2009 Legislative Session: First Session, 39th Parliament
The following electronic version is for informational purposes only.
The printed version remains the official version.
official report of
Debates of the Legislative Assembly
Monday, September 21, 2009
Volume 2, Number 9
Introductions by Members
Statements (Standing Order 25B)
Energy conference in Dawson Creek
Work of women's organizations in Campbell River
Women in government
Gorge waterway cleanup
Tynehead community history
Introduction and First Reading of Bills
Bill 8 — Strata Property Amendment Act, 2009
Hon. R. Coleman
Funding for public health and sports programs
Hon. M. McNeil
Funding for public health programs
Hon. I. Chong
Shelter policy for homeless during extreme weather
Hon. R. Coleman
Orders of the Day
Second Reading of Bills
Bill 2 — Budget Measures Implementation Act (No. 2), 2009
Hon. C. Hansen
Proceedings in the Douglas Fir Room
Committee of Supply
Estimates: Ministry of Labour
Hon. M. Coell
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MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2009
The House met at 1:34 p.m.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
Introductions by Members
R. Cantelon: Joining us today in the gallery is a beautiful and talented singer from Nanaimo, Michelle Krall, who has a better-known sister but nevertheless is a very talented and beautiful woman — Michelle. [Applause.] Thank you, Members.
Joining her today in the gallery are two people well known to this chamber — former members here, Sindi Hawkins and Lorne Mayencourt. Please make them all welcome.
B. Simpson: In 1967 Canada changed forever when my folks immigrated here from Scotland with four Simpsons.
B. Simpson: I'm not saying it was good or bad. It just changed.
It's my great pleasure to have my mom and dad, Bob and Cathy Simpson, in the audience. They now hail from Kelowna, and they're here to watch us all behave ourselves during question period. I ask the House to please join me in welcoming my parents to the House.
Hon. M. McNeil: It gives me great pleasure to introduce some of my family members here today: my husband, Rod McNeil; my eldest daughter, Molly O'Callaghan; and three of my gorgeous grandchildren, Nora Jess O'Callaghan, Fiona Frances O'Callaghan and Roger Webb O'Callaghan. These three children go to Highlands Elementary School in North Van, one of the new schools that just opened this year, where my daughter is chair of the PAC.
D. Donaldson: It's not often — in fact, I think this is the first time — I've been able to introduce guests from Stikine, because it's so far north. On this occasion it's just because they missed their flight home that I'm able to introduce them.
I'd like to introduce in the gallery my wife, Anne Docherty, who is also president of Literacy B.C., and my former colleague in Storytellers Foundation, Melanie Sondergaard. Would the House please welcome them to this session.
Hon. N. Yamamoto: I'd like to introduce Matt Morrison. Matt is the executive director of the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region, better known as PNWER. This is a group that brings together legislators, private sector leaders and communities to discuss areas of common priority, such as the environment, economic development, energy and trade. Please make Matt Morrison welcome.
M. Mungall: Well, it's my joy today to introduce a very talented nurse practitioner, an excellent community volunteer and the best do-it-yourself home renovator that I've ever worked with — my partner in life, Zak Matieschyn. May the House make him feel very welcome.
Hon. S. Bond: Two introductions today. First of all, a young man joining us in the precinct who is very interested in politics and the political process. His name is Paul Bondoc. He graduated from UNBC in April with a degree in political science and English. He volunteers actively in our community, and he's here to learn just a little bit more about the political process.
It's great that the member opposite's parents are here, because I'm sure we're all going to be on our best behaviour this afternoon.
The second introduction. We're delighted to have a number of visitors with us from Prince George. They're here for meetings in regards to the assessing, planning and training program for displaced forest workers. So we're very delighted to have Frank Everitt and Brian O'Rourke, who are with the United Steelworkers; Terry Tate, who is the forest worker coordinator; and Myrt Turner, who is with Turner and Associates, who have worked very hard to put this successful program together.
I know the members will join me in making them all very welcome today.
D. Routley: I'd like the House to help me make welcome four guests: first, my friend Rick Doman, who's a friend to everyone from the Cowichan Valley, the family legacy being one of the elements of the history of Cowichan Valley that we are most proud of; Tek Manhas, who is a manager with Island Hearing; and a local accountant, Les Atcheson, and his partner, Katherine Atcheson — both dedicated servants to the communities in the Cowichan Valley. Please help me make them welcome.
H. Bloy: I want to introduce a group of individuals from Nigeria that is visiting here today — they're attending Simon Fraser University — the learning strategies group at the Segal School of Business. I'll apologize now if I mispronounce anyone's name.
The Parliamentary Secretary for Multiculturalism and I will be meeting with them later this afternoon. I'll just say the last names. We have Akinyoola, Lofindipe — Linda was helping me — Omodu, Onyeji and Orji.
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J. Slater: It is my pleasure to introduce Zach Poturica from Osoyoos. Zach worked tirelessly on my campaign. He's a very active member of the Young Liberals of British Columbia, and he's a volunteer fireman. So please make him welcome.
C. Trevena: We often talk in this House about how we rely on our constituency assistants. Well, they have someone they rely on — their family members.
I'm very sad to share with this House the death of my constituency assistant's husband, Ken Stone. He died last week. Ken, as anybody who knew him knows, was a generous, decent, good man who loved and supported my assistant, Lynne. They were married for more than 30 years. They originally came from England and lived across the north Island — Port Alice, Quatsino and then Campbell River. Ken loved his family. He was an ardent cricket fan and cricket player and a fan of Manchester United.
He also loved politics, so I was very pleased when he worked on my campaigns. He'd worked on previous NDP campaigns in the past, for Colin Gabelmann and for Margaret Lord. Then he joined and worked on my campaigns. When he died, he was hoping to be my constituency association president for a second year.
I hope the House would extend their sympathies to Lynne and to her family. They're having a private funeral next weekend.
(Standing Order 25B)
ENERGY CONFERENCE IN DAWSON CREEK
P. Pimm: This week is Oil and Gas Week in British Columbia, and to celebrate Oil and Gas Week, the community of Dawson Creek is hosting the energy conference. Every year one of our major communities in Peace River and the northern Rockies area takes a turn hosting the annual oil and gas conference. This year the conference is being hosted by Dawson Creek on September 24 and 25. It will be billed as the energy conference, rather than the usual oil and gas conference. Last year was Fort St. John, the year before Fort Nelson and so on.
The conference is a time when the energy sector can get together with municipalities, the provincial government, first nations, the local area businesses as well as contractors to discuss issues and concerns and to look at what the future may bring. It's also an opportunity for municipalities to talk to the industry about issues that are of concern to them and for dialogue to flow between all of the groups. It's also a time for these groups to talk with the Energy Minister and have an opportunity to deal with any concerns that they may have.
The energy sector supplies many full-time, seasonal, spinoff jobs that help secure the future of our area. The northeastern part of the province has a very bright future not only in the oil and gas industry but in the entire energy sector in general. We know that there's a slight slowdown at present, but the price of gas will not stay at this low level forever, and we will be positioned to strike again once the price and the economy recover.
British Columbia remains one of the most competitive regions to do business primarily due to the good policies that this government has put in place over the past eight years. The oil and gas sector contributes in a huge way to the economy of British Columbia, with about 28 percent of the total resource revenue and an annual contribution of about $2 billion — a total of $38 billion since 2001. With the addition of the rest of the energy sector, these totals will increase dramatically in the future.
I want to congratulate the organizers of the annual conference and wish them continued success in the future.
WORK OF WOMEN'S ORGANIZATIONS
IN CAMPBELL RIVER
C. Trevena: I'd like to offer the House a couple of snapshots of life in Campbell River. We're always proud of our constituencies, and I'm particularly proud of the way people in the communities that elected me to represent them come together to help one another.
At the end of every summer the Campbell River Women's Centre becomes more of a focal point in the community for women than usual, so much so that it has to temporarily use another space in town to hand out school supplies. The binders, notebooks, bookbags, pencils, pens and scissors — the necessities of school life not provided by the school — are handed to those families who can't afford to buy them for their children.
This year about 300 school supply kits were distributed. That's 300 children in town whose families can't afford the basics for their children's education. There's never any stigma in the annual school supply drive, and the volunteers from the women's centre try to match the students' individual preferences with the donated stock that they hand out.
A couple of weeks later another group of women comes together to help other women and their children. The annual Women for Women 10-kilometre run or walk raises money for bursaries to help women — often single mothers — with some of the costs involved in going to North Island College. This year enough cash was raised for at least four bursaries.
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One of them was thanks to the donation of just one woman — a woman who was the first graduate of a high school child care program. She became pregnant in grade 12 but was able to stay in school and graduate, thanks to Cari's at Carihi. Now she's a nurse with a 17-year-old and a new younger family, but she knows she was lucky. Her child care was free, and as a single mom she had financial assistance to be able to attend post-secondary. She knows that women and their children are not so fortunate today and wanted to ease the way for at least one other woman to get a post-secondary education.
These are just two snapshots, but in so many ways and at so many times across the community, women come out to help women and their children have a better chance at a good life.
WOMEN IN GOVERNMENT
L. Reid: In 1918 Mary Ellen Smith became the first woman Member of the Legislative Assembly in the province of British Columbia. Over our history, we have elected 87 women MLAs in British Columbia. We now have a record 25 women, as well as the highest-ever percentage of women MLAs at almost 30 percent.
However, considering that women make up about half the population, clearly there is still work to do. The United Nations has emphasized that equality in decision-making is essential for the best public policy. One of the ways we can work towards this goal is by supporting organizations such as Equal Voice, an organization that is multipartisan and non-profit.
This autumn Equal Voice will launch a campaign to see more young women elected to all levels of government. Equal Voice brings together men and women, I'm pleased to say, who feel that more women must be elected to every level of government in Canada. These women and men come from every political stripe, and it is a great honour and pleasure for me to be part of this great organization. As it says on the Equal Voice website, our mission is to promote the election of more women to all levels of government and ultimately to change the face of Canadian politics.
This group deserves our support. I would like to encourage everyone to visit the Equal Voice website at www.equalvoice.ca. I also hope to see everyone at the Equal Voice event which will be held here at the Legislature in November.
GORGE WATERWAY CLEANUP
R. Fleming: Over the weekend a wonderful event took place in my community in Victoria–Swan Lake. I'm referring to the annual cleanup of the Gorge waterway. For the ninth year in a row, the Burnside Gorge Community Association and the Gorge-Tillicum Association hosted the Gorge Waterway Cleanup.
It was on Saturday, September 19 this year. It's an annual event that has become very successful and is actually linked to international initiatives during the month of September that are aimed at clearing up shorelines around the world.
These two community associations, which represent a shared shoreline in both Victoria and Saanich neighbourhoods, have been working with schools and small businesses, local government, non-profit organizations and hundreds of volunteers to clean up the ocean and shoreline of the upper arm of Victoria's harbour, which stretches from the Bay Street bridge to the Tillicum street bridge.
Over two tonnes of debris is retrieved during the cleanup of the Gorge each year. This benefits, of course, birds and wildlife and sea creatures. And the greater community will, and has, benefited from their activities over the years.
Like a lot of community members, I'm extremely proud of the results because we have a visibly cleaner stretch of land and ocean here in the urban area of Victoria. This includes a healthier habitat for a wide variety of species, and it also links up to one of our strongest recreational corridors that we have in this region. It's a beautiful area known as the Galloping Goose Trail.
Thanks to the annual cleanup, recreational activity in the Gorge is flourishing like never before. It's home to our region's dragon boat races. There are several rowing and kayak clubs on this waterway. There have been incredible improvements to water quality, which have actually enabled the return of one of the area's original water sports that was enjoyed on this pristine waterway, and I'm referring to swimming. I'm told that during the July heat wave, it actually was quite bearable for those activities to happen. Hundreds of people were seen swimming again in the Gorge waterway because of nine years of cleaning up.
I want to thank the community and all the volunteers who participated again.
TYNEHEAD COMMUNITY HISTORY
D. Hayer: Remembering our history is incredibly important because it reminds all of us where we came from and what it took to make British Columbia what it is today. Nowhere in this province is our history celebrated more than in my riding of Surrey-Tynehead, which is one of the most historical areas in B.C. Tynehead dates back to the 1880s when they were first homesteaded by William Bothwell and his family, who were joined on a neighbouring homestead by William's brothers James and Thomas and their families.
The centrepiece of the area is, of course, Tynehead Hall on 168th Street and 92nd Avenue. This wonderful reminder of our history was built over a hundred years
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ago. It is operated by Tynehead Pioneers association, Tynehead Historical Society and Tynehead Women's Auxiliary, the first women's auxiliary formed in B.C.
Every year there's a celebration of our history when the Tynehead Pioneers host, as they did last week, the annual reunion of members of Tynehead pioneers' families. I was in attendance on September 12, the 57th reunion, as I have attended every year since 2001.
This was a wonderful gathering of longtime families in our community of Tynehead. I want to congratulate the current Tynehead Pioneers association president Dave Stevens, grandson of pioneer Joseph Stevens's family who arrived in Tynehead in 1918; past president Zina York, granddaughter of pioneer Rory McCaskill's family who arrived in Tynehead 1890; and secretary Judy de Vries, granddaughter of pioneer William Frost's family who arrived in Tynehead in 1907.
I ask all the members in the House to join me in congratulating all those members, volunteers and family members for keeping our history alive and for reminding all of us of the value and importance of the contribution of all of those who over many years have made our community and our province the best place to live and a great province.
J. Kwan: At four in the afternoon on Wednesday, August 19, a crowd of 160 people gathered to pay their respects to Curtis Brick, a well-known and popular homeless man. Flowers were placed at the spot where he was found on July 29 in Grandview Park on Commercial Drive. His friend, Dwayne Koe, brought his guitar and sang a song called "We Are One." Curtis Brick, 46, died on one of the hottest days of the year mere metres away from a water fountain and children's water park.
Aboriginal outreach worker Eric Schweig saw Brick in the morning that day and became alarmed when he saw him convulsing almost six hours later. There are still outstanding questions relating to the circumstances of his death. Kat Norris of the Indigenous Action movement; David Dennis, president-elect of the United Native Nations; Grand Chief Stuart Phillip from the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the Vancouver Aboriginal Transformative Justice Services Society are asking for a coroner's inquest. Both the member for Port Coquitlam and I certainly agree with this request.
A number of Curtis Brick's friends regularly visit my constituency office. A group of people known as the Homeless Nation have frequented Grandview Park for many years and are an important part of our community. I would like to express my gratitude to them for informing my office of this situation and the caring attitude they have shown to each other and the kindness they have for their friend, Curtis. The Homeless Nation are amongst the most compassionate and caring people that I have ever met. They help to make our community stronger.
I would like to express my deepest condolences to Curtis's family, friends and many organizations that were in contact with him. I would like to ask all members of this House to recognize Curtis Brick and to thank the members of the Homeless Nation for showing such compassion and caring for their friend, Curtis.
First Reading of Bills
bill 8 — strata property
amendment act, 2009
Hon. R. Coleman presented a message from His Honour the Lieutenant-Governor: a bill intituled Strata Property Amendment Act, 2009.
Hon. R. Coleman: I move that Bill 8 be introduced and read a first time now.
Hon. R. Coleman: I am pleased to introduce amendments to the Strata Property Act. This act oversees the creation of strata developments and how strata corporations must operate. These changes will provide greater certainty to own or rent a strata unit. They will significantly improve dispute resolution processes for strata corporations and strata owners, enhance consumer protection, improve certainty regarding the ability to rent a strata unit and clarify aspects of the act.
Small claims court will now be able to hear strata property disputes. The disputes will be solved faster and cost less money, and the amendments will create new arbitration and mediation processes. We are also improving the Strata Property Act so that strata corporations are more prepared for any future repairs or upgrades that need to be made.
Changes will enhance opportunities for renting out units and new strata developments, creating more housing opportunities in a tight rental market. These changes are the results of consultations with key stakeholders, including condominium associations, strata managers, developers and lawyers.
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 8, Strata Property Amendment Act, 2009, introduced, read a first time and ordered to be placed on orders of the day for second reading at the next sitting of the House after today.
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FUNDING FOR PUBLIC HEALTH
AND SPORTS PROGRAMS
C. James: In February B.C. Hydro paid $264,000 for some of the most expensive seats for 2010 events. Here we are, six months later, and this government is cutting programs that promote public health and active living and support kids' sports.
My question is to the Minister of State for the Olympics. Why is B.C. Hydro spending taxpayer dollars on Olympic luxury tickets, and why is this government making the choice to pay for a few to watch hockey when it's also cutting dollars for kids to actually play hockey?
Hon. M. McNeil: There's a reason most leading economists in Canada say B.C. is going to lead Canada in growth in 2010, and it is because of these Olympic Games. These games will be the single largest economic generator our province will undertake this coming year.
In addition, these games are expected to generate $4 billion in economic benefits at the very time we need it the most, so that we can afford to support health care and education.
Mr. Speaker: Members.
Leader of the Opposition has a supplemental.
C. James: I'd like to remind the minister again that this is about choices — choices that this government is making to spend $264,000 for a very few people to be able to watch one of the most expensive events at the Olympics and cutting support for kids who actually want to play hockey in British Columbia all year round.
So my question, again…. I come back to the cuts. When we heard last week from the Minister of Healthy Living, the minister said that the cuts were only administrative spending. Then we heard that perhaps they were one-time pilot programs. Well, I would like to remind this House of the reality. B.C. Healthy Communities, a program that promotes healthy living in rural communities — a $556,000 cut. Active communities B.C. — five years this program has been going, providing services for aboriginal communities — $1.5 million in cuts.
So my question is again to the minister. Why is it acceptable to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on luxury boxes at GM Place when British Columbia is losing vital programs for kids and to keep our population healthy?
Hon. M. McNeil: B.C. Hydro is an official sponsor of the Olympics, and they are using this opportunity to promote conservation, which all of us on both sides of the House should be game for. But I would like to remind….
Mr. Speaker: Members. Members.
Hon. M. McNeil: I would like to remind the members opposite that hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games offers the ideal opportunity to continue to spread the ActNow B.C. message on the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle. British Columbia now leads the country as the healthiest jurisdiction in Canada, and this government is proud of our record of support in this area.
Mr. Speaker: The Leader of the Opposition has a further supplemental.
C. James: I've never heard such an explanation. Using the money for conservation to send a few people to a luxury box during the Olympics? Perhaps the minister and government could tell B.C. Hydro to actually conserve the money to address climate change. That might actually be something positive to use the dollars for.
The government's story keeps changing but certainly not its priorities. We've seen minister after minister try and cover up the cuts that are coming. Last week we heard a minister describe the cuts in her ministry as only one-time pilot projects. Now we know that wasn't the case. We know that critical public health services are being cut.
Last week we found out that this government made the choice to spend $500,000 on an Olympic party. This week it's luxury seats at GM Place.
My question is again to the minister. When will this government get its priorities right? When will it start spending taxpayer dollars where they should be spent — supporting kids in sports and healthy communities?
Hon. M. McNeil: I find this interesting to hear from the members opposite, when the NDP has voted against cap-and-trade. They have voted against carbon tax and any of the green energy projects.
Mr. Speaker: Members.
Hon. M. McNeil: B.C. Hydro….
Mr. Speaker: Minister, just take your seat.
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Mr. Speaker: Members. Members.
Hon. M. McNeil: I think it's very clear that B.C. Hydro is an official supporter of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. They understand that in promoting these games they are able to get their conservation message out there. I think it's important for all of us.
Mr. Speaker: Continue.
Hon. M. McNeil: I would like to ask the members opposite: what is it about the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games that they have an objection to?
K. Corrigan: Well, that's the conservation message at 400 bucks a ticket. Over a quarter-million dollars of public money for the most expensive — the most expensive — private suite available, for 33 hockey games for a mere 20 privileged people, while thousands of the most vulnerable in B.C. will lose access to health promotion programs.
To the minister: why are 264,000 of taxpayer dollars being spent on an Olympic hockey game luxury box when British Columbians are losing access to important health services — services that B.C. Liberals promised to protect during the election?
Hon. M. McNeil: If the members opposite would have spoken to B.C. Hydro about their Olympic tickets, they would have discovered that the vast majority — more than 80 percent — of these tickets will be going to the public and to their customers. And again, these tickets will be….
Mr. Speaker: Minister, just take your seat.
Mr. Speaker: Members.
Hon. M. McNeil: Again, these tickets will be distributed to residential and business customers who have demonstrated leadership in the area of conservation and to promote business development opportunities with B.C. Hydro.
Mr. Speaker: Members. Members.
Member has a supplemental.
K. Corrigan: We're well aware of that program. If the minister is telling me right now that those 400-bucks-a-seat tickets are going to members of the public and others, we'd be welcome to hear about it.
Mr. Speaker: Members.
K. Corrigan: We're talking 400 bucks a seat for just 20 people, and that doesn't include the cost of wining and dining the chosen few — this at a time when we are seeing cuts to sports, young athletes programs and health promotion services — things central to the success of the 2010 games.
To the minister: will she admit it was wrong to waste $264,000 — taxpayer dollars — to allow a few government insiders to watch exclusive 2010 events, when funding to support young school and community athletes and kids' sports is being obliterated?
Hon. M. McNeil: If I could repeat again that B.C. Hydro is an official sponsor of the 2010 Olympic Games. The vast majority of these tickets will be going to the public and their customers.
I think that if they did their homework, they would see that B.C. Hydro is there to spread the word of conservation and economic development in this province. These games will be an economic generator of almost $4 billion.
In just 144 days, when the games begin, there will be 250,000 people here in British Columbia to visit during the games. They will be spending their dollars, and they will be benefiting our province big-time. There will be over three billion viewers watching this province.
J. Horgan: So let me get this straight. The government expects us to believe and the people of British Columbia to believe that they scoured the books for discretionary spending to cut — like high school sports, like parent advisory councils, like programs for public health. And they missed luxury boxes for hockey games? If ever there was discretionary spending, one would think that would be it.
My question is to the Minister for the Olympics. Is B.C. Hydro going to promote conservation by turning the lights out in the luxury box when the hockey game is on? Is that how they're promoting conservation?
Hon. M. McNeil: Again, B.C. Hydro, an official supporter of the 2010 Winter Games, is a supporter out there for the Olympics. They will be demonstrating to the rest of the world, through the television audience that we will have, all about green energy and about conservation. These are important messages that obviously are lost on the other side of this House.
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Mr. Speaker: Members. Members.
The member has a supplemental.
J. Horgan: I think you're missing the point. But what's new?
Mr. Speaker: The member has a supplemental.
J. Horgan: As much as I would like to hear more from the impartial Attorney General, perhaps I can pose my question to the Minister of Healthy Living. Perhaps she can explain to the people of my constituency and right across British Columbia how it is a good thing for British Columbians to reduce access to high school sports and then, on the other hand, spend a quarter of a million dollars so some fat cats can sit in a luxury box and watch hockey games. How do I sell that to my constituents? How do I do it?
Hon. M. McNeil: As I've said continually, the most leading economists are saying that we are going to lead the economy in growth in 2010, and it is because of the 2010 games. This will be the single-largest economic generator that we will have in 2010, and that's what's…. These games will generate $4 billion back into our economy at the very time we need it the most so that we can pay for our priorities, which are health care and education.
FUNDING FOR PUBLIC HEALTH PROGRAMS
J. Brar: People of British Columbia expect honesty, and they expect to be given the facts. That's not the case with this government, and that's not coming forward from this minister.
Last week, when we asked to provide the details of the 42.9 percent funding cuts in her ministry, the Minister of Healthy Living and Sport refused to provide the facts. Now we know. Now we know that significant cuts are on the table, and key Healthy Living services will be lost.
My question is to the Minister of Healthy Living and Sport. Can she now confirm that funding for B.C. Healthy Communities and active communities in B.C. has been cut? And will she also confirm that these are more than one-time pilot projects, as she claimed last time?
Hon. I. Chong: When we reviewed our ministry budgets to find administrative savings and other savings to ensure that we can protect our critical services — like health care, like education — we absolutely did take a look at where we were spending dollars in discretionary spending.
Discretionary spending is absolutely that. It provides an opportunity for us to fund pilot programs — some of which last two years, one year or even five years or longer — but they are, in fact, discretionary in the sense that they provide the opportunities for applications to come forward to allow us to support those initiatives in the community and then for the communities to build on that foundation.
We've done that, and many of the communities are going to continue to provide those services, because they do promote healthy living, they do have active, healthy lifestyles, and they want their citizens to be healthy, as we do.
Mr. Speaker: The member has a supplemental.
J. Brar: Three cabinet ministers, one file and zero answers — that's the deal. Mr. Speaker, $556,000 is being cut from B.C. Healthy Communities, and another $1.5 million is being cut from active communities in B.C., and yet the first response from this minister when we asked about the funding cuts was that these are administrative cuts.
This minister has had a week since we asked this question the first time. Can she finally provide the facts to the people of British Columbia by tabling the list of all funding cuts related to public health?
Hon. I. Chong: I appreciate the opportunity to correct the member opposite. Last week when I indicated that savings were being found throughout government to support health care and education, I did in fact say administrative savings were being found as well as in our discretionary spending.
I didn't say to the member that there wasn't going to be a reduction in discretionary spending. He had the blue books. They were put out on September 1. The blue book, the estimates, actually shows that the amount set aside for discretionary spending has, in fact, been reduced.
However, we are continuing to support some of our critical programs — our QuitNow program, which is important for tobacco cessation. I don't hear the members opposite talking about that program.
There are a number of programs that we have supported in the past, which were provided to support pilot projects, which were provided to jump-start a number of communities so that they can promote healthy lifestyles. I can say that our ActNow initiative, our provincewide initiative, continues to gain international recognition, and that's one of the reasons why British Columbia is the healthiest population in all of Canada.
D. Donaldson: Just on Friday, September 18, the director of B.C. Healthy Communities, Jodi Mucha, had to
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send a letter to her staff announcing more than $500,000 in program and staff cuts — cuts to seed grants for rural communities supporting food security initiatives, for example.
The minister responsible said to this House that she is cutting $20 million, with no program cuts. "Administrative only," she said. Well, that now flies in the face of reality. Will the Minister of Healthy Living and Sport tell us: did she not even know these cuts to programming in her own ministry were coming?
Hon. I. Chong: Once again, I want to advise the member that the savings that we have had to find throughout government to fund health care and to fund education come from a variety of areas, administration included, which is travel and office expenses, and also, as I indicated last week, deals with discretionary spending.
Discretionary spending is exactly as the word…
Mr. Speaker: Members.
Hon. I. Chong: …describes. It's discretionary in that it's not guaranteed funding each and every year. It does provide for opportunities on a year-to-year basis to take a look at those programs from applications that we wish to help fund seed dollars to. It may be to continue on to a program, but it also allows us, because it is discretionary, to fund new programs. The discretionary spending that has been reduced throughout government allows us to keep funding health care and education.
Mr. Speaker: Member has a supplemental.
D. Donaldson: Unbelievable. I mean, we all saw this minister's performance on television last week. She wasn't talking about discretionary cuts. She was talking about administrative cuts.
