkford asked successive provincial governments to take on the difficult task of negotiating a new, fairer agreement, but it was this government that had the chutzpah to take this on.
Today the tax levy is being increased, and the money going to our communities will increase from $6.8 million to almost $9 million. It's $8.9 million, to be specific. That's $2.1 million more coming into the Elk Valley under this new agreement.
After I was elected in 2001, I remember meeting with the mayors of the three communities at the time. I told them: "If you can negotiate something between yourselves and you can get the buy-in of Elk Valley Coal Corp. — which, incidentally, I think has been a very good corporate citizen in all of this — I will work with the government and with the minister and try and get your work rewarded by legislation."
That's what we're talking about here today. The three communities in the RDEK got together with the provincial government and Elk Valley Coal Corp. They hammered out a new agreement that is more generous to our region and fairer to each of the participants. The RDEK rep for area A, for example, now has $500,000 — up from $16,500 that he had last year, so a great increase for the people who live in the rural areas between those three communities.
He's going to use some of this money to hire a trail guardian to maintain the many trails in the area and to help educate our friends from Alberta on where they can take their quads and their snowmobiles and where they can't. That's just one example of how this money will be used in the area to improve the lives of the people who live there.
In terms of the three communities and what they're getting, Fernie is getting $2.6 million. That's up about $350,000. Sparwood is getting $2.8 million. That's up over a million dollars from last year for them. Elkford is getting $3 million. For them, that's up about $175,000 from last year.
These funds will be used by the three communities and the area A rep to improve the lives of the people in the Elk Valley. We do of course benefit already there from the taxes that are paid by the coal industry and all the other parts of our burgeoning East Kootenay economy, but this is cash that is over and above that. Again, thanks goodness Terry Segarty saw the wisdom of this tax-sharing, and thank goodness our government has had the foresight and the courage to not only renew the agreement but to renegotiate an entirely new agreement that is more generous and fair to the Elk Valley.
It is sad, I suppose, that the previous government did nothing about this for ten years, but at least it is now fixed and guarantees continuing prosperity for the best place in the best province in the best country in the world. My thanks to the minister for her perseverance and courage in getting this done, and thank you for the opportunity.
Mr. Speaker: Seeing no further speakers, the Minister of Community Services closes debate.
Hon. I. Chong: I want to begin my remarks by thanking all members who have responded to Bill 7 and offered their second reading comments on both sides of the House and in particular to the critic for his comments, which sounded to me like he was offering for the most part support for Bill 7 except in the area that pertains to local government elections.
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I know that he has had the benefit of a briefing from my ministry staff, and I hope at that time he was able to clarify some of these. If not, then I guess we will spend a bit more time at committee stage, but I had hoped that that would have been more clear.
From the comments I heard from him and others, it sounded as if perhaps the opportunity to discuss that in a more full way maybe did not occur, because a number of things that are being suggested or spoken of are clearly in the bill. Again, we will wait until we get to committee stage for a more fulsome debate on that.
I do want to say — contrary to his comments that I had been lobbied for the past three years to make changes — that it has only been actually two years, simply because the last civic elections were in 2005. The survey that goes out after civic elections occurs after, which I believe was sometime in February of 2006. So it was the latter part of 2006 and 2007 that we have been working with local governments and UBCM in particular to identify those issues and concerns that were raised as a result of the survey and that now have led us to these changes being made to local government elections.
As I said, there is a process, a process that I think works quite well, allowing for the survey to be sent out to candidates who have run in the most recent civic election — to those who are successful and to those who are not successful as well — and also to the individual local governments and for ensuring that we evaluate the survey results and what appears to be those items that we can in fact bring forward for change.
I think all members of this House would agree that anything we can do anytime there's an opportunity to enhance legislation, to make our civic elections more accountable and more transparent and really to engage the public as a whole to participate in what I believe are very important elections is a good thing. When I took a look at the number of people in this chamber who have been involved in municipal politics, I think it's almost one-third of us. When I add those who have been elected to school boards, it certainly takes us to over one-half of the members in this chamber.
We all know the complexities of these local government elections. We all know the distinct differences and challenges that each area has. I think it's important that we make note of these and that when we come to this chamber, we acknowledge that some of us represent small communities, some of us represent larger communities, some of us represent very rural and remote communities, and some of us represent the metropolitan areas. I would say that the changes that need to be made need to be applied and adhered to consistently around the province. While we may think we have the solution that fits our specific community, it may not work so well in a more remote area, and for that reason it is important to hear from communities around the province.
It is important that the broader local government community has an opportunity to challenge, even, some of the changes that we might bring forward. I can say that as a result of the survey that was taken after the November 2005 civic election, we did review the requests for legislative changes from UBCM from individual local governments. Generally speaking, we found that the system did work well across the 186 local governments and their elections. Our review of the requests for legislative changes does stem from their requests in the context of the 2005 local government experience.
We were also advised that while perhaps larger, more substantive changes — as some of the members have requested in their second reading comments — may be warranted, it may be warranted sometime in the future, but not during these upcoming civic elections, primarily because they do require the benefit of the larger, broader public consultation process. While local governments, as I say, have put forward ideas which we were able to discuss in 2006 and then in 2007 to allow us to draft the changes we're bringing forward, they acknowledged, as well, that some of the larger changes would need the public's consultation in this.
While I know that a number of members have mentioned what is being done at the provincial and federal levels when it comes to elections, let us remember that local governments, the civic elections, are not the same as provincial and federal elections where there is one body that conducts the entire election. One body, Elections B.C., conducts elections for MLAs, and one body, Elections Canada, conducts elections for the MPs. When it comes to civic elections, each municipal government appoints its own local government election official, so they know best what will work for them.
As I say, I do hear that there are some vocal requests for some more changes, but I can also tell the members, with all respect to their requests for more changes and possible amendments, that there was not significant agreement on the need for or on the nature of broad changes when we did survey the candidates and election officials in 2006.
Certainly, things may have changed in the latter part of 2007 as we were drafting this. Certainly, things may have changed even early this year in January and February, when it was all abuzz in some of the larger cities — who would be running for mayors in some of our larger cities. But at the time the survey was conducted, at the time we received the results and consulted with UBCM, I can assure the members of this House that the broader changes were not what had come forward as legislative requirements.
I think there is an opportunity in the future to take a look at that. Again, I would like to allay those concerns, which members have raised here at second reading debate, that I have brought forward a bill where certainly there was an oversight. There was no oversight. These are specific, targeted changes that UBCM agreed to and has suggested can be brought forward in time for November 2008.
That's not to say, as I've indicated, that there could not be further changes at a future time. I am sure that after the November 2008 election, when the survey goes out in February 2009, we will certainly hear once again what changes need to be made.
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On that note, my understanding is that there was a rather substantive and significant change made in 1993 to the then Municipal Act and the Vancouver Charter in particular, because a number of members spoke here dealing with Vancouver. At that time there was an intention to ensure that, again, local elections were treated consistently, whether they were dealt with through the Vancouver Charter or the then Municipal Act — now the Local Government Act — and Community Charter. With that intent, it was not to have differences in how local elections were being run in one part of the province and the other.
Those were the changes that the previous government, the NDP government of the day, obviously accepted and believed were correct. During their time in government as well, we also had a November 1996 election. We had a November 1999 election. There were times and opportunities then to make these changes, as they mentioned. My understanding, as well — and I will bring that information forward during committee stage — was that some of these were discussed but, again, did not gain the support of the broader local government community to go forward.
I would hope that the member for Port Coquitlam–Burke Mountain as well as the member for Vancouver–Mount Pleasant — who were both Municipal Affairs ministers, I might add, during the 1990s — will recollect that those were some of the items that I think had been raised with them, and for some reason in the 1990s they chose not to bring forward those changes.
This is about making targeted changes regarding transparency and disclosure around campaigns to address some specific issues and requests from local governments. It's not intended to be a major rewrite, because that is not what has been requested of us, and these amendments do respond directly to proposals from UBCM.
I also want to say that there is some confusion as to the disclosure rules. Clearly, the legislation does indicate that these are new rules that mean people or groups who conduct campaigns to support candidates need to report financial contributions once they receive $500 in contributions. What is currently in place does not allow for that.
Currently groups or individuals running campaigns at arm's length from a candidate or civic parties do not have to report any financial contributions — something that members opposite have raised, something which we have also been made aware of — even when every dollar raised is there intended to support candidates. Now, as a result of these changes, when they fundraise and spend like an electoral party, they will be treated equal to a civic electoral party or candidate as far as financial reporting goes.
Again, I do believe that information is in the legislation. If we're required to make that more clear when we take a look at committee stage, we will do so and ensure that members are comfortable and understand that clarification.
I know we will have a full debate. I look forward to the members offering their comments at that time. I do appreciate, as I say, all those who have currently provided their second reading comments. With that, I move second reading.
Hon. I. Chong: I move that Bill 7 be referred to a Committee of the Whole House to be considered at the next sitting of the House after today.
Bill 7, Local Government Statutes Amendment Act, 2008, read a second time and referred to a Committee of the Whole House for consideration at the next sitting of the House after today.
Hon. G. Abbott: I call second reading debate of Bill 6, Electoral Reform Referendum 2009 Act.
ELECTORAL REFORM REFERENDUM 2009 ACT
Hon. W. Oppal: I move that Bill 6, the Electoral Reform Referendum 2009 Act, now be read a second time.
This bill creates the legislative framework for a referendum on the single transferable vote, or STV, system, which will be held in conjunction with the May 2009 provincial general election. Members of the House will recall that government made a commitment to hold a second referendum on this question following the close result of the first referendum in May 2005. We also made a commitment to enhance public information about this important question.
As part of an extensive effort to better inform British Columbians about the two electoral options, the current first-past-the-post system and STV, the Electoral Boundaries Commission was charged with identifying how electoral district boundaries would look under both systems. Voters will be able to compare how their electoral districts under the first-past-the-post and the STV options would look.
[K. Whittred in the chair.]
This bill also implements a related commitment — that is, to provide public funding to registered proponents and opponent groups to stimulate debate on the question. For the 2009 referendum a total of $1 million — $500,000 for each side — is being made available to the Chief Electoral Officer for groups who wish to register and take part in the debate.
In addition, although it's not specifically provided for in this bill, the government will provide a neutral referendum information office, as we did in 2005. That office will receive a budget of $500,000, bringing the total to $1.5 million, more than doubling the public funds that were spent in the 2005 general election. To ensure that the funding is administered at arm's length from government, the bill provides for this funding to be allocated through the Chief Electoral Officer.
While the details would be set out in regulations if this bill is passed by the House, I can share some of
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those planned details now. The Chief Electoral Officer would publish notice in the early fall inviting applicants to register. Groups would have a specified time in which to apply.
The Chief Electoral Officer would then have a certain period of time to decide upon the distribution of the funding, depending on the number of applicant groups and their financial agents. He would be required to ensure that each side of the debate receives equal funding. It is intended that the funds be made accessible to the groups through Elections B.C. by the end of January 2009, providing them with approximately three and a half months in which to conduct their information campaigns.
This legislation requires that funds be used only for the purpose of supporting or opposing the single transferable vote electoral system. Any funds that are provided to the groups that are not to be used for that purpose must be returned following the vote. To ensure that groups use these funds for their stated purpose, the bill contains a significant financial penalty in the form of a maximum $50,000 fine if the funds are misused.
Groups will also be able to receive private contributions outside the public funding if they so wish. These contributions will be tracked and reported to Elections B.C. as well.
Aside from the public funding provisions, the bill also provides for a referendum that will be very similar to the one held in 2005. The threshold for success is the same — 60 percent of the provincewide popular vote and a majority in at least 60 percent of the province's electoral districts. The threshold was decided upon back in 2003, when the citizens' assembly was first announced and before it had begun to meet or even select its members.
The draft referendum question will be put to this House for debate before it is finalized. It is important that the question be clear to voters and that the wording be in a neutral manner.
I should note that this bill specifies that the Referendum Act would not apply to the May 2009 referendum. Rather, this bill is a sole authority for that referendum.
I should also note that this bill makes one consequential amendment to the act, which is to provide for future referenda. The Chief Electoral Officer must announce the results. The current provision requires that the Attorney General announce the results. This predates the changes to the position of the Chief Electoral Officer and is incompatible with the independence of his office.
We have included the same provision with respect to the referendum that is the subject of this bill. This bill follows through on the government's commitment to ensure that British Columbia's voters have a second opportunity to decide how they elect members of the assembly and to make a fully informed decision on that important question.
I look forward to the debate on this bill and on the referendum itself.
B. Ralston: Well, this legislation begins to set in motion the machinery for the referendum, which will be concurrent with the general election in 2009. The government is engaged in repairing some of the mistakes that they've made along the way as we've had public discussion about this referendum.
Initially, the Premier promised that a referendum would be held coincident with the municipal election in the fall of 2008. It was only after the Chief Electoral Officer objected very vigorously and with good reason that having a referendum concurrent with the municipal election in the fall of 2008 would not give sufficient time to make the necessary electoral preparations to set in place STV boundaries, were the referendum to so mandate in the fall of 2008.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
There was an estimate of cost — I believe it was something in the neighbourhood of $60 million — and, obviously, not enough time to implement such a huge change to the system. So the more prudent course was eventually taken, and the Premier then announced that this procedure would take place in the sequence that we're now following. I think it was really a rather embarrassing back-down on electoral reform.
The act that's now before the Legislature gives to the cabinet the sole discretion to determine the referendum question. The hon. Attorney General has said in debate, both at introduction and here today, that the issue of the question will be put before the Legislature for its consideration. That does not form part of the legislation. So it's clear that the only and final authority rests with the cabinet to form the question.
The forming of the question, as we probably know from those who follow federal politics, can be a very contentious issue. In the recent referendum that occurred concurrently with the provincial election in Ontario, there was a similar question about whether to remain with a single-member-constituency system or a different system that was similarly recommended there. The question was posed in a more open and, I think, comprehensible manner.
Certainly, the posing of the question and the way in which it's drafted gave rise to — in connection with potential and future referenda in Quebec — the Clarity Act, which was the subject of much political debate. Obviously, it depended on which side of the referendum you stood, but there was a view that the question that was put before the people of Quebec was unnecessarily or artfully obscure to gain a measure of support that it might not otherwise get.
The question in Ontario, in the most recent election, was put: which electoral system should Ontario use to elect members to the provincial Legislature — the existing electoral system, first-past-the-post; or the alternate electoral system proposed by the citizens' assembly, mixed-member proportional?
That was the question that was put in Ontario, and that didn't attain the necessary support to bring about any electoral change in Ontario. In other words, it was defeated.
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So the issue of how the question might be phrased will be something that the public will want to follow and, given the commitment that's been made of a public debate on that issue, members will want to follow as well.
The funding of both sides is a step that I think will be welcomed by the public. There was a sense, I suppose, in the last referendum on this question that there wasn't an equal opportunity by both sides to present their views to the public. So this would seem to be a step forward, although I'll be interested to hear the public reaction to it — whether it is a good step or whether it's adequate or whether the way in which it's proposed to be administered is a good step, given that the Chief Electoral Officer is an independent officer of the Legislature.
From my reading of the legislation and what I've heard from the minister, I think that's a reasonable way to ensure an independent control over the referendum process. But I'll be interested to hear what the public has to say about that.
Certainly, one of the striking features of the legislation that we now have before us is that it's predicated upon STV — single transferable vote — boundaries. And, of course, the legislation that would create those has not yet arrived in the Legislature. Now I understand, not through any advice I've received from the minister but from reports in the media, that that legislation may be coming to the House shortly.
It does seem that this legislation, given that it's predicated on STV boundaries, is somewhat premature, although it may only be a few days premature rather than very premature by several weeks. I'm not sure, and, of course, only the government side and only the minister knows when that legislation might be introduced. It did seem somewhat unusual and anomalous that this bill would arrive here in the Legislature before the bill which would set the boundaries on which the referendum would seek an opinion. But that, I expect, will be remedied shortly.
The other question that I expect will be dealt with at committee stage is the threshold that has been set. I don't think it was quite fully stated by the Attorney General. Section 5 requires that the referendum "is binding on the government only if (a) at least 60% of the validly cast ballots vote the same way on the question that is stated for the referendum, and (b) in at least 60% of the electoral districts, more than 50% of the validly cast ballots vote that same way on the question."
So it's a 60 percent overall majority. But it's then 60 percent of the ridings, although they only have to have 50 percent one way or the other in 60 percent of the ridings.
I'll be interested to hear the justification from the minister for selecting that threshold. It would appear to be a reasonable threshold, given that what's being proposed is a major change in the electoral system. There are those who might see that a simple majority of the ridings and a simple majority of the public would be sufficient. I don't personally agree with that, but I expect that's something we'll have debate about in the House as this legislation proceeds.
With those brief comments, I conclude my remarks on Bill 6 at this stage.
Mr. Speaker: Seeing no further speakers, Attorney General closes debate.
Hon. W. Oppal: I move second reading of Bill 6.
Hon. W. Oppal: I move that Bill 6 be referred to the Committee of the Whole House to be considered at the next sitting after today.