I'm asking the minister just one straightforward question, looking for a simple answer. Again, will the minister stand up and explain why she said that no programming cuts are taking place when it's obvious they are?
Hon. I. Chong: Well, it's obvious that those members opposite don't support finding the savings necessary to protect health care and education. They vote against every budget. They vote against every increase that we have to our health care and education spending.
Mr. Speaker: Minister, just take your seat.
Hon. I. Chong: What is important is that we find savings to support health care and education, and the dollars we have available to continue to support critical programs are supported — critical programs such as our QuitNow program. We have the lowest tobacco use in this province, and we continue to drive that number down. Why? Because we support programs, and we work with the B.C. Lung Association through our QuitNow program. We're going to continue to fund that.
Those are some of the critical programs we'll continue to work towards. Other discretionary spending — there certainly have been programs that were introduced for one-year, perhaps two-year programs. Those are no longer going to be funded.
A. Dix: The Minister of Healthy Living last Tuesday in question period described these cuts as administrative six times, while she increased her administrative budget by 5 percent and doubled the costs for her minister's office.
One of the programs they cut was the Healthy Choices in Pregnancy project, a $420,000 program designed, in the words of the now Minister of Children and Families, "to improve the health of mothers and their babies and decrease the number of infants born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder." Can the minister explain why she chose to eliminate this program?
Hon. I. Chong: Well, I'm really proud to say that with our ActNow B.C. goal for counselling pregnant women about alcohol consumption, we've exceeded that goal. According to a review — fall of 2008, a physicians chart — 71 percent of pregnant women in British Columbia received counselling about alcohol consumption during pregnancy. That's a huge amount.
This member should know, as well, that all health authorities have a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder prevention plan in place. They are programs that are continuing to provide important information for women who are pregnant. That will continue.
A. Dix: In the fall of 2008 the ministry actually created this program. In February they confirmed it in the budget, and they confirmed the budget line. Then, in June the program was cancelled with no ability to assess its effectiveness.
And now — get this for ineptitude — the minister is stiffing B.C. Women's Hospital with the bill for the first three months of this fiscal year: $100,000. There was no explanation, none given by the minister just now, for cutting this program, which her own colleague lauded not less than a year ago.
A very simple question, Minister. We'll try it again. Why did the minister cut this program?
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Hon. I. Chong: No government has done more to support pregnant women and mothers in the province than our government. Recently in Richmond a new maternity unit at Richmond Hospital was opened, a $6.7 million investment; a $13.8 million expansion and redevelopment of the maternal and pediatric unit at Prince George Regional Hospital. Our government has a strong record of support for pregnant women despite these challenging economic times.
SHELTER POLICY FOR HOMELESS
DURING EXTREME WEATHER
S. Simpson: Earlier this morning we received documents and heard about documents regarding the proposed assisting to shelter act. This is a piece of legislation, the key premise of which is nothing less than an outrageous and likely illegal imposition on the civil liberties of the homeless.
Just to note that if you look at the proposed process to assist persons to shelter, in point 5 it says: "…in order for the police officer to discharge their legal responsibility, the individual may be taken to police cells, either voluntarily or involuntarily, where they will be held until the extreme weather declaration is no longer in effect."
Now, we know the Minister of Housing and Social Development has been backtracking on this all day in the media.
Will the minister admit that if he had provided his staff with directions to look at ways to improve the stock of shelters for this winter, rather than directing the proposed schemes on how to strong-arm the homeless, we'd be better off today?
Hon. R. Coleman: Don't confuse the critic for the opposition with the facts. He knows it's a discussion paper, but let me just stop there for a second. I just want you guys over there to think for a second.
If there was a way last winter, when three police officers talked to a woman on the streets of Vancouver, that you could have convinced somebody to go into a shelter rather than burn to death, would you come up with a piece of legislation or something to try and make that happen? Would you have enough…?
Mr. Speaker: Members.
Minister, just take your seat. Minister, take your seat.
Mr. Speaker: Members. Members on both sides, please.
Hon. R. Coleman: Would you have the humanity to try and find solutions? Would you? Would you?
Let me tell you something, hon. Members. There were only 700 shelter beds in British Columbia at the time you left government in 2001. Today there are three times as many shelter beds in the province of British Columbia.
Mr. Speaker: Members.
Hon. R. Coleman: Calm down, Member. Calm down. I'll get to you, Member.
Mr. Speaker: Members.
Hon. R. Coleman: There were 1,300 units of supportive housing in the province of British Columbia for people with mental health and addictions that were homeless on the street. Today there are 5,000, plus a thousand more under construction.
[End of question period.]
Mr. Speaker: Members.
Orders of the Day
Hon. M. de Jong: In Committee A, I call Committee of Supply. For the information of members, we'll be beginning with the estimates for the Ministry of Labour, and in this chamber, second reading of Bill 2, the Budget Measures Implementation Act (No. 2).
Mr. Speaker: Could members going to Committee A…. We just want to get started.
Second Reading of Bills
Bill 2 — BUDGET MEASURES
IMPLEMENTATION ACT (No. 2), 2009
Hon. C. Hansen: I move that Bill 2, the Budget Measures Implementation Act (No. 2), 2009, be read a second time now.
Bill 2 is the first step in laying the foundation for economic recovery. The provisions in this bill give government the time needed to put in place the measures that will bring the budget into balance once again at the earliest opportunity.
It makes a number of amendments that will facilitate the business of government and ensure broader representation in the decision-making process.
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Bill 2 secures a competitive tax system by providing further tax relief for individuals and for small businesses, and it clarifies a variety of tax treatments, including the treatment of motor fuels in relation to the renewable fuel standard.
Bill 2 is divided into two parts. The first part deals with non-tax budget measures, and the second part deals with the tax measures.
In part 1, the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act is amended to allow deficit budgets over the next four years, returning to a balanced budget in 2013-2014. Extending the deficit period from two to four years is absolutely necessary to ensure critical services are maintained for British Columbians.
The changes that we have seen are too big. The loss of revenue is too great for governments to table a balanced budget any earlier than that without doing significant harm to critical services. Government accepts the consequences of this action, as laid out in the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act. During the four-year period that the government will be tabling deficit budgets, government ministers will lose their 10 percent salary holdback until we return to surpluses.
Once we return to balanced budgets, government is still committed to eliminating the provincial government's direct operating debt. The Finance Statutes (Deficit Authorization and Debt Elimination) Act, 2009, is amended to adjust the date that government must begin retiring the operating debt to coincide with the resumption of balanced budgets.
Government has maintained the provision that once the deficit period is over, no supplementary estimates may be presented to this House until the direct operating debt is gone. This government is committed to living within its means, and as B.C. returns to solid fiscal ground, we intend to get rid of the direct operating debt once and for all.
Bill 2 also amends the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act to ensure that supplementary estimates are automatically included in individual ministerial accountability targets. This measure streamlines the business of the Legislature by eliminating the requirement for separate legislation to adjust these targets every time supplemental estimates are passed by the Legislature. Other than the years when supplemental estimates will not be permitted, these supplemental estimates will still be debated and voted on in the House.
Once they are passed, the approved appropriations will immediately be added to a minister's accountabilities and a revised schedule of those accountabilities will be included in the supplemental estimates. As well, ministerial accountabilities will no longer include statutory spending. As we've seen this summer with forest fire costs, statutory spending can increase significantly due to factors beyond the control of the ministers responsible. However, these amendments to individual accountabilities in the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act do not alter cabinet's collective responsibility to balance the budget.
[L. Reid in the chair.]
Bill 2 amends the Budget Transparency and Accountability Act to set March 2 of 2010 as the legislated budget date for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. This allows the 2010-2011 budget to be presented in the lull between the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, which end on February 28, and the start of the Paralympic Winter Games, which start on March 12.
This opportunity will bring together 7,000 athletes and coaches, a quarter of a million visitors and three billion television viewers to showcase British Columbia. The timing of budget day ensures that the full focus of the Legislature will be on the budget when it is presented. The amendment also allows the release of the third quarterly results for the 2009-2010 fiscal year on that same date.
Bill 2 amends the Continuing Care Act to enable the Minister of Health Services to alleviate financial hardship for low-income British Columbians by authorizing the reduction or waiver of user fees for continuing care services. The amendments authorize the Minister of Health Services to obtain client consent for the disclosure of personal information from other public organizations such as the Canada Revenue Agency.
This information is necessary for the purpose of determining the client's entitlement to a fee subsidy or a waiver. Collection of this type of information is consistent with the practice for low-income-based relief programs such as the shelter assistance for elderly renters and other programs.
The amendments also authorize the Minister of Health Services to prescribe how a payment is calculated, in order to allow for the use of a formula in place of fixed rates. Such a formula would increase the flexibility in determining client rates, particularly in instances of financial hardship. Similar amendments are also being made to the Hospital Insurance Act to enable the setting of differentiated rates and the waiver of payments in cases of hardship.
Bill 2 amends the Financial Administration Act to provide full voting status to private members of the Legislative Assembly who sit on the Treasury Board. This amendment ensures broad representation on the cabinet committee by enabling full participation in committee decisions by all members of Treasury Board.
The amendment recognizes the chair and the vice-chair of Treasury Board to be members of the executive
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council, and the majority of Treasury Board members must be appointed from executive council, thereby preserving the appropriate cabinet oversight of the committee's deliberations.
Bill 2 contains several amendments and provisions to facilitate the windup of Tourism British Columbia that was announced on August 17 of this year. The Financial Information Act and the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act are amended to strike out references to the corporation.
The Hotel Room Tax Act is amended to continue that portion of the tax dedicated to Tourism B.C. and to ensure that it remains as revenue allocated towards promoting tourism in the province. The Tourism Act is amended to enable the Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Arts to carry out the activities previously done by Tourism B.C. The Tourism British Columbia Act is amended to clarify how boards are appointed, and the Tourism British Columbia Act is, in fact, repealed effective April 1 of 2010.
Finally, part 1 of Bill 2 contains a number of transitional provisions. Once Tourism B.C. is dissolved, Bill 2 provides for the transfer of all assets and liabilities of the corporation to the consolidated revenue fund, and Bill 2 designates the estimates and other budget documents presented to the Legislature on September 1, 2009, as the new estimates for the 2009-2010 fiscal year.
This clarifies the key financial planning, reporting and accountability reference points for the 2009-2010 fiscal year that are contained in the Budget Transparency and Accountability Act, the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act and the Carbon Tax Act.
Part 2 of Bill 2 amends six tax statutes to implement many of the revenue measures announced in the September budget update. Bill 2 amends the Income Tax Act, effective January 1 of 2010, to increase the basic personal exemption by $1,627, or about 17 percent, from the current level of $9,373 to $11,000. The spouse and equivalent-to-spouse credits will be increased by the same amount. This tax cut will save a single person up to $72 a year and taxpayers with dependent spouses or single parents up to $147 a year and adds to the personal income tax cuts that we have introduced since 2001.
With this additional change, individuals in British Columbia earning up to $118,000 a year will now pay the lowest provincial personal income taxes of any province in Canada. It also means that an additional 75,000 British Columbians will no longer pay any provincial income tax at all. Because of the tax changes since 2001, an additional 325,000 British Columbians have been removed from the income tax rolls and no longer pay any provincial income tax.
Bill 2 also amends the Income Tax Act to provide further relief to small business by increasing the small business tax threshold from $400,000 a year to $500,000 a year. This is the highest threshold in the country and will save small businesses a total of about $20 million annually.
Other amendments to the Income Tax Act. It doubles the basic training tax credit for employers and extends the mining flow-through share tax credit for an additional year. Doubling the training tax credit increases the incentive for employers to hire and train new apprentices, and the extension to the B.C. mining flow-through share tax credit will continue to encourage individuals to invest in British Columbia's mining sector.
Bill 2 amends the Motor Fuel Tax Act and Carbon Tax Act in preparation for the renewable fuel standard, which comes into effect on January 1. The renewable fuel standard is an integral component of the province's climate action plan to reduce CO2 emissions. It will require that the total volume of gas and diesel sold in British Columbia contains an average of 5 percent renewable fuel such as ethanol and biodiesel.
As a result of this requirement, effective January 1, 2010, Bill 2 amends the Motor Fuel Tax Act to tax ethanol and biodiesel at the same rates as the fuels with which they are blended or, if sold as pure ethanol or biodiesel, as gasoline or diesel fuels respectively. The Carbon Tax Act is also amended effective January 1 to impose carbon tax on ethanol as if it were gasoline and on biodiesel as if it were diesel or light fuel oil.
However, the intent of the carbon tax is to impose tax on the actual CO2 emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels. Therefore, the carbon tax rates for gasoline and light fuel oil are reduced by 5 percent to reflect the overall reduction in CO2 emissions which will result from the renewable fuel standard.
These changes are, in part, a response to a significant administrative problem associated with the implementation of the renewable fuel mandate. It is not possible for sellers to track on a litre-by-litre basis the percentage of renewable fuel in each litre of blended fuel sold. These changes address those issues and allow sellers to comply with both their tax obligations and the renewable fuel standards.
Refunds of motor fuel tax and carbon tax are available for persons who entered into fixed-price contracts for ethanol or biodiesel before budget day, subject to certain eligibility requirements.
Bill 2 also contains a number of technical amendments to the Carbon Tax Act, the Motor Fuel Tax Act and the Social Service Tax Act to provide greater clarity and certainty for vendors, purchasers and administrators.
The bill amends the Carbon Tax Act to clarify the taxation of natural gas by eliminating the distinction between unprocessed, or raw, natural gas and marketable natural gas. This distinction is not necessary because both types of natural gas have the same emission profiles and tax rates.
[ Page 572 ]
As part of this clarification, two new fuel types are added to the carbon tax schedule: gas liquids and pentanes plus, both which are obtained from the processing of natural gas. These amendments come into force at the same time as the amendments resulting from the renewable fuel standard to minimize the compliance burden for fuel sellers.
The Carbon Tax Act and the Fuel Tax Act are both amended to clarify the exemption from the obligation to pay security on sales of fuels between eligible collectors by creating a special class of collectors called refiner collectors. This will provide greater clarity for collectors and ensure that the exemption is available to those companies that, in the normal course of their business, regularly exchange fuel, often in other provinces, to ensure that supplies are available as required in British Columbia. This exemption is consistent with the tax treatment for these fuel sellers in other jurisdictions.
Other amendments to the Carbon Tax Act clarify the exemption for fuel brought into British Columbia in the supply tank of a non-commercial aircraft or ship to restrict it to craft used solely for personal use. Separate rules are provided for commercial aircraft and ships to ensure that their domestic emissions are subject to carbon tax as intended. The grounds for suspending or cancelling an appointment, certificate or licence issued under the Carbon Tax Act or the Motor Fuel Act are expanded to include failure to provide a bond, as is required under the act.
The regulation-making powers under the Carbon Tax Act and the Fuel Tax Act are also amended to broaden the powers to make regulations with respect to appeals under the exempt fuel retailer program for fuel sales on first nations reserves. This ensures that exempt fuel retailers have appropriate appeal rights.
The regulation-making powers under the Carbon Tax Act are amended so that the regulatory provisions related to the eligibility of commercial air services that provide only interjurisdictional flights, and exemptions and refunds for commercial air and marine services providing interjurisdictional flights or trips, may be amended retroactively. This ensures that domestic emissions are taxed as intended, consistent with the current administrative practice.
Bill 2 amends the Social Service Tax Act to clarify the tax treatment of leased property that becomes real property during the term of the lease. These provisions are designed to ensure that the tax continues to be payable on leased property that is incorporated into real property, as has always been intended under the act.
The Social Service Tax Act is also amended to clarify the fuels which must be coloured under this act and to clarify the exemptions for drugs and vaccines as a result of amendments made by the Ministry of Health Services.
Finally, Bill 2 amends the Assessment Act to maintain the valuation date for pipelines and other continuous structures at the same date used for the 2009 taxation year. The intent of the assessment changes implemented last fall through the Economic Incentive and Stabilization Statutes Amendment Act, 2008, was to avoid valuing properties at the peak of the market. Bill 2 ensures that the continuous structure properties will not be valued at the peak of the market and will be treated consistently with other property types.
It is also important that we look to the future and continue to work to strengthen our economy. Bill 2 implements measures that will continue to encourage investment and to foster a climate where B.C. businesses and industries will have a real competitive edge over their counterparts in other jurisdictions.
Bill 2 also provides income tax relief for individuals and families, and incentives for employers to train apprentices. These measures will help to position this province to take full advantage of the coming economic recovery and will ensure that we are building a future of prosperity for all British Columbians.
B. Ralston: I rise to speak on this bill, Bill 2, which is the group of legislation that seeks to implement the budget that was just tabled on September 1.
I do have a number of comments in a number of areas, but I think it's rather striking that the minister begins his remarks by talking about the goal of the budget being to set, he claims, a climate for economic recovery. He's far too modest, really, because he didn't mention in his remarks the harmonized sales tax, the HST.
This is not included in the measures. It's not included in these measures because there is no legislation before the House on that matter. We've heard from the Minister of Forests, who says that perhaps legislation will be introduced in the spring, but it's not clear just when that legislation will come forward.
This budget implementation act omits the centrepiece of the budget, and it's clear that introducing what is essentially a regressive tax in the middle of a recession will not assist business or consumers to guide their way towards recovery. I think it's certainly worthy of comment at this stage when attempting to assess the impact of the claims that are made by the minister about the budget in general.
The minister also speaks again about recovery but doesn't really — because this will be addressed in other legislation — speak about medicare premiums. It is anticipated in the budget that the estimate is that $1.6 billion approximately will be recovered through medical services premiums. That number is projected in the three-year projections to grow by 2011-2012 to $1.87 billion.
In this province most employers pay, whether they're unionized…. It's typically an aspect of a collective agreement or even is part of a regular, non-unionized
[ Page 573 ]
employment relationship. The employer pays medical services premiums for its employees. We've seen among the public sector employers that medical services premiums…. The announcement of the increase is a burden on those employers.
While the minister makes some claims about making tax measure changes to assist businesses in the recession, these are an impact on the bottom line of public sector employers, small business — those who pay them — and other employers who pay them regularly as a part of their benefits. Those measures, which are two really significant measures in the budget, are not included in these measures that are before us here at this time.
But the really, I suppose, galling part of this particular bill is the changes that are proposed to the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act. The balanced budget act has been now changed — proposed changes — twice in one year. It might as well be written on a blackboard instead of being enshrined in statutes. It's so subject to change by this government.
The suggestion that the government finances will return to balance — there's a date given somewhere in the future — is of course subject to the fact that if that doesn't take place, the legislation will merely be changed again. The legislation, despite the fancy rhetoric, the high-flown words about a commitment to balanced budgets….
This government has now run the two biggest deficits in the history of the province, the one projected for this year and back in 2003. They inherited a surplus in 2001-2002 of $1.5 billion, confirmed by the Auditor General in the public accounts of the province, and quickly took the province's finances into the biggest deficit ever seen. We're now back, with their dismal record of fiscal incompetence and bad management, to the biggest deficit, yet again, in the history of the province.
This government was quick to claim, when commodity prices were high, when the world economy was chugging along, that this was all the magic of B.C. Liberal management. But now that the economy is in the tank and the government did not prepare properly for an inevitable downturn, somehow this is a problem of the global economy and no responsibility can be assigned or claimed by B.C. Liberals on the opposite side of the House.
It's fine to take the credit on the way up, but when it comes to the downturn, someone else is to blame. There's never an opportunity, it seems, to look in the mirror and face squarely what was going on, and that relates to the budget that was tabled in February.
We heard the repeated claims of the Premier — most notably on April 23, square to the cameras — that the deficit in this province would be $495 million maximum, a very emphatic, clear statement which obviously, by the tabling of this budget, was not accurate, not correct.
One wonders what was passing through the Premier's mind at the time he said that in public. The rules in this place constrain me from saying more, although I have said more outside the chamber, about what we on this side of the House think about what the Premier was thinking at that particular point.
We now have the necessity to amend yet again the balanced-budget legislation. There seems to be a somewhat reduced level of rhetorical piety here, although it was very evident the last time these amendments to this statute came forward. But this is the Premier, who claims that he tosses and turns at night, not about some of the other decisions that he makes but about whether or not the government would run a deficit.
Given the record of seven deficits in 12 years, that must really account for a number of sleepless nights for the Premier, which I think speaks to the fact that there's a certain measure of irreality about these measures, that they're really intended as political talking points. There's not a sincere commitment to them, and it's well understood in the quiet of the cabinet room that this is something merely to float forward for political debate and political opportunism, rather than anything that is a sincere commitment about managing the finances of the province.
The measure will be changed. It will now permit the government to run deficits, rather than for two years, for four years. That's to project a deficit in the main accounts, the main estimates of the province, for the next four years. It's clear, given some of the estimates that are contained in the budget document about projected growth, whether it's in resource revenue or government revenue generally, that this may not come to pass. Certainly, there are some fairly optimistic projections in the years 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 about renewed growth.
I hope, on behalf of the citizens of British Columbia, that those numbers come to pass, but I think informed opinion and economists who examine those projections and the underlying assumptions that found that overall conclusion suggest that that may be optimistic at best and completely unrealistic at worst.
There is certainly informed economic opinion, and obviously, there's a real debate going on among economists about what the new normal, as it's sometimes referred to, will be. I think there's a sense, an emerging consensus, that the new economy in the United States, our biggest trading partner and the predominant influence on the economy of this province, will be different than it was before.
It may not return to the levels of growth that we saw in the United States for some time, particularly in the housing sector and in the rate of unemployment, although it's a lagging indicator, generally, in a recession. Some economists predict that it will continue to rise in the United States, none of which is particularly
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good news for this part of the world and for the citizens of British Columbia.
To talk about this piece of legislation, which is included in Bill 2, the balanced-budget legislation, really is to commit the government to, basically, a process of continuous revision and amendment of this statute — to what effect, it's not clear. It would be more realistic to table legislation that included and recognized, at its fundamental base, the opportunity, where the economic growth was not there, to run deficits as an expected part of the business cycle.
So certainly, that part of Bill 2, part 1, "Non-tax budget measures," the amendment proposed to the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act, is something that really deserves further scrutiny, which we will attempt to provide when we come to debate at committee stage.
The minister says that this bill is there to provide…. The claim that's made is that this is there to provide the basis for renewal and growth in the economy. Yet I think that the Council of Tourism Associations takes a very different view of the budget measures. They were completely taken by surprise by the provincial budget and described it in their media release on September 1, the day that the budget was tabled…. They described the provincial Budget Update 2009 as a bitter pill to swallow for the B.C. tourism industry.
This is an important sector and, as they point out, one that has been traditionally supported not only by the government but by the opposition. It's recognized as a growing sector. Certainly, there are a number of niche markets in tourism where the potential for growth is there.
But this budget not only dissolved Tourism B.C. That's part of the measures in this bill, Bill 2. It requires the legislation to be amended to direct the hotel room tax, the 3 percent, which was directed to Tourism B.C…. It's now to be directed to general revenue.
Tourism B.C. was widely regarded as a successful organization here in British Columbia, across Canada and internationally, as a successful vehicle — indeed, regarded by some as a model vehicle — for promoting tourism, for uniting tourism operators and for providing the kind of marketing dollars that are necessary in a cluttered mediascape to draw attention to British Columbia as a destination for tourism of all kinds, whether it's adventure tourism, wilderness tourism, hunting, the cultural attractions of British Columbia, the fantastic landscape or the warmth of the people here.
All of that was something that was built up over a number of years in a very effective organization and, at the stroke of a pen in the budget, dissolved. This Budget Measures Implementation Act provides the legislative tools to finish off the process of burying Tourism B.C.
The tourism industry basically received a double whammy in the budget, and this legislation really confirms that. Tourism operators are very worried about the impact of the HST on their operations and their competitive position, particularly vis-à-vis Alberta and in relation to Washington State.
Generally, there is a deep concern, which they have expressed publicly and very widely. Particularly in a number of regions — such as the Kamloops region, which as the economy shifts there from a dependence entirely upon the natural resource sector to a more broadly based economy, of which tourism is a big part — they're very concerned and very troubled by the direction taken in this budget.
The elimination of the central coordinating body, the marketing arm, the overall leadership that's been provided by Tourism B.C…. This bill puts the legal finishing touches on doing away with it. So there is, I think, a real and deep concern about that aspect of this Budget Measures Implementation Act.
There are some other measures that are taken and contained within the body of the bill that I want to comment on as well, and I'll leave clause-by-clause detail for committee stage.
The change that's proposed to the Financial Administration Act, section 9, allows non-cabinet Members of the Legislative Assembly to be appointed to the Treasury Board as long as the majority of the members are also cabinet members. This is something that I expect to explore further at committee stage, but I would say that at this stage I understand that non-cabinet members were members of Treasury Board but did not have the power to formally register their vote.
I suppose it really confirms a practice of membership on the committee but accords them a formal vote, which is something that they did not have before. If I'm wrong on that, I'm sure I'll be corrected at the appropriate stage.
I guess it does raise the question of the ultimate accountability of non-cabinet members of Treasury Board, since the avenue to question individual cabinet ministers is available in question period. Non-members of cabinet, those private members on the government side who might be members of Treasury Board, are not subject to the opportunity to be questioned. So it does leave, it seems to me, a gap in basic accountability. That's something that, while it may be an administrative convenience for the operation of the Treasury Board committee — which is, after all, the most important committee of cabinet because it makes the ultimate decisions on spending…. It does seem to me to detract from basic accountability.
The other comment that I wanted to make was on some of the changes that are proposed in the Carbon Tax Act. There's a number of provisions here that make the change, but I think I just want to make it clear that if
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the intention of the amendments — which I think it is — is to reduce the carbon tax on the renewable portion of the mix of fuel that's ultimately provided, I'm prepared and I think we're prepared to support that.
But it's not clear from the way in which some of the provisions are drafted that this is indeed the intention. There does appear to be some ambiguity, at least as I read those sections, at this stage. So that's something that I think will quite properly be dealt with at committee stage.
The other provision that deserves comment at this stage is the increase in the basic personal exemption and the basic exemption for spouse and equivalent. These are the lowest-wage earners, the lowest level of income, in the sense that that threshold — basic personal exemption and the basic exemption for spouse and equivalent — would be increased. I would indicate at this stage that we support that. The other provisions are things that I think should be pursued more fully at committee stage.
In drawing my relatively brief remarks on these sections to a close, I just want to stress that we oppose this bill, with the qualifications that I've made. This bill seeks to implement the measures of a budget that we do not support, which we voted against. We continue to oppose, and the public out in British Columbia, when they've examined the measures — most importantly the HST, which is a part of the budget but not particularly a part of these statutory amendments to implement the budget — vigorously and widely oppose this budget.
The measures that are required to bring this budget into existence we will fight, we will oppose and we will vote against, subject to the several qualifications that I've given.
D. Routley: It is my pleasure always to stand in this House and speak to the government the views of my constituents, but it becomes rather tiresome to rise on the same subject over and over again — the subject of the B.C. Liberal deception when it comes to budgeting and throne speech replies.
What this bill does is present us with the mechanisms necessary to implement the budget that was delivered to us a couple of weeks ago. Again, this needs to be a speech about deception and about truths untold.
Deputy Speaker: Member, the language you're engaging in is unparliamentary. I'd ask you to withdraw.
D. Routley: Withdrawn.
When government tells its people that it's going to do one thing and then it does another thing, then the people rightly lose faith. This shows a contempt. This is a misleading of the voters of B.C.
When we are told that the deficit before the election would be a maximum of $495 million, only to find out after the election that it was indeed six time greater than that, people feel misled. They feel misled. They feel as though their government has failed to tell them the truth and that it has presented false information to them at the most critical time, when this province was facing a huge challenge economically and as they were headed to the polls to bring judgment on the government's performance.
The people of B.C. expect more from government. They expect that their principles will be reflected by their government. They expect that their principles of empathy, consideration, hard work and honesty will be reflected by the government they elect.
Unfortunately, they found the complete opposite, and this bill is just a confirmation of what the government did before the election — knowingly told the people that the deficit would be one figure when they knew it was clearly going to be much greater than that.
They didn't tell the truth. The Premier and every member on that side of the House went door to door throughout this province and made promises to the people of B.C. that they have broken. This bill is a confirmation of that.
This government was elected on a false premise. This government promised not to harmonize the HST, and the budget has promised to do exactly that — the throne speech, promising to do exactly that. This government, in writing, promised industry in this province that they wouldn't take that step, just weeks before the election. This bill is a confirmation, again, of that broken promise.
Every member on that side of the House, particularly those who were elected by very narrow margins, knows that if they stood today, we would have a much different result. In standing today, the people of B.C. would know the truth of what they were told.
The members told this province that they would not harmonize the PST with the GST. This Premier has held that as a policy and a principle for at least ten years, and yet they turned around and did exactly that.
It's not so much the issue of the tax itself that draws people through the doors of my constituency office. Why they come in is objecting to the principle of not being told the truth. They recognize that solutions and remedies and policies that address our problems need to shift and change with context. What they don't expect is that our principles will shift and change with the context for political expediency, which is clearly what this government did and clearly what this bill confirms. They expect us to be truthful, open and accountable.
Previous budgets have promised to address the issues that face our children. What does this budget do? It
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confirms this government doesn't care. We now, for the sixth year running, have the highest child poverty rate in the country, and this bill confirms the government cares nothing about that.
For the second time in two years — in fact, in only nine months — we're asked to amend the government's balanced-budget legislation. It's a ridiculous discrediting of this government's budgeting forecasts. They didn't tell the truth to the people of B.C., and this is the result.
When we see half the people of the province choosing not to vote, they can hardly be blamed — cynicism being a booming commodity in this province, built and grown in the spaces between the words of their broken promises. We can hardly blame the people of B.C. for not turning out. We couldn't blame them for being resigned that their representatives will not be telling them the truth.
But they haven't given up that hope. You can see it in the reaction to the HST. You can see it in the anger in this province directed towards this government — not based on policy but based on principle, based on the principle that this government didn't tell the truth, that they misled the voters. That's why people are angry. That's why the Premier's rating is so low and the B.C. Liberals' polling is at the lowest it's ever been. It's because of cynical acts like this.
It was politically expedient at the time for them to bring in their balanced-budget legislation that they did. We told them at the time it was not flexible enough, that it was denying the reality that there is a business cycle. But for political expediency, they insisted that they were immune. They were immune from all of those realities.
As long as the money was flowing, they could paint themselves green and make themselves immune to the business cycle. Now, this bill and the budget that it implements show us that none of that was true.
Any thinking person in B.C. knew it wasn't true, but this Orwellian reality that this government puts forth — these mistruths that are delivered, these words that are meaningless, the new relationship…. Yet our first nations still labour with horrible levels of poverty, unacceptable levels of unemployment, a housing reality that has an average of ten to 12 people per home on our first nations reserves. That is what this government has delivered as a legacy to this province, and this bill confirms it.
Throne speech after throne speech, budget after budget, assumed metaphors that were never realized in action and never meant anything to people on the ground.
The housing budget didn't build a single unit of housing. This government counts, as a subsidy to parents, a tax credit for child care as being a contribution, as creating child care spaces.
It's like the assisted-living myth. They took housing money that had been withdrawn by the federal government and that was finally restored in 2002 and directed it to covering another broken promise — the 5,000 long-term care beds — and built assisted-living instead.
Meanwhile, affordable housing in this province went without being built, and people who have waited and waited on waiting lists that are over 10,000 long still wait. Yet they label their initiatives, in the most Orwellian fashion, as housing budgets or children's budgets. What is the outcome? The highest rates of child poverty. We have seniors as the fastest-growing group of homeless in this province, by percentage. They had a seniors throne speech as well. It's pathetic that we have to stand here and address these failings by this government.
A government is meant to do two basic things: to protect its people from harm and want, and to empower the people. It is meant to protect the public interest, but this government, in this implementation act and in its budget, failed to do either of those things. It failed to protect the public interest and redress what it did to our forest industry. It failed to protect the people of B.C. from harm or want in allowing poverty rates to grow without any word of a poverty reduction strategy in either the throne speech or the budget. This act continues that failing by a weak government that has failed to protect the people of B.C.
The tourism industry — their friends — are reacting to the HST, reacting to the cancellation of Tourism B.C. They're not listening. If people cry out, this government either doesn't hear them or shuts them up, and we can see that with the failing of their support for an institution, Tourism B.C., that was judged both in B.C. and around the world as being a leader in promoting B.C.
B.C. was fighting over its weight class in the tourism industry. We were doing better than could ever be expected because of Tourism B.C., yet to quiet the voice of the tourism industry, it was cancelled. Not the 3 percent hotel room tax that supported it. No, that'll be directed by this bill directly to government. That will still be collected. But we won't have the service of that institution, that enterprise — B.C. Tourism. The tourism industry calls that a failure, an abandonment and a betrayal.
New levels of irony are reached every time this government brings forward budget legislation. The Premier, who said he would lose sleep over the notion of a deficit, now has to accept amendments to his own balanced-budget legislation for the second time in less than a year. It's ridiculous. It's not credible.
This government shows contempt for the people of B.C. through its budgets, its throne speech, its deception. This is the legacy of the B.C. Liberal government — a decade…. As the member for Nanaimo put it, a decade of deceit, a decade of broken promises — the only booming commodity being poverty and cynicism.
It's sad how they struggled to ignore the coming downturn, how they struggled to tell us that we were immune from it, as forecasts throughout this province back in
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late 2008 in September and October were warning the Finance Minister that housing starts were declining, retail sales were declining and GDP was declining.
They could see the forest revenue declining, yet what did they do? They promised the people of B.C. that it wouldn't happen here, that there would be a $495 million deficit — not a penny more; that was the maximum — and that for two years they would run a deficit. After three years, they decreed, they would balance the budget.
Now they reappear before the people of B.C. with another act that amends that promise, promising four years of deficits and somehow decreeing that then we will right our ship, and we will again be in the black. Well, so far, their forecasts have been less than reliable, their promises less than reliable.
I wonder what the next budget implementation act will look like. I wonder what promise will be broken by it. I wonder what confirmation of debt and deficit will be recognized and acknowledged by it. This is a government that promised no deficits. This is a government that stood up and said it would reduce our debt, and yet by 2013 we'll have doubled our debt. That doesn't include the off-balance-sheet accounting they're doing through their public-private partnerships.
This is a weak government. This is a government that has mismanaged the fortunes of B.C. But even that would be giving them too much credit, because the real agenda, as we can see it, is transferring the benefit of this province from the hands of the many upward to a few of their supporters.
We can see it in the way they've moved the tax burden towards those who can least afford it. This HST moves the tax burden towards consumers. Over 70 percent of the tax files in this province are paid by the bottom three tax brackets. Over 70 percent of the tax files in this province are paid by people who earn less than $70,000 per year.
This government is transferring wealth to the wealthy and robbing the average British Columbian of the benefit of their province. Ordinary people and families are the ones paying for these broken promises through service cuts, through increased fees. Medicare payments increased by 50 percent and now by another 6 percent. Fee after fee. Licence fees. All of the things that ordinary British Columbians pay have added to the burden and have removed the burden from their friends.
So it's hardly mismanagement. In fact, they've done a very good job of managing things for their friends. They've given away the benefits of our province. They've given away the rights to our rivers. They've given away the obligation of forest companies to manufacture wood in this province. They've mismanaged our core industries to the point where what it will take to recover is gone. They've auctioned off and liquidated our common wealth.
Those are the principles that guide this government. A strong government protects the people of the province and their public interest. The Auditor General has repeatedly condemned this government's actions as failure to protect the public interest — failure. Failure by a weak government. A strong government would balance the interests of this province in the way that benefits the most people, not the few.
This government has failed to protect the people of B.C. This government fails to empower the people of B.C. as it cuts from education programs, as it cuts from literacy programs, as it cuts from services to children and families. That's the reality of this government.
A strong government would stand up to those realities and bring in policies that help people, not hurt them. Tough choices to this government mean taking from the many and giving to their friends. How tough is that, Madam Speaker? How tough is it for them to take a cheque from major forest companies and give away the jobs of this province with deregulation? How tough was that?
The tougher choice would have been facing these realities and coming out the other side without diluting the common wealth of this province, without giving up on the housing policies and programs that they slashed and cut when they came to power. None of these things are addressed or remedied by this. In fact, it's a confirmation of the deceit.
It's been a long eight years for British Columbians as they've watched this government plunge its hands into the treasury of this province and give away what our parents built. But that's what they've seen. They expect more. They should have received more. Instead they've seen mismanagement. They've seen management, in fact, that acted for the few at the expense of the many.
There's a certain sadness about it, but there's a resolve within British Columbians that we can do better. When I go around the province and speak to people about the HST and about the budget deceit of this government, they don't say: "Well, we're giving up." They're angry. You're not angry when you've given up. They're resolved to changing things. They're resolved to bringing this government to account for these deceitful promises that they knew were untrue.
They knew that they were telling the people of British Columbia what was not true. I mean, the same people are saying they recognize that the approach to a problem needs to evolve and change as the circumstances and the context of that problem evolve and change.
The people of B.C. are mature. They're ready to stand up and get behind the task of rebuilding our province. But what they also know is that they weren't told the truth. They weren't told the truth. It's very basic. It's the most basic thing that they expect, and they don't support the HST.
[C. Trevena in the chair.]
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That member has seen the polls just as well as I have. They reject it. They reject the transfer of the burden of this province to them. The member's own Premier for ten years was against it. Then suddenly, in an epiphany immediately after the election — I think it must have been at about 8:45 — they realized that somehow it was the best thing that could ever be done for our economy.
Too bad they didn't share that with the rest of the province. Too bad they didn't share that with the restaurant industry and the tourism industry and the builders of B.C., when they wrote them letters promising not to do it — promising not to.
D. Routley: Promises broken, Member. Squirm. Twist on a rope.
It's difficult for this government to face the truth. They certainly don't share the truth with people when they run for office.
The member for Kamloops–South Thompson — I was in his community just the other day, and the people there are angry. They're angry with the member for having gone door to door with them and promising that the size of the deficit wouldn't be above $495 million and that it would only go for two years, when he knew and his government knew that wasn't true.
He campaigned with false information. This government was elected on false premises. This government has no credibility. This government is illegitimate.
The people in that member's community lined up to tell me on Saturday how they were affronted, how they were insulted by the broken promise he made on their doorstep. That member told his constituents that they would not harmonize the PST with the GST. He told them that.
What did they do? They turned around and broke that promise. They broke that promise. So the issue to those people isn't the tax itself, Member, through the Chair. The issue is the promise you broke — through the Chair, Madam Speaker. That member campaigned on false information. That government was elected on false information.
Madam Speaker, people expect more. They're ready in this province to get behind leadership that's credible and honest with them, which shares the truth of their economy and their society, that doesn't duck the difficult truths, that doesn't hide behind false promise and Orwellian titles to throne speeches and budgets, that faces up to the facts of this province, shares them with the people and then consults with the people and asks the people: "What should we do? How do you want us to address these problems? These are our principles. We believe in you, the people of B.C., that you can solve these problems, and we'll work with you and support you."
But that government didn't do that. They hid, they spun the truth, and people know it, and people are outraged. This bill is simply a confirmation of it, simply a confirmation that what they do is good for them first and their friends. What they do and the decisions they make are meant for them and their friends, not the people of B.C.
People in B.C. expect their government to put this province first, to put their public interest first, to put the interest of children and families and our forest industry and the forests themselves first. But what you have to do to get to the front of the line with the B.C. Liberal government is write a big enough cheque. That's what you have to do. You have to be a big donor.
The government that prides itself on cutting carbon emissions now sends the benefit to international trade ahead of local business, penalizes local business. The restaurant industry creates more entrepreneurs than any other industry, and they penalize it.
D. Routley: I guess they didn't contribute enough — eh, Member? I guess the restaurants in his constituency didn't contribute enough. Yes, yes….
Deputy Speaker: Order, Members. Order.
D. Routley: Madam Speaker, another broken promise — not to do what this government has done to on-line gambling: a $9,999 weekly limit; half a million dollars per year limit. That member for Kamloops–South Thompson is quoted as saying that an expansion in gambling would mean that women would die, that children would die and that that would be on the heads of any MLA or the government who supported it. And look at him now.
D. Routley: Look at him now heckling me when I tell him that his own constituents, as recently as two days ago, were telling me how they felt so betrayed, so betrayed on their own doorsteps. They heard the knock on the door, and they opened, and there was that member promising not to bring in an HST What did he do? He brought in an HST. How does he equate that with what he told his voters?
People in this province expect more. The people who built this province did more than this government did. They invested in us and our future, and we've inherited that foundation. The values that that represents, the
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values of openness, honesty and hard work have been broken and besmirched by the actions of this government time and time again.
Here we are again, lined up in this place, them facing us and asking us to endorse a bill that would allow them to break yet another promise, because they don't really care. They say what they need to say to get by on the day they say it.
I spoke during my throne speech reply of opposites day, a game that I play with my children. That's the day that they love spinach and hate ice cream. That's the day they turn on the light to go to sleep and turn off the light to read. So you know what the game is — right, Madam Speaker?
Well, for this Premier and this B.C. Liberal government, opposites day is elections day. Opposites day is when they say: "We won't harmonize the GST and the PST. We won't sell B.C. Rail. We won't tear up contracts."
The trouble is that they don't share the information with B.C. that this is opposites day. There's another word for that. It's not opposites day. I can't say it very clearly here because of the rules of this House, but every British Columbian knows the word I'm talking about, and this government did it. They did it to British Columbians. They misled British Columbians. They told mistruths.
Deputy Speaker: Be careful, Member, please.
D. Routley: I am being careful, Madam Speaker. I am being careful, but it's difficult. There was an American general who referred to mistruths as bovine scatology. With HST, maybe it's equine scatology.
In the end it doesn't matter how we say it. This government did it. They misled this province. They deceived this province in getting elected. They told this province things that weren't true. So I don't know.
There's a shorter word for it, but I can't use it. But everyone listening knows it, and they know they did it. This bill confirms it again.
To sum up, this government can't be trusted. This province doesn't trust them. We will provide leadership that people can get behind and trust, that will support them, that will empower them, that will protect the public interest. That's what this side of the House will do.
S. Fraser: I rise today to speak to Bill 2. This is the Budget Measures Implementation Act (No. 2), 2009. It's second reading, and I very much enjoyed the comments just made by my colleague from Nanaimo–North Cowichan. He's pretty much covered it, I think, but I get a chance to cover it now too.
I do note that throughout his oration — very great, accurate oration, I must say — he held his patience and, I'd say, temper amongst quite riddling comments and heckling from the ministers on the other side. I notice that they were allowed to do so with impunity, and I note also that the Liberal members and ministers, while they are comfortable sitting in their seats heckling, are not so comfortable, I would note, to stand up on record and make statements in defence of this.
The minister's opening comments, I would note, were pretty shaky on this one, and for good reason.
Deputy Speaker: Just one moment. I would ask all members to come to order, please. If they would like to speak about this bill, they can speak about it, but please, could you come to order.
S. Fraser: This is the Budget Measures Implementation Act. Basically this act, the way I understand it…. I am getting somewhat confused on how this act works, because we've seen this act play out before. It is a hard act to follow.
It amends the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act. Just for those watching that may not know the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act, the Liberals brought it in very early on in their term. It basically made it illegal to run a deficit. It's where I start getting confused.
They brought it in right after the election that they won — so 2001. The NDP had just handed them a record surplus, according to the Auditor General. The structural deficit is in the ministers opposite.
They took a record surplus inherited by the then NDP government, and they turned it in a blink into a record deficit. It was at the same time as this bringing in the record deficit, which was all based on paying back their friends, their donors, at the expense of all British Columbians.
So what happened there? While they were bringing in the largest deficit in the history of the province of British Columbia from the largest surplus that they inherited, they brought in the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act, which said that you couldn't run a deficit. While they were bringing in the largest deficit in the history of the province, followed by at least two more deficits, which in my mind were contrary…. They were the polar opposite of what was supposedly intended in the wording of the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act.
What is the purpose of an act, brought in with much fanfare, that the government is breaking as they're writing it? We have a record surplus inherited from the NDP government turned into a record deficit. To cover that, to much fanfare, bring in legislation that says you can't
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run a deficit while they're running the largest deficit in the history of the province, followed by deficit after deficit, until commodity prices went through the roof.
It could have been an orangutan in the chair of the Premier, and there would have been a surplus, and there would be nothing you could do about it. The commodity prices went through the roof. This government got out of their deficit after deficit after deficit that, according to the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act that they brought in, they weren't supposed to be running.
All through the next few years the commodity prices stayed high. Interest rates were as low as they could go, housing was up — things that the provincial government has really no say over. Yet this government took credit for it. What they didn't take credit for was three back-to-back deficits that were simultaneous with their Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act that said that you couldn't run a deficit in the province of British Columbia.
If you can understand this, you're doing well. I'm trying to lay it out in a way that I can sort of recapture what's happened, because we're here today bringing in Bill 2, the Budget Measures Implementation Act (No. 2), 2009, that's to amend the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act, which was in place to say that you couldn't have a deficit.
We know that the Premier doesn't want a deficit because the Premier does not want to lose sleep. He's on record as saying that, and we don't want the Premier to lose sleep. But I digress. The Premier said this about nine months ago because the Premier and the Finance Minister brought in a similar act that amended the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act so that they could run a deficit, and we're doing it again today — second reading of another bill.
It is like the bill is written in invisible ink. Why did they bring in such a bill? What will the future hold for us? Every time this government bungles the finances of the province, they'll bring in another amendment to amend the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act to allow them to run another deficit.
Now, I think this will make it seven deficits in 12 years, as this plays out. The Liberals have become experts at running deficits. It is ironic that the Liberals actually brought in a bill initially saying that you couldn't run a deficit, because we spend a lot of time in this House debating bills to undo the bill that says you can't run a deficit. Hypocrisy comes to mind. The deficit is a moral one, I would submit.
The minister said in his earlier speech that this bill will set the stage for economic recovery. Well, if I recall last week in question period and, following that, the minister's statements — the minister responsible for the finances of this province — we have yet to achieve the money from the federal government that was designated for economic stimulus, for economic recovery during the worst recession in memory.
If you recall, the federal government, a year ago or so, announced about a half a billion dollars for B.C. for shovel-ready projects. The Premier said, "Fast-track them. Yep. Economic recovery. We are great fiscal managers" — even though we don't need the economic stimulus, because the Liberals said they were such great fiscal managers that British Columbia was immune to the worldwide recession. Great news.
Instead of accessing this half a billion dollars of federal stimulus money, like the other provinces did, we learned last week that the shovels that were ready in the other provinces won't get a chance this construction season in British Columbia. There will be no stimulus money in British Columbia this season.
So when the minister says Bill 2 sets the stage for economic recovery, it is laughable. This government could not even assess the importance of a half a billion dollars. All they had to do was match it. It's one-third, one-third, one-third — which means that for a half a billion dollars from the province, they would access a half a billion dollars from the federal government and a half a billion dollars from local government. So that's like for 33 cents, you get a buck's worth of stimulus, thousands of jobs.
Bill 2 and the comments by the minister saying it sets the stage for economic recovery…. This government couldn't set the stage for economic recovery if their life depended on it. Many people's livelihoods depend on some sort of economic recovery and economic stimulus, but this government couldn't even get their act together to get a half a billion dollars from the feds.
Now, local governments applied in good faith — hundreds of projects across the province: infrastructure projects, local community hall projects, road projects, construction projects of all kinds. Thousands of jobs should be flowing, shovel-ready jobs, into this province, and they're not.
Deputy Speaker: I'd like to remind the member that we are discussing Bill 2.
S. Fraser: Ah, thank you, Madam Speaker. It's so easy to get slipped off here because so much has happened in the last few weeks that we've been back at the Legislature. Thank you for your advice.
The economic recovery and stimulus that the minister claims is going to happen through this bill… Let me see. Did I mention that we didn't get the infrastructure grant money? That's not in the bill. Oh, we have the dismissal of the entire board of directors and CEO of Tourism B.C. Well, there's economic stimulus. I'll note section 13 here. It removes the 3 percent hotel room
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tax that is earmarked for Tourism B.C. For those that don't know, Tourism B.C. is a world-class organization — been around for many years, energizing the tourism industry in this province.
I recall many years ago sitting on that board. You know, even then, I think it was Australia that had visited B.C. to learn just how Tourism B.C. worked. They modelled their tourism agency on Tourism B.C. — a national organization built on our provincial model. It's recognized around the world as a very successful model for promoting tourism. I think it's still the No. 2 economic driver in the province.
This Bill 2 that the minister claims will set the stage for economic recovery — it's the opposite. Tourism B.C. sets the stage for recovery of the tourism industry, the No. 2 industry in the province. They just dismantled the leadership that has been so well respected, and I would note that there was no consultation on the removal of Tourism B.C.
The 3 percent hotel room tax that is earmarked for Tourism B.C. That's being replaced in the bill by simply stating that the tax is "for the purpose of promoting tourism." Madam Speaker, that's what Tourism B.C.'s purpose was. The industry-respected Tourism B.C. was dismantled. Section 14 says it amends "Section 1 of the Tourism Act," giving the minister the authority to do such things as sell pamphlets for the promotion of tourism activities which Tourism B.C. used to be responsible for.
I wonder if the minister will be able to handle that pamphlet stuff. Tourism B.C. was an integral part of any recovery program for the tourism sector. They helped the tourism sector grow, as we come up to the Olympic Games. So dismantling this bill that we're debating today in second reading, Bill 2…. Part of the bill is dismantling the agency responsible for stimulating the tourism industry.
Now, how does that jibe with the minister's statements that this bill will set the stage for economic recovery? It's pulling away the pieces of the stage for economic recovery. I don't think that the tourism operators in B.C. get any comfort from knowing that that stage — Tourism B.C. — that has been pulled away will now be under control of the Minister for Tourism, Culture and the Arts. That minister doesn't seem to get it. That minister seems to be more interested in heckling than he is in standing up and taking a strong stance on behalf of his industry that he's supposedly responsible for.
I represent Alberni–Pacific Rim. Tourism is essential there. It is essential for the west coast of the island — Ucluelet, Tofino, Bamfield, the Nuchatlaht First Nation communities — working on initiatives for ecotourism, world-class initiatives in partnership with Tourism B.C., which has just been dismantled by this bill.
No consultation. Not with tourism operators, not with the agencies involved, the Council of Tourism Associations, the Island tourism associations. No consultation with Tourism B.C. No mention pre-election that the plan was to dismantle the support system in place for the tourism operators of British Columbia.
The Alberni Valley has taken many hits. The resilience of the people there who have faced betrayal in the forest industry by this government, giveaways — the pattern that we've come to understand, the pattern so eloquently described by my colleague from Nanaimo–North Cowichan, of giving away things to people that pay government, this government….
The forest industry has been going through desperate struggles in the Alberni Valley and every other forest community. The work done by the tourism people in the valley is there to diversify the economy, to help bring about a new economy. The chamber of commerce in the Alberni Valley is working on that. Individual groups are. Award-winning operators like Batstar Adventures are doing that work, and they just had the rug pulled out from them with this bill.
This bill, section 15, repeals subsections that deal with the composition and appointment of the board of directors of Tourism B.C. without any consultation with the board of directors of Tourism B.C. that we're talking about here today or the operators that were relying on that board. Remember Beautiful B.C., Madam Speaker? That's a logo from Tourism B.C. The amendment to subsection 6 allows cabinet to appoint the chair of Tourism B.C. without reference to any recommendation of the board. This section is made retroactive to August 14, 2009.
This is a betrayal of the tourism industry enclosed in Bill 2, which we are now debating in second reading.
On the east side of Vancouver Island — the Oceanside, they call it — there's Parksville-Qualicum, Deep Bay, Bowser. These areas are also reliant on tourism. Qualicum was in my riding up till the boundary changes, but I still have groups that contact me out of frustration with this government. They want to know why Tourism B.C. was dismantled without any consultation with them.
Bill 2 is giving the government the ability to run a deficit again. The last budget did that — the one a few months ago before the election. That was the budget that…. The pre-election promise, if we recall, was a $495 million deficit — not a dime more. Anyone on this side of the House that questioned that was called a fearmonger. Their own economists who questioned that were discredited by the government.
So we get post-election. We're coming to a point where we have Bill 2 having to be brought forward again — another amendment to the same act, the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act, because the pre-election promise made by the minister and the Premier before and through the election, even while there were consultations with senior officials in the ministry who would have told them otherwise….
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They stuck to the $495 million maximum deficit, which has grown to $2.8 billion — well, actually $3.5 billion, because this government slipped in what's called the harmonized sales tax, which brings the deficit down from $3.5 billion to $2.8 billion.
Boy, I can't remember. This is either the largest deficit we are authorizing with this bill or the second-largest deficit, depending on if you include the HST portion of the blood money from the feds.
We've got a government here that didn't just give us, with this bill, seven out of 12, coming up, deficits so far — that could change too; we could just amend it again — they brought us the two largest record deficits in the history of the province. When commodity prices were high, they basically gave that money away to their friends, and the minister….
S. Fraser: I'm hoping the minister will stand up and speak to this bill on record. I love the heckling. Bring it on.
But the minister should be speaking about tourism issues. He pulled the rug out from Tourism B.C. without even talking to the people of British Columbia about it, without even talking to the tourism industry.
I wonder if the Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Arts and the Minister of Small Business, Technology and Economic Development — it's suddenly quiet in this room — are going to be explaining some of these reversals, and I know it's a touchy thing. Some of these, what I would say and what some people are saying, are deceptions.
I wonder if that's going to be explained in individual meetings with mayors and councillors at the upcoming Union of B.C. Municipalities meeting. I wonder how many meetings they've booked to explain the unexplainable, the reversals in every promise they made to win the last election.