Bill 6, Electoral Reform Referendum 2009 Act, read a second time and referred to a Committee of the Whole House for consideration at the next sitting of the House after today.
Hon. M. de Jong: I call committee stage debate on Bill 5, Ministerial Accountability Bases Act, 2007-2008.
Committee of the Whole House
BASES ACT, 2007-2008
The House in Committee of the Whole (Section B) on Bill 5; K. Whittred in the chair.
The committee met at 5:22 p.m.
On section 1.
B. Ralston: Dealing with section 1, there are a number of ministers' original estimated amounts, and the process that these amounts are arrived at is through the budgetary process for the preceding year. What this act does is notionally revise those budgets upwards to account for the amounts that were debated and passed in the supplementary estimates process. This change in the original estimated amount means that for the purposes of this act and the Budget Transparency and Accountability Act, the ministers don't suffer financial penalty for not meeting their targets.
I know that the minister in closing debate at second reading referred to the fact that the supplementary estimates debate took place, and those estimates passed. Would the minister agree that it was an option open to the government, given that the supplementary estimates passed, to not bring this legislation and simply invite ministers to take their lumps and to lose their pay?
Hon. M. de Jong: The government always has an option about whether or not to bring forward legislation.
B. Ralston: Well, again, looking at these definitions in section 1 and looking forward to section 2 and
[ Page 10372 ]
reviewing the history of this type of legislation, can the minister advise if there's any circumstances in which he…?
Under the system that's evolved over the last several years, can he advise if there's any circumstance in which he could see a minister actually being subject to the act and not losing their pay rather than escaping through the escape hatch that's offered by these types of acts every year?
Hon. M. de Jong: It's a hypothetical question, which I'm always somewhat reluctant to get into, but if we are going to attempt to canvass that type of question, it is probably more appropriate to do so under section 2.
Section 1 approved.
On section 2.
B. Ralston: Following the kind assistance of the minister on section 1, I'm going to repeat the question that I just asked.
I appreciate the minister's reluctance to enter into hypothetical questions. I am directing my comments to section 2 of the bill, and I'm expressing it within the confines of section 2. But it does seem to me that the recent history of this type of legislation, and indeed section 2, would lead the objective observer to a certain cynicism about this process.
In other words, I understand what took place in the supplementary estimates, but it certainly was open to the government to not introduce this type of bill and simply advise ministers that that's the way it took place. It was equally open to the government not to pass the supplementary estimates and to add that spending into the prospective budget year, which would, again, have made this legislation unnecessary.
I'm wondering, then: under what circumstances can the minister reasonably envisage that this type of legislation wouldn't appear, giving the ministers an escape hatch and entitling them to their so-called bonuses, under the Budget Transparency and Accountability Act?
Hon. M. de Jong: A couple of things perplex me about the question. The ability that the Crown has on an annual basis to carry forward amounts — and I think the member knows this — is very limited. In the past, the criticism from the opposition benches has been that where funds are not expended in the fiscal year for which the appropriation has been granted, those funds are used to pay down the debt.
Now, I'm interested to hear from the member if he is advocating a different process than the one we follow, generally accepted accounting principles, and if he is advocating a removal of the restrictions that have traditionally and historically existed around the carrying forward of funds. Maybe the member will tell me about that.
I find it curious to hear the member use the term "bonus," where what is being discussed here is a holdback on the entitlements to which ministers generally, and these ministers in particular, are entitled. He has a different notion of what a bonus is than I do, where we are talking about wage holdbacks.
The principle here is very straightforward. In my remarks on second reading that the member kindly referred to, I spoke to a circumstance in which not that long ago, through much of the 1990s and into 2001, it was a regular feature of the budgeting process for a minister to come back to the House in the spring — the member wasn't here, I acknowledge that — and confess to the House that they had overspent their budget and that in order to allow for the business of government to continue, something called a special warrant had been signed. The House wasn't sitting. There was no opportunity to scrutinize what the spending was for. There had been a genuine budget overrun.
That hasn't happened. The process that we have embarked upon over the last couple of weeks has been very transparent. There has been a budget surplus. The government has come before this House to seek permission to expend a portion of that surplus. In his opening comment, the member actually was very accurate when he described…. I think I heard him say that the budgets for the ministries involved had been amended by the House, adjusted upwards to utilize a portion of that surplus. That's precisely what's happened here.
I think I understand that what the hon. member is advocating is that in a circumstance where there is a budget surplus, and the government decides to use a portion of that surplus to advance the arts or to provide a dividend to British Columbians, as was the case here…. Even where, as was the case here, the House unanimously agrees that that is a proper thing to do and is supportive of that, the ministers in charge of those departments, he feels, should be punished. I do not share that view, nor does the government, that in those circumstances, the ministers have abided by their obligations to manage their budgets in a way that is appropriate.
The member asked a hypothetical. Well, had this kind of legislation existed in the 1990s, which it didn't, it would be interesting to speculate on what ministers in that NDP administration would have said when they came before this House and said: "I have overspent my budget, and in order to deal with that, we have been forced — away from the House, without the scrutiny of the House — to sign spending warrants that facilitated that overexpenditure."
Well, that might have been a different circumstance. The legislation didn't exist, and we'll never know the answer to that question.
B. Ralston: I thank the minister for his comments. I do accept the correction that he has offered in terms of my use of the word "bonus." I agree that technically speaking it is a holdback, and that's what the legislation says. I suppose the analogy that was attempted to be drawn by the legislation was to the bonus in the private sector. There's certainly a sense in which the compensation is variable compensation, depending on
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the results. So I agree that it is imprecise to use the term "bonus."
[S. Hammell in the chair.]
As to the minister's other comments, certainly the commitment of the Minister of Finance at the outset of the process was that a surplus would be used to pay down the debt, and that's the commitment that I understood the minister to make. She pointed out that if the debt is paid down, the government's borrowing requirement is reduced. There is further room in the following budgetary year to undertake other expenditures.
I don't think that ministers should necessarily be punished, but I guess my question to the minister is…. There's an aura of artificiality about it. I understand what the government is seeking to accomplish, but we engage the whole mechanism of a separate bill, introduction and all of the time in the Legislature. Granted, we don't have estimates debate here any more in this chamber this session, so we'll certainly have more time to debate legislation.
There's a sense of complete artificiality about it and simply, I suppose, just a bit of a sense that it's all rather unnecessary. But the government, having put itself in that particular legislative straitjacket, is obliged each time to bring this legislation forward, engage the time of the Legislature and proceed forward. Certainly, the goal of having ministers adhere to the budget that's set as best they can….
There are legitimate circumstances where there is overspending because the very nature of the spending is unpredictable. I know that the minister, at second reading, cited forest fires and also, under the Minister of Public Safety, preparation for a flood alert. Those are not, I think, things that are necessarily entirely predictable, although there certainly is a range of preparation that has taken place.
I guess my question to the minister is: is the government prepared to consider, or is it considering, a means by which these kinds of, I would say, artificial uses of the legislation and their inherent superficiality are…? So the legislation is amended, and we don't have to go through this process each year if, as the minister says, the steps that are taken by the ministers are taken for good reason.
Hon. M. de Jong: Thanks to the member for the question.
I heard a number of members opposite, through the second reading debate, use a term that the hon. member has again utilized in his last question, and that is the term "overspending." For reasons that I think I went on at some length to offer and submit to the chamber, I would again point out that the amounts involved here do not qualify as overspending.
There was a budget passed for the ministries involved, and in the case of emergency services and wildfire suppression, there is a statutory appropriation. In each case the ministry involved abided by that provision, lived within that budget. There was no overspending.
There was a surplus, an overall budget surplus, that the province was blessed with as a result of some good things happening in the economy. Before any additional spending would have occurred, the ministries — the government, the Crown that they represent — came to this assembly and said that we would like permission to expend some additional dollars — that is, adjust those budgets to take account of the good fortune that has occurred in the 2007-2008 fiscal year.
This chamber unanimously said: "That's a good idea. We support that. We support the initiatives behind the Minister of Advanced Education, the Minister of Environment, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Health's adjustments contained in the supplementary estimate."
Again, to emphasize the point, at that point the assembly voted to amend those budgets, and on the strength of that spending authority, the ministries involved could go forward and act on that authorization.
The member's second point…. In this case I understand somewhat what he is saying. In many ways, I think what he's doing is questioning the need in those circumstances for the Crown, or the individual department within the Crown, and the ministry and the minister to come before the House. It really, in many ways, represents the essence of transparency and accountability.
I will say this. There are a couple of ways to look at this. The member, from his seat on the opposition benches, not surprisingly — and I say this without criticism — chooses to characterize this as somehow representing a failure of the legislation. I can turn that argument — I think, convincingly — on its head and say that actually the fact that a genuine overexpenditure for which a minister under this act would be held accountable hasn't occurred is a victory for the attention that has been paid to this.
Ministers are engaged, in ways they weren't in the past, in ensuring that their budget appropriations are adhered to. So even in a case like this, where not just a corporate-level decision of the government is made but endorsed by the Legislature as a whole, the ministry and the minister are obliged to come before this House and lay before the House the rationale, as was done in the supplementary estimates debate, for the additional spending for that draw on the fiscal surplus that has accrued for the year.
The member heard me. I will try not to sound like a broken record. I do reject the suggestion that what we are dealing with here are the results of overspending. No overspending occurred. All of the ministries involved here abided by their statutory appropriations. The member does fairly point out that in the case of the emergency services and wildfire retention, there are statutory provisions that allowed for the spending to occur that did.
B. Ralston: Looking at section 2(1)(f) and then (i) and (ii), could the minister advise what the Minister of
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Forests and Range's original estimated amount was and then the amount of the expenses incurred by that minister for that fiscal year under the authority of section 65 of the Wildfire Act? Given that this is a matter that fluctuates, as has been conceded, what efforts are there, then, to fairly estimate for any given year what the original estimated amount might be and how it might encompass the possibility of wildfire and make a reasonable provision for appropriation for such a possibility?
Hon. M. de Jong: I'll try to give the member the figures that he referred to. The original estimate for '07-08 was just under $56 million. That, I'm reminded, is based on a historical averaging methodology that is employed. That methodology, I must confess, took a bit of a hit in 2003, when everything went off the charts, but the methodology is built around a historical averaging over a set period of years. The present estimate for '07-08, which we're dealing with now, I am advised, is $117 million.
B. Ralston: Again, I don't want to delve too far into the Ministry of Forests and Range estimates, but is there some sense that the minister is then accountable for the reasonable increase in an estimation of what expenditure is likely? It would seem that the focus of the legislation…. If it's on the incentive to a minister to adhere to the budget, what's the mechanism that engages the minister's attention, beyond relying on the historical average? Is there any sense that there's a constant revision of this approach that the minister is responsible for and therefore accountable for through this provision or not?
Hon. M. de Jong: The member's question correctly points to the challenges associated with trying to anticipate what the expenditures will be when the variety of variables that come into play in actually determining what is going to happen in a given year are so wide and diverse. I am advised that over the course of the last number of years there are examples of cases where anticipated expenses for wildfire suppression have been overestimated, where the actual costs came in slightly below or below, and cases where they have been underestimated.
I must confess that my recollection and the information that I've received today suggest that there have been more cases of underestimating than of overestimating, but when we are dealing with variables as diverse as weather conditions, water supply and the emerging pine beetle catastrophe in parts of the province, it has made for some very challenging conditions and for a challenging circumstance around which the estimate of expenditures has to be considered.
The balance that I think one has to find is that you want to settle on as realistic a number as possible and not simply overestimate with a view to being too cautious. At the same time, experiences over the last number of years would suggest that climate change — this is one area where climate change and climate irregularity are being felt — and the costs, as the member knows and as we see here, are real and not imagined.
B. Ralston: Looking at section 2(1)(g) and at the same two Roman numerals in the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General's original estimated amount, I'm interested in that, and then in the amount of expenses incurred under the authority of section 16 of the Emergency Program Act. I understand that it was for what was anticipated to be potentially very severe flooding in the lower Fraser. I'm interested in those two amounts, and again, the steps, the methods, or the process that was taken to engage in that estimation of the original amount and the reasons for the amount that falls under the next category in (ii).
Hon. M. de Jong: I'll do this in two parts. The numbers that I can convey to the hon. member are as follows. The original budget estimate was $15.6 million. The actual expenditures for '07-08 — this is the present estimate; I don't expect it would change much over the course of the next couple of weeks — is $90.8 million.
I think the third part of that question was the methodology involved in arriving at the original estimate, and I'll endeavour to obtain that information for him now.
Insofar as the original budgeted amount, I am advised, I can relate to the member, that there is similarly an averaging methodology. I hesitate to call any emergency minor, but it is restricted to the types of events that would fall into that category. So each year, for example, somewhere in the province one can anticipate being confronted by some flood circumstances. Somewhere in the province there will be a naturally occurring event that may result in the need for an evacuation, an evacuation alert or maybe even an evacuation on a relatively minor scale.
What that amount obviously does not take into account, again, is extraordinary circumstances — like we saw in 2003, where emergency services were required to contend with the firestorm that we were faced with, and wider-scale, large-scale historically unprecedented evacuations. Similarly, the snowpack situation we faced last year, and the work that was deemed necessary and did take place. And I should say that the work actually extended beyond just the lower Fraser Valley, because there was emergency preparedness work and emergency work that took place in many other regions in the province, as well, that were confronted by things like the abnormally high snowpack.
The averaging doesn't factor in those kind of extraordinary events, but obviously they result in very real costs, as is reflected in the almost $91 million that has been spent in '07-08 to date.
B. Ralston: Well, one appreciates certainly that hindsight is always more accurate in these matters than looking forward and making the prediction and mak-
[ Page 10375 ]
ing the call on how much to spend. I suppose the concern that one might have with these two numbers is that there appears to have been, in this case, a real financial escalation — a huge, unanticipated cost.
I guess what the public would want would be some assurance. I suppose the intent of this legislation is to convince the public and be convinced that this was genuinely unforeseen and could not have been anticipated and was required rather than being budgeted for in a prudent contingency, although it may not have come to pass.
I qualify that by saying that one is always aware that hindsight is often much more accurate than looking forward. Nonetheless, there is a big difference between these two numbers.
That's the kind of assurance that I think the public would want — and this legislation is intended to provide, if I understood the minister clearly earlier — that the minister could not have prudently done otherwise in the original estimate, and this subsequent supplementary spending was genuinely unforeseen.
Hon. M. de Jong: Thanks to the member for his question. I can assure him and the House that the steps that were taken were taken as a result of the emergence and evolving circumstances that occurred through the year. The member's right. We all wish we were clairvoyant and able to look into the crystal ball and know with certainty what meteorological conditions we are likely to face. Of course, we can't do that.
I will say this, however. Part of the costs involved here does represent a very purposeful decision on the part of the government when we became aware of how circumstances were developing around the snowpack.
I will say this. It's a tribute to the Solicitor General, for whom responsibility rests — the Minister of Public Safety — that early on, as the information was being made available to him, he made it clear last spring that we were going to need to do some work, and in concert with other levels of government, but we weren't going to wait for them. This work needed to be done, and we were going to do it. As a result, those costs were incurred.
There were some very real incidents that took place. I've tended to focus in my remarks around flooding and the threat of flooding. There were landslides. In fact, we lost some lives, sadly, last year with respect to some of those landslides. The member, I think, is familiar with the challenges of just a few months ago, the Nechako ice jams. All of these things arise. It's difficult to know with any degree of certainty where or when.
I think the other point that needs to be made is that the member would be the first — and he would be justified in this regard — if government were inclined to stash a whole bunch of money away somewhere on the pretence of preparing for events that may or may not occur…. So again, the trick here is to find a balance. The member has, in earlier comments, fairly pointed out that, both in the case of wildfire and emergency response and emergency planning, there is a statutory provision.
Some of that estimate work, I think, is carried out in recognition of the fact that a statutory authority to do the work exists. That distinguishes it, I think, in many ways from some of the other budgeting processes. The realization that when a need arises….
The member points out the significant discrepancy between the original estimate — $15.6 million — and $90 million. I was the Minister of Forests in 2003, and there was a discrepancy. By the time we'd finished counting all the moneys that were spent that year, I think we were in excess of ten times, or close to it, what the original estimate was.
We hope that it won't be necessary. The old saying is: "Hope for the best, and try to plan for the worst."
B. Ralston: In section 2(2), there appears to be a reference to the possibility of further revisions, if I'm correct in my reading of that section. Does the minister anticipate that there will be any further revisions or the necessity for any further legislation to come before the House prior to the end of the fiscal year?
Hon. M. de Jong: I believe the answer to the member's question is no, but I want to clarify. The two amounts I gave him with respect to wildfire and emergency planning were estimates, so there may be a couple of receipts associated with that. I think the member's question was do I anticipate a subsequent Ministerial Accountability Bases Act, and I do not.
Sections 2 to 4 inclusive approved.
Hon. M. de Jong: I move that the committee rise and report the bill complete without amendment.
The committee rose at 6:01 p.m.
The House resumed; Mr. Speaker in the chair.
Report andThird Reading of Bills
BASES ACT, 2007-2008
Bill 5, Ministerial Accountability Bases Act, 2007-2008, reported complete without amendment, read a third time and passed.
Hon. M. de Jong: I call Committee of Supply, Ministry of Transportation. I suggest that the House take five minutes to reconfigure itself.
Mr. Speaker: The House will be in recess for five minutes, until six minutes after six.
[ Page 10376 ]
The House recessed from 6:03 p.m. to 6:06 p.m.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
Mr. Speaker: I call the House back together.
Committee of Supply
ESTIMATES: MINISTRY OF
The House in Committee of Supply (Section B); S. Hammell in the chair.
The committee met at 6:07 p.m.
On Vote 43: ministry operations, $970,553,000.
Hon. K. Falcon: I want to start off by taking a moment to thank the Chair and members present today and also to introduce the staff who are joining me this evening. I am joined by my deputy minister, John Dyble; my assistant deputy minister of finance, Sheila Taylor; and I'm also joined by our chief operating officer, Mr. Peter Milburn.
The Ministry of Transportation has once again a very ambitious program outlined over the next three years, budgeting almost $3 billion in operational investment over the next three years coupled with about $3.5 billion in new capital infrastructure planned for the coming service plan term. We continue to expand, improve and strengthen our transportation system with a focus on supporting new green transportation choices like cycling expansion and transit investment.
We recognize that transportation in all its forms accounts for about 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. I always hasten to add or point out that that's transportation in all its facets — airlines, cars, trucks, railway, ships, the entire transportation field. There's just no question that that is also a big opportunity for us as government. We think the opportunity is that by investing in the appropriate transit investments, in green investments, we can help our government and the population of British Columbia meet our challenge that we've set out for ourselves to reduce greenhouse gases by 33 percent by 2020.
I look forward to having the opportunity to talk about these investments and the choices we're making, in particular our new $14 billion provincial transit plan that we announced with the Premier on January 14, the single largest transit investment ever made in the history of the province of British Columbia.
With that, I would welcome questions.
M. Karagianis: Looking at the minister's budget over the coming days I will have a number of specific questions in each of the departments. Certainly, at the top of my list here will be the capital projects that the government is involved in, both the quantity and quality, the funding and the propensity of government around public-private partnerships.
When the minister quotes $970 million–plus in the budget, I do have some concerns about how much of the costs of the capital projects the government is currently engaged in or will be engaged in, in the future, are really off-book because of the involvement of private partnerships. That will be one of the things that I'm clearly going to be asking a lot of questions on because, certainly, the global experience with P3s leads me to ask a whole number of questions.
I know that the government is very fond of quoting the fiscal rewards of public-private partnerships, the fact that it brings money to the table that government doesn't have to spend and that somehow there's a risk transfer in the process, as well, that government doesn't have to bear. Those will be some of the things that I'm going to want to discuss and debate with the minister — the reality of whether or not that is, in fact, true and whether that's successful. What has been the experience across the rest of the world with projects of this nature?
I would have to ask the minister first off…. The $970 million–plus represents the current budget. How much in addition to this is currently tied up in public-private partnerships among the whole range of projects that are underway as capital projects with the ministry right now?
Hon. K. Falcon: The short answer would be none, because you're referring to the operating budget of $970 million. The P3 projects would come under the capital component of the ministry's budget.
M. Karagianis: Is it not true that in fact there are some components of the operations budget that are also carried under P3s? I think about the fact that for many of the private partners here, say for the Canada line or for the William Bennett bridge, there is a continued payout over a series of years to come, and there is some expectation about operational offset with them. What would be the portion of that that the government judges is going to P3s?
Hon. K. Falcon: I would direct the member to the operating side of the BCTFA portion of the budget. That's where you would have the performance payments the member would be referring to. They would come out of that portion of the budget, not the $970 million operating.
M. Karagianis: I appreciate that direction from the minister, but can the minister clarify for me exactly what those operational budgets represent in dollars?
Hon. K. Falcon: I would refer the member to page 24 of the service plan, which shows the statement of earnings for the BCTFA operational side. Where that would come out of is the operations and administration line. For example, in '08-09 you see an amount there,
[ Page 10377 ]
$42.015 million, and the portion that would be made up of performance payments of that $42 million would be about $12½ million.
It's a fairly low number because, of course, most of the projects are still under construction. There are not many payments starting yet, except on Kicking Horse Canyon, later this year probably on William Bennett bridge and then Canada line next year. Performance payments would start being made as that project is completed. It's a relatively small portion at this point, but it would grow over time as the performance payments on these projects come on stream.
M. Karagianis: I do see that if I project this out even to 2011, we're seeing a very minimal sort of rise in costs for operations and administration as per the minister's earlier comment. Is the minister then saying that these larger operational figures will not appear in the budget until past 2011?
Hon. K. Falcon: What I'm saying is that the way the P3 works is that as the projects get built, there's a capital component that goes into construction and the actual infrastructure. Once it's open, then the performance payments start being made based on a series of criteria usually having to do with lane availability, amount of traffic, safety record, how much of the public is utilizing it — for example, on the Canada line — those kinds of things.
As the projects are completed and become operational, then you would expect to see on the operations and administration side that that number will increase every year as we have all these projects come on stream.
M. Karagianis: I want to be very clear here that right now the performance payments that are projected out from the '08-09 year are at $42 million. In '09-10 it's $48 million, and in '10-11 it's gone down again to $44 million.
Could the minister explain? Based on the fact that you do have a number of projects coming on stream here, does this mean that none of these projects will be completed or be receiving performance payments before 2011? I do see that there is a drop again in 2010-2011 down to $44 million.
Hon. K. Falcon: The dip you see there is not related to the P3 component. That would be related to accounting stuff that has to do with expense treatment on the BCTFA accounts, but it would not have to do with the actual dollars that are going towards the P3s.
I think the easiest way to understand it is that most of the P3s are still under construction, whether it's Sea to Sky Highway, Canada line or the William Bennett bridge. The only one where we've started making performance payments, at least that I'm aware of at this point, is the Kicking Horse Canyon.
Later on this year, as you know, the William Bennett bridge will be opened up, so performance payments will start on the William Bennett bridge. It's the same with the Canada line. Once the Canada line opens up, you'll see performance payments starting to be made on the Canada line during the '09-10 portion of the plan.
M. Karagianis: Minister, I think your comments have me even more confused. If in fact this line item in the budget represents the performance payments now and far into the future for each of these projects as they come on stream, would it not then make sense that the performance payments would simply increase every year? And where they decreased, it would mean that there would be no performance payments paid out, unless this line does not strictly represent those figures, which is what I really asked in the very beginning of the questioning here.
Where in the budget do I see that representation of what these operational performance payments look like? What is the amount of them? How are they projected out into the future?
I would not have expected to see a fluctuation with them going down, unless for some reason those performance payments were not being made to some project. Given the minister's explanation, it would seem that the only way this line item can go is up by increasing over the coming years.
Hon. K. Falcon: Member, I guess the easiest way to try and explain this would be that as I pointed out, in '08-09 with the $42.015 million an estimate is that about $12½ million of those are dollars that would be payments towards the P3s. The P3s I'm mentioning, of course, are Kicking Horse, William Bennett bridge and Sea to Sky Highway. That number will grow.
I think probably the easiest thing to do for the member…. I'd be happy to get you the breakdown from the different contracts that show the performance payments that will be made for each of those projects into the out-years. I'd be happy to make that available for the member, and you would be able to see what portion it will make up as we go out 20, 30 years, what have you.
Chair, if I could, noting the hour…
The Chair: …move the committee rise, report progress and ask leave to sit again.
The committee rose at 6:27 p.m.
The House resumed; Mr. Speaker in the chair.
Committee of Supply (Section B), having reported progress, was granted leave to sit again.
Committee of Supply (Section A), having reported progress, was granted leave to sit again.
Hon. B. Penner moved adjournment of the House.
Mr. Speaker: This House stands adjourned until 10 a.m. tomorrow morning.
[ Page 10378 ]
The House adjourned at 6:28 p.m.
PROCEEDINGS IN THE
DOUGLAS FIR ROOM
Committee of Supply
ESTIMATES: MINISTRY OF SMALL
BUSINESS AND REVENUE AND MINISTER
RESPONSIBLE FOR REGULATORY REFORM
The House in Committee of Supply (Section A); H. Bloy in the chair.
The committee met at 2:39 p.m.
On Vote 41: ministry operations, $65,114,000.
The Chair: The minister would like to make introductory remarks.
Hon. R. Thorpe: Just a few. I am pleased to introduce the estimates of the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue and the Ministry Responsible for Regulatory Reform for the fiscal year '08 through '09, as part of our three-year fiscal plan.
To begin, I would like to introduce staff who are with me today: Deputy Minister Robin Ciceri; my assistant deputy minister, corporate services, John Powell; assistant deputy minister, small business and regulatory reform division, Lindsay Kislock; and acting assistant deputy, revenue solutions portfolio, Stu Hackett.
Also, I will be joined at appropriate times by other staff members, and I would like to acknowledge all of those folks for being here in the House today. As importantly, I would like to acknowledge all of the staff at the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue and also the staff at B.C. Assessment, who are all committed to the continuous improvement in customer service.
The Ministry of Small Business and Revenue is committed to its mandate to foster a competitive environment for small business and investment in British Columbia and to ensure a modern, efficient regulatory system that makes it easier to do business in British Columbia.
Our overall goal is a continuous improvement in customer service while serving all British Columbians in all regions of the province. In doing so, we are supporting British Columbians and, over the past seven years, have helped make British Columbia the best place to live, work and invest.
The ministry also provides a centre of excellence for revenue management and tax administration. We're also the ministry responsible for the Crown corporation B.C. Assessment. In addition, we manage and support independent, fair property review panels and assessment appeals. We work together with the small business community, industry and other levels of government to develop and implement strategies and tools to deliver ministry programs and services.
I would also like to express my sincere thanks to all those British Columbians, associations and communities who have worked in partnership with us to achieve the economic successes we are all enjoying in British Columbia today. I look forward and we look forward to their ongoing support and partnership.
Thank you for the time today, Chair, and I would be pleased to answer any questions the opposition may have.
J. Brar: I would like to thank the minister for a brief snapshot of the service plan. My sincere thanks to each and every staff member working with the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue and with the Minister Responsible for Regulatory Reform for the extraordinary work they are doing to ensure the success of British Columbia's small business community.
I would also like to thank all of those staff members who have been working hard to prepare the minister for budget debates, budget estimates. Welcome, and thanks for coming to help us out.
I would also like to thank my team members for their effort and hard work to make this budget debate a meaningful exercise. My special thanks to Jeff Dean, researcher; Iain Reeve, legislative intern; Gurbinder Kang, legislative assistant; Murray Bilada and Ruby Bhandal, both constituency assistants at Surrey–Panorama Ridge.
My role as a member of the opposition is to ask questions with regard to the public policy — written goals, objectives and the funding allocation — as indicated in the service plan. I'm here to do my job. Mr. Chair, I would like to emphasize the point that I don't have any intentions to suggest or question the commitment and the hard work of the civil servants.
With that, I would like to shoot my first question to the minister. Can the minister describe any major changes, budgetary changes or FTE changes, in this service plan as compared to last year's service plan?
Hon. R. Thorpe: First of all, in the small business and regulatory reform part of the branch it's increased by $35,000. That's a 2½ percent salary increase. In the revenue program branch we have $775,000 for salary increases. We have $2,787,000 for FTE increases. We have $140,000 for travel increase, $98,000 for information system changes and $343,000 for office and business expenses.
With respect to revenue solutions, we have basically a net wash. But I will say that there is some $183,000 for salary increases and $176,000, which is a reallocation of executive and support services. Property assessment services is a $1,000 vote, so there are no changes there.
With respect to executive and support services, we see an increase of $615,000. So $254,000 of that is for a 2½ percent salary increase, $28,000 relates to the minister's salary and benefits, and $321,000 relates to a carbon tax. It's $20,000 for travel, $12,000 for information, $142,000 for office and business expenses. Those are offset by some reallocations of building costs, etc.
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Then we have a shared services increase of $140,000 and $34,000 for public service increases. I believe the overall net increase is approximately — what is it? — $4,678,000.
J. Brar: Thanks for the information, Minister. I would also like to know the number of new FTEs, if you have, in the service plan as compared to the last year.
Hon. R. Thorpe: It's 40 new FTEs.
J. Brar: Can the minister describe where those FTEs are going to be working?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Thirty-seven of those will be in the revenue programs branch area. One will be reduced in the revenue solutions area, and four will be in executive and support services, for a total of 40.
J. Brar: The minister mentioned, if I understand correctly, $140,000 for travel expenses — for new. Can the minister describe that?
Hon. R. Thorpe: I might add, on that $140,000, that is net of what the ministry is committed to saving and moving our ministry to carbon-neutral by 2010. But that $140,000 is dedicated to audit programs that take place not only in British Columbia but across Canada and North America, to collect revenues that are due to the government of British Columbia by folks that we audit on a regular basis.
J. Brar: My understanding is that the revenue collection is the responsibility of EDS. They are responsible to collect the revenue. Why do we have the additional budget for travel, then, in the ministry?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Perhaps I wasn't as clear as I could have been. That pertains to the revenue area where we actually do various tax audits in British Columbia, across Canada and North America.
J. Brar: The minister mentioned about salary increases. If the minister can provide some details about what those positions are and how much.
Hon. R. Thorpe: It's 2.5 percent, as negotiated with the BCGEU, and spread across the ministry.
J. Brar: Thanks to the minister for being brief and accurate. I've seen in the past when we talk about budget estimates, they also sometimes are never-ending. It's a good beginning.
So my next question is: can the minister tell us the total number of small businesses in the province of British Columbia?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Our latest estimate of incorporated small businesses is 370,600. Over 1.125 million British Columbians work in small business. British Columbia has the highest percentage of women in the small business workforce, at about 36 percent, compared to the national average of 34 percent.
J. Brar: Can the minister provide the total number of businesses we have established in the province of British Columbia since 2001 to date?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Apparently we don't have that information here, but I know that I have some staff listening, and the breakdown that I would appreciate getting is the 370,600, where we are today. And if we can go back, there was a chart that we had prepared that takes us back to 2001. If I get that information, I'll be pleased to provide it to the member.
J. Brar: I would like to ask the minister how many tax breaks, and how much, have been given to the small business sector under the Liberal government since 2001 and what the total amount is, if possible.
Hon. R. Thorpe: First of all, I'm not sure that I understood the member's total question. I thought — but I'll ask for some clarification, Chair — that the member asked how much in tax breaks our government has given since we were first elected or in this most recent budget. If I could just have that clarification.
J. Brar: I would appreciate if the minister could provide both numbers — this year and since the government has been elected.
Hon. R. Thorpe: First of all, when we were first elected in 2001, as our first day of government, we reduced personal taxes by 25 percent for all taxpayers in the province of British Columbia.
Since that point in time in 2001, we reduced personal taxation by 10 percent. Again this year we started with an initial — what? — 2 percent reduction in personal taxes and that moves up to an increase of 5 percent.
We have seen, on average, a number of British Columbians have a 100 percent tax break. We have seen, in the lower-incomes, ranges of personal tax reductions of 65 to 67 percent. Broad-brush mid to higher incomes have seen reductions of upwards of 35 percent.
At the same time, we've increased the small business tax threshold from $200,000 to $400,000. And in this most recent budget we announced that we would be reducing the small business tax rate from 4.5 percent to 3.5 percent, moving to 2.5 percent in 2011 for annual savings to small business of $255 million.
With the personal taxes that were reduced in this year's budget, Balanced Budget 2008, $784 million was put back into the pockets of working people here in British Columbia. British Columbia now has the lowest personal tax rates for $111,000 and lower.
Since 2001 we have seen billions of dollars put back into the pockets of British Columbians, and we believe strongly that that money put in British Columbians' pockets is where the best decisions will be made and,
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in fact, is empowering those folks to decide exactly where they want to spend their money as opposed to big government spending it for them.
J. Brar: Thanks to the minister for the answer.
My question was basically very focused about…. Because this is the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue, my question was about the small business tax, to which the minister partly gave the answer.
I would like to probably throw out a figure here. Can the minister confirm that the total value of tax savings for small business since the Liberal government took over is about $276 million — or less or more?
Hon. R. Thorpe: It's substantially more than that. It's in the billions of dollars.
J. Brar: I will repeat my question. I'm talking about the small business sector. I'm not talking about the corporate sector though. I'm talking about the small business sector.
I would like to repeat the question. As per my research — it could be wrong — $276 million total tax break to small business people. If that figure is wrong, what is the right figure? Can the minister tell us?
Hon. R. Thorpe: I have no idea where the hon. member did his research and how he got his number. Of course, if he would like to share that with us, we'd be more than pleased to verify it.
Our understanding is — and it sounds to me like perhaps the member or someone in his research staff has got some confused numbers here — that there are two components to small business. There are incorporated small businesses, which are entitled to small business tax rates. There are unincorporated businesses, which benefit from personal tax. So when you take the combination of the reductions in small business tax, you take the increase in the threshold and you take the huge reductions in personal taxes, the number will be in the billions of dollars.