It's like they've been lying around all summer, oblivious to what's happening since their election promises were made — protect health care, protect education. Well, that's not going to happen with Bill 2. On Vancouver Island alone there are 4,400 MRIs that are going to be cancelled this year.
Deputy Speaker: Member, I would like to remind you again that you are discussing Bill 2.
S. Fraser: Thank you, Madam Speaker. It's second reading. I believe there is a pretty broad range here.
The bill here is allowing us to have a budget deficit of $2.6 billion, a reversal that this government…. This bill will allow them to cut services to health care, education — the very promises they made to win the election.
I will heed your advice on this. I know that this is not appropriate at committee stage, but at second reading I will….
Deputy Speaker: Member, you are discussing Bill 2. Restrain yourself to what is in Bill 2.
S. Fraser: I would suggest that Bill 2 is the height of hypocrisy. Bill 2 is designed to amend an act that says you can't run a deficit — right after they amended an act to say that you can't run a deficit, after they brought in an act to say that you can't run a deficit and while the Liberal government was running a deficit for three years in a row.
I would submit that Bill 2 could never be supported by anyone who cares about the people of British Columbia, by anyone who cares to not look hypocritical, because Bill 2 represents the height of hypocrisy of this government of British Columbia.
M. Sather: It's my pleasure to rise and address second reading of Bill 2, the Budget Measures Implementation Act, 2009.
Well, it's been a rough road for this government over the last year in terms of budgeting, in terms of accountability…
Hon. K. Krueger: And all other governments.
M. Sather: …in terms of being able to convince the people of British Columbia that in fact they have some idea, that they know what they're doing when it comes to budgets.
Madam Speaker, the member for Kamloops–South Thompson says: "Well, all other governments, too, have had a difficult time." I doubt that you will find many on this continent that have gone through the gyrations that this government has done, and the dips and doodles that have completely made a mockery of any sort of sound financial budgeting.
Here again we see the government going to the well to try to correct the sins of yesterday — or, shall we say, last winter's sins — which were a budget that was put out….
The government said, "You know what? We've got to amend the act, the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act," which said that British Columbia will never have a deficit again as long as we live. And my gosh, they decided that maybe that wasn't going to be the case after all. They were going to have to amend that particular act, and they did.
Well, in addressing this bill, it certainly bears some examination of how it came about — this whole sad affair of saying one thing and doing another, of saying that there's going to be a balanced budget, and then there wasn't. It's like this is, I guess, balanced budget 2.0. I mean, we had budget 2.0 last spring, and now we have follow-up 2.0.
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If we go back a little bit and look at what happened a year ago…. Remember a year ago when this recession hit North America, including British Columbia? The government said very confidently at the time…. People were starting to express concerns about the future of our finances, about our ability to maintain a surplus, which was the thing that the people of British Columbia understood was the law so therefore had to be done.
What was this government saying at that time, around mid-October, late October of 2008? They were saying that British Columbia is a deficit-free zone.
Only a government that had a great deal of confidence about their surplus budget, which they were going to bring forward, would say such a statement as, "British Columbia is a deficit-free zone," but that's what they did. When you look back now at what the Finance Minister has said more recently, that becomes a rather peculiar statement. The minister said rather recently that he remembers the day, September 12, 2008, very well.
Hon. K. Krueger: Lehman Bros. bank. Don't you remember?
M. Sather: The minister opposite is taking the words out of my mouth. He's heard the minister himself say these words, which was that that was the day they got word of the impending collapse of Lehman Bros., the global collapse of financial services. That was in September. By the minister's own admission, it was September 12 that he said that, yet this government was still saying throughout mid-fall that British Columbia was a deficit-free zone.
I don't know. Maybe the Finance Minister's revelation didn't get passed on to the Premier. It certainly couldn't have got passed on to the member for Kamloops–South Thompson, because that is not the message this government was giving. It all leads us to where we are today and the sorry state this government has brought our finances to.
Again, with regard to Bill 2 we need to look at how we got here in order for us, the people of British Columbia, to have some understanding of why we are having a Bill 2 at this time — why we are discussing it, why the government has introduced it.
If we fast-forward to the middle of January last year, before the spring budget, you will recall, Madam Speaker, that the Finance Minister was still strongly maintaining that there would not be a deficit in British Columbia, just short weeks before they were to introduce the budget.
But now again, if we look at what the minister has been saying more recently, fast-forward to this year. On August 29 he said: "We started putting our February budget together through the fall months and had to watch projected revenues erode week after week."
The Finance Minister is admitting that through the fall they saw the finances eroding week after week — continually eroding finances. Yet that same minister, that same Finance Minister, said that we're going to have a balanced budget.
One has to forgive the people of British Columbia, the voting public and all too many of the non-voting public, when they question what this government really knew and what they were saying publicly. Were they the same thing?
If they were not — and there's ample evidence to suggest they were not — then any thinking person can only conclude what happened. We've heard many words to describe what happened.
Then we had the budget. The government finally admitted last February that there was going to be a deficit, albeit only $495 million. That seemed kind of interesting, rather small in comparison to the circumstances that we were facing with finances falling every week. But still this government was so arrogant that, if you will recall the budget debates we had last spring, they said that British Columbia is the best place in North America to weather the recession.
They had finally recognized or realized or were willing to share with the people of British Columbia that there was a recession. But hey, not to worry; British Columbia is the best place in North America to weather that recession. [Applause.]
It's interesting that the member for Kamloops–South Thompson applauds, because we know, in fact, that it isn't true — that British Columbia is not the best place in North America to weather the recession.
I said that to these members last spring. I said that it's not going to be the best place to weather the recession for a couple of obvious reasons. This government has been depending…. I mean, the member from Alberni mentioned that commodity prices were high. They've been riding the commodity gravy train and the building boom, which burst, and they didn't seem to notice that it burst. Everybody else did.
Consumer spending. What does consumer spending depend on? It depends on people working. It depends on them having a job. So our unemployment has scooted up to about 8.1 percent.
The Minister of Finance is still in denial, even though he is the one that's brought in two creative budgets — the first one last fall and another equally creative one now. Madam Speaker, you would think that the minister would be a little bit more humble, considering the mess they've made.
Then we had the budget introduced, the latest 2.0 version. We had that introduced September 1, and I'm sure the members are probably going to cheer about this one too. What did the Finance Minister say on budget day? He called this latest budget one of B.C.'s best. [Applause.]
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That's it. Come on, Members. One of B.C.'s best, he said.
You know, it's unbelievable. The Finance Minister had said on August 29 that it was only in the last month that we started to see signs of stabilization, and even then, it's a question of whether it's a bottoming out or a temporary reprieve. So the minister had no idea. He has no idea about what's going to happen with the economy, yet he says that this is this is one of the best budgets in B.C.
How can it be? How can the public of British Columbia have any confidence in a Finance Minister and a government that are so out of touch with reality? So now we're back to….
Deputy Speaker: Member. Can I again remind all members that they are supposed to be debating Bill 2. While context is important, we have to discuss the bill.
M. Sather: It's my pleasure to debate the Budget Measures Implementation Act (No. 2). As we know, this bill is the second time that this government has had to come forward to this House to ask for permission to extend deficits — deficits that they said they were not going to have in the spring. It was going to be a small deficit. Now it's a huge deficit, and it would be bigger, even, if they hadn't accepted about $700 million from the federal government for the HST — upfront money.
The history of this government is that they just depended on a whole bunch of transfers from the federal government for a long time to keep the sinking ship halfway afloat. So what we have here is a tax-and-spend government.
We all know about the HST that this government has brought in, and then if we look at…. Let's look at the spending side that this budget bill — this Bill 2 — seeks to achieve exoneration for. What is it? What is the purpose of this bill?
The purpose of this bill is to try to cover up the excesses of this government and the mistakes this government has made and the misleading statements this government has made about budgets one and two of this year.
The members opposite love to talk about the '90s. Let's talk about the '90s for a second with regard to budgeting as it relates to Bill 2. Under the NDP — this is the '90s we're talking about here — tax-supported debt rose $17 billion over ten years for an average of $1.7 billion a year. Under the B.C. Liberals, debt is increasing by $26 billion over 12 years, or $2.1 billion per year on average.
In other words, the growth in debt under the B.C. Liberals is 20 percent higher than it was under the NDP, yet this government seeks to tell us…. They ran in the last election on being great managers of the economy. But we can see now…. I should say that most of us can see now. The member for Kamloops–South Thompson cannot or chooses not to, but the people of British Columbia can see the shemozzle and the mess that's been left by this government, and they're not happy about it one little bit.
Total taxpayer-supported debt is going to be $60 billion. That's a lot of money — $60 billion — that this Bill 2 seeks exoneration for. That's just the taxpayer-supported debt, so-called. Then we have the off-book debt, the so-called contractual obligations, which run to another $68 billion.
We're talking pretty big money here. This government has run up more debt through more spending than any other government this province has ever seen. They used to talk about us as being the big spenders.
Of course, it's this government's fondness for the P3 model that's led to a whole lot of that off-book debt that's leading us to the necessity to discuss the Budget Measures Implementation Act once again.
As other members have said…. The member from Cowichan said that it's an embarrassment to this government, big time, having to be faced with yet a second, in less than a year — in fact, about seven months — coming back to this House again, asking to extend the period during which they can run a deficit. Very embarrassing indeed.
We heard this afternoon the Minister for the Olympics make another rather exuberant calculation, which was commented on by the member for Surrey-Whalley. She said — and wait for the claps here — that this province is going to lead the country in economic growth in 2010.
Let's hope that for once this government gets it right, because in the bungling they've done so far over the budget in the last year, there is no reason at all that people in British Columbia should have any confidence whatsoever that that's true. Who knows? Certainly, from what I've seen from this government, I can't imagine that it likely would be true.
M. Sather: Yes, I did hear the Finance Minister talk about Canada's leading economists. Where was the minister when leading economists told them that their budget last spring was completely out of whack? He was quite willing to ignore those economists at that time, to his embarrassment, but it did serve its purpose. Its purpose, of course, was to get by the election. But the deception that happened as a result has left people in British Columbia mightily upset with this government.
What is the upshot? You know, there are consequences. Government brings in a bill like this. It sort of has the superficial look of being kind of a housekeeping bill, but
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of course it's nothing but housekeeping. We're seeing day after day in this House the pain being inflicted upon the people of British Columbia as a result of the ineptitude of this government when it comes to financial management, which was supposed to be their strong suit and clearly is not.
We heard another minister earlier today say: "Oh, don't worry about it. Don't worry about those cuts to services. It's discretionary."
Discretionary spending. That's sounds quite harmless. It's something you don't really need. But we're seeing, in fact, that these are programs that are very much needed — in my community, greatly needed.
I think of the seniors outreach program and the tremendous services they provide that have been cut as a result of this government's ineptitude that this bill attempts to cover up. This bill comes to this House to seek forgiveness, I guess, for their mistakes, for the mistakes of this government. It's somewhat galling. I think most people will find it so. I know we do.
The ongoing escalating deficits that this government predicts…. You know, while the economy is supposed to be rebounding wildly, the deficits are continuing on, just miraculously ending again before the next election, for whomever wants to put their trust in that prognostication.
But this government has done nothing to stimulate the economy to help us out of recession. All they brought in was a tax at the worst possible time. So it's a tax-and-spend government of the worst sort and at the worst time. Bad acts and bad timing equal bad government, and that's what this government has been providing to the province, particularly over the last year.
But as commentators have said too…. You know, they were able to pave over in the good years some of the deficiencies that have become so obvious lately, whether it was high commodity prices or fantastic transfers from the federal government. They had to have those transfers to post the surpluses that they did have for a while — while being a have-not province, getting on the gravy train from Ottawa far more often, again, than the NDP was in the '90s, despite what these government members often say.
In Bill 2 they talk again about ministers losing half of the 20 percent bonus that they receive. Why should these ministers be receiving a bonus? Why would anybody get a bonus for bad acting? There shouldn't be a bonus in the first place that they're getting half of. Remove it completely.
Besides, we've seen this charade before about "ministers will be penalized if they don't meet their budget," and it's never happened. In fact, that's what this government thinks budget supplements are for: to cover the sins of ministers that don't make their commitments.
I can't imagine, looking at the past, that this bill — and that part of this bill — is going to result in any sanctions for any of those ministers in the future either. So the other thing…. That's one thing the Finance Minister talked about a little earlier. He also mentioned — I had to write this one down because in the circumstances it's so completely laughable — that this government is committed to living within its means.
If this is living within its means, I hate to see what happens when they start spending in a serious way. I mean, if about $120 billion in debt is living within their means, what's it going to be when they really start living it up? It's bound to be a complete disaster, and that's what we've seen so far.
M. Sather: The minister is not happy about it, and I can understand that. Why would they be happy about it?
Madam Speaker, section 6 under the Continuing Care Act of Bill 2 says that certain subsections are added which allow the minister or a person authorized by the minister to require information to be provided in order for a person to receive continuing care. So I'll be curious to see what kind of information it is exactly that must be provided in order for a person to continue receiving continuing care.
I'm sure that as we get to third reading, as we get to the next stage of this bill, the minister is going to provide us with all the answers, many of which they have not been able to provide so far. But we look forward to better things — certainly, better things from this government than we've seen so far.
The disaster over Tourism B.C., which this government eliminated. It's hard to imagine anything worse. I was totally shocked by that one. If there's any organization, other than maybe the British Columbia Chamber of Commerce, that has been supportive of this government, it's been Tourism B.C. And yet wham — gone, just like that. The minister, who had a lot to say in this House over the last few minutes, the last half-hour or so, said: "Don't worry about it. We'll manage just fine."
They don't have the expertise. They don't have the structure. They don't have the record, but that's what they decided to do anyway — just axe Tourism B.C., take the 3 percent tax that Tourism B.C. got and kind of somehow magically use that to promote tourism.
Again, like the HST — which was brought in at the most inopportune time, during a recession — getting rid of Tourism B.C. comes at a most inopportune time, which has been pointed out to this government by that outgoing organization.
The Olympics are coming up here, closer and closer, in a few months. You would think the government would be wanting to maximize tourism opportunities, would be
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wanting to use the organization that has the skill and the expertise. But no.
The Minister of Tourism and the Arts feels that he is better qualified to take on that particular role, and boy, I can't imagine that there's a tremendous amount of confidence in the minister in that regard. But maybe he will pull a rabbit out of the hat, which so far he has really been spectacularly unsuccessful at doing.
So I will be voting against this bill for the obvious reasons that I have explained over the course of my speech. I'm looking forward to speeches by other members of this House. I'm sure that some of the members on the government side will want to get up and defend this piece of legislation. They'll want to get up and support their Finance Minister. I look forward to that as well as to speeches by my colleagues on this side of the House.
M. Karagianis: I'm happy to take my place here in responding to Bill 2, the Budget Measures Implementation Act. Really, I think that the innocuous title here doesn't really represent what this act is. I think, more accurately, it should probably be called the elastic budget implementation act because this is the second time we've been here to amend the laws of this province around budget accountability, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's not the last time.
So it seems to me it's a bit of a misnomer to say that this is an amendment to the implementation act here. In fact, it probably has a whole number of different titles that it could go under. It could be called the budget betrayal act because we had an election in this province less than a hundred days ago, or a hundred-and some-odd days ago, in which the very basis of that election was fought on economic and budget accountability here in the province.
We went into an election cycle where we were guaranteed and promised by the B.C. Liberals that the budget in this province would not exceed a $495 million deficit. That had been put in place because of the very first attempt to circumvent the laws that had been put in place here in British Columbia to balance the budget for the people of British Columbia, and the result of the first amendment to the act resulted in a very firm promise by the B.C. Liberal government that we would not exceed a $495 million deficit.
In fact, we fought an election on that basis. That's what the election was all about. It didn't matter how often interest groups or voters or New Democrats tried to move along to a broader discussion on the responsibilities of government and their plans and the implementation of their values versus ours in the election. It was fought strictly on the basis of the budget and what the budget would be — what the budget was at the time, what the budget would be in the future, what the fiscal picture in British Columbia was going to be.
When I say the betrayal act — absolutely, because British Columbians were in fact misled throughout the election process and went to the polls and voted based on an expectation that the government would be true to their word and would honour the very tenets on which the election was fought, which was a $495 million deficit.
It seems to me that one other way we could look at this bill is the complete lack of accountability act. Maybe that's what we should be calling this. The complete lack of accountability, because we have seen here in the province of British Columbia over the last number of months such a colossal flip-flop by the B.C. Liberals, the very government that took us in through an election process promising one thing and has completely gone in the opposite direction — has flipped right over post-election and now is once more back here in this House asking for an amendment to this act, asking for a second amendment to their budget accountability act.
It seemed to me that this represents a complete and utter lack of accountability. The people of B.C. are not fooled by this. This right now could be the single most compelling issue that's on the lips of most British Columbians. We have found, probably for…. I would expect it's a bit of an anomaly. Maybe for the first time in the history of this province the budget and the B.C. Liberals' handling of the budget, both pre- and post-election, is the single most compelling topic that I hear from constituents, which I hear from voters both in my own community and elsewhere when I travel.
I think it's very interesting that the B.C. Liberal government has managed to galvanize and focus attention on their folly here coming out of this election. It would seem to me that by revisiting once again this Budget Measures Implementation Act, this is such an admission of failure on the part of government — failure to maintain what they have always touted as being their biggest, strongest strength, which is how to manage the economy of this province and certainly the budget of this government.
It would seem to me that the fact we're here once again amending this act in Bill 2 is a complete mockery of an eight-year legacy by the B.C. Liberal government in the province. Their entire time in office now has been discredited by this repeated need to go back and amend legislation, amend the very balanced-budget legislation that they were so proud of before the election in the past eight years.
It seems to me that this really goes to the essential core of what the B.C. Liberal Party has presented themselves to the people as standing for and as being their single achieving profile — the fact that they were such magnificent money managers. Yet here we are, for the second time in a very few months, amending the Budget Measures Implementation Act, the budget and ministerial accountability act.
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Why would we have to repeatedly come in and amend these acts, Madam Speaker? What kind of ineptitude is apparent on the part of the government that we have to come in and continue to amend the laws here in British Columbia to allow for the failure of this government to come clean with the people of British Columbia and to demonstrate that they are capable of adequately managing the finances of this province?
Each time we come back and have to amend this, it says to the voters of British Columbia — certainly the constituents in my riding — that this government hasn't got it right. They continue to stumble and fail in their attempts to achieve any kind of credibility on their managing of the economy over the last number of months — certainly, I would say, for most of this calendar year of 2009.
If this is the most compelling topic on the lips of voters, of citizens across this province and certainly those in my constituency, how then can government justify and explain their complete ineptitude on this? It would seem to me that not only have we gone through a very deceptive election, but we have now come out with the government having to confess that their grip on the finances and the unfolding fiscal situation here in British Columbia was either completely incompetent or misleading — one of the two.
So voters have got to pick one or the other and say: "Now, do we want to believe that the government was completely incompetent, has been incompetent on this file for months and months, or do we choose to believe that we have been wilfully deceived?" That's not a very great choice for citizens to have to make in trying to evaluate their current government — right? Either choice is not particularly attractive and certainly not flattering to the B.C. Liberal government.
We've talked many times in this House about the kind of skepticism that voters feel towards elected office, the kind of skepticism and mistrust that the populace generally feels towards its government. They know that government is not standing up and looking after their concerns, not making sure that the business of managing this province is to their best advantage.
In fact, this continued ineptitude by this government to get a grip, to get a real grip on the finances of this province and to instil voters with some confidence, I think, continues to play to that cynicism and that skepticism that have become part of the new culture for voters here in the province. So this admission of failure, one more time, I believe will simply play into that particular growing cynicism and skepticism.
When you see things like section 2 in this bill, which refers to the fact that the ministerial bonuses are tied directly to this bill and to the altering of operating budgets under this, again the public has no choice but to be incredibly cynical about the fact that government, in fact, has not said that there will be no bonuses whatsoever — ministerial bonuses to ministers. There will be none in this time of deficit, in this time of record deficit, in this time of spiralling and uncontrolled mismanagement by this government.
Have they stepped up and said that there will be no bonuses, which is what I think the public would expect? If we are in a huge deficit, why in the world would we pay any bonuses to ministers for their behaviour? Is that what the government said? No. In fact, what they've said is that there will be some reduction in the amount of bonuses paid out. What kind of message does that send to the public? It continues to feed into this picture of a government that is not concerned about its citizens.
During my budget deliberations, I addressed that at great length. In fact, most of my budget speech was about that — about a government that has demonstrated such a callous attitude towards the more vulnerable members of our society that it borders on the most irresponsible kind of behaviour.
When I look here and see that the government hasn't even taken what I would think would be very pragmatic steps to say: "There will be no bonuses paid out in the time that we are running these huge deficits…."
The reality is that every single day the government is busy cutting and slashing into all kinds of programs — programs that affect ordinary people, sports programs for children, programs that protect women and children from domestic violence and abuse. They have gone in and cut funding to PACs. They have gone in and cut funding for MRIs.
Across the board, this is a government that is cutting into the very, very core programs that citizens across British Columbia believe they have earned and deserve from the expenditure of their tax dollars. When the government can't even be pragmatic enough to say there will be no bonuses paid out to ministers in this time of deficits, of record deficits, of cuts to programs and, as the government likes to call them, discretionary funding….
Of course, there is not a single minister or member on that side of the House that will define what this discretionary spending is. But we hear every day in our communities exactly what that is, because it is hurting families, children, seniors, the most vulnerable members of our society. Yet we have ministers that will take a slight cut in their ministerial bonus in the midst of these record deficits. All of this plays into this continuing skepticism and cynicism on the part of voters towards their government — and fairly so.
As I commented at the beginning of my remarks, the fact that we're back here yet again trying to amend the laws of this province in order to allow wiggle room for a government that has demonstrated that it is either
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so incompetent or inept at managing our budget or so completely deceitful about its management of this budget that the public can't…. The choices are poor, and the voters and the citizens across this province know it. They're talking about it, and it's demonstrated over and over again.
When I go on to read other sections of this Bill 2, I was actually fascinated by the fact that this bill is the one that provides for the elimination of Tourism B.C. and the reassignment of hotel room taxes to the general revenue of the government.
Again, here we are. We talked many times here about one of the most exciting world events that will take place in just a few short months in the province of British Columbia — and it's not without its controversy, absolutely not without its controversy — the Olympics. But here we are just really on the eve of that great promotional opportunity, and this government has seen fit to eliminate Tourism B.C. and take those hotel tax dollars to do with as they please.
Again, the kind of message that this sends out…. I talked earlier just a moment ago about the kind of cuts that communities and the most vulnerable in our society are experiencing under this government. This goes to show that there is obviously some other kind of plan at play that the government has not come clean with, and it hasn't become apparent exactly why they would do away with or eliminate Tourism B.C. — one of the most successful programs, praised far and wide across Canada for its great success in promoting this province.
Yet on the eve of one of the largest-ever and greatest-ever events that will occur in this province, this government has seen fit to eliminate that and take the hotel tax to be managed behind closed doors, I guess, as they see fit. It's no surprise that these kinds of activities inflame the citizens of British Columbia and make them feel so completely distrustful of their government and their government leaders.
Of course, I think it would be remiss if I didn't talk about the other great and compelling issue that British Columbians are talking about. If it's not the great budget deception that they talk about around the cooler and over coffee in the morning, it's the very, very despised HST.
That, unfortunately, is not in here. You'd think that while we're altering the laws of the land to allow yet a deeper and greater budget deficit, we'd touch on the harmonized sales tax.
It seems to me that the government has really sold us the idea that the two are linked — inextricably linked. We have this huge budget deficit that we weren't told about before the election but that appears to be just a profound problem here after the election, and we are now going to couple it with this necessity for a harmonized sales tax that is going to resuscitate the economy.
Yet here's the first opportunity to present it in this first budget-related bill here in the House, and it's not there. Now, why would it not be there? Well, probably because it is one of the most contentious issues in recent history. People are rallying by the hundreds and the thousands all across this province. They are signing petitions. They are putting on activities through every known social network on the Internet. It doesn't matter what political stripe; people are galvanized against the HST.
I guess that's why it is not included in here, but you'd think that it's such an essential part of the budget…. According to the B.C. Liberal government, every word we've heard from them since the election — not before the election, unfortunately, but since the election — is that we have to have this HST. It is fundamental to the budget process here in British Columbia, and yet it's missing. When you see a budget act in Bill 2….
Deputy Speaker: Member, I've given quite a lot of latitude in the discussion about this bill.
I would remind the members that we are talking about the bill. The fact that the HST isn't mentioned in the bill does provide some concerns about discussing the HST. So I'd urge you to restrict your comments to the bill itself.
M. Karagianis: I shall speak to the bill only. But certainly, when we look at all of the various pieces of this bill, it begs the question why some of the announcements that the government has made around specific components of their budget are not included in this. If in fact we are amending this or if this is called the Budget Measures Implementation Act, then one would naturally assume that all of the very pieces that the government has talked about in their throne speech and their budget speech as being very significant…. You would wonder why they're not included in the Budget Measures Implementation Act. Why are those not being included?
We have a far-ranging number of issues here, like the disintegration of Tourism B.C. and taking those tax dollars into general revenue behind closed doors. We have here a number of other provisions that this talks about: the Motor Fuel Tax Act, the amendment to the Income Tax Act.
We have issues here around the Social Service Tax Act that will change some aspects of how prescriptions are delivered here in the province, yet nothing in here about the MSP premiums, which is another key part of what the government talked about in their budget speech. One wonders — it begs the question: why is that not included? If we are going to be amending the budget here, the accountability act, and putting in place this new Bill 2, where are all the pieces that we expected to
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hear, which we were promised in the throne and budget speeches? I would imagine that those are coming, and I guess we'll have a chance to speak again to this.
When I see an act like this come through, which speaks so very strongly to the level of trickery that has occurred here in this province throughout the election process — which we are now dealing with in this session here — it actually forces me to say no. I will not support this act.
I will not support it because of the things that are missing. I will not support it because of the things that it contains. I will not support it because, basically, this is yet one more demonstration of the complete and utter incompetency of this government to be open and accountable and to come clean with the citizens of British Columbia about their intentions pre-election and post-election.
If we have to keep coming in here and changing the laws of the land to allow this government to get away with their behaviour, it's just not appropriate. I cannot support an act that does that — that comes back in and continues to find weaselly ways for the government to get away with ineptitude and with deceitful behaviour. I can't support an act on that basis.
L. Krog: I am delighted to rise today to speak to the Budget Measures Implementation Act (No. 2). Really, what it goes to is the very heart of what we do here. We obviously spend a great deal of time discussing laws around the regulatory framework, around the control of people's behaviour, but ultimately what government does is that it taxes and it spends. That's what government does. That's the essence of government.
We are here today to debate a bill that contains a number of provisions, the most striking of which, of course, relates to the amendment to the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act, which was passed by a previous Legislature with much fanfare after a great deal of public discourse around the issue during the election of 2001 and assented to on August 16, 2001 — a bill that was supposed to just guarantee we'd never have an unbalanced budget in British Columbia again as long as ministers just toed the line.