J. Brar: I would appreciate if the minister could provide the right figure to me — not now, later on — if that is billions of dollars.
How does the small business tax in B.C. compare with the other provinces? Are we the lowest, No. 4, No. 5 or the highest?
Hon. R. Thorpe: We are not the highest by a long shot. With respect to tax rates, we are currently…. Let's see: one, two, three…. We would be fourth. Of course, now that we've announced our tax reduction of 3.5 percent, we will be third. Since we've now announced further reductions to 2.5 per cent in 2011, we will be, I would estimate, in the top one or two by 2011.
With respect to the threshold, we are very, very competitive with the rest of Canada. In fact, we are — we've got one, two, three — fourth in that area before the change is made in Budget 2008. Budget 2008 just enhances our increasing position.
What we've always said as a government is that our goal by 2012 is to be Canada's most small business–friendly jurisdiction. That's a combination of competitive tax rates, an aggressive regulatory reform regime and working with small business to make sure they have skilled and skillable workers.
J. Brar: Can the minister provide if there's any average for small business with regards to the taxpayer? I'm talking about average benefit. Is that $100,000 or more in B.C.? Are there any figures that the minister tracks on those figures?
Hon. R. Thorpe: We don't have that detail here, but we'd be pleased to try to provide that to the member in due course.
J. Brar: I understand the way the minister put the vision about the small business sector — to make it the most friendly jurisdiction in North America. Here we have the opportunity in B.C., as the Olympics are coming. I would like to ask the minister: what percentage of contracts from the Olympics are going to go to the small business sector?
Hon. R. Thorpe: In fact, no one will know that until all of the contracts have been awarded. I can tell you that extensive efforts are taking place in all regions of the province. Our ministry, working with the Ministry of Economic Development, the Olympic secretariat, is continually travelling around the province and making small businesses and British Columbians aware of what the opportunities are.
In the past Olympics in Salt Lake City we saw a small business in Cranbrook…. We may all recall the wonderful knitted sweaters that they wore. Proudly, they were made here in British Columbia. They were made in Cranbrook and showcased a great opportunity.
There are many, many other opportunities. Britco is a business that has a location in Penticton. They are going be doing some housing in Whistler for 2010. It's going to be a permanent legacy that is being built in Penticton.
Again, you will not know the details of this until all the contracts are being awarded, but there are small businesses being made aware every day and inquiries being made by small business, working together with the secretariat and the Ministry of Economic Development and our ministry. We are certainly proud to showcase the opportunities, not only in the 2010 Olympics. One of the great things is that when you become a member of the community that supplies services to the Olympics, you have other opportunities through other Olympics, through other Commonwealth and university games, because you develop a network of information.
J. Brar: Once again, the Olympics is a huge opportunity which is available to the small business community of British Columbia. If we really believe what the minister is saying on the vision about the small business community — to make it the most friendly jurisdiction in North America….
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I think we are not very far away from the Olympics. There must be some sort of business plan or targets that the minister would have set as to what percentage of contracts that small business will get. Do we have any targets in British Columbia? Or can we find out only what happens after the Olympics?
Hon. R. Thorpe: First of all, our government doesn't believe in setting quotas. We believe in everyone competing, whether they be small or medium, whether they be located in northern British Columbia, central British Columbia or in the Okanagan. We don't set quotas for small business.
I can tell you that we are making every effort to make sure that small businesses in every part of the province are aware of the opportunities — working together, again, with Economic Development and the Olympic secretariat. We must also remember that it is actually VANOC that awards the Olympic contracts, not the government of British Columbia.
J. Brar: I will take it that the minister, at this point in time, doesn't know whether the small business community is going to benefit big-time, small-time or whatever from the Olympics opportunity. That's the information I got from the minister.
I would appreciate if the minister can provide some information, as I said before, so we can find out what the opportunities are for the small business community in the Olympics. I know the minister's providing a workshop and all that, but the thing is that at the end of the day, if they're not getting contracts, it doesn't mean anything.
My next question to the minister will be: can the minister provide any information on if the government has provided any subsidy to the small business sector specifically?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Our government passed legislation in 2001 making subsidies in British Columbia against the law.
J. Brar: I couldn't hear the answer. Can the minister repeat the answer?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Our government does not provide subsidies to business in British Columbia.
J. Brar: My understanding is that in the last budget the government of British Columbia has provided a subsidy to the oil and gas sector. Is that not true?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Any questions related to energy policy should be best addressed with the Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources.
J. Brar: I'm not talking about energy policy. I think that the answer the minister gave us is that it is not the law of British Columbia to provide subsidies to businesses. In this budget what we saw was the subsidy to the oil and gas sector.
I want to clarify if that's according to the law, as the minister is stating, or if there is something different.
Hon. R. Thorpe: This is the estimates for the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue. I can confirm that the small business tax rate was reduced from 4½ percent to 3½ percent. It will be reduced to 2½ percent in 2011. I can also tell you that personal taxes were reduced once again in the province of British Columbia. British Columbian taxpayers now pay the lowest tax rate for $111,000 of any jurisdiction in Canada.
I can also say that I've been advised that in 2001 there were 337,400 incorporated small businesses in British Columbia. Today there are 370,700. I can also tell the member that small business growth in Canada for 2001 to 2006 was about 3.6 percent, while in British Columbia it was 11 percent.
J. Brar: This budget is big on the climate change action plan. Of course, small business is a huge sector which will be part of that movement of climate change. The minister being responsible for the small business community, are there any specific initiatives taken by this ministry to ensure they are part of the climate action plan game?
Hon. R. Thorpe: As I mentioned earlier, the tax rate for small business has been reduced from 4½ percent to 3½ percent, and it will be reduced to 2½ percent. Our position with respect to reducing taxation is to actually put the money in individuals' and small businesses' pockets so that they will make the appropriate decisions.
One of the things that we've done in small business — and I am very, very proud of the work that our ministry has done — is worked together with the permanent Small Business Roundtable that was established in 2005. They've had two provincial reports. I'm very pleased that one of our members on the permanent Small Business Roundtable, Ian Tostenson, sits on the Premier's Climate Action Team.
I'm also pleased that we will be forming, underneath the permanent Small Business Roundtable, a small business climate action team that will be chaired by Ian Tostenson. In the coming months ahead we will be forming and bringing together small business operators from all regions of the province who, together with our government, are committed to making positive changes for small business, for British Columbians and for our province to achieve its goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 33 percent by the year 2020.
J. Brar: If we look at the numbers the minister just provided about small business growth in British Columbia…. If we go back to the favourite decade of the government, which is the 1990s, from 1991 to 2001 the total number of small businesses grew every year by over 11,000 new businesses every year. That number went down to almost 7,000 since 2001. I would like to ask the minister what his response is to that.
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Hon. R. Thorpe: Well, first of all, I'm here to talk about the estimates for the year 2008-2009, but I'm telling you that small business from 2001 to 2006 has grown at three times the national average right here in British Columbia.
I can also tell you that the member is talking about incorporated businesses. There are many small business operators in British Columbia who are not incorporated, and the member may want to check that over 412,000 new jobs have been created here. It's not just about incorporations; it's about people working.
British Columbia has a proud record of success from 2001 to date, and we're going to continue that very positive momentum as British Columbians in every part of the province move forward, not only in small business, not only in incorporated businesses, but in unincorporated business. British Columbia is the most desirable place to work in Canada today. That is the result of all British Columbians working together in partnership, and when we continue to do that, we will continue that growth into the future.
J. Brar: The minister keeps talking about the number of small businesses as compared to the national average. I understand that case, but I asked you very simply, Minister….
From 1991 to 2001 the total number of business growth every year was over 11,000 per year, but when you took over, that came down to 7,000. Is it a wrong figure or a right figure? If you can clarify that.
Hon. R. Thorpe: I think that I was fairly clear in my last answer. As much as the member would like me to go back to the dark decade of the '90s, I believe I'm not here to do that today. There are other venues in which we do that. I am here to debate and answer questions with respect to the estimates of 2008 and 2009. That's what I'm going to do.
J. Brar: I will take it that the numbers I have thrown out in this debate are accurate, unless the minister challenges those numbers. I will move on to the next question.
Actually, I will move on, Minister, to a new topic, if you have staff members — EDS Advanced Solutions. Should I just start that?
Hon. R. Thorpe: That's fine. Go ahead.
J. Brar: My first question is: does the minister think that EDS performs a function that is somewhat sensitive in nature?
Hon. R. Thorpe: I'm sorry. I didn't understand the question. If the member would take the time to repeat it, I'd be pleased to try to answer it.
J. Brar: EDS Advanced Solutions is responsible — I can refresh the minister's memory — to collect revenue and debt for the province of British Columbia. That's a huge responsibility. That's a very integral part of the government.
My question is pretty simple. The question is: does the minister believe that the responsibility which has been handed over to EDS is a somewhat sensitive responsibility or not?
Hon. R. Thorpe: If the member is talking about the protection of personal and private information, it is extremely sensitive.
Our government has taken steps to make sure that that information is not compromised. We have taken steps to ensure that we have the highest safeguards in North America for the protection of personal and private information. That has been a commitment of our government; that is a commitment of our government.
It's my understanding, unless staff want to give me something new here, that in our contract with EDS Advanced Solutions we have 42 additional requirements put in place to ensure the protection of personal and private information for British Columbians.
J. Brar: The minister talks now about new provisions to make sure the private information of the people of British Columbia is secure.
My question is pretty simple. Has there been any security breach in the last two years, since the revenue collection and debt collection has been handed over to EDS?
Hon. R. Thorpe: I've been advised by my staff that there have been three substantiated breaches. One was a technical error at Revenue Services of British Columbia which caused an incorrect name to be included on approximately 6,200 tax deferment applications. There was also a mailing error in processing preauthorized debit applications which caused two individuals to receive each other's personal information. Thirdly, a mailing order error at Revenue Services of British Columbia caused one individual's information to be mailed to another individual with the same last name at a different address.
J. Brar: Once again, on a scale of 1 to 10, how confident is the minister that the security control measures put in place by EDS Advanced Solutions are good for the people of British Columbia?
Hon. R. Thorpe: We require the highest standards for the protection of personal and private information by Advanced Solutions and by all of the employees that work at Advanced Solutions.
J. Brar: So when those three security breaches took place, I would like to ask the minister, what action was taken to address those? Also, what action was taken so that it does not happen in the future?
Hon. R. Thorpe: First of all, we immediately contact the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. Secondly, we immediately begin investigation steps. We take steps to contact those individuals who may have been
[ Page 10383 ]
affected. We provide them with the appropriate background and information.
If a citizen is concerned that something may have happened that could, in their opinion, compromise any of their personal credit background checks and that kind of stuff, we provide to them credit bureau services free of charge for one year to ensure that their reputation and credit are not damaged.
J. Brar: Those three breaches in security — who reported those? Was the reporting entity EDS Advanced Solutions itself, or was that the finding of the ministry staff?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Generally what happens …. I'm advised by staff that in each one of those instances particular instances that I have mentioned, the affected British Columbians were in immediate contact with Revenue Services of British Columbia. Revenue Services of British Columbia then provides that information immediately to the ministry and to me. The ministry, at the same time, is taking corrective actions and working with the Privacy Commissioner and Revenue Services of British Columbia to get the situation rectified.
J. Brar: Thanks to the minister for the clarification. If that's the case, can the minister, then, confirm that those breaches were not found because of any internal audit or any review within the ministry?
Hon. R. Thorpe: The three that I have mentioned to you were identified by British Columbians.
J. Brar: I would like to read this to the minister, because this is a very important piece that I want to bring to the minister's attention. From my research, there have been numerous instances of breaches of security in B.C. and elsewhere. I would like to give you some examples of that.
There have been concerns around the approach to revenue collection taken by EDS in B.C. In February 2005 the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue had to order EDS to send letters of apology to people who complained about unfriendly customer service and rude treatment by EDS.
In September 2007 EDS agreed to pay almost $500,000 U.S. to halt a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into allegations of accounting irregularities and bribery allegations in an Indian contract.
Again, EDS is also described as at the centre of a data leak in England, as reported by the Times newspaper on November 22, 2007. It claimed that data on 25 million British citizens had been misplaced, leaving them vulnerable to identity theft. EDS was contracted to design a system to help merge two agencies into one — prison and probation services — in the U.K. The project is behind schedule, and the most recent estimate is that the cost will be nearly a billion pounds, which is four times higher than the initial cost given by EDS.
Having said that, I would like to ask: is the minister aware of all of those irregularities or instances that took place in B.C. and elsewhere relating to EDS Advanced Solutions?
Hon. R. Thorpe: I'm not sure if I misheard the member, so I would like the member to set the record straight. I thought I heard the member say that those allegations he just talked about were all made in British Columbia.
If that is not what he meant to say and if he would like to correct the record, then I would be most pleased to hear that many of the instances he just talked about there have nothing to do with the province, with Advanced Solutions or with the 274 dedicated employees at Advanced Solutions doing a very, very good job for British Columbians. I would ask the member to clarify the record.
J. Brar: I think I was very clear, but I will of course clarify for the minister once again. First of all, what I'm saying to the minister here is related to EDS Advanced Solutions, which is collecting revenue and debt for the province of British Columbia. I'm talking about the same company.
There is one instance that took place in B.C. — and the minister is very well aware of that — where the company had to issue a letter of apology to a large number of people. I mentioned that.
There was a second one which I mentioned, in September 2007, where EDS agreed to pay almost half a million dollars U.S. to halt a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation, which of course was in the U.S., into allegations of accounting irregularities and bribery allegations in an Indian contract. That was the second one, which took place in the U.S.
The third one was in England. EDS is also described as at the centre of a data leak in England, as reported by the Times newspaper on November 22, 2007. It claims that the data of 25 million British citizens has been misplaced, leaving them vulnerable to identity theft.
I'm talking about four different things. One of them took place in B.C., two of them in England and one in the U.S., but they're all related to EDS Advanced Solutions. There is some relationship here. We want to make sure that the very, very personal information of the people of British Columbia is secure and that what happened in those countries does not happen here.
I would like to ask once again to the minister: is the minister aware of those instances of security breaches or of those allegations against EDS, here as well as outside B.C.?
Hon. R. Thorpe: First of all, with respect to the member's first question some minutes ago, he asked about anything in the last two years. So that was 2007, and that would have taken us to 2006.
Now he makes reference to something that happened in 2005, the error that took place at Advanced Solutions in 2005. Once I became aware of it as a minis-
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ter, when my deputy had advised me, through my staff I asked Advanced Solutions to send letters to all affected British Columbians. Our government asked them to do that.
With respect to things that happened in other parts of the world, certainly, we have services on a number of things, and we monitor what goes on around the world. But I think that it's important to just kind of see where we are today and where we started back in 2004.
In 2004 customer contacts stood at 97,600 per month. Now they're running at 367,000. Call wait times ranged up to 15.9 minutes. Today, in 2008, they're at 2.5 minutes. In 2004 there were 27,000 busy signals. People couldn't get through. It's down to zero now. Abandon rates — people hanging up because they couldn't get through — were at 30 percent in 2004. Now it's down to 8.8 percent. We are making significant progress, and in part that is because of the employees. The large part of this is because of the employees.
I just might remind the member that a vast number of the employees who work at Advanced Solutions are members of the BCGEU. They worked with the ministry. In fact, 172 of them transferred to Advanced Solutions on December 6, 2004. Twenty-six of those have since left the company, and 12 of them decided to retire. Because they had an option of returning to government, 24 of those did return to government. So at December 31 we had a total of 122 of the original 172 that transferred to Advanced Solutions.
It's interesting. Out of that core group of employees that transferred to Advanced Solutions, 48 of them have had promotions within Advanced Solutions. Today the centre of excellence has 274 employees — an increase of 102 employees — doing a good job, providing services to British Columbia, building a centre of excellence right here in British Columbia. We should be proud of that achievement.
J. Brar: Mr. Chair, a point of order. I don't know the rules, but you know, the question I'm asking has nothing to do with what the minister said.
[D. Hayer in the chair.]
I would like to repeat the question. EDS Advanced Solutions is responsible for the very, very important task — and departments in British Columbia under your ministry — of collecting revenue and debt in the province, which is almost 60 percent of the revenue. There are some serious outstanding allegations against EDS in the U.K. — I mentioned earlier, two of them — and one in the U.S.A.
What I'm asking the minister is a very simple question. Is the minister aware of those allegations in the U.K. and U.S.A. or not? That's my question. It's a very simple one.
Hon. R. Thorpe: First of all, I did answer the member's question. Apparently, the member wasn't paying quite as much attention as perhaps he should have been. So let me answer it again.
The first item that he brought up happened in 2005. When he first asked the question some minutes ago, he asked me what happened in the last two years. I answered that question. Now, 2005 is before two years ago.
When it was brought to my attention that there was an error and that an apology should be sent out to British Columbians, it was on the advice of my ministry staff, to me, that we ordered an apology be sent out. We do that. The continuous commitment to customer service is not just in our ministry; it's through the 274 employees that work at Advanced Solutions today.
With respect, hon. Chair, if the member is trying to leave British Columbians with some doubt in their mind whether somebody is watching the shop, he is wrong. He is wrong because the 274 employees are dedicated to continuous improvement in service to British Columbians. The 274 employees sign privacy agreements. The 274 employees are committed to privacy training second to none in the world.
Our government, through my ministry, is committed to the protection of personal and private information.
With respect to what happens around the world, certainly we know of things that happen. But it's a little disingenuous when somebody suggests that something could be happening in British Columbia because somebody's been fined in the United States. There is no connection, and I am very concerned — very, very concerned — that the member over there would throw that kind of negative information out there that could affect 274 employees in British Columbia.
No government, no senior staff, no organization has a greater commitment to the protection of personal and private information than the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue and those that work with us.
J. Brar: If the role of the opposition to ask questions is a negative role, then that's the way the minister can think of it. My role is to make sure that the personal information of the people of British Columbia is secure. My role is to make sure that the system which is put in place by the minister and by EDS is safe for the people of British Columbia.
I have never said, and I said that very clearly at the beginning, that the people…. The civil servants of the province are doing the best job they can, but that's not the question here.
The question is very simple — which you're not responding to, Minister. I'm going to say again to you that there are some serious allegations against EDS Solutions made in the U.K. and made in the U.S.A. Are you fully aware of those? Yes or no? That's a very simple question.
I appreciate your response that you acted very quickly when there was a complaint within British Columbia. I just want to know that the minister responsible, to whom EDS actually is accountable, knows what goes on with this company outside British Columbia. Are you aware, Minister, about the serious allegation which took place in the U.K. and U.S.A.?
[ Page 10385 ]
Hon. R. Thorpe: Hon. Chair, I'm sure at the appropriate time not only will you but so will the member check Hansard to know that I have answered the question twice. This will be the last time I answer that question.
British Columbia has a contract with Advanced Solutions that contains 43 stringent privacy and security provisions. If privacy provisions of the contract are breached, we can terminate the contract. The company can also face a very large financial penalty, and the ministry has the power of attorney to assume control of the operations.
All employees — all 274, an increase of 102 since it first started — must report unauthorized access, use or disclosure of personal information, and the whistle-blower provisions in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act provide them with assurances that they will not be penalized or disadvantaged in any way.
The ministry has a privacy breach protocol which calls for immediate investigation of any alleged privacy breaches and immediate limits of access to systems or other steps which may be required to prevent any further breaches, including a full review of lessons learned to prevent future breaches.
All breaches, breach allegations, are treated with the highest level of seriousness and are investigated by the senior levels of our ministry. A breach involving an employee or other access to information, as are the three that I had mentioned earlier, is immediately reported to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
We take this very, very seriously. In fact, we also monitor what happens in other jurisdictions, as any responsible manager would do. Are we aware that some things take place in other jurisdictions? Yes, we are. But we have, for the record, no — that is n-o — outstanding items with respect to the protection of personal and privacy information in the province of British Columbia.
J. Brar: Mr. Chair, one day you and the minister will read Hansard and find out that finally the question was answered after three questions. I appreciate that the minister actually knows about those things which happened somewhere else and those serious allegations against EDS Advanced Solutions.
My next question to the minister is: has the minister performed any audit of EDS data management to ensure that the personal information of British Columbians is secure and that it remains in British Columbia?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Yes.
J. Brar: If the minister can provide how many and when those audits took place.
Hon. R. Thorpe: The province has completed a revenue management financial risks and controls review. We've completed a privacy and security compliance review, and we have completed audits of Advanced Solutions' financial statements reports.
J. Brar: Can the minister provide the dates when that was done?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Through the time frame of 2006-2007.
J. Brar: I just want to make sure. The minister mentioned that there was an audit conducted particularly and specifically to audit the security control measures by EDS Advanced Solutions for the private information of the people of British Columbia.
Hon. R. Thorpe: Yes, from the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue, the Revenue Services of British Columbia Report from December 2004 to December 2006 — which was published on May 30, 2007, and which I believe is available on the website — I would just read from page 12.
"In 2006 the ministry and service provider updated the privacy and security framework, developed prior to signing the agreement, to ensure the continued rigorous protection of personal information. Additionally, provisions in the agreement were further enhanced to ensure privacy, confidentiality and security provisions were current with the information technology environment.
"In addition to complying with existing privacy provisions, the service provider has undertaken industry-leading security measures to further protect private information. A key initiative during 2006 was the implementation of a privacy and security action plan, supplemented by several additional measures."
That is from the annual report that is available on our website, dated May 31, 2007.
J. Brar: I have actually read that report, and that's one of my questions to the minister, by the way. My question was about the audit, and this is not an audit report. This is a report; it’s the Revenue Services of British Columbia Report, dated May 31, 2007.
I'm talking about: is there any audit particularly towards the security control measures put in place by EDS Advanced Solutions? If that was done, when was that done? That's my question.
Hon. R. Thorpe: I'm advised that in 2006 KPMG did an audit of risk and controls with respect to revenue management, and in 2007 they did an audit on Advanced Solutions with respect to revenue and expenses.
J. Brar: Will the minister confirm, then, that that audit did not include the protection of private information of the people of British Columbia?
Hon. R. Thorpe: The 2006 KPMG audit was, in fact, an audit of the risk and controls on security.
J. Brar: I appreciate the response. Is it possible for the minister to share some of the key findings of the audit, particularly toward the security of personal information of the people of British Columbia?
Hon. R. Thorpe: As all members of this House would know, with respect to the protection of personal
[ Page 10386 ]
and privacy information, when third parties are involved, third-party consent must be granted with respect to that. It's my understanding that those items are currently before the Privacy Commissioner.
J. Brar: The opposition actually has filed freedom-of-information requests for several audits in relation to EDS. One of the files is 160074, entitled "Key Implementation Risk and Controls: A Review of EDS Advanced." We requested this last April, but it could still be held up for almost six to nine months more, because EDS is fighting the release of this report into their security control.
My question to the minister is: does the minister believe that this behaviour lives up to his standard of accountability?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Perhaps I wasn't as clear as I could have been in my last answer. It's my understanding that that item is before the independent officer of the Legislature, the Privacy Commissioner.
J. Brar: I would like to ask the minister, then: does the minister believe that EDS Advanced Solutions is accountable to the people of British Columbia or to the minister's office?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Our ministry is responsible for the administration of that contract. We take our responsibilities very, very seriously. That's why when we started this project, we committed to publishing an annual report to the public of British Columbia, which we've done for the last two years and we will continue to do this year. We take our job very seriously.
J. Brar: Again, I never question that the minister, of course, and the ministry are responsible to the people of British Columbia. But my question is whether EDS Advanced Solutions, which actually collects revenue and debt for the people of British Columbia…. It is a very important piece of the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue. So my question was: does the minister believe that EDS Advanced Solutions is accountable, or should be accountable, to the people of British Columbia or not?
Hon. R. Thorpe: I believe I've answered that question.
J. Brar: Mr. Chair, can the minister repeat the answer?
Hon. R. Thorpe: I believe I've answered that question, Hon. Chair.
J. Brar: I would take it as the minister saying that he doesn't know about whether EDS is accountable to the people of British Columbia or not. The minister has been silent, so that's my take.
Is that the right observation, Minister — if you can clarify that?
Hon. R. Thorpe: As I have said to the member on the other side of the House, I take my responsibilities very, very seriously. I know that my deputy minister and her team of staff take their jobs very, very seriously. For that member, hon. Chair, to start to go down a road which is starting to question the integrity of myself and of my senior staff and the 274 employees that work at Advanced Solutions is getting to be a little bit too much.
We have said that we publish an annual report. We have said that we have whistle-blower protection and all employees are safeguarded. We are growing a centre of excellence here in British Columbia, which has seen growth in the number of employees by 102 employees.
We take the discharge of protection of personal and private information very, very seriously here in British Columbia, and for a member on the other side to start to interject cheap politics on that issue begins to be questionable.
J. Brar: I would like to make it very clear once again. The role of opposition is to ask questions to make sure that the people of British Columbia are getting the best deal from the government and the best deal from EDS, and I'm doing my job. I have no question at all about the commitment and dedication of the staff members. I respect what they're doing, and I appreciate what the staff members and senior staff members, including 274 staff members, are doing.
That's not my question, Minister. I think the question is pretty simple. EDS Advanced Solutions, which plays a significant role not only in this ministry, actually, but for the whole government of British Columbia…. They collect 60 percent of the total revenue for the province. That's a huge, significant responsibility.
They also have private information of a significant number of people of British Columbia, at the same time. So I want to make sure that the people of British Columbia have protection of their private information and that there's a system in place that people can believe in and trust.
That was my question: whether EDS is accountable to the people of British Columbia. The minister certainly is dodging the question under different bullets of information. I would take it, again, that the minister is not clear at this point in time whether EDS is accountable to the people of British Columbia or that the minister doesn't want to say anything about that. In my opinion, EDS should be or must be accountable to the people of British Columbia.
Having said that, I would like to ask the minister: will the minister commit today to release the outstanding audit reports which were done by the ministry in the past, where the people of British Columbia can know the truth and can know that they're getting the best deal with this huge contract we have to collect revenue and debt?
Hon. R. Thorpe: With respect to accountability, first of all we publish an annual report. We will continue to do that. It highlights all of the key components.
We were also charged with the responsibility to British Columbians to improve the customer service. In
[ Page 10387 ]
fact, customer contacts in 2004 were 97,600 per year, and they're now 367,000 per year. First-call resolutions were not reported in 2004, and now it's at 98.4 percent. Wait times, when we took over this project and when we got involved, were running close to 16 minutes, and now they're down to 2.5 minutes. Busy signals, when we took control of this, were at 27,000, and now they're down to zero.
We've increased quality information, we've increased quality communications, and we've had proactive communications. We have the highest standard of protection of personal and private information of anywhere in North America and, in fact, 43 increased-compliance tests above and beyond the freedom-of-information legislation in the province. We are working very closely….
It's interesting about being accountable. You know, one of the ways that we all could be held to some account is by measurement of our peers. I'm very happy that in November of 2007 the ministry was the recipient of the prestigious Canadian Information Productivity gold award for excellence in customers.
These CIPA awards are the premiere Canadian showcase for excellence through technology. The awards recognize visionary organizations that have developed innovative, results-based technology. The ministry was advised for its work in building a centre of excellence for revenue management and improvements to customer service, which includes Advanced Solutions as being part of that.
We are proud here in British Columbia that we are developing a centre of excellence. We are committed to the continuous improvement of customer service. We are proud that we have been recognized by peers across Canada, by the work, by the ministry and by Advanced Solutions in moving forward.
J. Brar: I appreciate, again, the minister giving us a lecture on how good things are. If things are good, then I think there shouldn't be any hesitation to hide things.
My question was…. There was an audit performed by the ministry, and the minister has said that just a few minutes ago. That audit is not being made available, not being released to the opposition and to the people of British Columbia so that they can see how good and how accountable this system is.
I would ask once again: will the minister commit today to release the audit report about the security control measures by EDS Advanced Solutions to protect the private information of the people of British Columbia — just about the audit?
[J. McIntyre in the chair.]
Hon. R. Thorpe: It is my understanding that those requests have been filed through the freedom of information. It's my understanding that some of those requests — I don't know if it's this particular one — are being reviewed in the independent Office of the Privacy Commissioner.
I think it's incumbent upon all members of this House that we respect the independence of the Privacy Commissioner and that the Privacy Commissioner, at the appropriate time, will make the ruling. All members of this House will comply with the rulings of the Privacy Commissioner.
J. Brar: I will try once again. I understand what the minister is saying, but my question is this. In the absence of those very, very important audit reports — where somebody actually went in and tried to look into the system and find out if there are any outstanding gaps to fix so that people can be comfortable about their private information…. How can the people of British Columbia trust that their private information is secure and that the system to secure their private information is good, when they don't know what happened in those audit reports?
Hon. R. Thorpe: As I have said many times here today on this issue, British Columbia has the highest standards for the protection of personal and private information. In fact, we have 43 other constraints and programs in place to protect them. No information is stored outside Canada, a commitment we made to British Columbians.
I can assure you and members on that side of the House that, as the minister responsible, I take this as my highest responsibility. I can tell you that my deputy minister and her staff and the folks at Advanced Solutions also see it as theirs.
With respect, for requests that are before the Privacy Commissioner, one would hope that all members of this House would understand and respect the process and let the Privacy Commissioner do his work. I don't think for a second that the member is suggesting that information that requires third party should be released by government.
Or perhaps he is saying that government should not follow the rules for the protection of personal and private information. If that's the position he is putting forward, I do not support it. I support the protection of personal and private information. I respect the independence of the Privacy Commissioner's office, and we will act on his rulings.
J. Brar: I understand that the minister is saying that the people of British Columbia have the highest standards. I don't know whether the minister has done any comparative analysis with other jurisdictions. If that has been done, can the minister provide that information to us? Because "highest standard" means that we have done some comparative analysis or study as compared to other jurisdictions. Or is it just the highest standard of British Columbia?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Through our contract with Advanced Solutions we have put in 43 additional steps for the protection of personal and private information above and beyond what is required by the privacy protection laws in British Columbia.
[ Page 10388 ]
G. Robertson: I have a number of questions for the minister. First of all, greetings to the minister and staff.
A number of questions related to the government's new policies and new legislation on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions — specifically, how the small businesses of British Columbia will be affected and what the ministry is doing about it. Small businesses around the province are directly and disproportionately affected by the new carbon tax — or, more accurately, a fuel tax.
I am specifically referring to those which significantly rely upon fuel use to operate, whether that's in agriculture and trucking or transportation generally. It appears that there is not a significant opportunity for these businesses to utilize alternatives to mitigate the impact on their businesses of this new fuel tax. What is the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue doing to mitigate the impact on these businesses?
Hon. R. Thorpe: If the member could be a little bit clearer with his specific examples, it might help me address the answer, rather than his broad-brush approach.
G. Robertson: It was a pretty straight-up question. What initiatives is the minister taking to help mitigate the impact of the new carbon tax on fuel-dependent small businesses in British Columbia?
Hon. R. Thorpe: First of all, the carbon tax will be revenue-neutral, meaning that the revenue from the carbon tax will be returned to taxpayers through reductions in provincial taxes, including low-income climate action tax credits and reductions to the two lowest provincial income tax brackets, the general corporate income tax and the small business corporate income tax.
Perhaps the member wasn't here when I talked about that earlier, but let me say that we are reducing the small business tax rate from 4½ percent to 3½ percent and, further, to 2½ percent by the year 2011. In addition to that, there will be one-time climate action dividend payments of $100 to each British Columbian who resided in the province on December 31, 2007. There will be energy-efficient residential gas-fired hot water heaters. There will be Energy Star components to this.
There will be biodiesel use for residential or commercial purposes. There will be new fuel-efficient vehicles. We believe, coupled with the federal tax, the ecoplan, that that will see reductions this year of up to $4,000 per vehicle. Those are the kinds of things we're doing. Amongst others, aerodynamic devices for commercial tractor-trailers will be exempt from PST. Those are the types of things we're doing.
The other thing that's very important that we're going to be doing…. We believe that the permanent Small Business Roundtable has provided great dividends to small business and to the government in forging a partnership on how we work together and on the issues we work together on.
I'm very pleased that Ian Tostenson, who is a member of our permanent Small Business Roundtable, will be heading up a subcommittee of the permanent Small Business Roundtable focused on climate action initiatives that we can actually look at for small business. I think it's important, and our government thinks it's important, that we hear firsthand from small businesses in all regions of the province, just as we've had 30 consultations throughout all regions of the province. We will continue to do that, and we will be adding climate action to it.
I think it's important that we all work together. We have set a bold vision, a vision that has been recognized as a leadership vision, of reducing greenhouse gases by 33 percent by 2020. I think it's important that we all work together and that we take steps together. They're not going to be giant steps; they'll be small steps. But it's one step at a time.
In my household my wife is going to be getting a new 2008 Chevy Malibu hybrid vehicle, which she's going to take delivery of on March 28. That's what we can do in our family. That's a start. I hope that other British Columbians, working together….
We know that when we established a goal of reducing red tape by 33 percent in three years and everyone said, "You'll never achieve it," well, we achieved 37.4 percent. Today we stand at 42.6 percent. It's important to have that vision. It's important that we work together with small business.
That's what we're committed to doing. That's what our record says that we've done in the past. That's what we will do in the future.
G. Robertson: Did the minister provide specific data to the Ministry of Finance demonstrating that the new carbon tax would in fact be revenue-neutral for fuel-dependent small businesses in B.C.? Did he make that case, and can he lay that out before us?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Tax policy questions are the responsibility of the Minister of Finance, and that question would be best directed to the Minister of Finance in her estimates.
G. Robertson: It doesn't sound like the minister was proactive in defending the interests of small businesses with respect to the carbon tax that we now see. I was hopeful that the numbers had been crunched by the minister. In fact, the measures that he just described as related to greenhouse gas emission reductions actually represented revenue neutrality.