Well, ultimately it's just proved to be a bit of a farce — hasn't it? I mean, we are here today, for the second time this year now, to extend a four-year exemption — a get-out-of-jail-free card, if you will — to all cabinet ministers who can't meet their budgets.
You know, the average British Columbian has been through economic ups and downs through their lifetime. They don't even have to be that old to understand an economic downturn or an upkick. They appreciate that sometimes expenditures get out of control. They appreciate that sometimes revenue disappears. You lose your job; a stock portfolio crashes; your employer goes out of business; the Japanese economy collapses; markets for the products of the mill you work at disappear. All sorts of things beyond your control happen.
But somehow this government wanted to say to people: "Oh gee, you know what? We can really guarantee that the money is always going to flow in, that we'll be able to balance the budget and, if not, that we're going to punish those ministers. Have no fear. The ministers are going to be punished. We're going to take those ministers out to the woodshed, give them a good spanking and show them that they just can't get away with that."
Well, it's a farce. It's a complete and utter farce. This whole right-wing concept of holding governments to account by insisting there be legislation that says the budget has to be balanced was, I think, one of the greater fibs, if you will — I won't use the other word, hon. Speaker — perpetrated on citizens in the western world in the last decade and a half. What it flew in the face of was common sense. As we are now, hopefully, maybe in the western world climbing out of the greatest economic crisis since the great '30s, surely there are lessons to be learned from that.
You know, Franklin Roosevelt didn't cut spending in the United States to pull the Americans out of the recession in the Great Depression. No reasonable economy did. In this country, R.B. Bennett lost the 1935 election because he was probably the last leader in the western world, short of some of the fascists, who actually stood his ground and said: "You know what? We're not going to spend money we don't have." So Canada lingered through the Dirty '30s.
Sensible economists…. The average person understands that spending has to be taken on by government in tough times. You stimulate the economy. This government, as we know, has announced spending programs beyond imagination, building things all over the place. Now, whether or not they get built, of course, is another thing. We've got a federal government on one hand that says it's going to get money out the door quickly, and a lot of that hasn't arrived. In this province we can't even get organized enough to accept some of the money that's supposed to come out the door.
But it all gets back to the same thing. It gets back to a government that has played a game of let's pretend. If we pass this Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act, everything is going to be fine. Government is always going to balance its budgets. We can ignore the vagaries of the economy. We can ignore the vagaries of consumer spending. We can ignore the vagaries of interest rates. We can ignore the vagaries of anything that might impact on a budget.
[L. Reid in the chair.]
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What is the sense of passing legislation if you're going to turn around and constantly amend it so that ultimately, no one ever pays the price? No one pays the price here. No minister actually loses any money or has lost any money. Nobody gets really punished. It's a feel-good kind of bill. It's there on the books. You can trot it out and say: "We're responsible to the people."
But here we are in this Legislature today being asked to give permission to cabinet ministers not to meet any accountable standard as set out in the statute for the next four years. The troubling thing is that British Columbians don't really believe what this government says because of what happened in the last election. They don't honestly believe that in four years we're really going to be facing a deficit.
I think a lot of British Columbians think that it's the old trick that W.A.C. Bennett played year after year. You overestimate expenditures and underestimate revenue. Somehow you manage to show up with a better-looking set of books at the end of each fiscal year.
I just suspect, and I'd love to hear the Minister of Finance stand up and correct me if I'm wrong, that that's the game we're engaged in today. That's the game that this government is engaged in, a game that says that things are going to be really, really bad and that we need four years to escape. We need four years to survive the troubling economic times. At the end of the four years, hopefully…. By then, no minister is going to get punished. That's all it's going to take — four years.
My suspicion is that some of those wise people who work in the Ministry of Finance, those long-term public servants who have laboured there long and hard for years, have spoken to the best economists, have looked at all the evidence and decided that probably in maybe even three or four years we'll actually be able to balance the budget again — maybe.
If we are, then this government can go to the people in May 2013 and say: "Look what good boys and girls we've been. Look what we've been able to do once again. We don't have to worry about having passed that amendment under the Budget Measures Implementation Act (No. 2). We don't have to worry about that." You know what, hon. Speaker? This government will be able to say: "Look how well we've done. We've balanced those books again, and everything is fine in British Columbia."
Then they might even, with great fanfare — I don't know — increase the penalties in the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act instead of just saying to the people: "You know what? We don't have control over the global economy." I would just love it if one member of this government would stand up and for once speak the commonsense truth that every British Columbian understands.
We are a tiny economy in a global one. I've said it before. I remember being here back in the '90s. The Speaker had a luncheon downstairs for the Premier of a Chinese province. The Premier of that Chinese province…. I can't remember his name. I can't even remember which province it was, but it was a province with 70 million people. It just struck me that here I was, a lonely little MLA on the government back bench in a province that had about four million people.
What it makes you appreciate is the utter insignificance, arguably, of the British Columbia economy compared to that of the world. What it teaches you is some sense of humility. It also teaches you to understand that British Columbia does not control its economic fate to the extent that this government would have you believe.
We have listened to them, year after year, claim that they managed the economy, that they were responsible for any surpluses, that they were responsible for all the good things. But now that the tables have turned, I'm asked to come into this House as a member of this Legislature and support a bill that essentially says: "You know what? We were really wrong." That's what this is saying.
What this is really, really saying, in a very indirect language, is that this government was, in fact, dead wrong. They're not responsible for the state of the economy. That's why their ministers need to have a get-out-of-jail-free card for four years, so that they won't have to suffer a decrease in their ministerial incomes over the next four years for their inability to manage the economy.
No sense of responsibility. No sense of responsibility whatsoever. No honest admission that, in fact, they don't control the state of the affairs of the economy of British Columbia. No honest admission that maybe — and I'm waiting for the catcalls to start — just maybe during the 1990s, when the Japanese economy got into trouble and our lumber market was affected, that maybe that wasn't the government's fault.
No admission. No acknowledgment of that bit of history. No, we're going to continue to pretend that one government for a decade was just awful and another government for a decade has been just wonderful — except for now when, of course, the global economy happened to intrude on British Columbia's Lalaland view of the world and when, my goodness gracious, we find ourselves with a big fat deficit year over year, projected over the next four years.
Surprise, surprise, surprise. It must have come as a great shock to the members opposite that they didn't have control over the economy. It certainly didn't come as a shock to the members of the opposition. It didn't come as a shock to world economists.
What goes up eventually comes down. What is prosperous in one decade or one year or one month may, indeed, turn out to be not so prosperous. That's really what we have here with the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act — an acknowledgment, for once and for all, I hope, that this government is
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prepared to face up to the truth that they have limited control over things, that they can do their darnedest but that economic circumstances beyond their control will intrude.
The real question is: what have you done with the prosperity? When you had it, did you put it aside? Did you secure the infrastructure to provide housing for the homeless? Did you ensure that the poorest amongst us had a place to sleep at night that was safe and secure?
No. Oh, they made some attempts. They bought a few SROs. They've done a little bit. I'm not going to deny that. I don't doubt for a minute that the Minister of Housing is a man committed to ensuring that British Columbians get some housing. I don't doubt it for a moment. But in terms of the priorities that I see here, it's not terribly realistic.
I haven't seen a government make a commitment that if ministers are going to breach the act and we have to amend it to save their skins…. I haven't seen the kind of commitment to public housing that I would have liked to have seen in a budget from a government that's found itself in so much political trouble.
No, that's because we're going to continue to pretend. We're going to spend the next few years with an act on the statutes of British Columbia called the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act that is just a farce.
We're going to pretend that somehow governments can always balance a budget, as if they are somehow removed from the reality of the economy and the reality of British Columbians' lives — the day-to-day lives of people who have to get up and go to work, pay the rent, pay the mortgage, make sure the kids are fed, get them off to school, make sure that their partners are happy, make sure they try and do a little bit to benefit their communities or face the challenges of disabilities beyond their control, or sometimes within their control.
We're just going to pretend that government doesn't face that. I mean, what's the sense of passing a law, which you almost claim has the same validity as the statutes handed down to Moses on Sinai, if you're going to amend it all the time? What's the sense of it?
When you ask yourself about public cynicism, do you know where it comes from? It comes from a bill exactly like the one that's before us today. When you turn around, having passed with much fanfare a statute that says that ministers aren't going to overrun their budgets, and you amend it to escape it, it just doesn't enhance credibility of government or of the members who sit in this chamber.
Indeed, it detracts from everything we're supposed to be representative of, and that is the best of the people — the best thoughts, the highest principles, the goals, the desires, the aspirations. It represents anything but.
It speaks to the most despicable cynicism about the political process that you can imagine. And you wonder why 50 percent of the voters of British Columbia didn't bother to vote last time? It's because when a government, as I said earlier, passes with so much fanfare the statute that it did that we're being asked to amend today, and then turns around and amends it so it is utterly meaningless, you have to ask yourself: "Is it any surprise that voters don't even want to get out and vote for anyone, that they don't believe it makes a difference, that it is, in fact, a bit of a joke?"
It won't come as much surprise to the members opposite that there's a whole series of reasons I can't support this bill. But that's just one aspect of it.
The other aspect is the elimination of Tourism B.C. We're going to transfer the hotel room tax now to the government. Now, it's supposed to promote tourism, be used for the purpose of promoting tourism.
Another aspect of this government's failed agenda. We heard over and over again for the last eight years that essentially government couldn't do anything, that it was always better as a basic principle with some exception to turn it over to the private sector, to create entities at arm's length from government and that that would be better. And you know what? In some cases that is. I think many British Columbians, particularly those involved in the tourism sector, would have said that Tourism B.C. was actually doing, with that money — taxpayers' money, if you will; people who go to hotels and motels — something good. It was actually doing something good.
It was actually quite efficient. It was actually a bit of a model. I would remind the members opposite that it was, in fact, the creation of the former government out of that so-called dismal decade, that terrible, dark time. This government happily kept it going, thought it was a good idea, and now suddenly, somehow, we've got to bring it back under the government's control.
Oh, would they only consider doing that with B.C. Ferries. I've got to tell you, in my constituency, with so many ferry terminals within a few miles of my home, there's a whole bunch of people who'd love to see the government step in and take control of B.C. Ferries. Then we wouldn't have to play that funny little game that involves a review of Mr. Hahn's salary.
And executive compensation for Crown corporations — we wouldn't have to engage in that little farce, either. We've got the farce of this bill around ministerial accountability. We've got the farce of corporations that are supposedly at arm's length from government. We wouldn't have to engage in that little farce either.
Deputy Speaker: Member, could I bring you back to debate on Bill 2.
L. Krog: Yes, so we come back to Tourism B.C. We're eliminating it. Why? Why should we bring it back
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under government control? Did it do a bad job? Was it inefficient? Have we heard some good reasons for that? I haven't heard anything from the minister's lips recently that would satisfy me that it's a good thing to do, and I certainly haven't heard public support for the concept.
But we're going to do it, and is it going to be more effective? Will all the money actually end up, in the words of the statute, "for the purpose of promoting tourism"? Will we get the bang for the buck that we're supposed to get? And really, is this the time, as the member for Esquimalt–Royal Roads pointed out so eloquently earlier, is this really the time, with the world being invited to come to British Columbia — a quarter-million people, I'm told — to see the Olympics? Is this really the time that you want to fiddle with tourism promotion? I mean, does this really make a great deal of sense?
In politics I'm told that timing is everything. You know, you've got no principles, you join the right party at the right time, and you get elected here. Well, that's not my view of the world, but some people think that way. So timing is an important thing. It's important. So what's the point of doing this now?
Finally, the government is saying with such pleasure and so proud of itself that they're going to amend the Income Tax Act and increase the exemption to $11,000 for the poorest British Columbians, and that's a good thing. That's a very good thing, and the Minister of Finance should be proud of that.
It is going to actually save an individual taxpayer up to 72 whole dollars a year — 72 whole dollars. By my calculation, I think that is $6 a month. Well, that's certainly going to help them out of the grips of the depression, or the recession, or whatever you want to call it. That's certainly going to make a vast difference to the average British Columbian — 6 whole dollars per month.
Yet at the same time I don't see any suggestion that maybe the minimum wage should rise. I certainly don't see any suggestion of how this is going to benefit someone on social assistance. I mean, increasing the basic personal exemption for the poorest British Columbians may not be a bad idea, but it's not going to help the poorest British Columbians who are not earning an income. It's not going to make the person on social assistance any better off.
Indeed, arguably, if you're reducing government revenue, there will be less funds available to assist the people on social assistance in this province or, for that matter, to assist sports teams, school kids who want to learn how to play hockey — as opposed to people who might get to sit in expensive boxes and watch hockey being played at the Olympics — or provide some funding to parents of autistic children who might like to see some funding so they can assist their families and the people they love, the kids who need a lot of help. That isn't going to help them.
At a time when we should have been training and encouraging training, we're finally going to double the basic training tax credit for employers up to $4,000. You know, that's great, but a few years ago the business community in this province was screaming for training. Couldn't find anyone to work who was qualified. The coffers were full. The prices of our raw resources were up through the roof. Why didn't we do it then? Why did we wait until now?
At a time when, certainly in the restaurant industry…. I've talked to them. I've listened to them. They're scared. They believe, with the implementation of the HST, that they're going to see something in the order of well over a 7 percent drop in their revenue.
The Minister of Finance talks about minimum wage. That's very interesting. I attended the meeting in Nanaimo, I say to the minister. I actually spoke to Mr. Tostenson, and I spoke to several of the restaurateurs who were there. You know what they told me? They didn't mind that, because they figured if it was a choice, they would have taken an increase in the minimum wage any day over the implementation of the HST.
They get it. If people have some money in their pocket, they might actually go out to a restaurant and spend it. They might actually create some revenue.
Here we are now with unemployment rising, trying to encourage employers who are afraid about where things are going to go with the implementation of the HST pending, what small business believes is a great threat to their viability…. With the implementation of that facing them, we're finally going to bump up the basic training tax credit. Well, that's a good thing. It's a very good thing. It's just that it's a little late.
We're now seeing thousands of British Columbians, many of them very skilled, collecting unemployment. We're seeing thousands of people who would, if they could find someone to employ them, be delighted to be so employed, and they'd be delighted to see their employers get the benefit of that tax credit. But they're probably not going to see it because their employers are trying to crawl out of this recession, because their employers are already in great difficulty.
They're not worried, candidly, about tax cuts — the small business people I've spoken to over time. Taxes are important. I'm not denying that, but the more important thing is the revenue. The more important thing is to have customers coming through the door or clients or patients or whoever — but somebody coming through the door who wants to pay you for your services or buy the goods you've got to sell.
Taxes — you know what? If you get enough people through the door, you'll pay your taxes. You won't worry about it.
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This is, in fact, a bit of a benefit — increasing that. But to suggest it's going to really solve the problems of the economy and that this is the best British Columbia can do in order to help us out of the recession, apart from all of this government spending — which, frankly, seems to be somewhat disappearing as we see budgets cut for all kinds of programs…. Is this the best we can do in 2009? Is this really the best we can do?
You get the sense, hon. Speaker, that what this bill tells me is that this government has literally, as the old saying goes, run out of gas. It's run out of ideas. It's run out of enthusiasm. I think — and I'm almost hesitant to believe this — some of them actually believed their own rhetoric for the last eight years — that they were in charge of the economy; that they could control it; that they were some super King Canutes who, unlike the fables, did in fact hold the tide back; that they could ignore the global recession; that as it swept over them, they'd be able to push it back, and British Columbia would be somehow saved.
Well, there is no biblical miracle here either. Nobody is parting the Red Sea of the recession, and it's going to take a long time for this government to part the red ink that's flowing in the veins of this provincial government. It's going to take a very long time, according to this bill. That's why we're exempting the ministers from it — because we don't want to see them bleed red. We just want the people of British Columbia to bleed red for a little while. That's okay. That's okay.
Goodness, we wouldn't want any of the ministers responsible — the same ministers, the same cabinet, the same government that for eight years has claimed control over the economy…. We wouldn't want to see them suffer during the course of this. Oh, goodness, no. That would be wrong. We wouldn't want to see that happen. That would be terrible.
After all, they're responsible for this — aren't they? Weren't they responsible for it when it was all good? When resource prices were up, weren't they responsible then? Well, I guess they're not feeling quite as responsible today. They're not quite as responsible now.
They're certainly not quite as arrogant as they were earlier, because they figured out maybe, just maybe, that they're not exempt from the real world. They did escape accountability, however, in the last election. They did a pretty good job on that. They pretended even through then that the deficit was going to be $495 million, so we're looking at a very different Budget Measures Implementation Act today than we would have if, in fact, that had turned out to be true.
Oh, it's much, much different today. We would have seen an act…. Oh gosh, there might have even been some goodies in it. Instead, here we are facing a deficit that, without the HST bribe brought into this year's budget, would have stretched over $3½ billion. It's a staggering figure. It's beyond the comprehension of most British Columbians.
I've got a calculator at home that doesn't even have numbers to get to that number. No, their accountability has gone down the toilet. No one believes them. This bill, with the provision exempting and extending from two years to four the amount of time that government will be exempt from the prohibition against running deficits, is the most honest thing they've done.
I want to compliment them for it. I just wish one of their members in debate would stand up today — because I've only heard from the Minister of Finance — and acknowledge, even in the smallest way, that some of what they've heard from the opposition today is true. I'd like them to do that. I would like them to think of it as the road to recovery.
You know, you have to make the admission first. You've got to acknowledge you were drunk with power before you get to sober up. So acknowledge, I say to those members opposite, that they were drunk with power and arrogance. Acknowledge that. Make a small apology. Atone.
Try and correct a few things and just acknowledge today that what we're really hearing in this act is an acknowledgment that we didn't get the truth in the election, that they don't control the world and that British Columbians are going to pay the price over the next four years for their incredible arrogance.
N. Macdonald: I rise to speak on Bill 2, the Budget Measures Implementation Act (No. 2), 2009. One of the interesting things that's going on here is that the government has put forward a bill that no government members, other than the minister who is putting it forward, feel that they need to get up and defend. They feel that they don't need to come and explain why it's a bill that this Legislature should put into place.
I think it says much about the things that are in this bill, because there's a tremendous amount that a government member would find embarrassing to try to stand up and try to explain.
As you go through, you see one item after another that is almost laughable in terms of what it's trying to do. Things that were put forward in previous parliaments with incredible fanfare, pushed as something that would never change, all of the descriptions that were absolutely over the top and definites that would never change that we've become used to this Premier and this government making — those sorts of declarations. What we've also seen consistently, again and again, is how disappointing the actual results were.
This is a government that invests heavily in its propaganda arm, the public affairs bureau — what is it? — some 248, 250-odd members that churn out press releases with all sorts of overstatements about the realities that British Columbians face and raise all sorts of expectations about what British Columbians should expect. Continuously, those expectations are disappointed.
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As you go through this bill, section after section makes amendments to previous acts where the language, when they were introduced, was unbelievable, incredible — and, as it's turned out, was actually unbelievable.
The first, section 1, changes a piece of legislation that was supposed to guarantee that there would be no deficits. There was a tremendous amount of fanfare around the fact that there would never be deficits, according to this government. Having early in its career introduced a budget with the record for deficits, they then turned around and put in legislation that said that after a certain date there would be no further deficits.
Now, most British Columbians understand that there are cycles. I think most British Columbians, despite all of the propaganda that came from this government — propaganda they heavily, heavily supported, putting tremendous amounts of money into it — realized that the economy, our economy here in British Columbia in particular, is cyclical. It moves up and it moves down.
In 2005, and I think previous members have talked about it, at the top of a cycle with federal transfer payments massive, with the interest rates at record lows and commodity prices high, there was a fiscal situation for the province that was encouraging. I think most British Columbians would have realized that that situation would not last forever.
It wasn't a situation, despite all of the claims from this government, that this government claimed. All of the factors that are most crucial are factors likely beyond the control of the government. Yet they took credit for it, and they brought in a farce of a law that talked about the fact that they would never go into deficit. But the first time they get into difficulty, they simply go back and change the law.
Because it was pre-election and because we were also supposedly trying to stick to the myth of a short-term deficit of $495 million in the first year and, presumably, something less the following. They came to this House, changing the law and putting in place a law that would limit the deficit to just two years. After two years — pre-election, they were saying — we'd be right back to a surplus situation. Guaranteed. It's there in law.
But as we now know, it was a farce — $495 million. As previous members have said, if you take away the HST transfer from the federal government we're up to — what? — $3.5 billion? I think that's a new record for a deficit. A new record. So even in section 1 you have a change to a law that has become a complete and utter farce.
Far better to just throw it out. Throw it out, and just try to manage the fiscal state of this province in a way that people can have confidence in. No gimmicks. Just honest information that the people of British Columbia can look at and judge for themselves.
People aren't stupid. They do realize that there are fiscal challenges. But we stick with these gimmicks. We've seen so many of them. Now, I wasn't here when the legislation came in to remove the open cabinet meetings. I suspect there didn't need to be legislation, but do you remember that? It's along the same lines — the idea that you can have open cabinet meetings.
All of them depend upon people not fully understanding or watching carefully what's going on here. There's something fundamentally, with all of these initiatives, insulting to the people of British Columbia.
That's section 1. What does section 2 do? The Ministerial Accountability Act — another farce. Has there ever been a minister in this government since this was put in place that actually lost money? There hasn't been. Will there ever be? No. These actions, section 2 of this bill, will absolutely guarantee it.
B.C. Timber Sales, that account? That's an account that, presumably, was supposed to make money. It doesn't now. So to safeguard the minister, that's removed from the calculation of the Ministry of Forests' operating expenses.
But even if it wasn't, what do we see year after year? The ministers whose budgets go over simply come and sit through a process of supplementary estimates. They just add to their budget, and they never end up paying anything. So you have your 250, 260 propaganda — public affairs bureau — people churning out all of these media releases, somehow giving the people the impression that you have a bill, that you have a law, that is actually going to hold ministers accountable. There's no such thing, no such thing at all.
Now, it would be interesting if a member of this government stood and actually explained to the people of British Columbia why section 1…. Why even continue with section 1? Why even continue with a bill, a law presumably, around deficits that is, at a whim, going to be changed? Why continue with a ministerial accountability law that will never, and has never, ever worked? Why do you continue with those things? It would be interesting to have a member from the government side actually stand and explain why we're going through this process.
This is a government that, despite the fact that they set a period of time where we were supposed to meet every fall, certainly isn't used to us meeting in the fall. In fact, it's as rare as possible that this government, the B.C. Liberals, allows this House to sit, so that they can escape scrutiny. They put in place things like the Ministerial Accountability Act or an open cabinet meeting, which is supposed to give the impression of doing something, but there's absolutely no intention of actually being accountable in any real way.
You move on to sections 10, 11, 13, 14, 15. Those are the sections in this bill — and it would be very interesting to hear the Minister of Tourism stand up and defend this — that deal with the destruction of Tourism B.C.
Tourism B.C. has been a consistently successful operation that took 12 years, 13 years of efforts by people
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trying to improve it, trying to make sure that it was an entity that could be passed on to the next generation of tourism entrepreneurs. It was something that, by all accounts, worked.
By all accounts, if you talk to people, people in the tourist industry not only condemn…. Here you have the Council of Tourism Associations, the voice of B.C. tourism, calling it a bitter pill to lose Tourism B.C.
With this bill, the final nail is being put in the coffin, as the board is dissolved officially, as one item after another takes place to get rid of Tourism B.C. It's almost as if this government wants to do the same thing to the tourism industry that they did to forestry.
This is a government that with forestry killed 25,000 or 30,000 jobs, in that neighbourhood, with 50 to 60 mills shut down permanently. We used to get money from the forest industry. Now it costs this government money to run forestry in this province. It has been a devastating collapse, and now this government is going to do the same thing with tourism.
So all sorts of press releases, all sorts of grand…. What was it, the golden goals? What was that? I got sick of hearing it. All for nothing. All about expanding tourism — doubling it? What's the strategy for doubling it? What's the Minister of Tourism going to do to double it?
Well, one of the things he's going to do is make sure that we get rid of the award-winning — and highly respected in every jurisdiction across North America — Tourism B.C. Well, that's a great start. Then kill it off with the HST. Finish it off with the HST. Those are bound to be successful strategies for improving and strengthening tourism. I think we all know that you have a government that is absolutely lost.
Tourism B.C. Let's be clear, they got rid of it because they suddenly realized where it was funded from and the HST didn't fit in. The HST removed the opportunity for that hotel tax, so the 3 percent had to go. Any claims by this government to have any sort of a plan simply are not credible. Tourism B.C. was ripped apart with no consultation, with no thought, yet the consequences are going to be severe.
The area that I represent depends on a number of industries. Forestry is critically important, and it has suffered under this government. In an attempt to find diversification, many of these communities have also worked towards tourism. Revelstoke Mountain Resort was an opportunity for the community to diversify, an opportunity that the community embraced. It provided opportunity for a wide number of tourist enterprises, beyond simply those that were directly involved in the resort.
There have been challenges. There have been challenges in tourism that are, no doubt, beyond this government's control. They were quick to take credit, even though it was beyond their control, but when the tide turns they duck and they say: "We had nothing to do with it." There are elements of that that are true, just as there are elements of that excuse with forestry that are simply true.
With Revelstoke, this government has not only removed the award-winning promotional tool that was there for tourism promotion in British Columbia, but it has at the same time introduced the HST, which will be devastating to the Revelstoke resort. That's their language: "devastating." You've also cut grants, which means that the railway museum closes. It's closed now. It used to stay open later, and it's questionable whether it will be able to open next year. You have cuts to the railway museum. You have cuts to the forestry museum. You had music programs that used to attract people. Those are all gone.
These are decisions by this government. Presumably, they want to promote tourism. They talk about doubling it, yet just like their literacy goals and their environmental goals and everything else, there's no follow-through. It never happens. It is all a communication scheme.
It's all about communication. Whether any of these things actually happen or not means nothing at all. One thing is said; another thing happens. And it happens in the most awkward way. That's what this bill is about. I look forward to a member from the other side actually standing and defending what is going on here with the destruction of Tourism B.C.
I've talked about one community, Revelstoke, where tourism means something. It's important. People value it. Now we have the promotional tool that the provincial government used to have destroyed with this legislation in a thoughtless, reckless way. That's followed by the HST, cuts to grants that attract tourists — all of that done at the same time.
On top of the strains caused by a collapse of the forest industry you have this. It's almost a purposeful incompetence. In Golden it's the same thing. Kicking Horse Mountain Resort — hit by the HST. There's no question. Then you have the promotional tools that were put in place by others recklessly gutted with the destruction of Tourism B.C.
Questions around how all of this is going to work…. The minister, if he ever were to stand up, would somehow claim that it's all thought through and that his ministry will take over. It's not. There are no explanations for how it's going to work, and if there are, it would be lovely to hear them in this House, where presumably you would hear them. But it won't happen.
In Golden you have, again, museums, and you have music that would be downtown, supported by grants. They're gone — the HST and now cuts with this bill to Tourism B.C. You have people wondering what is going on. On top of everything else, what is going on with a government that could so clumsily manage its part of what is happening in the economy?