What I've been hearing over this past number of weeks from small businesses around the province — particularly in rural areas, from the agriculture sector and from the transport and trucking industry — is that this is nowhere close to revenue-neutral for those businesses. There are not the opportunities for them to reduce the costs on the fuel side with the initiatives that have been provided to date. The minister doesn't seem to have any hard data or justification in terms of revenue neutrality for small businesses that are heavily dependent on fuels.
[ Page 10389 ]
Maybe a more specific question for the minister would be whether the small business lens that he has talked about in this House was used specifically with all of the climate change initiatives and policies that have been initiated and legislated here in the House.
Hon. R. Thorpe: It's the policy of our government to conduct small-business-lens reviews on all legislation and on all regulations that are brought forward. That's the position that our government has taken. That's the position we are executing on a day-to-day basis.
G. Robertson: My understanding is that the small business lens was used on all of the climate change initiatives brought forward by this government. In that case, one would have assumed that revenue neutrality was a key component of this carbon tax and, in fact, that revenue neutrality through the small business lens had been demonstrated.
Did the minister make the case that revenue neutrality for all the small businesses in the province was justified through the small business lens?
Hon. R. Thorpe: We have in Balanced Budget 2008 reduced small business tax from 4½ percent to 3½ percent. It'll go down to 2½ percent in 2011, a saving of over $255 million to small businesses in British Columbia.
We have lowered the personal tax rate by 2 percent for the first two tax brackets. We now have the lowest personal tax rates for $111,000 or less in British Columbia. We believe in and are committed to revenue neutrality. That will be supported by my colleague in legislation, and we will return the funds that are collected by the carbon tax to individuals in British Columbia.
I might say that on our side of the House, we committed to moving forward to achieving the goal of 33 percent by 2020. We voted in favour of that. I might point out that members on the other side voted against that.
G. Robertson: To the minister: what is the total cost of the new carbon tax to small businesses in British Columbia? Does he have that number?
Hon. R. Thorpe: I'm sure you're aware, hon. Chair, that no two small businesses are exactly the same and that no set of circumstances is common to all small businesses in British Columbia. I've been advised by one of the leading small business associations in British Columbia that in excess of some 70 percent of their members are already doing things. So it's very, very hard.
I think the really, really important thing here, though, is setting a goal for the province of reducing greenhouse gases by 33 percent by 2020. We're moving forward. We're going to work with small businesses. That's why I'm very pleased that we're going to have a subcommittee of the permanent Small Business Roundtable focusing their 100 percent attention to how we work with small businesses in all regions of British Columbia from Vancouver Island to Chetwynd, Prince Rupert and Fernie — the Okanagan, the Cariboo, the northwest and the northeast. We're going to work with everyone.
For members to think that one size fits all small businesses in British Columbia is not being realistic. We're going to work with them all.
G. Robertson: Well, it sounds like a lot of hogwash on behalf of the small businesses of the province. The minister contends that the small business lens was in fact used with all of the climate change measures, including the carbon tax. There's no doubt that we have a legislated goal. The opposition supports that goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and there's no doubt that we need a plethora of options and instruments through policy to achieve that goal.
What doesn't add up here is the minister's contention that the small business lens was used for these climate change measures. Yet the minister can't specifically articulate the impact on the small business community of the carbon tax, which is not equitable, according to many of the small businesses I've heard from.
Many big businesses, from the oil and gas sector to the cement industry, have been exempted from the carbon tax. Small businesses have not been exempted, and many of them who rely on fuel to operate are being unfairly burdened with the cost of this carbon tax.
The minister contends that his highly touted small business lens should be looking out for small businesses in the province on all policy and legislation that comes forward. Yet we have a whole gamut, related to climate change, coming through, and it is impacting small businesses. We have no answers about how much that impact is, about how significant those costs are and whether the measures, in terms of tax reduction and incentives, come anywhere close to dealing with this, specifically for businesses focused on transportation and in agriculture that totally rely on fuel use.
It doesn't add up for the minister here. He contends that the small business lens is in use, yet small businesses are not looked after in the measures being brought forward.
Can the minister clarify, then, beyond a subcommittee of the Small Business Roundtable, precisely what measures will be taken for small businesses that are reliant on fuel to operate profitably, to protect them from the challenges they face getting through this year and with the new carbon tax in place?
Hon. R. Thorpe: I think I just heard the member from the other side say that he was for moving transportation throughout British Columbia. Therefore, I want to be sure — I'm sure the member will clarify it for me — that he now is in support of twinning the Port Mann Bridge so that people can move forward on their transportation issues and that they're not tied up with all that greenhouse gas being emitted into our environment.
That is an astounding breakthrough that we've had here today in the estimates of Small Business and Revenue. So I would appreciate the member acknowledging that what he is now professing to do
[ Page 10390 ]
here is to support the transportation industry and to remove the transportation bottlenecks, including the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge.
With respect to the rest of his statement, we have a record of working with small business. We have a record of working in partnership with small business. As we've done on taxation, as we've done on regulatory reform, as we've done on skills and skills training, we're going to do on climate action.
I'm sorry. I do not dismiss, as the member on the other side does, the importance of the subcommittee on climate action of the permanent Small Business Roundtable. I am confident, with their leadership, involvement and understanding of small business in all sectors in British Columbia, that they will bring forward recommendations and ideas, because they can get out of the box. They can think in a new way, and I look forward to working with them.
Remember, we are committed to the goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 33 percent by 2020. We will achieve that goal.
G. Robertson: I don't understand the minister's extrapolation regarding Gateway and transport. He may like to deviate from serious and pointed questions about the impact of government policy on small business, when small business in particular seems to be at the bottom of the list in terms of considerations made by this government and its policy directions.
A question to the minister: was the Small Business Roundtable and this new subcommittee on climate action directly consulted and input taken regarding the climate action measures and the carbon tax that have been initiated in these recent months?
Hon. R. Thorpe: As I've said earlier and I'll say once again, tax policy is a responsibility of the Minister of Finance which was tabled in the budget on the third Tuesday of February. Questions related to tax policy would be best addressed to the Minister of Finance, who is responsible.
J. Brar: I'll try one question related to this whole revenue-neutral component of the budget — specifically, the trucking industry.
I have met a lot of people who drive trucks. What they tell me is that when the carbon tax goes up to 7.5 cents per litre, the cost of that for them for one year will be close to or over $6,000.
Can the minister tell us, then, how the revenue-neutral component will make sense to these people, in an industry for which the cost is going to go up $6,000 per year?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Our government has a proud record of working with sectors all across British Columbia on issues of importance to them, as we have with the agricultural sector. That's why we've recently come out with a new assessment review panel.
With respect to other issues that come up from time to time, we have a proud history, a proud record of working with sectoral components. We will continue to do that, because we know that when we work in partnership, we find solutions to move forward. That has been the success of British Columbia since 2001 to today — over 412,000 new jobs created in British Columbia.
J. Brar: To make it very simple, will the trucking industry, particularly a truck driver, at the end of the day get back $6,000 under the revenue-neutral policy of the government of British Columbia?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Balanced Budget 2008 is actually about leaving money in taxpayers' pockets. That's what it's about. The bottom two personal income tax rates will be reduced for all British Columbians, resulting in a 2 percent tax reduction in 2008 and 5 percent in 2009 on the first $70,000 in earnings.
Since 2001 a family of four with a household income of $70,000 will have seen a 44 percent reduction in their annual income tax of over $2,000. Further reductions in 2010 — $384 million over three years.
[H. Bloy in the chair.]
As a result of these changes, over 250,000 British Columbians no longer pay B.C. personal income tax, and all British Columbians have received substantial tax cuts. We've also seen….
The Chair: Continue.
Hon. R. Thorpe: We have seen the small business tax rate reduced from 4½ percent to 3½ percent, which will lead to 2½ percent. We've seen corporate income taxes reduced too.
As I've said in the past, we will work with all sectors in the small business community of British Columbia to hear their concerns, to hear their solutions. They very often bring forward very creative solutions that government has a proud history of working with to find economic solutions so that we can all continue to move forward in the spirit of British Columbia moving forward.
D. Routley: My question to the minister is regarding the trucking industry again, this time from the perspective of independent logging truck operators, who have no opportunity to pass on the cost of this gas tax that has been added. I would challenge the neutrality of the tax when it comes to their businesses.
It has been noted in several investigations of accidents in the logging industry that profitability is the key issue when it comes to being able to operate safely. Yet the policies of government haven't allowed that to happen.
What is the minister going to offer to the independent logging truck operators of this province who will be enduring that increase that, as was mentioned by the previous speaker, will end up costing them $6,000 per truck?
[ Page 10391 ]
Hon. R. Thorpe: It sounded to me that that was a question that pertained directly to the forestry operations of the province. Those questions would be best addressed to the Minister of Forests and Range in British Columbia.
D. Routley: In fact, the question was regarding the gas tax, the fiscal neutrality of the tax and its impact on the independent logging truck operators. What steps will the minister take to ensure that their businesses are not left with costs that they cannot manage or cannot pass on to the marketplace?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Tax policy, as I've said earlier, is the responsibility of the Minister of Finance, and those questions of tax policy would be best addressed to the Minister of Finance. Our ministry, the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue, is responsible for administering the tax after it has become law, which again, is a policy decision of the Minister of Finance.
The Chair: I'm going to call a five-minute recess. We'll return at 4:35.
The committee recessed from 4:29 p.m. to 4:34 p.m.
[H. Bloy in the chair.]
On Vote 41 (continued).
G. Robertson: I have a number of questions for the minister regarding the incentives — the PST rebates for fuel-efficient vehicles and related to the luxury car rebates.
As I'm sure the minister knows very well, the surtax for luxury vehicles has a threshold that has increased in the time of this government. Starting in 2001 it was $32,000. It has now been increased up to $55,000, which means that all vehicles that are valued up to $55,000 pay the minimum 7 percent tax rate. It increases incrementally up to 10 percent after that. Basically, many cars, up to $55,000, now qualify for the lower tax rate. It's only above the $55,000 mark that cars start to pay increasingly more tax as being considered luxury cars.
Three times this government has increased the threshold and made it possible for more cars to qualify for the lower tax rate, more fancy cars to qualify for a low tax rate. By the opposition's calculation, in total this change between 2001 and the service plan year ending 2010 will lead to $372 million in tax breaks for people buying luxury vehicles.
G. Robertson: The minister giggles; however, the math is quite clear. In stark contrast to the program which has been initiated for low-emission vehicles like hybrids, in this time span up to 2010 the government will have allocated a rebate of only $25 million in PST subsidies for low-emission vehicles. We've got, on the one hand, $372 million for luxury vehicles, and we've got $25 million in PST rebates for low-emission vehicles like hybrids.
Can the minister explain why this extremely lopsided PST rebate policy exists in complete contradiction to the government's set goals around greenhouse gas emissions targets?
The Chair: May I remind all members that they're not to refer to other members other than members that are here when you're speaking — no other comment about them. The same rules apply in this House as in the large House. The person that has the floor has the debate, so appreciate it and allow them to continue and ask their questions or to answer without interruption.
Hon. R. Thorpe: I believe that the member is talking about tax policy issues. I'm sure that the member is aware that tax policy issues are established by the Minister of Finance, and those questions would be best directed to the Minister of Finance in her estimates.
G. Robertson: Is this minister not responsible for the PST rebate programs and decisions made around provincial sales tax?
Hon. R. Thorpe: The responsibility of the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue is to administer the tax statutes after they have been passed through. Policy decisions are the responsibility of the Minister of Finance. As I said earlier, those questions would be best directed to the Minister of Finance in her estimates.
G. Robertson: In terms of administering these PST rebates, does the minister defend his government's decisions and direction for him to administer massive tax breaks for luxury vehicles in comparison to minuscule tax breaks for fuel-efficient vehicles?
Hon. R. Thorpe: I think I've been very clear on where the responsibility for tax policy lies, and that is with the Minister of Finance.
If I could be permitted just to stray a wee bit, it sounds to me like the member on the other side could be talking of two different areas here. One time he's talking about the farming community and the rural communities. Now my sense is that he would like to suggest to the Minister of Finance that she increase the tax on those very vehicles that they have to use in rural British Columbia and that they have to use in farming activity.
Again, policy issues with respect to tax policy are the responsibility of the Minister of Finance. I have the pleasure of administering the tax policies once they become law in British Columbia.
G. Robertson: The minister and this government have certainly claimed in past budgets that the luxury vehicle surtax was changed, in part to help small businesses like farmers and the agricultural sector afford necessary vehicles. However, it's clearly not limited to small business owners. The threshold applies to every-
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one, even those buying gas-guzzling SUVs for entirely personal use.
In terms of administering this luxury vehicle PST rebate, here are a couple of examples of the kind of gas-guzzling SUVs this minister is administering the rebate to. The 2008 GMC Sierra Denali, which gets 17.7 to 19.5 litres per 100 kilometre and comes in at $52,615, conveniently qualifying for a hefty luxury car PST rebate. The 2008 Chevy Avalanche — 19.9 litres per 100 kilometres. Those run $43,000 to $54,000, squeaking in there. Dodge Dakota SLT, 21.1 litres per 100 kilometre. How about the Chrysler SRT8 sedan at 16.5 litres per 100 Ks?
These are all vehicles which I don't think are found on many of the small farms or ranches around the province. They're used, I think, primarily for personal use and yet qualify for the significant tax rebate as not being luxury vehicles. So the minister is, in effect, administering hundreds of millions of dollars in rebates for these personal use vehicles to qualify for lower tax rates — preferential tax rates. Does he find this a significant contradiction to the direction of his government with regards to climate change?
Hon. R. Thorpe: I'm sure the member is not suggesting that British Columbians, in effect, are having a tax rebate. As the member knows and as all members of this House know, the provincial tax rate is 7 percent. That is the rate in British Columbia. We administer that on behalf of the tax policy in British Columbia.
To characterize the people buying vehicles of $54,900 as receiving a tax break is a mischaracterization. They are paying 7 percent. Those are the laws of British Columbia. I think British Columbians who want to check Hansard should realize that this member is now advocating increasing taxes on all vehicles in the province of British Columbia. I actually administer the tax policy, as passed by the Legislature here, and I do that with honour.
G. Robertson: Well, it's disappointing to no end that the tax rates for a vehicle guzzling gas that comes in at $56,000 and up, over $55,000…. Somehow the government justifies increasing the taxes, the luxury auto surtax, but has moved that threshold up.
In fact, at this point, their whole strategy exempting a number of vehicles in particular, which consume copious quantities of fuel and emit significant amounts of greenhouse gas…. They're somehow treated with more respect than they should be. But the minister, I take it, is not interested in confronting those contradictions.
I'm curious, though, where the minister sits with the federal ecoAuto program, which we have seen in the federal budget is being phased out by Ottawa at the end of this year. The minister has piggybacked the PST rebate for fuel-efficient vehicles onto this federal ecoAuto program in order for there to be up to $4,000 in a combined rebate.
However, with the ecoAuto being phased out at the end of this year, one wonders about the direction of this government in terms of continuing on their commitments after the federal government phases it out this year. Is the minister intending on making up the difference — up to that $4,000 rebate — once the federal program disappears, or will they possibly scuttle the whole program altogether along with the federal government?
Hon. R. Thorpe: As I've said many times here — this will be the last time I actually say it — tax policy is the responsibility of the Minister of Finance. With respect to federal tax issues, the member knows very well that the province of British Columbia has no responsibility for that, and if the member has questions with respect to the federal taxation policy, he'd best direct those to the Minister of Finance for the government of Canada.
J. Brar: I would like to go back to the EDS Advanced Solutions. As we know, this ministry is responsible for the collection of revenue for the province of British Columbia. During the last few years, there has been a plan put in place by the minister to basically consolidate the revenue collection. In the last budget estimates, the minister provided the information with a list of 40 revenue streams for which the ministry was at that time responsible. Can the minister tell us whether the list remains the same or if there have been more revenue streams added or deleted from that list?
Hon. R. Thorpe: We currently have 56 revenue streams as part of our Advanced Solutions centre of excellence revenue management program in place now.
J. Brar: So last year it was 40. Now we have 56. Can the minister just list the new ones, because I have the list of all the old ones. I'll appreciate that.
Hon. R. Thorpe: As we have done in the past, staff does not have that level of detail here, and I'm sure that the member would recognize that. But I undertake here today to supply that information in due course, making up the 16 — from 40 last year to 56 this year. I'd be pleased to supply that information to the member in the coming days.
J. Brar: Thanks to the minister. I will certainly wait for that information.
The service plan on page 17 states that the ministry will provide a centre of excellence for revenue management in government and work with the ministries to transition their revenue management functions to the ministry's centralized revenue management system. Can the minister provide some details about the ministry's centralized revenue management system? Can the minister provide details? You talk about the centralized management system — right? If you can provide some details as to what it is. Is that different than ESD Advanced Solutions?
Hon. R. Thorpe: That's a very, very good question. Actually, the centre of excellence is a vision for revenue
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management in British Columbia. Advanced Solutions is just one part of that. The ministry is the other part.
What we plan to do is add 20 new revenue programs into our centre of excellence between the end of March and September. Two of those will come from the Ministry of Advanced Education, one from Ministry of Agriculture, five from Children and Family Development, four from Environment, five from Health, one from Labour and Citizens' Services, one from Public Safety and Solicitor General and one from Transportation.
I believe it's fair for me to conclude that when we have these 20 on board, with the 56 we have in the centre of excellence for management, we'll then have 76 revenue streams being managed through a combination of the ministry and Advanced Solutions.
J. Brar: Can the minister provide some clarity on the administrative structure of EDS Advanced Solutions and the centre? As I understand it, they're two different functioning bodies, as the minister explained. Is that right, or is that just what's being done by EDS Advanced Solutions? That is what the centre of excellence — what the minister is saying….
Hon. R. Thorpe: The centre of excellence is the overall umbrella, if you will. That is composed of two parts: one, within the ministry — we call that revenue solutions; and then we have Advanced Solutions over here.
In the revenue solutions, we have some collection responsibility. We also have contract management responsibility. Contract management dovetails back to Advanced Solutions.
J. Brar: So my understanding, then, is that the centre of excellence is part of the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue, whereas EDS…. Of course, I understand that's a contract, particularly for the collection of revenue and debt.
So how many people are responsible — FTEs — for the centre of excellence?
Hon. R. Thorpe: As I've mentioned before, at Advanced Solutions there are 274 individuals. But that's part of Advanced Solutions. That's a separate organization.
Inside the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue, in revenue solutions we have a total of 131 employees.
J. Brar: So my understanding is that 131 employees are part of the centre of excellence. Is that right? Thank you once again to the minister.
I would then move on to…. My understanding is that roughly 65 percent of the revenue collection is done by the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue, which now includes 56 different streams from different ministries. I understand that piece as well.
Can the minister clarify whether we now have 100 percent of the revenue collection done by EDS, as far as the province of British Columbia is concerned — which, of course, does not include the revenue collection done by the federal agencies, which is a different thing.
Hon. R. Thorpe: Again, that's a very detailed question, but I can say to the member that, no, Advanced Solutions does not collect 100 percent of the funds in British Columbia. We have revenue solutions inside the ministry which collect…. Advanced Solutions may do some of the processing or some of the paperwork, but no, 100 percent of the funds are not collected through Advanced Solutions.
With respect to the detailed breakdown on that, we will undertake to gather…. The staff doesn't have that level of detail here. We'll supply that to you.
J. Brar: I just want to clarify the information so that his staff are also clear about what I'm asking for.
My understanding is that roughly 65 percent of the revenue is collected by the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue, which includes, as the minister stated, about 56 different revenue streams. What I want to know is: is that 100 percent of the revenue that the province collects from the people of British Columbia, which excludes, of course, the revenue collection by the federal government, which is a separate piece?
My question is whether now 100 percent of the revenue is being collected, of course, by the ministry. What percentage of that is EDS and what percentage of that is the other component? If you can clarify that, that would be helpful.
Moving on then to my next question. The performance measures on page 16 of the service plan indicate that the ministry collection forecast for the amount owed to government was 96.51 percent. Can the minister tell us the actual amount that was collected last year?
Hon. R. Thorpe: If I understood the member's question, on page 16 of our service plan…. Again, just help me here if I'm rephrasing the question. Our target was 96.51 percent. That number does not become finalized until March 31 of this year because that's the current fiscal year we're in. Staff advise me that we are on track to achieve that performance measure.
Of course, what we will do after the end of the fiscal year — I believe that it's approximately in June — is post the results. But right now our forecast of achieving 96.51 percent…. Staff advise me that we're on track to achieve that.
J. Brar: Again, my understanding is that the 96.51 percent we are talking about here is revenue collection, not debt collection. This is revenue collection. What will be the total amount for 96.51 percent, in a dollar figure?
Hon. R. Thorpe: We estimate that amount to be about $14 billion.
J. Brar: Can the minister then tell me: at the end of the day, what will be the amount which will be
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overdue or uncollected from the people of British Columbia?
Hon. R. Thorpe: First of all, we do not have the final information, because the year ends March 31. But staff advise me that the outstanding amounts due are estimated to be flatlined this year compared to last year, and over the last four or five years revenues have increased from $16 billion to $21 billion. So all in all, I would say that with that growth in overall revenue and the flatlining of the amount overdue, things are going very, very well.
Certainly, there's always more work to be done in managing outstanding amounts due. Of course, we have to be sensitive to the needs of those who owe funds to the province. We have to ensure that those who need assistance and who are eligible for assistance are provided assistance. But all in all, I feel confident that we're flatlining the overdue amounts in an environment where revenues have increased substantially.
J. Brar: I appreciate the information the minister provided. But my question was…. I just wanted to know the amount of money which it will be at this point.
We have the figure in front of us — 96.51. So that means, basically, that even if we are on target, there will be outstanding amounts, which will be 3.49 percent. What will that stand for, in terms of a dollar figure?
Hon. R. Thorpe: We will be pleased to provide that information to the member as soon as we have the final year-end numbers for the period ending March 31, 2008.
J. Brar: I do have other questions related to this, though. So I will base it on…. At this point in time the figure is not available, but we have the figure, probably, from last year.
Can the minister tell us: what was the outstanding amount last fiscal year?
Hon. R. Thorpe: I'm advised by staff that the number at March 31, 2007, was $518 million.
J. Brar: We have the figure to now proceed with some other questions. My question is and this is a sincere question to point out…. What sector does this $518 million uncollected or overdue amount stand for? Can the minister list those sectors, particularly the big ones? I don't want a $1 figure but the big ones from where, somehow, the biggest amount of overdue revenue still stands.
Hon. R. Thorpe: Out of the $518 million or so, $391 million pertains to the Medical Services Plan.
J. Brar: We still have a large amount after that. Can the minister list a couple more, if possible? What other sectors are the sectors which owe the province of British Columbia money?
Hon. R. Thorpe: We don't have that level of information here. We will, as we've undertaken with a number of things, get that information to the member.
J. Brar: I will appreciate, of course, more detailed information as to who owes the money to the province out of this $518 million, which was last year.
My next question is: can the minister provide a list of audits conducted by the ministry, or in process, on areas of high risk on non-compliance payments?
Hon. R. Thorpe: If I understood the question — "Will the minister provide a list of all of the audits that are taking place with respect to high risk?" — the answer to that question is no. I will not supply that information.
J. Brar: I will repeat my question. One of the responsibilities the ministry has is to conduct audits in the areas of high non-compliance. So my question is…. If the minister has conducted those audits, I would like to know. What are those areas which have been identified as high non-compliance areas or not paying the debt?
Hon. R. Thorpe: First of all, let me say that with respect to audits, our tax audit branches do very sophisticated risk analysis using very highly sophisticated information from a variety of sources. We make every effort through that to focus our resources on high-risk areas. For me to say here where those high-risk areas would be would (1) be breaking taxpayer confidentiality and (2) be advertising to the very people that we are interested in possibly pursuing, giving them a head start. We won't be doing that. We won't be sharing that information. We will not be talking about the sectors or the locations of those kinds of individuals.
I can tell you that I have great confidence in our ability, through a variety of sources, to identify high-risk areas for focusing our tax audit resources.
J. Brar: The minister, just maybe a minute ago, did mention one of the high-risk areas, and that is MSP. I'm not asking for very specific information about these sectors. I'm asking for broad names of sectors, if the minister can provide, because what is the purpose of the budget estimates if we can't even ask the broad names of the sectors that are high risk when it comes to revenue collection?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Let me be very, very clear. First of all, the member did not ask me…. He asked me the outstanding amount of receivables. I told him that number of $518 million. I then told him that the largest component happened to be MSP. Then he moved on to another area. That's the outstanding balances due. That has nothing to do with auditing. He then moved on to high-risk audits. That was his question. That is the question I said I would not answer.
With respect to the $518 million, I told him that we had the detail on the amount outstanding for MSP. The other $127 million in areas outstanding — I said I would supply that information to him in due course.
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J. Brar: The minister will not provide the information about the high-risk areas when it comes to revenue collection.
I would go on — if the minister has this report that the minister mentioned a few minutes ago — to a report called Revenue Services of British Columbia Annual Report, dated May 31, 2007. On page 4 under table 1 we have different ministry portfolios listed, and on the right side there is information as to what sectors basically are identified under the collection of overdue amounts.
In that table, when it comes to one sector called mineral, oil and gas revenue — the second one is the subsidized bus pass program and the third one is commercial loans — I don't see any indication under "Collection of overdue amounts." Can the minister clarify what it means? Does it mean that there's no outstanding amount? Or are they not part of this game? Can the minister provide some clarification?
Hon. R. Thorpe: I'm not going to address that question right now. The member knows fair well that he mischaracterized my comments. I think it's appropriate that the member clearly understands that there is a difference between accounts receivable and risk on audits. Those are two complete different subject matters.
I clearly answered that there is $518 million outstanding in accounts receivable as of March 31, 2007, as advised by my staff. I clearly said that the vast majority of that was MSP premiums and that we'd get further information on the $127 million. That pertains to the accounts receivable. With respect to the high-risk audits, which are a completely different subject matter than accounts receivable, I said we would not share that.
For the member to characterize that as me not sharing the outstanding balance on accounts receivable because it's high-risk audits shows me that, quite frankly, he has some fundamental issues with basic accounting. What I have committed to doing is…. We will supply details on the $126 million in high areas of accounts receivable outstanding as of March 31, 2007.
J. Brar: The question I asked the minister — I think that the minister probably didn't even pay attention to that. I moved on from that question the minister is talking about.
My question is about this report the minister actually put on the website. On page 4 — I will repeat my question — there are four different portfolios. One of them is mineral, oil and gas revenues. The second one is the subsidized bus pass program, and the third one is commercial loans. There's no indication under the item of "Collection of overdue amounts."
My question: is there any outstanding revenue toward these three different sectors? Why is there no indication on this particular piece of information provided by the minister on the Internet?
Hon. R. Thorpe: This report on page 4 — well, this whole report, actually — is a Ministry of Small Business and Revenue responsibility, but it has to do with Revenue Services of British Columbia. Some refer to Advanced Solutions. With respect to the items that…. These are the items that they do. The other items under "Collection of overdue accounts" are handled by the ministry in the centre of excellence, through our revenue solutions branch.
J. Brar: I'm totally confused by the answer from the minister.
My understanding is that this is part of the responsibility of the Minister of Small Business and Revenue — period. My question: is there any outstanding revenue toward these three sectors or not? This particular page does not provide any information. It is totally silent about that particular item.
My question once again: is there any outstanding revenue toward those three sectors? If the minister can provide that information.
Hon. R. Thorpe: This report here is one part of the Centre of Excellence for Revenue Management. This is one part. This is the Advanced Solutions part. Okay? They are responsible for the areas that have the appropriate tick marks on page 4.
In the areas of outstanding amounts, they do not have responsibility for that. That's handled within the ministry in the revenue solutions branch. So the answer to the question "Are there outstanding amounts due from those?" is yes, there are, but that's handled by the revenue solutions branch.
J. Brar: Can the minister, then, tell how much is the outstanding amount against these sectors?
Hon. R. Thorpe: That will be part, I believe, of the $126 million, about which I've undertaken to get information to the member. We do not have that level of information here today, but we will get that to the member. We will make a point of referencing page 4 with some asterisks on those numbers that pertain to the balance of the $518 million.
J. Brar: I will then move on to incremental revenue. On page 18 the service plan of the ministry basically points out the ministry's success in identifying outstanding amounts owed to government through audit and compliance activities. These amounts are identified as incremental revenue.
My first question on that one is: what was the total amount of incremental revenue identified by the ministry? I know this year is not completed, but in year '06-07.
Hon. R. Thorpe: Our target was $215,482,000.
J. Brar: My understanding is that the minister is talking about the last year. If that was the target, what was the actual amount collected?
Hon. R. Thorpe: First of all, the target was $215,482,000. The year-end ends March 31, so we have not concluded the year-end. We expect to achieve our
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goal and, as a matter of fact, exceed our goal. At this point in time I don't know that we have a projected amount. But we are tracking well above our $215,482,000 target.
J. Brar: Can the minister then tell us what amount has been collected as of today, and what percentage — and the amount in dollar figures — will be paid to EDS Advanced Solutions out of that?
Hon. R. Thorpe: First of all, the target of $215,482,000 is a target inside the ministry. It has nothing with Advanced Solutions. I'm advised by staff that as of December 31, 2007, we have collected $198,431,400.
J. Brar: The second part of my question was: what amount out of that will be paid to EDS? Is EDS is not collecting that?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Not one penny out of that will be paid to Advanced Solutions.
J. Brar: Is the minister suggesting that EDS is not responsible for the debt collection, which is my understanding, and that is called incremental revenue?
Hon. R. Thorpe: This gross incremental revenue target is based on tax collections. That is what it's based on. Advanced Solutions does not participate in tax revenue collections. That is inside the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue. We are responsible for that.
J. Brar: Just to clarify that then. There are two streams of money coming in. One is the revenue collection, and the other one is the debt collection. Is the minister saying here that EDS is only responsible for revenue collection and not responsible for the debt collection? My understanding is that EDS is actually responsible for both. I would ask the minister to clarify that.
Hon. R. Thorpe: Revenue solutions within the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue collects tax. Advanced Solutions collect non-tax. The incremental target of $215,482,000 is a tax matter. Therefore, Advanced Solutions is not involved in that aspect of our business.
J. Brar: The carbon tax which has been introduced under the new budget…. Will the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue be responsible to collect that, or somebody else?
Hon. R. Thorpe: The Ministry of Small Business and Revenue is responsible for the administration of all tax statutes. Tax policy is set by the Minister of Finance.
J. Brar: My question was: will the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue be responsible for the collection of carbon tax or not? It is the responsibility of this ministry to tell whether they are responsible or not.
Hon. R. Thorpe: The answer is yes.
[A. Horning in the chair.]
J. Brar: Will that be handed over to EDS, or will it be collected through the ministry's own department?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Advanced Solutions handles non-tax accounts. The ministry handles tax accounts. So the carbon tax will be administered through the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue — the revenue solutions branch of the ministry.
G. Robertson: I'm just going to circle back to a question, again for the minister, related in effect to climate change, specifically to do with the car co-ops and the passenger vehicle rental tax. The car co-ops around the province were grappling with it being imposed retroactively.
We were very relieved on the opposition side to see that the ministry and the government have backed off of imposing this tax prior to April 1, 2008, in what would have been an extremely regressive approach to car co-ops — which, in fact, are an excellent tool for people to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and their need to actually own their own cars.
There remains some concern about the ongoing application of the passenger vehicle rental tax past April 1, 2008, in that it will apply if there is greater than an eight-hour usage of the cars. Unfortunately, that means, in some cases, that members who own these cars through the co-ops will have to pay this tax on rentals if they hold the cars overnight, which could create some safety concerns in certain neighbourhoods where vehicles might need to be returned.
Can the minister just clarify for the House on the application of this tax after April 1, and whether there will be further consideration of this tax not applying to car co-ops so that safety issues do not become a factor?
Hon. R. Thorpe: First of all, it's my understanding that the vehicle co-ops were quite pleased with this announcement in the Balanced Budget 2008. With respect to the number of hours, that is a tax policy issue and would be best directed to the Minister of Finance during the Minister of Finance estimates.
G. Robertson: It is tough to get questions answered in this House when they get punted back to the Minister of Finance if they have any sniff of policy related to them. I was directing the question to the minister as he has been handling most of the communications, if not all of the communications, related to the PVRT and the car co-ops. It looks like there may have been a strange decision made on the application of this tax going forward that was not anticipated. If the minister is not going to comment on that, I'll move to some questions related to regulatory reform.
Well, let me give the minister one more chance to comment on that, if he so chooses. The real issue is that
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it's an eight-hour period, and that, in effect, means that people have to return the cars late at night rather than hold them overnight, as most of the car co-ops allow them to do — so they don't have to return cars and walk home in the middle of the night. There's a safety concern that doesn't really jibe with the tax being applied and collected on this eight-hour period.
Hon. R. Thorpe: I realize that from time to time members of the opposition choose not to respect the responsibility of individual members, especially ministers. The fact of the matter is I am responsible for administering tax policy that passes through the House. I'm responsible for administration. With respect to tax policy, that is the responsibility of the Minister of Finance. The member would be best to direct questions with respect to tax policy to the Minister of Finance, who is responsible for tax policy.
G. Robertson: I certainly will direct some questions then to the Minister of Finance. Maybe in the future the minister will exempt himself from commenting to the media on tax policy issues, such as that affecting the car co-ops, which he had been commenting on.
Questions related to regulatory reform: did the Ministry of Finance, which is responsible for securities, submit to the minister or to the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue thousands of new requirements to be added to their regulatory account, which the minister oversees?
Hon. R. Thorpe: With respect to regulatory reform, our government is very proud to have actually exceeded its goal of reducing red tape of 33 percent in the first three years of government, by achieving 37.04 percent. Today we stand at 42.6 percent reduction in red tape.