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Invermere, Radium. That area losing the Canfor mill in Radium becomes more and more dependent upon those that are still employed within the tourism industry. Here again, the same issues. The fact that Tourism B.C. is gone without another plan, the fact that you have HST that's going to hit Panorama…. You have the cuts to arts, and you have the cuts to the museums, the things that would attract people. And this is not an area that is able to easily attract people. Tremendous natural beauty but also tremendous competition for that tourist dollar.
I think anybody who's in the tourist industry will tell you that you have incredibly price-sensitive people who are coming to visit, that you better have yourself well organized, that you better be promoting yourself properly if you expect to attract tourists and that you better have a good product. Well, I know the areas that I represent have a wonderful product, but I worry about the fact that the promotion has been removed.
You go down to Kimberley. Now, here's a community that contributed $20 billion over the life of the mine to the people of British Columbia, just like many of the areas that I represent contribute a tremendous amount, now trying to promote itself increasingly as a tourist destination. When people in Kimberley heard the words from this government about doubling tourism, they expected, like most people would, that there was some sincerity in that. Yet the actions that followed made it increasingly difficult.
Like I say, the HST — nobody understands that. They wonder why it wasn't talked about before the election. The Minister of Finance asked about minimum wage as an issue. Well, I ran on that issue. I stood and said I was in support of increasing the minimum wage. Then people could judge.
I look across, and I see people who ran against implementing the HST. That's a far more difficult position to come forward with, because if you run and you put forward honestly the things that you intend to do, some will support it. Some won't. But you come with a mandate, and there is clearly no mandate for a whole series of issues, including the destruction of Tourism B.C.
Who would have guessed that that's the direction the government would have gone? It's the exact opposite of the words that were being used by these members — the exact opposite. Just as who would have thought they would go with the HST?
You know, one of the previous files that I had was the Vancouver Convention Centre and looking at that expansion. Part of the idea of that is that at some point somebody would use it. What we know is that in 1996 there were approximately 360,000 delegates that came to the area — about 360,000. There were a whole bunch of factors — a lot of factors a government can't control but predictable factors, like the value of the dollar and other things that were going on.
This year what is the figure? I would guess at around 120,000 delegates — about 120,000. That convention centre, which was built with no construction plan, with no business plan and a B.C. Liberal board, will sit empty almost all of the time.
N. Macdonald: The minister says: "Have I seen it?" I've toured it all the way through. I've always appreciated the tour from Mr. Podmore, a wonderful, very capable man. It is a beautiful building, but it sits empty again and again.
N. Macdonald: Well, I look forward to the minister standing and explaining how often it's filled and laying out the conventions that are there because of the size of that. When your predecessor used to lay it out, it was empty nine days out of ten, and that's still the case. So stand up. The minister can stand and actually participate in this debate. I don't know what the rules are for that side, but presumably, as an MLA, you're allowed to stand and explain. So there you go.
You can explain why the minister got rid of Tourism B.C. The minister can explain why he doesn't need Tourism B.C. to fill up a convention centre that'll sit empty most of the time.
At the same time, maybe he can explain how a convention centre that was supposed to cost $495 million, guaranteed, turned out to cost a billion. Of course, that's better than the deficit that was $495 million guaranteed and turned out to be $3.5 billion. I guess that's an improvement, but nevertheless, it is a colossal failure.
Tourism B.C. presumably would be one of the tools that would be used to attract people to not only Vancouver but across the province.
You also have within this bill changes to taxation. It'll be interesting to hear that. You have with the budget an increase in the MSP, which is a poll tax. It's a head tax, regressive, and here you have within this bill a cut to progressive taxes.
What we have seen over the span of this government's time is a consistent move in that direction, a cut to progressive taxes and increases to poll taxes or regressive taxes. Not surprisingly, what you have is the gap growing between those who are wealthy and those who are falling into poverty.
I think this is something that the government not only will not apologize for; that's their policy. Their policy consistently and predictably pushes people into poverty. That's something that is poor social policy and that we pay for in ways that are often not easily recognized, but we pay for. It's poor social policy. It's poor economic policy too, I would argue.
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What I look forward to is the Minister of Tourism, representing an industry that was handed to him at a value of $13.8 billion with 120,000-odd workers…. I'm looking for an explanation of how the government's stated goals are possibly going to be met if you don't promote properly.
Tourism B.C. was an award-winning and clearly effective mechanism for promoting tourism. The government — with, I would guess, practically no thought at all — got rid of it and somehow asks us to believe that there is something that has been put in its place that is going to be just as effective. That's something that the minister has an obligation to stand up and explain. I look forward to hearing that explanation.
You also have within Bill 2 a series of changes to taxes around gasoline and diesel. That's something that the critics are going to be asking about during the stage of the bill where each of the sections is looked at. Some of those are interesting. I, too, am interested in answers to those questions so that we can understand the direction that the government is going with that.
To wrap up, a few more things. Section 1 has turned out to be a farce. It is something that the government simply needs to stand and recognize that the legislation that somehow would prevent a deficit doesn't make sense. We are changing it at a whim. What is the point of that sort of legislation? There is something that's fundamentally misleading about these sorts of legislation. Like I say, it's the same as an open cabinet meeting. The idea that anything real is happening at these things is simply farcical and builds people's cynicism.
Section 2, the Ministerial Accountability Act. Well, there is a complete lack of accountability. The idea that any minister will ever lose money is simply unbelievable. It has never happened; it never will happen. It is another farcical piece of legislation that you might as well give up on. It was a communications piece, not a serious law.
Finally, the decision to get rid of Tourism B.C. is a massive mistake. Anybody who's involved with tourism is saying that. They're saying that as clearly as possible. They are telling the minister to go in the opposite direction, to reinstate something that was successful.
If the minister is not willing to do that, then they have to stand up and explain to the tourist operators what is going on here. As often happens with politicians, there was a promise to be a champion for tourism, I thought. I thought that this was the role of the minister. Yet we see the exact opposite happening.
So I will stand in this House, and I will be voting against Bill 2. I will be interested to hear what my colleagues from the government side have to say about it. To date, only one has stood up, because they're required, I believe, by law to actually stand up and say something about the bill. The rest have chosen to remain completely silent.
With that, I take my seat, and I look forward to the next speaker.
S. Hammell: Bill 2 amends the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act for the second time this year, extending from two years to four the amount of time that the government will be exempt from the prohibition against running deficits.
In all fairness, there is something just a little bit "Alice in Wonderland–like" when you create a law, you debate it in the House, you pass it, and then when you can't keep it, you change it. Then you debate it, you pass it, you have an election, and then when you can't keep it, you change it. Then you debate it, and I assume we will pass it, because we know how to count. There are more members on that side of the House than there are on this, though like the members on this side of the House, I stand opposed to Bill 2.
Now, I think that when you go through all that, when you debate something and pass it and then change it, and you debate it again and pass it and change it, at some point you start to look just plain silly. In fact, if you don't look silly, you look deceitful, because this started prior to an election. A budget was brought in that was $495 million of a deficit, and then to pass that deficit budget, you had to remove the law that said that you cannot run a deficit.
So you went through all that process and removed the law that said that you couldn't run a deficit, but you — I guess to make the narrative or the actions sound reasonable — said that you had to come back to a balanced budget in two years.
Then we all went out to an election, and we came back to this House, and now we have the very same legislation in front of us. But instead of extending the amount of time we're allowed to have a deficit, for two years, we are changing it. We are debating it, and we're extending it now until four years.
I do understand that this is very, very difficult for the members opposite. I mean, I understand how absolutely upsetting this must be, for one thing, to have a deficit in the first place. Imagine a $495 million deficit from people who claim to be the biggest deficit-killers in the land. Now, it's beside the fact that when this government came into power, they came into a $1.1 billion surplus. But within a couple of years they had driven the provincial budget into the largest deficit in the history of this province.
Now a few years later we are looking at the second-largest deficit in the history of this province, and the deficit would have been bigger had the government not cut a deal on the HST. So we have a deficit of over $2.8 billion, and had we not had the $1.6 billion backroom deal done by this government to cut a deal with the federal government to get that money to put on the deficit, we would have had a $3.6 billion deficit.
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My gosh, that would have blown the cover of any deficit-busters in the world. I mean, the biggest deficit-killers in the world have now got a deficit of $2.8 billion. No wonder they had to pass this measure that says they can have a deficit. They'll not only have a deficit this year, a deficit next year, a deficit the following year and a deficit the following year….
In fact, out of 12 years, they'll have seven deficits. Now, that actually blows the cover of the most brilliant fiscal managers that this country has seen — in fact, the world, I'm sure. Well, it ain't true. It ain't true.
S. Hammell: Well, I'm just saying what you said you would like to be….
Deputy Speaker: Member, through the Chair.
S. Hammell: Hon. Speaker, through the Chair, and well I should know that.
We on this side understand that it has been very, very important to the members opposite to be surrounded by this rhetoric that they are incredible fiscal managers, that they know how to take this province through all the ups and downs without any difficulty at all.
To actually clap for a $2.8 billion deficit, a deficit the following year, a deficit the following year, a deficit the following year, after three deficits prior to that, is incredible. What a good job.
This government has embraced the fact that they think that all they had to do was cut taxes, and the world would be fine. Give tax cuts to the wealthiest and corporations, and all would be well. Life would be just fine. Everything would be fine. British Columbia would be able to walk through any problem that it ever had.
They did not, nor would they, recognize that in fact this province is a product of a cyclical economy. They rode the wave of high commodity prices, and when the chips were down, they had to come back into this House and create deficits and create this ludicrous legislation that allows you to not have a deficit.
In fact, what you do is come in, create a law that says that you can't have a deficit, and then, when you have a deficit, you come into the House and say: "We have to change the law to allow us to have a deficit." And when you couldn't do it for two years, you change it to make the law say that you can have a deficit for four years.
It is mind-boggling to me that we have on the opposite side members who are prepared to go to an election, say one thing, come back after an election and table legislation that makes what they said prior to the election quite unbelievable.
In my community 90 percent of the people that responded to a poll by a local newspaper said that they do not believe anything this government says. They believe they have been duped over the deficit and the budget.
Now, hon. Speaker, I don't know about you, but I think that would be a very difficult thing to take into the future.
So $495 million in May, $2.8 billion in September, and the only reason it's not $3.6 billion in the deficit is that you took a signing bonus from the federal government on the HST, allowing your budget to come down slightly.
On top of that, there's incredible cutting in terms of the community that surrounds us. This isn't an issue about not having a deficit when times are tough. Everybody knows that that is the way the world has treated this terrible economic situation we've all found ourselves in, but the difficulty is in not being straight and upfront with the community that you live in and that you're governing on behalf of.
Normally — in my world, perhaps not in all worlds — when times get tough, you don't take it out on the frail and elderly, vulnerable women and children, and children or youth at risk. In my world, when times get tough, those who are able pick up the load on behalf of those people who can't do it. This is not the time to do the massive cutting that this government is doing.
What they should have done in the first place is be straight with people, be upfront and say: "Things are tough." You take that into an election. You don't say something to people one month, then two or three months later bring in a budget, a bill, that suggests that it was okay six months ago to have the situation where you can push a deficit or have a deficit for two years, and then in five or six months bring forward another bill that's almost identical to the previous bill and say that you can have a deficit for four years.
It's not credible. It just refocuses on the fact that the members opposite actually believe their spin. They believe that all they have to do is try to make all the ends meet and put it out in front of the people and everything will be okay.
Well, you can't fool people constantly. You can't go to them and say, "We're going to have a $495 million deficit," and then spin that within months into a $2.8 billion deficit and bring in this kind of legislation.
I have made my point. My point largely centres around the fact that this deficit, this bill, allows…. It's sort of "Alice in Wonderland–like." You have a bill that says there is no such thing as a deficit. You can't have a deficit. Then, when you have a deficit, you bring in a bill that says, "Well, we can have a deficit, but only for so long," and you change it and make it so that it's okay to have a deficit.
It seems to me that you can't speak out of both sides of your mouth. You need to be straight and honest with the people that you represent, and this bill certainly is not upfront and straight with the people of this province.
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On that note, I stand saying I'm not going to support this bill but will pass on to the next speaker.
G. Coons: I rise today to speak to Bill 2. This is the Budget Measures Implementation Act (No. 2), 2009. It's second reading, just for those that might be tuning in from the news and watching the drive-by shootings or the hijackings. They might tune in right now and probably recognize some of that happening in here — how this government hijacked an election with their deceit and mistruths.
You know, I notice that throughout the debate today not one Liberal member has stood up to support this — except the minister, who had to. We're still waiting to hear from the Liberal members on the other side why we need to support Bill 2.
This implementation act basically amends the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act. For those watching, who may not know about the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Act, it was brought in very early in 2001, I believe around August, just after the Liberal government was elected, and it made it illegal to run a deficit.
If I look back to August 14…. Dealing with this bill, the headline back then in 2001, on August 14, was: "Balanced Budget Law Ensures Ministerial Accountability." It requires the government to balance its budget by 2004-05.
Great fanfare we heard. It probably led the news that day. It continues in the press release put out: "Legislation passed today means cabinet ministers will face personal financial penalties for over-budget spending and requires the government to balance their budget." What we have here is a law that should hold cabinet members responsible, individually and collectively, to ensure that ministries are living within their budgets.
Again, we go back to section 3 in this bill before us, Bill 2, the Budget Measures Implementation Act. They talk about looking at how the minister must make public the revised budgets, to which the ministers must adhere in order to avoid losing part of their ministerial budgets. I would hope somebody on the other side would stand up, especially a minister, to assure us and explain what section 3 is all about, because it's very confusing to a lot of people.
In their press release the previous Minister of Finance, Gary Collins, says: "It shows we're serious about improving fiscal management in British Columbia." Basically, what we've seen over the last eight years is fiscal mismanagement from this government.
The bill is about 25 pages, and basically, they're 25 pages that represent the economic mismanagement of this government, the complete failure of this government to be straightforward with British Columbians.
As we move forward on this, it is confusing. With the stroke of a pen, they can take a law that makes it illegal to have a deficit, and we can move forward — just to suit their own political needs.
Basically, during the election when we were talking about balanced budget laws, back in March 2009 just before the election, a big press release came out on the Liberal webpage: "NDP Plan to Scrap Balanced Budget Law. The NDP have revealed their reckless and irresponsible plan to plunge B.C. into years of massive deficits."
This is what these guys are doing. They're scrapping the balanced budget law. This press release should now read on their webpage: "The B.C. Liberals have revealed their reckless and irresponsible plan to plunge B.C. into years of massive deficits and scrap the law requiring a balanced budget by 2011."
That's exactly what this government is doing, and we don't see one member from the other side standing up and being accountable — not only accountable to those of us in the Legislature but accountable to their own constituents.
We go back again dealing with balanced budgets and this bill. On CBC, February 9 of this year: "The B.C. Liberal government is taking a temporary leave," it says, "from its championed balanced-budget law to clear the path for two years of deficit spending."
Again, a bit of mistruth there, a bit of a fallacy, deception to the voters. What we've seen today with this balanced budget or this implementation act is deception to the voters.
What we now have in this province is the largest deficit ever brought into this Legislature at $2.8 billion. If we add on the $800 million that came from the HST deal that…. We didn't talk about it. We don't know when we talked about it, but it was probably in the works before the election, during the election and ever since. It becomes $3.6 billion if you add on the $800 million from that.
If we look out over the next three years, the three-year total of a deficit is $2.8 billion, another $2 billion and about another $1 billion — $5.4 billion over the next three years of a deficit. What we heard this Premier say is, basically: "Read my lips — a $495 million deficit maximum." Now it's seven times that. If you add on the HST deal, the blood money that came through of $1.6 billion, you're looking at a $7 billion deficit over three years.
As we move forward with this ludicrous bill, this symbol of Liberal mismanagement, Liberal financial deception, we're going to be going into a deficit till, at this point in time, 2012-2013. But who knows what's going to happen after that? They can change the law whenever they want, to suit their political needs.
If we look at election promises and dealing with the deficit law and dealing with this bill before us, before the election they admitted that they weren't really telling British Columbians the truth when they promised to restore balanced budgets after two years of deficits. This bill allows this B.C. Liberal government to extend
[ Page 600 ]
the duration of going into red ink for at least another two years. It's just hypocrisy and a complete reversal of what they have stood for previously. Again, not one member on the other side can stand up and support this bill.
Prior to the 2009 budget they promised there would be no deficit. In the Vancouver Sun, the Finance Minister said on December 6: "In British Columbia there is legislation that says deficits are illegal, so I will be bringing down on February 17 a balanced budget." And I'm sure everybody on their side clapped and pounded their desks.
Then they promised just a small deficit of two years — just two years. The Finance Minister, again, on February 3, 2009, said: "Ah, it might be necessary to run a temporary deficit for the next two years only." "Only," he said. "By the third year we will bounce back again. We will be enjoying balanced budgets." He was mistaken — very mistaken. He didn't see the signs. They flew by him, just flew by him.
They attacked the opposition for predicting there would be a need for longer deficits, and in their caucus news release on March 4, 2009, it said: "NDP's Spending Plan Will Break Balanced Budget Law." Nobody's standing up and wanting to talk to this on the other side — just sitting back like a bunch of lemmings.
The NDP plan to scrap balanced-budget law. "They've revealed it," they say. They promised the deficit would be small. "The deficit for 2009-10 will be $495 million, maximum" — the Premier, April 24, 2009.
Then the Finance Minister, later on in June 2009, says: "If I were in a position to table a budget today, it would be a deficit of $495 million or less. I'm still confident." The old switcheroo continued. It just continued and continued.
The election doubletalk. It gets exposed as a sham, and this time it's a huge sham, a huge deficit. If we look at the debt that we're going to be looking at, it's going to be horrendous.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
The debt is expected to skyrocket in 2013 to close to $60 billion — unbelievable from this government that is so fiscally responsible.
In 2001 the debt was about $33 billion, and under this government it's gone up to $60 billion. It has increased by about 75 percent. Unbelievable.
When we look at Bill 2 and the sections in Bill 2, we start looking at the cut to Tourism B.C. — Tourism B.C. cut off at the knees, Tourism B.C. devastated. We look back at the news release from Tourism B.C., put out by the government: "We're going to reduce administrative costs and better coordinate it." But the Council of Tourism Associations sees it differently.
It's a bitter pill to swallow for the tourism industry. They're shocked by the recent announcements of the harmonized tax, which is just going to devastate the service industry — whether it's restaurants or tourism, whale-watching. The decision to dissolve Tourism B.C. and fold the independent Crown corporation within the government is just another shock, they say. They've stated that the HST will be devastating.
You know, they developed for them an action plan, a tourism action plan, where in 2003 the Premier challenged British Columbia's tourism sector to grow and double. Now they've taken Tourism B.C. and decimated it, cut it off at the knees.
In February 2007 the Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Arts released the cross-government Tourism Action Plan. The goal was to create a whole-of-government approach to how ministries and Crown agencies can best enable B.C.'s tourism industry to optimize its strength and opportunities as well as deal with challenges and move B.C. to the next level of success. That's what Tourism B.C. was doing. A world-class organization, and they've ground it to a halt.
Just recently, in July, they put forth their three-point plan. Little did they know that they weren't going to exist anymore.
A few months ago at the tourism industry conference, we had the previous Tourism Minister sitting there having his pictures taken with the award winners of the Tourism/Hospitality Student Case Competition in the diploma category. A few short months later we have Tourism B.C. cut off at the knees — just shameful.
We look at the hotel tax act. In many communities the hotel tax act provides a lot of revenue — including Prince Rupert, Smithers, and many areas in the north. This additional revenue that was collected was returned to municipalities, and now it's just shovelled into government revenue — shameful.
Noticing the time, hon. Speaker, I reserve my place in the debate and adjourn debate.
G. Coons moved adjournment of debate.
Committee of Supply (Section A), having reported resolution, was granted leave to sit again.
Hon. G. Abbott moved adjournment of the House.
Mr. Speaker: This House stands adjourned until 10 a.m. tomorrow morning.
The House adjourned at 6:21 p.m.
[ Page 601 ]
PROCEEDINGS IN THE
DOUGLAS FIR ROOM
Committee of Supply
ESTIMATES: MINISTRY OF LABOUR
The House in Committee of Supply (Section A); H. Bloy in the chair.
The committee met at 2:33 p.m.
On Vote 37: ministry operations, $21,631,000.
The Chair: Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to the Douglas Fir Room, where this is the start of the budget estimates for the budget that was presented on September 1 of this year.
For all the members' information, there is a brochure left on their desks that will explain the proceedings to them, and for the public that awaits this programming every year, it's replayed every night that we sit, at 7 p.m., on their local legislative channel.
We're going to start with the Minister of Labour.
Minister, making an opening statement.
Hon. M. Coell: I'm pleased to stand before the House today to debate the 2009-2010 estimates for the Ministry of Labour.
I'm accompanied by Rob Lapper, the deputy minister for the ministry; Barb Walman, assistant deputy minister responsible for labour programs; John Blakely, executive director of the ministry's policy and legislative branch; Trevor Hughes, the ministry's chief industrial relations officer; Deborah Fayad, assistant deputy minister and executive financial officer; Ranbir Parmar, executive director and senior financial officer; Pat Cullinane, executive director of the employment standards branch; and from WorkSafe B.C., Donna Freeman, director of media relations, and Terry Bogyo, director of corporate planning.
As you may know, this is a new ministry and the first time in a number of years that the province has had a stand-alone Ministry of Labour. With two million workers and more than 150,000 employers, this ministry plays a key role in British Columbia's economy. In one way or another, what we do affects nearly every employee and every business in the province.
Our government supports success and prosperity for B.C. workers and employers by providing a framework for healthy, safe and stable work environments. We create and administer workplace legislation that is fair and balanced. We're committed to ensuring that B.C. maintains its position as a competitive business environment as the world economy recovers from the recent economic downturn.
Our key legislative responsibilities are the Labour Relations Code, which regulates the acquisition and exercise of collective bargaining rights in British Columbia; the Employment Standards Act, which sets basic standards for employment in provincially regulated workplaces; and the Workers Compensation Act, which establishes WorkSafe B.C., an independent agency responsible for workplace safety and services to injured workers and their families.
To deliver this mandate, the ministry has the employment standards branch, which is responsible for the administration of Employment Standards Act. The work of the branch is to uphold workplace rights for all employees, including our province's most vulnerable, providing basic standards that ensure all are treated with fairness, dignity and respect.
Through the Labour Relations Board, the ministry provides an effective framework for collective bargaining that is responsive to the needs of employers, unions and the public. Through WorkSafe B.C., our mission is to create safe, healthy work environments, because everyone deserves to arrive home safely after a day's work. When accidents do happen, WorkSafe B.C. is there to provide support for injured workers and their families who are affected.
Finally, the ministry oversees two very important appeal bodies, the Employment Standards Tribunal and the Workers Compensation Appeal Tribunal. The Labour Ministry and its agencies employ a unique group of professionals. Their work is all about work, and I'm very proud of the job that they do in making B.C. the best place to work and to do business.
Mr. Chair, with that, I'd be happy to answer any questions with respect to the budget estimates of the Ministry of Labour.
R. Chouhan: It's a pleasure to start the budget estimates on the Ministry of Labour, and I want to thank the minister for bringing all the staff to be here to answer all the questions that we may have this afternoon.
It's good to hear the minister's opening statement talking about stability and healthy conditions for our workforce in B.C. But if you look at the truth, what has happened in the last many years in British Columbia, it's totally opposite.
What we have seen in this budget — and we will show that as we progress this afternoon by asking questions — is that this budget provides nothing for B.C. workers and, in fact, threatens to contribute to unemployment in B.C. By admission of layoffs in the public sector, the budget promises a reduction of 1,500 jobs over three years.
The budget reaffirms the plan for a freeze on public sector wages. On the same day this update budget was released, the minimum wage in B.C. became the lowest in Canada.
[ Page 602 ]
The overall cut, I understand, I believe — maybe they can correct me if it's not correct — is about 12.7 percent of the labour programs from 2008-2009 to 2009-10, September budget. Employment standards I believe has been cut by 10.5 percent and industrial relations to be cut by 12.5 percent.
Now, the minister has also made a statement that this is the first time that this is a stand-alone ministry. So my question that I'll be asking later on…. Maybe he can answer it today just before we start. Given the government's stated intention of cutting costs, could the minister explain the government's decision to make this Ministry of Labour a stand-alone ministry as part of the largest cabinet in B.C. history instead of the former joint Labour and Citizens' Services Ministry? That would be my question that he can answer now or later.
I look forward, Mr. Chair, this afternoon to asking these questions. We will be proceeding with a number of issues. I have about ten different topics that I want to deal with, including the Labour Code, labour board, employment standards, WorkSafe B.C., minimum wage — all those issues. We'll go one at a time.
With that, my first question to the minister is: how many senior executives are there in the Ministry of Labour at this moment, and how does this compare to last year's budget?
Hon. M. Coell: I appreciate the member outlining the types of questions that he's going to be asking. That's very helpful for my staff.
The first question is that it's the same this year as it was last year.
R. Chouhan: The question I asked in my opening comment was about why this decision was made to make it stand-alone when the Premier, the government, has been saying repeatedly that they intend to cut costs. Still, now you have created two ministries out of one. What is the rationale behind that?
Hon. M. Coell: I appreciate the question. I think that if you look at the history of the Ministry of Labour in the last 20 years or so, it's been coupled a number of times with skills training, citizen services and a number of other parts of ministries. The desire in having a stand-alone one was to have a minister who could devote more time to seeing labour leaders, to seeing business and employment groups.
Also, as the member knows, this year there are 160 contracts that come due in March. Those will be challenging in these economic times. So the idea was to have a ministry that would be more focused in the short term.
R. Chouhan: Before we start, could the minister please tell me what the total estimated budget is for 2009-2010?
Hon. M. Coell: The total budget is $21.631 million.
R. Chouhan: How much less is this as compared to last year?
Hon. M. Coell: The restated budget is approximately $1.116 million less than it was last year.
R. Chouhan: As a result of that reduction in the budget, which program or programs will be affected by the shortfall?
Hon. M. Coell: The changes would be in salaries and benefits, $406,000 reduction; in contracts, $291,000 reduction; in shared services, $317,000 reduction; and in amortization of equipment and some office supplies, $631,000.
R. Chouhan: Is there any reduction in staff anticipated at either the labour board or the employment standards branch?
Hon. M. Coell: As the member knows, we've tried to reduce through attrition. We have 11 vacancies that we haven't filled within the ministry, and our intention would be to not fill those vacancies this year.
R. Chouhan: Well, it seems like everything else is facing cuts in this ministry's budget. Yet the minister's office has received an increase of $453,000. So my question to that is: how can the minister justify getting additional funding for his own office yet cutting funding for programs in other areas?
Hon. M. Coell: Actually, that's the creation of the new ministry — that it isn't new money for this ministry, but a creation of a new ministry.