We're now moving on to another area of cutting red tape, and that is called saving people time. With respect to what individual ministries are doing, and what the status is, that information we post on a quarterly basis to our website. So all that information is available on the ministry's website. The member can have access to it, or I can ask my staff to have it printed out for him, and we will deliver it to him.
G. Robertson: Well, the reason that I'm asking the question is the opposition was not able to detect the addition of thousands of new requirements that should have come through the Ministry of Finance onto the regulatory count. So my question to the minister is: does the ministry service plan reflect the additional regulatory requirements that came through related to securities?
Hon. R. Thorpe: First of all, I don't know whether the member has had the time to do it, but in the budget documents…. There is a regulatory page in the budget books on that. But with respect to the member, he may want to go back and look at our quarterly reports and may want to look at them as we go forward. We publish that information on a quarterly basis.
The other thing that our government has put in place is a zero net increase in regulations on a go-forward basis to 2012. That means that if ministries are bringing forward some increased regulations here, they have to be looking at other areas within their ministry to balance them out. That is consistent across government. So that could be why the member has not been able to identify…. I don't know where they've looked.
That's what we're doing. We're very transparent. We put it on the website. It's in the annual budget documents that were tabled the third Tuesday of February. That is the state of the nation as we see it at this time.
G. Robertson: Has the minister refused any requests from any ministries to add significant numbers of requirements to the regulatory reform database?
Hon. R. Thorpe: No.
G. Robertson: Has the minister heard from other ministries that have requested the addition of significant numbers of regulations?
Hon. R. Thorpe: All of our members of the executive council, all ministers, know that our government has a position of zero net increase in regulations as long as they do not impact on safety, health and environmental concerns. All ministers are charged with that responsibility within their areas of responsibility and are held accountable for that.
G. Robertson: Did the Ministry of Finance or FICOM, or the Ministry of Finance on FICOM's behalf, ever want or request of the minister the addition of hundreds of new regulatory requirements?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Each minister and ministry is responsible for their own control, their own additions, their own deletions within the framework of making sure that regulations are not compromised to protect health, safety or the environment. They also know that the government's overall goal is a zero net increase. So each ministry does that.
With respect to specific questions related to specific ministries, the member would be best served to address those questions to those ministers at those times.
G. Robertson: I think what's important here…. The minister is responsible for deregulation. The minister is responsible for the regulatory reform database. My question, again to the minister, is whether the regulatory reform reports, the quarterly reports and the database are actually accurate and whether they reflect all of the changes that ministries have requested of the minister.
Hon. R. Thorpe: In our regulatory reform office we have very capable people that have been recognized in jurisdictions across Canada and also by the federal government, in their budget of 2007, for leading in Canada in regulatory reform. For the member to sug-
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gest that some of those individuals may or may not be discharging their responsibilities correctly is something that's not acceptable to me. They have built a leadership position in Canada — one that we should be celebrating, not challenging.
With respect to individual ministries, again, specific questions related to their regulatory changes — with respect to their regulatory additions and deletions — would be best addressed to those ministers.
J. Brar: I will carry on with the question the member was asking.
Minister, are you telling us, then, that you have the final figure as to how many regulations have been eliminated, but you don't know how many and in what ministry?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Our government, when we first formed the government in 2001, embarked upon a counting of regulations. That journey was mocked by the opposition of the day, and it was questioned by the media of the day: why would someone want to do that and spend money doing that?
It was done for a very specific reason. That is, if we did not have a credible baseline, then as we moved forward, people would be able to take cheap shots based on whether we achieved or we didn't achieve. So great effort has been taken to make sure that the baseline, the database, is maintained with integrity by individuals within each ministry and within our ministry.
I have every confidence that that database is managed with integrity and that inputs and deletions from that come from individual ministries and are focused through our regulatory reform office. Great diligence takes place to ensure the validity of those numbers.
J. Brar: What we got is another lecture from the minister rather than the answer that we're looking for.
Minister, I'm going to mention the number of regulations which are part of the service plan. The total number — which is mentioned in the service plan — that this government has eliminated is 163,496 regulations. That is in your service plan, Minister.
Can you give us the details as to how you came to that count? That would, of course, include the different ministries, the different numbers. I would like to know if you can provide us with how many regulations were eliminated from what ministry, for a total of 163,496.
Hon. R. Thorpe: We do not have that information here. We will undertake to get it.
J. Brar: Just to make sure — the minister has the total number of regulations eliminated but not the number of individual ministries at this point in time, and the minister will subsequently provide the list of ministries and the number of regulations reduced in those ministries later on. So I appreciate that. I did have some questions about different ministries — as to how many in a particular ministry…. We don't have that at this point in time.
My colleague earlier asked the question. I just want to be very clear about that, that I understand the zero regulation policy until 2012. I understand that piece. The government is taking this massive climate change plan…. In order to implement, it's reasonable to understand that there must be some new regulations.
Can the minister tell us as to how those regulations will be counted? Or can the minister tell us whether there will be no regulations to implement the climate action plan?
Hon. R. Thorpe: First of all, our climate action plan takes into making sure that our economy will continue to grow, at the same time taking the necessary initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases by 33 percent by 2020.
With respect to whether there be some new regulations coming up, as legislation is brought in, as other measures are brought in in time, it's certainly envisioned that there will be new regulations.
But it is incumbent upon the ministries that come forward with those regulatory additions. Our overall government commitment is to a zero increase to 2012. Ministries will have to continually review their own ministry to look at if they are bringing in some, and how they're going to streamline some others. The goal is zero, but will there have to be regulations with respect to climate action? I'm sure there will have to be.
J. Brar: Once again, with all of this confusion about the total number and not having the numbers from different ministries, can the minister explain to us as to how you monitor the number of regulations that you do have — the total number in this service plan, the number of regulations eliminated? How do you monitor different ministries? Is there any person or individual or branch in your ministry which actually monitors that the reporting that you see from different ministries is right and accurate and, subsequently, that the information is updated in the ministry?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Within the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue, within the regulatory reform office, which has four FTEs, they have a very sophisticated database that keeps track of all of the regulations from the various ministries as we receive information, and whether they have to add or delete from various ministries. Our database is managed accordingly.
J. Brar: So then in the database there must be information about individual ministries coming in?
Hon. R. Thorpe: The answer to the question is: yes, there is.
J. Brar: We will wait for the information about that, about the individual ministries and regulations.
I'll go back to the revenue collection portion of it. The government has a ten-year contract with EDS Advanced Solutions. When the contract was just roughly into a year and a half, I know that the ministry first
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opened the contract and then renegotiated the contract when, in fact, an audit was in process.
My question to the minister is: when, in fact, that contract was opened, how much time did it take to negotiate, and what was the last date when the contract was signed for an extended two-year period?
Hon. R. Thorpe: The refresh negotiations started on June 9, 2006, and ended on December 7, 2006.
J. Brar: Can the minister tell us who — it could be an individual or a body — advised the minister to reopen the contract and negotiate just after a year and a half into a ten-year contract?
Hon. R. Thorpe: First of all, the refresh component was in the agreement. It was always envisaged in the agreement on the advice of my deputy minister. I'm sure on the advice of her staff to her, my deputy minister came forward to me that there was an opportunity to look at doing a refresh. We embarked upon that refresh, and as I said, I think it was December 7 that we concluded the refresh, which added two years to the agreement and, we believe, accrued additional financial benefits to British Columbians in the amount of $170 million.
J. Brar: This is a bit surprising for me that the ministry will go in and negotiate a contract for ten years and then have a provision in the contract that you can refresh the contract after a year and a half.
I understand that probably a thorough review of the contract can take place. I understand that various activities of EDS Advanced Solutions can be under review, and subsequently some accountability provisions can be added. But what I don't understand — if the minister can clarify — is that if it was part of the original contract to refresh the agreement after a year and a half, then why at that time did the ministry choose to conduct an audit and then stop the audit in the middle and go into refresh at the same time?
Hon. R. Thorpe: The refresh component of the contract with Advanced Solutions was always a part of the agreement. In this particular situation, and as I understand it through talking to experts, it's part of all major complex contracts involving major technology investments. So this was a best practice to have a refresh component. It's also my understanding that both the Advanced Solutions and the ministry agreed that it would be in the interest of both parties to do that, and that's why it took place.
J. Brar: So in that particular agreement, I understand that the refresh was part of the agreement. Can the minister then explain whether part of that package was that after the refresh takes place and is completed, the agreement will also be extended for two more years? Was that part of the contract, or was that part of the new negotiations?
Hon. R. Thorpe: The original agreement envisaged a ten-year contract with an extension of five years, subject to approval of government on recommendation from staff. What took place in the refresh as a result of it was staff, working with experts in the industry consulting for staff and the government, identified an additional $170 million for the benefit of British Columbians. Therefore, they thought, and I agree, that it would be in the interest of British Columbians to extend the agreement from ten to 12 years. We still have an option for the three remaining years on the contract — the sole option of government to exercise that or not.
J. Brar: You know, as I understand the contract and the agreement language, Minister, yes, there are always provisions to extend the contract — in my opinion, at the expiry and close to the expiry of the contract, not just when the ten-year contract is into a year and a half, and you extended that for two years. So can the minister clarify, then…? I can understand the extension provision for five years, but will that be at the end of the contract, or can you do it the very first day?
Hon. R. Thorpe: A refresh was always envisaged in the ten-year agreement that was signed with Advanced Solutions, and it is the belief of staff and outside professional consultants that have been used that the refresh is resulting in $170 million in financial benefits for British Columbians.
We believe the refresh contract also brings significant enhancements in service levels and performance indicators; increased clarity regarding revenue management system functionality and specifications, including time lines and roles and responsibilities to fully develop the centre of excellence; greater transparency on billings; and an agreement on significant process improvements.
J. Brar: The minister has mentioned a couple of times that the refresh will bring in $170-plus million in additional benefit to the people of British Columbia. Will that be within the framework of the first ten years, or is the minister talking about it within the extended two-year period?
Hon. R. Thorpe: I've been advised by my deputy that the ministry did significant modelling, and the $170 million is the result of the refresh component, bringing the total benefits over the life of the contract to $517 million.
The Chair: Okay, we're going to have a five-minute recess.
The committee recessed from 5:59 p.m. to 6:01 p.m.
[H. Bloy in the chair.]
On Vote 41 (continued).
J. Brar: The minister mentioned a huge amount of additional benefit, and I want to kind of understand it
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and put that into perspective as to what it means to the people of British Columbia. The $170 million the minister initially mentioned, the additional benefit to the people of British Columbia — can the minister explain to us where that money came from?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Improved revenue collections.
J. Brar: Can the minister explain what he means by improved revenue collections and from where that improvement was made? What stream?
Hon. R. Thorpe: First of all, let me tell the members on other side that with respect to transparency on regulatory requirements, if they wanted to get the budget and fiscal plan, they could look at page 97. It has a ministry listing there for them, and I believe that will supply the information they need in that area.
But with respect to the increase of $170 million, I've been advised that we believe that there will be an improved revenue realization due primarily to MSP collections, resulting in the majority of the $170 million.
G. Robertson: I have some questions related to small businesses, particularly small businesses in Vancouver-Fairview, in my riding, that have been significantly impacted by the construction of the Canada line.
At this point we have in excess of 60 small businesses that have closed or moved due to impact from the construction. This government was the initiator and lead funder of the project. There have been repeated queries to the Minister of Small Business and Revenue from business owners along the Canada line, from Yaletown to the Cambie corridor and out into Richmond, for him to respond and offer some source of hope and specifically for him to advocate on behalf of compensation from his government and from the funding partners that his government is working with to construct the line. This minister has not managed to deliver on it.
I'm curious whether the minister has taken any concrete action within his government, with other ministers, to advocate on behalf of the small businesses affected by Canada line construction.
Hon. R. Thorpe: As the member clearly knows, this is the responsibility of TransLink. It's a TransLink project. It's also the responsibility of the city of Vancouver, which sets the tax rates. The city of Vancouver does have access to revitalization provisions if they want to do something under the Community Charter in situations like this. But it is the responsibility of TransLink. It is not the responsibility of the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue.
G. Robertson: I know we've heard repeatedly that it's not the responsibility of this ministry. However, one would assume that this minister would stand up for small businesses, particularly when they number in the hundreds, that are affected by decisions made and funding forwarded by this government — when, in fact, it has had a devastating impact on their ability to conduct business.
My question is whether the minister has been advocating, within his government, for small businesses with the people at TransLink that he no doubt has contact with from time to time — on behalf of the small businesses. Is he taking any kind of active role in advocating for the small businesses that are impacted?
Hon. R. Thorpe: I believe I was fairly clear in my previous answer. This is the responsibility of TransLink. TransLink has sole responsibility for the impacts on those businesses that have been adversely affected. TransLink should deal with the issue.
G. Robertson: Maybe more specifically, has the minister — through his process of consultation with the Small Business Roundtable, for example — reached out to small businesses, such as the hundreds affected by Canada line construction, to seek their feedback on the impacts of government megaprojects on small businesses, in particular when their very survival is at stake? Has that been factored into any of the consultations that have taken place over the last two years?
Hon. R. Thorpe: We have conducted 30 consultations throughout the province, in all regions of British Columbia. We actually don't go to the consultations to talk to people; we actually go to listen to people.
The summary of those consultations has been brought forward in two annual reports in which the permanent Small Business Roundtable has brought forward its recommendations to government. The last one was October 17 of last year. I anticipate another one this year. We are continuing consultations around the province, but our prime purpose is going around the province — all regions of the province — to listen to small business.
G. Robertson: Well, it's interesting that the minister is claiming that he's listening to small businesses around the province. Clearly, hundreds of small businesses directly affected by Canada line construction have been crying out loud and clear for help and not getting any kind of meaningful response.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has made a clear call for this minister and his government to step up and take action to mitigate the impact of this construction project and others that will ensue. There's been no shortage of feedback to the minister.
My question is: is the minister listening to the feedback and to the cries for help coming from the small business community affected by Canada line construction, or do they not qualify as businesses that deserve to be listened to?
Hon. R. Thorpe: We listen very carefully to small businesses in all regions of British Columbia. We have acted on every one of the recommendations that the Small Business Roundtable has brought forward so far
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in their 2006 report. We're now working on recommendations that they have brought forward in their 2007 report. We take very, very seriously the inputs of small business throughout British Columbia. Having been in Nanaimo and Surrey and having been in Powell River most recently, we do listen.
But, again, the hon. member should realize that the responsibility for the item that he talks about is the responsibility of TransLink. TransLink is the one that should and must address the issue of the impact on small businesses on Cambie Street.
G. Robertson: Will the minister agree to holding a small business round table in close proximity to Cambie Street so that the small businesses directly impacted in that corridor have the ability to provide the minister with feedback on their immediate concerns? As far as I know, they have not been able to make the trek to various small business round tables around the province, as they're fighting for survival in their local area.
Will the minister agree to having a round table or actually sitting down with small businesses affected by Canada line construction to listen to their concerns?
Hon. R. Thorpe: As I mentioned earlier, we have conducted some 30 round tables — the last one, January 31, in Port Alberni and the one before that, January 28, in Powell River and the one before that on January 2 in Burnaby.
We are planning to hold eight additional consultations throughout the remainder of the year. We are looking at communities such as Terrace, Cranbrook, Prince Rupert, Fort St. John, Smithers, Dawson Creek, Campbell River and Abbotsford. We are always looking for the opportunity to meet with small business. If we have time, we would certainly consider that.
I think one of the things we should always remember is that when we are…. Perhaps this is what the member for Vancouver-Fairview meant on March 16, 2005, when he said this on the Voice of B.C.: "You can't increase spending" — because that's what he's asking somebody to do — "and not increase taxes." Perhaps if he wants to increase spending for a specific issue, he should come clean with British Columbians and tell which British Columbians he's going to increase taxes on.
G. Robertson: Nothing like being quoted out of context by the minister.
I fail to see how that applies, and I fail to see how the minister justifies a diatribe about small business round tables in Powell River and Dawson Creek having any relevance to the acute pain that hundreds of small businesses are feeling along the Canada line corridor. They're clearly not going to be making the trek to those distant communities.
It would be much appreciated if the minister would actually stand up for small businesses where they're getting mowed down by the dozens, by the scores in this province. But that does not appear to be part of the minister's mandate.
This won't go away for the near term, and there's another megaproject looming, actually, right around the corner from Cambie Street in the Broadway corridor where there are thousands of small businesses that could potentially be impacted by the new Millennium line extension that this minister's government included in their $14 billion transit plan proposal many years down the line.
The small businesses on Broadway are already up in arms, having seen what their peers on Cambie Street have gone through. The prospect of their businesses being devastated by yet another construction project with no small business mitigation fund in place means they'll be very unlikely to support such a megaproject, should it be moved ahead on.
Does the minister have a plan to seek the feedback of small businesses along the Broadway corridor to look at mitigation steps prior to that construction ensuing?
Hon. R. Thorpe: Noting the time, I move that the committee rise, report progress and seek leave to sit again.
The committee rose at 6:16 p.m.
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