R. Chouhan: So by reducing the mandate of the ministry, it costs more? That's quite strange. Could the minister please explain where exactly this money is going to be spent in the ministry?
Hon. M. Coell: That would be running the minister's office with four staff.
R. Chouhan: How many FTEs are in the minister's office, and how are they different from last year?
Hon. M. Coell: As it is a new ministry, it has four FTEs in it. Those are different people than they were last year in my ministry, but they're the same people who were in the former Ministry of Labour and Citizens' Services. They've just moved over to assist me.
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R. Chouhan: Have there been any salary increases for the staff?
Hon. M. Coell: Not that I'm aware of.
R. Chouhan: Is there any political appointee also working for the Ministry of Labour?
Hon. M. Coell: They're all members of the public service, and they're appointed through order-in-council.
R. Chouhan: Has there been any salary increase for this political staff or the appointees?
Hon. M. Coell: None that I'm aware of, Chair.
R. Chouhan: Have there been any audits done of any area of the ministry or of the ministry's program or agencies?
Hon. M. Coell: No audits have been done within the ministry or…. To my knowledge, the Auditor General has not audited the ministry as well.
R. Chouhan: Now, if we look at page 148 of Estimates, it says under the core business labour programs…. It seems like there's a reduction of $734,000 as compared to last year. So how would that impact any programs that this ministry runs?
Hon. M. Coell: That number corresponds closely to the attrition, the 11 persons where we have vacancies, and we don't intend to fill those vacancies. We've looked at finding additional resources within the ministry to handle the workload of those individuals, and at this point we think we will be able to accommodate that.
R. Chouhan: Well, you know, in the service plan update…. I think the minister has said in the opening comments that "we are equally committed to maintaining safe and healthy workplaces through WorkSafe B.C. and other programs that this ministry monitors." With 11 jobs being eliminated, how do the minister and the ministry intend to fulfil the goal that you have stated in your opening statement?
Hon. M. Coell: With regard to WorkSafe B.C., they have actually added about 12 people to the prevention side of their workforce. So they've actually had an increase of 12 people in their staff.
R. Chouhan: Well, then those 11 jobs, the attrition that the minister has talked about earlier…. Who would that be impacting, then — which side? Would it be the employment standards branch, the labour board or what? What were they doing when they were working with the ministry?
Hon. M. Coell: Those 11 vacancies that are not to be filled are all within the ministry. There's one policy analyst, one clerk 3, one office assistant, two in employment standards, four in industrial relations, one training manager and one regional manager, and those are all within the ministry.
R. Chouhan: Have any program areas been moved to another ministry from the Ministry of Labour?
Hon. M. Coell: Not in this year.
R. Chouhan: Has the ministry website been changed to inform the public where these cutbacks are coming?
Hon. M. Coell: The website actually is designed to help people know what their rights are and where they go for assistance and help. We don't generally publish staffing levels on the website.
R. Chouhan: I take it, then, with 11 positions being eliminated — there were a total of 15 before — you are only left with four. The minister has said that we have about 160 collective agreements coming up for renewal in a very short time. How do you foresee looking after those 160 collective agreements and the needs of workers with just four staff?
Hon. M. Coell: Actually, PSAC is responsible for the negotiations framework. We're there for support.
R. Chouhan: On page 149 it says at the bottom: "Ministry group account classification summary." Then it says that salaries and benefits are being increased from $34 million to $35 million. Whose salaries are being increased under this budget increase?
Hon. M. Coell: That's a cost recovery item. It's part of the thousand-dollar vote with WorkSafe B.C. where we reallocate funds at the end of the year. There's about a million dollars of that reallocation through the vote for WorkSafe B.C.
R. Chouhan: Now, could the minister tell me how much money was spent on lawyers and other fees at the Labour Relations Board to fight the paramedics?
Hon. M. Coell: That's a question you'd have to ask the Minister of Health, because it comes under the Ambulance Service, and they would be the ones dealing with that.
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R. Chouhan: With all these cuts that we are looking at in this budget, would there be any money left for any mediation or collective bargaining services next year when we have 160 collective agreements up for renewal?
Hon. M. Coell: Each one of the agencies and ministries would have those within their budgets. PSAC, of course, is the major player in negotiations and developing the framework, but each agency and ministry would also have funds in their ministry to do that.
R. Chouhan: In the 2008-2009 budget the capital expenditures were still slated as $3.1 million. In 2009-10, it says $1.6 million. Why this $2 million gap?
Hon. M. Coell: We had developed a case-tracking system that is now complete. So that budget was used last year and won't be needed for this year's budget.
R. Chouhan: On page 213 of this estimates book, under the "Ministry of Labour" heading, it says $17 million for protection of persons and property and $5 million for general government — a total of $22 million. Could you explain what it is? Who is protecting which person and property?
Hon. M. Coell: That page is a classification by function. What they've done is classify the $17 million as about people, persons and property. The other five is for general government.
Sorry for that, Member.
R. Chouhan: The government has admitted that there will be thousands and thousands of workers who will be losing jobs as a result of the economy downturn and all those things. Yet what's happening? Rather than protecting the workers in British Columbia, it seems like the government is doing everything to send jobs or protect jobs in Alberta.
There was a letter sent to the Minister of Labour and the Minister of Energy on September 14 by IBEW, Local 258, and I want to read this letter — it's not very long — so that it's on the record.
Re: Gateway project, Port Mann bridge, B.C. Transmission Corporation, job 300500.
Valard Construction recently won a tender with B.C. Transmission Corporation for power line work around the Port Mann bridge. Valard Construction has operated in B.C. for some years but only doing small projects and drawing its workers from their workforce in Alberta.
I'm writing to express my dismay at the granting of the Gateway project to Valard, who will no doubt continue to use Alberta workers on the Gateway project.
The Gateway project was intended to be part of the B.C. stimulus package, yet wages and related income taxes will be reported in Alberta by Alberta workers. This makes little sense, especially when one considers we have several companies in B.C. which are eminently qualified.
I'm aware that Allteck Contractors bid on the work. They have a longstanding relationship with B.C. Hydro and B.C. Transmission Corporation, yet their bid was rejected. The difference in tenders would easily have been recovered through taxes, not to mention spinoff dollars to the local community, yet it seems that B.C. Transmission is only concerned with its own bottom line, not the overall creation of jobs for workers in this province.
With a deficit that has ballooned beyond everyone's expectations, I would think that the province would do all it could to retain tax dollars for our local economy.
I ask the province to intervene and set our Crown corporation on a more prudent course of action.
My question is to the minister. What steps has the ministry taken to address these concerns outlined in this letter?
Hon. M. Coell: I, as the member did, just received that letter a day or so ago. I am looking into it.
I think the issue, probably, is one of tendering. The project is being tendered, I know, in literally hundreds of different tenders for that project because of the size of it, and they look for the lowest bidder. So I suspect that's probably what's happened. The lowest bidder was the person or company talked about in the letter.
R. Chouhan: Let's focus on the employment standards branch for a while.
In 2002 part of this government's steps to deregulate employment standards led to the cutting of a third of the jobs at the employment standards branch and closing eight of the 17 regional offices.
Results? Serious and negative impacts on the ability of workers to become aware of their rights in the workplace, to complain of violations of their rights and to obtain fair treatment in the process of pursuing complaints and having their complaints adequately investigated.
Just on the record I want to say, before the minister answers my next question, that employers are no longer required to post notices of employees' rights under the Employment Standards Act in workplaces. Parents now shoulder the entire burden of assessing whether work arrangements for children as young as 12 are safe and appropriate.
The director of the employment standards branch is no longer required to investigate every complaint received. Employees who wish to report a violation of the act must first confront their employer on their own, using a complicated 16-page self-help kit before being allowed to file a complaint with the branch.
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The number of complaints of employment standards violations filed by workers with the employment standards branch plummeted by 46 percent in 2002-2003, the year in which Bills 48 and 37 were proclaimed into law.
The branch can now also, I understand…. The active investigation of complaints by employment standard officers has been replaced with a new mediation process designed to obtain settlement agreements. Officers have been given new adjudication powers in the event that a settlement cannot be reached. The branch can now charge a fee to a person wishing to appeal a determination.
The skills development and fair wage compliance program was terminated, and staffing for the agricultural compliance team was reduced by 73 percent, eliminating proactive enforcement for two notoriously problematic sectors: construction and agriculture. Also, the limit on retroactive liability for wages required to be paid by an employer under a director's determination has been reduced from two years from the date of complaint or determination to six months.
The directors' offices of companies no longer bear personal liability for wages owed to employees if the company is in bankruptcy or receivership. In 2001 alone the employment standards branch collected $500,000 for employees by means of the directors' liability provisions, which were repealed in 2002.
My favourite sector: agriculture. Farm producers are no longer liable for the unpaid wages of farmworkers if the farmworkers are employed by licensed farm labour contractors who have been paid by the producer for the work performed.
Now, the B.C. Liberals gutted the enforcement capacity of the employment standards branch, implementing a radical reduction in budget and staffing of the branch. My question is to the minister. When he stated all of the goals — fancy stuff in his opening statement — would he admit that they were hollow statements in light of what I just said?
Hon. M. Coell: I think that this is an area that the member and I would have profound disagreement on. I think that what we have tried to do…. The member is going back to 2002, when the Employment Standards Act and regulation was looked at by government. We've tried to do a number of things that I would say are in contrast to the member's suggestions. We tried to provide flexibility in the workplace that encourages a mutual benefit for both the relationships of employers and employees.
We tried to reduce and simplify the regulatory burden, and we also increased protection for vulnerable workers by imposing mandatory penalties against employers who failed to comply with the Employment Standards Act and regulations.
At the same time, there were a number of things that we did: adding protection for compassionate care leave and leave for reservists. The other areas — the mandatory penalties that I mentioned — are: first determination, $500; second determination, $2,500; and third, $10,000.
For farmworkers. There's always, I think, more work that can be done in the farming community, but we've made sure that they were all paid in Canadian currency and direct deposit to their bank. There's a minimum wage for farmworkers employed on the piece rate, and there were a number of things that we tried to do to create a balance for employees and employers at that time.
I would agree with the member that it isn't all perfect, and we're always working for change when suggestions are made. But we felt that there was a balance that needed to be there. I feel that that balance has been achieved, but I agree with the member that there's always room for improvement in these areas.
R. Chouhan: We'll deal with the farmworkers issue later on in more detail.
You know, I'm glad that the minister is saying that there's room for improvement, but with all of the changes made since this government has come to power, it's not just a small hole. It's a big, huge hole that has been created in the whole employment standards branch mandate — the enforcement side and everything.
How could the minister say that they are trying to make the workplace more safe when you have employers that are no longer required to even post the notices about employees' rights? So are there any steps taken — at least that fundamental, basic thing that employees will be notified at the workplace what rights they have?
Hon. M. Coell: One of the things we have done — and, I think, very successfully — is education sessions for employees and employers. We've continued to increase that over the last few years, and we'll continue to ramp that up.
I think one of the things is that the awareness of employment standards in British Columbia is very important for this branch, and not only for us but for WorkSafe in the number of education programs that they hold for their workers who are injured as well. At WorkSafe the idea there is to make the employment of every British Columbian safer, and they're doing that. I think we're doing it through education and awareness.
R. Chouhan: Could the minister tell me, when we're talking about education and awareness, how that service is made available to the workers at a worksite? And are there any notices posted in different languages about the rights of workers?
Hon. M. Coell: The ministry and WorkSafe both produce information and education in different lan-
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guages, and the ability for our staff to visit worksites has increased.
The other area that I think is a very important area is that with a lot of the ethnic and different cultural groups, we've actually partnered with them to help deliver the programs in their language. That has been very successful, and we'll continue to do that.
R. Chouhan: My question remains. Is there any provision requiring employers to post notices of employees' rights in different languages at a workplace?
Hon. M. Coell: The answer to that is no, there isn't.
R. Chouhan: I don't think requiring an employer to do that is going to cost anybody anything other than maybe some uncomfortableness for some employers. I understand that most employers would be happy to be upfront and honest with their employees. So is there any plan to correct this discrepancy in the future?
Hon. M. Coell: It's not something that we're contemplating, but I'll take that under advisement for future discussions with my staff.
R. Chouhan: All right. We'll get back to employment standards branch in a minute, but let me ask you some general questions that might be impacting the functions of the branch. What does the HST mean for this branch? Will there be any impact of the HST when it's implemented?
Hon. M. Coell: Government will be exempt from HST, as it is exempt from GST at this point.
R. Chouhan: But if there are any services that are obtained by this branch or the ministry from outside contractors or service providers, would that impact in any way when you have HST in place next year?
Hon. M. Coell: The Ministry of Finance is still working that out with the federal government, as there is proposed to be legislation in the spring. That would be answered by that time, but at this point we don't have an answer to that.
R. Chouhan: Let's assume it's going to impact, because HST is now going to apply to everything — what this government may or may not buy from outside service providers. Is there anything in the budget to deal with that possibility?
Hon. M. Coell: Although the details are still being worked out, we expect that there will be very minimal effects from that.
R. Chouhan: Regarding the public sector wage increase to 2010, how is the ministry budgeting for the remaining 2 percent wage increase for government workers for the existing collective agreement, which goes to 2010? What service cuts will this ministry be making to accommodate that?
Hon. M. Coell: Any increases due to collective agreement obligations are already built into all ministry budgets.
R. Chouhan: Could the minister point out where in the budget it says that?
Hon. M. Coell: It's just loaded into where you see the salary and benefits.
R. Chouhan: Now, we have also seen in the budget that MSP will be increased. How is the ministry budgeting for MSP costs?
Hon. M. Coell: That portion doesn't come out of individual ministries. It comes out of the government benefits vote.
R. Chouhan: Now let me deal briefly with the Labour Relations Board, and then we'll come back to the employment standards branch and its functions. What is the total budget for 2009-10 for the Labour Relations Board, please?
Hon. M. Coell: The Labour Relations Board and the tribunal come to a total of $6.208 million.
R. Chouhan: So what is the difference between 2008-2009 and 2009-2010? What's the total change in the budget?
Hon. M. Coell: I'll try and give the member as much information as I can. It's $842,000 over the three years. That will be achieved by reductions in travel, reductions in staffing. We talked earlier about the vacancies that won't be filled in the ministry. That will happen here as well. Other purchases and outsourcing of contracts would be areas where we would see some expenses saved by the ministry.
But if the member has any other questions, I'll try and get more detail for him as well.
R. Chouhan: We have heard in the past many times the government indicating that it expects to introduce a timeline to govern decisions at the Labour Relations Board. But the staffing problems appear to have made it difficult for the board to deliver decisions in a timely way, especially in important areas such as certification and
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unfair labour practices, now that we have this budget cut that looms over our head.
So my question to the minister is whether these resources will allow the Labour Relations Board to provide timely decisions, since their budget has been slashed to the bone.
Hon. M. Coell: I think the member and I would probably both agree that timelines are something worth considering. We're actually out talking to stakeholders now, exploring some options as to what a development of timelines for decisions could be. I would think we'll be doing that this fall and possibly into the spring — looking at trying to streamline the process, so people do….
I know as an MLA I get, and I'm sure that the member gets in his office, people with complaints about the length of time it sometimes takes. Sometimes it's very quick. Other times it's lengthy. We're looking at timelines, so I would agree with the member.
R. Chouhan: So with this budget shortfall…. I'm glad that the minister is going to look into this to correct that, because it's necessary, but how? What are the steps that are planned to correct that situation?
What we have seen and what we have heard from the stakeholders is time and time again that people are feeling very frustrated, that decisions are not made on time because of the short staffing problem. So what practical steps exactly are planned to address that situation?
Hon. M. Coell: Effective June 6, some amendments to the Labour Relations Code were introduced — a requirement for the board to issue its decisions and applications and complaints within time periods to be prescribed by regulation. So we'll have the ability — once we've talked to stakeholders and get an idea of what timelines would be acceptable — to make those by regulation, so it could be done quite quickly.
R. Chouhan: I'm sure that the ministry is aware of the report of the B.C. Labour Relations Code Review Committee which was issued on April 20, 2007, which already has detailed the concerns about stakeholders. What more is needed to understand the problem that everybody is facing at the Labour Relations Board regarding this issue?
Hon. M. Coell: As I said, the board is still consulting with stakeholders. They want to make sure that if they make a change, they have talked to everyone who will be affected by that. They haven't completed that at this point.
R. Chouhan: Under the Labour Code, if you look at subsection 115(1), which states: "The Labour Relations Board is continued consisting of a chair, vice chairs and as many members equal in numbers representative of employers and employees, respectively…." So there's a requirement for the board to have board members — sometimes we call them wingers. But it seems like the B.C. board is the only labour board in North America that operates without members from labour and employers.
I served in that capacity many, many years as a board member in the '90s. I can tell you from my own experience that the board members provide a really important service in order to come to the correct decisions — the right decisions made — and also that they're delivered on time.
This report I mentioned earlier — it received submissions from everybody: the employers, the unions, the chamber of commerce. All of them, like the Business Council of British Columbia, the Coalition of B.C. Businesses and the B.C. Federation of Labour…. All three submissions in unison said that we would need the members sitting on those panels in order to help the vice-chairs to make those decisions. So my concern is, given that we are having the budget shortfall again, what steps are contemplated to address that situation?
Hon. M. Coell: A couple of questions there — I'll try and answer.
I think one of the things I always look at is that the Labour Relations Board is independent and doesn't take direction on individual cases by government officials or by ministers, for that matter. I think that we want to keep that. I think that we had talked about the need for timelines. I know that the member and I, over a cup of coffee, discussed the idea of additional board members or people who were there as observers, I guess, to some extent.
I have asked my deputy to look at that — it's something that hasn't been there for a number of years — and to report back to me at some point in the future.
[J. McIntyre in the chair.]
R. Chouhan: But I see that the Ministry of Labour's service plan update says that the Ministry of Labour has a clear mandate over all these tribunals. Now I hear from the minister saying that it's independent. We can't tell them anything? That's not my understanding.
When I sat on the board, we always sought instructions from the Minister of Labour, and we received them. The Minister of Labour was actively participating in our deliberations.
So could the minister tell me if there were any members used at all in the last four years on any of the panels at the Labour Relations Board?
Hon. M. Coell: It has been the board's practice not to use them in the last four or five years, possibly even a
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few years more than that. But again, it's something that the member and I did discuss at length a few weeks ago and something I passed on to my deputy to have a look at to see whether that would be something that would be a positive change in the future.
R. Chouhan: Now, let me ask again these questions. Would there be any impact of the HST on the Labour Relations Board deliberations, when it's implemented next year?
Hon. M. Coell: We believe they'll be minimal, but again it's something that the Ministry of Finance is working out with the federal government. That legislation isn't due till the spring.
R. Chouhan: When we find out that, yes, there will be some impact, would there be additional funding available for the Labour Relations Board to address that situation?
Hon. M. Coell: At that point…. It's really hypothetical as to what effect that'll have. We'll know better in the spring.
R. Chouhan: How many applications for certifications were made this year from January 1 to August 31?
Hon. M. Coell: We don't have 2009 yet, but in 2008 there were 96 certifications granted.
R. Chouhan: Could you also give me information about 2006 and 2007, please?
Hon. M. Coell: So 2006 saw 89 certifications granted; 2007 saw 121 certifications granted.
R. Chouhan: How many unfair labour practice applications were made this year until August 31?
Hon. M. Coell: I don't have that information with me, but I will get that to the member as quickly as possible.
R. Chouhan: Also, I'll ask the same question for the previous two years. Is there any trend developing there, either going up or down from 2006 until 2008?
Hon. M. Coell: Unfortunately, I don't have that information. Our staff don't have that information with them here. I will get that information as quickly as possible.
R. Chouhan: How many section 55 applications were made this year?
Hon. M. Coell: One of the reasons I'm not able to give the member is…. The Labour Relations Board has not yet submitted their 2008 or 2009 reports to us. I would think 2008 would be coming along shortly, but 2009, again, would probably be this time next year.
R. Chouhan: Let's also briefly deal with WorkSafe B.C. before we get into some detailed discussion about both the labour board and the employment standards branch.
In 2002 major changes began to be made to the laws and policies that govern the workers compensation system in B.C. These changes were initiated by the Liberal government after an aggressive lobbying effort by the employers. These changes have come at a profound cost to the employees, the workers of B.C., and to the treatment and benefit workers received under the compensation system. So that change means that when we are looking at it in detail….
There was a report issued in April 2009 entitled Insult to Injury. I hope the minister would have read it. It outlines some of the profound impacts that workers have felt under the changes. Those are, for the record: the effective elimination of pensions based on actual long-term loss of earnings of injured workers; the effective elimination of vocational rehabilitation assistance that helps injured workers return to the workforce.
Appeal processes have become increasingly technical, difficult to understand and inaccessible to injured workers. Functional pensions are now payable only to age 65 rather than payable for life. Benefit rates have been reduced from 75 percent of gross income to 90 percent of net income, resulting in a reduction of benefits by 13 percent.
Concentration of power in the board of directors, including the delegation of power to enact binding policies and the removal of discussion and decision-making processes. The reduction of the consumer price index to the rate of CPI increases less 1 percent and to a cap of 4 percent in any year and calculated only once yearly rather than twice. The list goes on and on, and I'll read only five more.
The restrictions on the manner of determining a worker's wage rate primarily to earnings in 12 months prior to injury instead of a flexible or discretionary method. Wage rate determination early in a claim, leaving errors that can't be corrected and are applied later to pensions. Significant new restrictions on compensation for verified psychological injuries. Restrictions on compensation for permanent chronic pain and similar conditions.
In light of these, how can the minister say that the law and policies of this government are fair and balanced?
Hon. M. Coell: A little bit of history. In the '80s and '90s we had a system that continued to create backlogs. At one point the system had 20,000 appeals plus backlog. It was taking three to seven years to get answers out of the compensation board.
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The government of the day, which was the New Democratic government, rightfully so had a royal commission. That royal commission made a ton of recommendations on how to fix the system. Unfortunately, the government of the day didn't implement them at that time. I suspect they would have, had they had time.
What we've seen is that the new appeal structure has been streamlined. It's right up to date, with very small backlogs at any given time. There were time limits put on for appeal and decision-making from 75 days to 90 days to a 30-day appeal at WCAT.
The system was close to bankrupt. It now has $11 billion worth of assets. Those assets are workers' assets, so I think it's incumbent on us to make sure that WorkSafe is prudent with its funds and its investments, and they have done that.
I am quite impressed with what I see at WorkSafe B.C. in their continuing expansion of safety programs and educational programs so that people don't get hurt on the job, but unfortunately, they do every day in British Columbia and elsewhere in our country. We have to make sure that WorkSafe is healthy financially in order to give those pensions and those benefits to people and families who need them.
I see the history, the need for change in the compensation packages through the royal commission. I think that was a wise thing for the government of the day to do. When we were elected, we looked at that commission, took some of the best parts of that out, did a core review and tried to set WorkSafe on a steady course of being able to supply workers with the funds they need if they're injured on the job.
I think it is a good system now. I think there will always be improvements made to WorkSafe. As the member and I go through the estimates, there will be suggestions made here today, I'm sure, that will be helpful for WorkSafe in the future.
R. Chouhan: The royal commission we are talking about here also made, as the minister has indicated, many other recommendations. Unfortunately, many of those good recommendations were left out, were not even touched by the B.C. Liberal government when they came into power.
One of their recommendations was that all costs of the compensation system are borne by employers and that the disability pension continues beyond age 65. All of those kinds of recommendations are left out. I hope the minister would look at that very carefully, and I would ask the minister if there are any plans or steps in the works to reverse these destructive policies of the government since 2001.
Hon. M. Coell: Again, I think the member and I would agree on a number of the changes that were made and probably disagree on some others. What we're always looking for is continued improvement in the corporate structure of WorkSafe so that they're financially prudent with the dollars that they have and that they look at ways to increase the safety of workers. We will continue to do that.
R. Chouhan: Does WorkSafe B.C. have the jurisdiction to write orders regarding safety of forest roads?
Hon. M. Coell: Yes, we do write those orders.
I wanted to add, too, with WorkSafe B.C., that their rates are some of the highest in North America for workers and the highest in our country as well.
R. Chouhan: My understanding is that the jurisdiction of WorkSafe B.C. that I talked about was eliminated a few years ago. Could you please double-check that that jurisdiction is still there? When was the last time an order was written regarding this situation?
Hon. M. Coell: No, the ministry still has the authority to write orders. One of things we're doing, and the member might be interested in this, is a number of pilot projects with other ministries and other agencies to increase the safety for workers in those instances.
R. Chouhan: Is the WorkSafe B.C. resource roads safety practices strategy in place? It's called WorkSafe B.C. resource roads safety practices strategy. Is that in place?
Hon. M. Coell: Yes, that's correct. That was developed and is being released now.
R. Chouhan: What about WorkSafe B.C.'s investments? Are they secure, and where are they invested? Can we confidently tell the injured workers that there is enough money in the budget so that if they're injured there would be something to compensate them?
Hon. M. Coell: As with most other government funds or British Columbia peoples…. It's with BCIMC. They are an extremely good investment arm of government. We have the highest rates for pensions for workers in the country, so I am very confident, now that the WorkSafe B.C. is turned around and their investments are strong, that workers will have the funds they need in the years to come.
R. Chouhan: Exactly what steps are taken to ensure that the investment is safe and that the necessary funds are available? Like, we know that they make investments, but are there any checks and balances in place to make sure that they are protected?
Hon. M. Coell: BCIMC has a committee that looks at investments. They are audited every year. The Auditor
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General looks at them. Their finances are published, and I think that our government and previous governments can be proud of the work that BCIMC has done for investments — everything from pensions to WorkSafe to the day-to-day borrowing for provincial government ministries.
R. Chouhan: The employers premium that every employer is required to pay — is it going up or coming down this year?
Hon. M. Coell: The proposed rates are to stay flat or the same, but the board will make that decision later in the year.
R. Chouhan: I have a couple of questions about asbestos. There are at least 300 asbestos-related deaths annually. Last year the Minister of Labour, Ms. Olga Ilich, committed to monitor that and to provide us with information we still have not received. Could the minister please ensure that we receive that information which was promised in the last budget estimates?
Hon. M. Coell: I apologize if we didn't get you that information. I'll make sure you do get it.
R. Chouhan: Thank you.
Again my question about HST. Would that impact the ability of the Workers Compensation Board or what we call WorkSafe B.C…? Are they prepared to…? Are those funds available to deal with when that cost is introduced for the services that they will be getting from service providers?
Hon. M. Coell: As I mentioned earlier, with the HST, the Ministry of Finance is talking with Revenue Canada on how the HST will be effected. So those answers will probably be better asked next spring in estimates there.
R. Chouhan: Yes, we will.
Now, let me talk about the issue related to farmworkers. This government's treatment of farmworkers is a classic case study of how B.C. Liberal policies have hurt working people and women's equality. B.C. farmworkers are a particularly vulnerable group of low-wage workers, and they face unique challenges to their economic security as compared to other B.C. workers.
Despite their precarious position, the B.C. Liberals have steadily eroded employment protection and safety enforcement for farmworkers since coming to power in 2001. The B.C. Liberals invested in an employment standards scheme that actively promotes economic insecurity for B.C.'s farmworkers. Despite multiple farmworker accidents and work fatalities and two reports by the B.C. Federation of Labour, this government has completely ignored all the recommendations relating to changes in employment standards for farmworkers and restoration of rights and protection lost in 2002.
As we all know, in March 2007 there was an accident at the roadside when three female workers were killed. Almost 2½ years after that accident, there's still no coroner's inquest into the deaths of these workers. Now I understand that it will start in December.
First of all: why did it take so long, and secondly, will the coroner's recommendations be made public and implemented in full?
Hon. M. Coell: There were, I think, a number of questions there. I'll try and answer to the best of my ability, and then if I don't cover them all, the member can see if he can ask them in a different way.
I think one of the things that every member of the Legislature would agree on is that no matter where you are in British Columbia and what job you're doing, you need to be safe. There needs to be continued education and continued inspection. We need to be vigilant, as do employees and employers as to their own safety.
Some of these tragedies, and they are terrible tragedies, take long to investigate. The one, for instance, at the mushroom farm — which the member and I have talked about, where there was loss of life and permanent injury — has taken a year to investigate. It's probably one of the most complicated investigations that WorkSafe has ever done.
I guess from my perspective I want to see it done properly. I want to see it done thoroughly. I want both the member and I to get the answers that we need, but also, the family members who lost their lives and were injured need to get some answers as well.
We've tried through a number of areas to increase safety for farmworkers, and we'll continue to do that. I think that people bring forward suggestions. We have to listen carefully to them, and we will do that.
I appreciate the question from the member. I think that he and I both agree that we want to see this investigation thorough and complete. If there are further inquiries after that, they would be public inquiries. There is no doubt about that, and they would be for everyone to see the results and the recommendations.
R. Chouhan: Before we talk about mushroom workers, my first question was…. That coroner's inquest, I think, is taking place in December of this year. When that happens, I want assurance from the minister that all the recommendations made by that inquest would be implemented in full and immediately.
Hon. M. Coell: I appreciate the question. We will certainly look at the recommendations, seriously, from the coroner and implement them where we can.
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R. Chouhan: When Mohinder Sunar was killed in the roadside accident, the coroner's inquest took place and recommendations were made, and the government sat on those until the next accident occurred, when three workers got killed. So I would like to see the minister assuring me that it would not be repeated the same way it was done in the past.
It's important that farmworkers are protected, not only after the accident, when it happens, but there should be prevention actively participated in by the ministry at all levels to make sure that no accidents occur when workers go to work and earn a living.
The mushroom workers, the minister mentioned. There were three deaths and three seriously injured. That inquiry is still ongoing. You know, my understanding is that it's not going to be ready at least for the next month or so. Then after that inquiry is done….
My question is to the minister. Why is there no coroner's inquest into the deaths of these three mushroom farmworkers?
Hon. M. Coell: There may well be. When the WorkSafe report is complete, as I said, I want to make sure it's thorough and we get the answers we need to make the system safer and, also, for the families to have some answers about their loved ones.
My predecessor met with the families, and I will be meeting with them shortly as well.
R. Chouhan: He answered my next question already. I was going to ask him if he would be meeting with the families, Madam Chair.
Also, my question is: in both of these accidents which happened in 2007 and 2008, there was clear criminal negligence in the workplace. Why were there no criminal charges laid?
Hon. M. Coell: That's an answer I don't have because it's a police investigation and not part of this ministry.
R. Chouhan: The police recommended charges to be laid, but they were not done. I don't know who stopped it. In the first case that happened in March 2007, the three farmworkers got killed. We were told that the police recommended charges to be laid, but so far nothing has happened.
The best way to improve workers' safety on farms, in my view, is for the province to conduct a full public inquiry into working conditions in the agriculture sector. Will the minister agree to hold a full public inquiry about the conditions of farmworkers in British Columbia?
Hon. M. Coell: That's not something we're contemplating at this time.
R. Chouhan: What steps has the government taken to improve the transportation of farmworkers and workplace safety?
Hon. M. Coell: The government has put a number of initiatives in place since March of 2007. There's a law now requiring a seatbelt for every passenger transported in a van.
An interagency committee was established with the employment standards branch, Commercial Vehicle Safety and Enforcement, WorkSafe B.C., the superintendent of motor vehicles and the RCMP to coordinate prevention and education with respect to farmworkers.
As I said, we've added staff, as well, to do that, and we'll continue to work with the farming community to enhance safety in a number of areas.
R. Chouhan: After the death of these three farmworkers, the B.C. Federation of Labour made a submission in which they made 29 recommendations, out of which only nine were accepted by the government. Is there any plan by this government to accept the rest — the remaining 21 recommendations made by the B.C. Federation of Labour?
Hon. M. Coell: All of those recommendations are under consideration by the government. The member is right. Some have been approved and moved on at this point, but others are still under consideration.
R. Chouhan: May I hear when the consideration will be complete and when they will be implemented?
Hon. M. Coell: I don't have a time frame for those.
R. Chouhan: Could that be three months? Six months? Would that be in place before the next farming season starts next summer?
Hon. M. Coell: Again, to the member: I really don't have a time frame for the development of those further recommendations.
R. Chouhan: My next question is: will the government agree to ban 15-passenger vans as worker transportation vehicles?
Hon. M. Coell: I don't mean to be evasive, but it would be the Minister of Transportation who would have the authority to do that.
R. Chouhan: I understand that. But has any recommendation been made by this minister or the ministry's staff to ensure that those 15-seat vans are not used to transport farmworkers?
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Hon. M. Coell: As I mentioned earlier, we had made seatbelts mandatory in those vans and stepped up inspections of those vans, and we're still increasing the number of inspections on those vans in the future.
R. Chouhan: In 1997 the agricultural compliance team was introduced, also known as ACT. ACT was an interagency team made up of investigative staff from Human Resources Development Canada and B.C.'s employment standards branch. Also, we had Canada Customs and Revenue Agency participating in that team. They jointly inspected workplaces, and they conducted roadside inspections. That was dismantled by the B.C. Liberal government in 2001.
My question is to the minister. As I know personally, he's equally concerned about the safety of farmworkers. Will that agency be reinstated with the same mandate?
Hon. M. Coell: As I mentioned earlier, we have increased the number of staff from four to six in that compliance division, and we continue to have an interagency team that we work with within the provincial side. There is, of course, a federal component to that, and I think that the member was talking about the federal component there. I believe they have stepped back from it in the last four or five years.
R. Chouhan: The federal component was participating in full until this team was dismantled in 2001, I don't have any information anywhere on the record in which the federal government has stated that they do not want to participate. It's the provincial government that, when they dismantled it, forced the other safety agencies to get out of that team that we most needed on the farms.
In 2002 many regressive changes were made to the Employment Standards Act, one of which eliminated the requirement that farmers retain records of wages paid to employees of farm labour contractors on their property and created exemptions from growers' liability for workers' unpaid wages, shifting the liability to farm labour contractors.
Could I ask the minister if he would change that policy and make sure that growers are equally liable and responsible for the unpaid wages of the workers when they are working with the labour contractors?
Hon. M. Coell: Actually, the labour contractors are the employers, so they would be the ones liable in this instance, the way the system is set up.
One of the things we did do that I think has had a great benefit — and I have a number of farms in my riding as well — is that farm labour contractors are required to direct-deposit pay and, also, to pay in Canadian funds. That is a real benefit to farm labourers.
R. Chouhan: The changes were made by the B.C. Liberal government to reduce the minimum piece rate payable by approximately 4 percent by deeming piece rates to include statutory holidays and/or vacation pay.
Now, farmworkers are already making low wages. When the Employment Standards Act requires the growers to pay them the piece rate equivalent to the minimum wage and that liberty is taken away, the government is now participating in the exploitation of the most vulnerable, most poor workers in B.C.
So my question is to the minister. Would the government again change the policy to make sure that farmworkers are covered under all aspects of the Employment Standards Act like any other workers in B.C.?
Hon. M. Coell: Well, farmworkers do have the same rights and protections as any other workers in B.C. I think that one of the differences is…. If I could use an analogy, the technology sector and the farming sector are areas where people do work long hours because of the nature of their work. They do work, in many instances, on a piecemeal type of operation.
I think that the way the system works now is working well. I think that we will always look for improvements, both for the employees and the employers in the farming community. But I think that the changes that have been made over the last couple years have been positive for farmers — not to say that there aren't other things that we can do.
R. Chouhan: Things are not working well for the farmworkers. I know that from experience. I meet with those workers quite regularly.
They're telling me that when there is a complaint about unpaid wages, or any such other discrimination that they might be facing at the workplace, people are so intimidated to complain about it because they know that there's no protection coming to them from the employment standards branch, because employment standards branch staff has been cut in half in the last many years. So there's no enforcement.
My question is to the minister. Before we make any general statements, is there any concrete evidence that your system is really working well to protect farmworkers? I don't see any. Could you please provide any evidence?
Hon. M. Coell: I think probably the evidence that I would look at is the number of wage complaints. It's down significantly, down to 15 from 38 in the previous year. The number of site visits has gone up, and we have interviewed probably 3,000 farmworkers in the last year through the branch compliance team. So when the complaints are going down and your compliance teams are doing their job, I think that says a lot for it.
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R. Chouhan: The complaints are going down because people have given up. They're frustrated. When they go file a complaint, they know that they will not get any answers, so they're saying: "What the heck. What are we going to do about it?" That's why the number of complaints is down dramatically since 2001, every year.
Now, when they have a dispute, they go out to the employment standards branch. Instead of a living person helping them to mediate their settlement or get the wages owed to them, they are given a self-help kit. People have to be computer-literate in order to use that self-help kit. So is there any process in place to help farmworkers and any other workers whose first language is not English?
Hon. M. Coell: Farmworkers, as the member knows, are exempt from self-help kits. They can use them if they want, but they're not mandatory for them to use as a first step. They're taken into the system initially. That's the system now.
They also have the added advantage of the relationships that we've built with the multicultural community, the different groups in that community that can, in many, many languages, help farmworkers deal with difficulties on a jobsite. So there's a number of different avenues for farmworkers to take before they would need the assistance of government. But it's there if they need it.
R. Chouhan: That exemption the minister is talking about is advertised inconsistently and only in English, when we know there are so many workers that speak different languages. The translation pages do not tell workers that they are automatically exempted from the requirements, and the potential complainant is not informed of this in any meaningful way. So what steps are taken to correct that?
Hon. M. Coell: I can give the member one example. The ministry's ethnic media initiative in 2008 consisted of 19 broadcasts: ten in Cantonese and Mandarin — eight in radio, four in television — as well as nine in Punjabi and nine on radio. So there's a number of ways that we're trying to get out to let people know what rights they have. With the partnership that we've developed with the ethnic communities and media as well — and all of that is done in many languages — I think that's going a long way to help.
R. Chouhan: When farmworkers are picked up at five o'clock in the morning and not brought back home until ten o'clock at night, they don't have time to read newspapers and listen to radio stations. They need help when they go or visit the employment standards branch. At that moment they are not told that they are exempted from that.
In many cases when I have talked to farmworkers, they were still given that self-help kit. So my question is: what fundamental steps has the ministry taken to ensure that farmworkers get help when they need it, when they approach the employment standards branch?
Hon. M. Coell: As I said, there are the things that we've already talked about, which I think are helping. We also have a guide to the Employment Standards Act and fact sheets in many languages — on annual vacation, complaint resolution, first job entry-level wage rates, hours of work and overtime rules, minimum wage, termination, foreign workers. All those are in many languages for farmworkers, and they would be given those, or they can download them from the web as well or family members can.
In addition, the compliance teams have gone and interviewed 3,500 farmworkers this year as to what their situations are and what things they believe would be of assistance. So I think government is trying to do a number of things on a number of different fronts. We've talked about some of those, and if you reflect on those, I think they're all positive.
R. Chouhan: My question to the minister is: how many employment standard branch inspectors are assigned to inspect the farmworkers in the 19,000 farms that we have in B.C.? How many inspectors are assigned?
Hon. M. Coell: We did talk about that earlier, and it's been increased from four to six on the compliance team. As I say, over 3,500 people have been interviewed this year alone.
R. Chouhan: What's the mandate these inspectors have? What's their mandate?
Hon. M. Coell: If I can put it simply, they're there to make people aware of their rights, to see if they have any complaints and to deal with those complaints the best they can.
R. Chouhan: Would that also include any safety-related complaints that they might have?
Hon. M. Coell: The answer is yes.
R. Chouhan: Is there any record of the number of complaints they have received? Were those complaints documented by these six inspectors?
Hon. M. Coell: We did audits of 81 employers last year to see whether their wages had been paid correctly. We talked earlier about the farm labour compliance complaints, and they have been…. I can give the member
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some numbers. In 2003 there were 46; in 2004 there were 38; 2005, 30; 2006, 27; 2007, 38; 2008, 15. We don't have a completed number for 2009 as yet.
R. Chouhan: The minister said that the six inspectors talked to 3,500 farmworkers. How many farms were visited by and inspected by them this year?
Hon. M. Coell: We've been to 92 sites so far this year.
R. Chouhan: I find it a little difficult to accept the fact that six people would go around and meet with 3,500 farmworkers during the working time. What kind of question were they asking, or were they simply saying, "Hi, I'm Mr. Inspector; hello, how are you," and then move on? Or did they have any detailed discussion about that? How much time would they spend with those 3,500 workers in order to get the complete picture?
Hon. M. Coell: Typically, one of the compliance team would go onto a site. They would introduce themselves. They would ask if there are any problems with the worker, any issues about wages. Did they need any information about their rights, any information about safety? They could also talk to more than one at a time, if a group wanted to talk to them. They have done that. So there are a number of options that they have.
A. Dix: I just want to understand what the 3,500 figure is. Is it the cumulative number of farmworkers on the farms where these discussions took place, or are we talking about 3,500 individual interviews?
Hon. M. Coell: It is 3,500 individuals who were spoken to, either individually or as a group.
A. Dix: In other words, if you spoke to a group of 30 farmworkers, you would count that as 30 interviews, not one interview.
Hon. M. Coell: It's not generally done as a group. That would be if a group asked, as mentioned to the other member. If a group of six people said, "We would like to talk to you," they would talk to those six people. It's done in their language. Whether it would be Punjabi or Cantonese or Mexican, we would have workers able to speak those languages. They would, on a one-on-one basis, do that, but if a group of people said, "We would like to talk to you," they would speak to the group.
A. Dix: So the minister is suggesting that 3,500 individual interviews…. We're trying to just visualize how this process works. How long would such an individual interview be? Is there a formal structure to it? It has great interest in my community, and I know very well the individuals involved in the Langley incident. Is that true in Vietnamese as well?
Hon. M. Coell: I'll give you an example. Depending on the size of the farm, the whole team would go there. They would interview as many people as they could. They would ask questions like the wage rate they're being paid, how often, who the employer is, whether they're getting vacation pay, if they're getting a direct deposit. They would give some fact sheets to the members in their language. Unfortunately, we didn't have someone who could speak Vietnamese in that case.
A. Dix: It's been a year since that incident, and I'm assuming changes have been made. I mean, one of the difficult things for us and for the families about the incident is the one-year length of time since the incident took place. It's a fairly lengthy investigation — which, by the way, seems to preclude from the other agencies' other investigations. So lots of people are waiting for this to happen.
Things are happening every day on farms — right? Most of them are good, and some of them are not good — right? I guess the question is: have any decisions been implemented by the ministry, by WorkSafe, by anybody in response to that incident? Obviously, one of those things would be a greater capacity in Vietnamese, given the composition of the industry.
Hon. M. Coell: I appreciate the questions. I understand the member's interest in this issue. We have one member of our staff who speaks Vietnamese who did go out to this farm. He isn't one of the six compliance team members. We would use him if necessary.
The number of issues that I think WorkSafe is dealing with is…. We've discussed this at some length earlier. This is probably the most complicated investigation that WorkSafe has ever done. I believe that there will probably be other investigations when this is finished. As I said to the member, I am looking forward to this report being completed as much as you are, and we will be implementing anything that we can to increase the safety in this industry.
As you know, mushroom farming is a new industry for British Columbia and one that isn't as old as many of the other types of farming industries. So it's timely to have this. It's so unfortunate that the loss of life has prompted some of this. I look forward to the report as much as the members on the opposite do.
R. Chouhan: Madam Chair, can I also use my BlackBerry to ask some questions? Are we allowed?
The Chair: One for one.
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R. Chouhan: Okay. When these inspectors visited these farms, did they visit unannounced? Also, were the farmers or labour contractors present when those interviews were conducted?
Hon. M. Coell: They are unannounced visits. The owners or the labour contractors may or may not be there. We don't let them know we're coming.
R. Chouhan: Then how do you overcome the intimidation factor? From my days when I was organizing farmworkers in the '70s and the '80s…. We have seen that every time a farmworker was trying to not only talk to an inspector from the employment standards branch or the Workers' Compensation Board — even to a union rep — they were intimidated so much And now things have not changed after many years when an inspector goes there.
How many workers would come forward comfortably without any fear and say, "Hey, my employer is not paying me well. I didn't get a water break" — or something — "and there have been other complaints." How would they feel comfortable in the presence of the employer when they're interviewing these farmworkers?
Hon. M. Coell: I know that the member has a long history of working with farm unions and farming communities, and I appreciate that.
One of the things that, from my perspective, and not having been the minister for a long time…. I've had an opportunity to look at the education portion of what government is doing. That has been increasing over the years, getting out to people and actually putting something in their hand — in their language, if we can — that lets them know their rights and lets them know who to contact and gives them options.
The other thing is the education component for employers. I think that one of the things the ministry does a very good job of is educating employers as to what their employees' rights are and how they need to meet them. I think that things like direct deposit and payment in Canadian dollars, those sorts of things, are all from suggestions that were made to us by farmworkers.
R. Chouhan: When these inspectors visited the farms, did they find any violations? Were there any orders written?
Hon. M. Coell: I think what the member is asking for is the number of audits done per year. I mentioned that we had done 81 audits, and that would be of a complete operation. Just to give you an idea of what we've been doing audit-wise, in 2003 we did 59 audits; in 2004 we did 80; 2005, 83; 2006, 78; 2007, 81; 2008, 81. I believe we've done just over 90 this year, and the year is not complete yet.
So what those audits will do is help pick up any problems with wages and any problems with payment of, you know, whether it's Canadian funds, what was direct deposit, who they were…. They're quite thorough. I think that has helped, and we'll continue to do that in the years ahead as well.
R. Chouhan: Could the minister provide names of those farms where the audit was done?
Hon. M. Coell: I'm not sure whether the Freedom of Information and Privacy laws would kick in, but I'll look into that, and if I'm able to do that…. I'll check with the Privacy Commissioner and see whether we're able to give you that information.
R. Chouhan: Despite this intimidation factor that we have talked about in detail, last year 38 farmworkers filed complaints against farms. At the time, the Minister of Labour promised to provide the names of those farms and the nature of complaints to us. So far, no information has been received by the opposition.
I can understand that at the time we were getting an election. There was not much time. Now we are back to normal, so when can I get that information promised by the previous Minister of Labour?
Hon. M. Coell: My understanding is that that has been sent to the opposition, at their request. But I'll check and see, and if it hasn't, then why.
R. Chouhan: When we are talking about farmworkers, there are mainly two types of farmworkers. There are immigrant farmworkers, and there are migrant farmworkers. When you talk to them, you will find out very quickly that farmworkers fear that they will lose their jobs if they complain about their wages or about bad working conditions.
A study was done by the CCPA, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. In that, they stated very clearly that the B.C. Liberal government "has steadily eroded employment protections and safety enforcement for farmworkers since coming to power in 2001." Rather than addressing the low wages and poor working conditions that fail to attract local workers, the provincial government has allowed the agriculture industry to hire temporary migrant workers, most under the seasonal agricultural workers program.
When these workers come under that program to B.C. to work on the farms, they are now tied just to one employer. As a result, it creates a very unfair power relationship, employment relationship. Then when they complain, they are sent back — mainly to Mexico, many of those workers who come under that program.
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My question is to the minister. Are there any steps taken lately or recently to correct that situation?
Hon. M. Coell: If I take a bit of time here…. I think there are a number of issues at play. We have changing demographics. Also, up until the recent recession, we had very high employment rates in B.C. and in Canada, and there's been a strong demand for certain skills in the farming community.
I know, in speaking to some of the farmers in my community, that they were having a real hard time getting people who would come and work on their farms and were pleading with the federal government to allow people to come in from outside the country, from Mexico. I know there's a program with the federal government with Mexican workers. They have the same rights as B.C. workers. They're paid the same.
Changing demographics is probably one of the biggest things that we're going to see in the next few years. How do you find work?
As the member knows, farming is not an easy job. It is a very physical job where you have to do a lot of hard work. So you need stamina, and that sometimes is younger workers, stronger workers.
With regard to the issues that he mentioned, I think one of the things we've done for the people who are coming in from outside Canada to work in British Columbia, and then some of them move on to different provinces as different crops mature…. We have a number of fact sheets outlining what they have. We've upgraded the complaint form and computer system to be able to track complaints from foreign workers and to investigate those complaints as quickly as possible.
I don't discount the member's question. I think he makes some very good points, and some of those we're acting on this year.
R. Chouhan: Madam Chair, I have lots more questions about a number of aspects that we are dealing with in the Ministry of Labour's budget. Before I continue, my colleague has a couple of questions before he leaves.
J. Brar: I would like to briefly talk about the H1N1 flu, because it has some serious impact on the workforce of the province, and to ask a few questions of the minister.
The provincial health official has predicted that in the normal course, H1N1 flu can infect about 20 percent of B.C.'s population. We have lately seen more positive kind of predictions, keeping in mind the experience we have in the global community.
However, in the worst-case scenario, predictions have been made that in B.C. we have one million people in the province infected by H1N1. If that's the case, that could have a very serious impact on the workforce of the province of British Columbia. There could be a situation that a large percentage of the workforce is off work and, as a result, we are limited or it's almost impossible to continue very important services to the people of British Columbia, such as health care, education or other services to very vulnerable people.
So my question to the minister is this. What steps has the Minister of Labour taken to ensure the job security of the people, as well as continuation of the important services, in case we hit that highest level of H1N1 flu?
Hon. M. Coell: Thanks for the question. I actually asked for a briefing from Perry Kendall, the public health senior bureaucrat. He outlined for me what the province is doing. Looking at our own workforce, people who work in schools will be potentially affected, people who work in the long-term care facilities in hospitals and that….
I'm confident that they are putting together a program with the federal government and with WorkSafe B.C., as well, to make sure that we have masks available for employees and that there are plans and programs in every facility, with the school districts as well.
I share the member's concerns. I think that we have to always be prepared for the worst case, and I believe that Perry Kendall and his team are doing that.
[H. Bloy in the chair.]
J. Brar: Thanks for the response from the minister. I understand the provincial health officer is doing the best he can to prepare the province for the H1N1, but there is an element of the workforce, a labour-related element, to this. To be more specific on this, I've been contacted by some workers who are concerned about job security.
One of the standing guidelines by the provincial health officer is that in that situation, when we're hit by the H1N1, people will be asked to stay home. So there could be a large number of people who are asked to stay home. So my question is: has the minister taken any steps to make sure that their job is secure in that situation, that there is job security if people are forced to stay home because of H1N1?
Hon. M. Coell: I think the member is contemplating a legislative change — and if he could correct me if I'm wrong — that would make sickness…. If you're asked to stay home because of sickness in the workplace, you would be guaranteed your job. That would be a legislative change that we would need to make.
Not contemplating that at this time, we are looking at contingency plans for what government can do with the health authorities and the school districts to protect workers and to also protect the general public. As I said, when I spoke with Perry Kendall, he outlined the many
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things they were doing, and I'm confident that they're doing what is necessary to keep us as safe as possibly can be.
J. Brar: Thanks for the response again. I have one more question. Probably that will be the end of my line of questions.
J. Brar: Yes, I'm talking about…. I understand. I met with the provincial health officer as well, and I'm fully aware of the preparation by the provincial health officer to make sure that we do the best to prepare the province and to deal with H1N1. But yes, I'm talking about the specific issues which can only be dealt with by the Ministry of Labour, rather than the provincial health officer in this case.
Just for example, you know, there are standing orders by the provincial health officer, and under that, people will be forced to stay home in case they are infected by H1N1. Now, the employer can choose to force them to stay home on a paid vacation or an unpaid vacation.
My question, again, to the minister is: have we taken any steps to make sure that workers have job security and also that they are not unduly penalized because of this H1N1 situation?
Hon. M. Coell: It's actually an interesting topic. I'm glad the member brought it up. There may be things in different collective agreements that would cover that. But for someone who's not covered by a collective agreement, there wouldn't be an opportunity unless there was a legislative change made, and it's not something we're contemplating at this time. But I appreciate the question.
R. Chouhan: Just to continue from where I left off about migrant farmworkers. Migrant farmworkers generally earn the basic minimum under the B.C. SAWP program, the wage of $8.90 per hour, irrespective of experience. Yet the local farmworkers are not even covered under the hourly minimum wage provision of the Employment Standards Act. Why such discrimination?
Hon. M. Coell: The hourly rate when they come with this federal program is based on a negotiated agreement between Mexico and the federal government. So what they were trying to do is that someone would not be paid less than minimum wage but that the piece rate would be potentially more than that. But again, those were negotiations that took place between the federal government and the government of Mexico.
R. Chouhan: I think the question is: if workers, coming on a temporary basis from a foreign country, come here and they can earn at least $8.90 an hour, isn't it the responsibility of this minister and the Ministry of Labour to stand up for the workers who live locally, who are Canadian citizens — and also for them to get the same rate of pay, if not more?
My question remains: why such discrimination against people who are already here in Canada? They have experience in how to do farm work, and they're very efficient. I haven't seen any evidence that they are not working good. So what steps is the ministry prepared to take to protect the workers here in British Columbia?
Yet, we have…. You know, when we have thousands upon thousands of workers who are laid off because of a downturn in other industries, workers are not paid the same rate as the temporary foreign workers. Why?
Hon. M. Coell: The regulated piece-rate system that is in British Columbia I think has served employees and employers well for many years. It's actually the same system that was in place when the New Democrats were in power. It's a system that historically has been there. We haven't changed it.
R. Chouhan: Yes, I am talking about this historical discrimination against farmworkers. You know, studies after studies have been done by many different organizations, and I participated in quite a few of them. As well, the recent studies done by CCPA and the B.C. Federation of Labour have shown that this B.C. SAWP — again, I'm not talking about the federal agreement; I'm talking about the B.C. program — has not helped the poor farmworkers in B.C. Rather, it has become a tool for the employers to exploit the workers.
As we know, many of these workers, especially the migrant workers and some of the immigrant workers when they work at the farm, are housed. They live in those cabins, and the condition of the cabins has not changed since the '70s, that I'm aware of. It was documented by the film board of Canada in a documentary called A Time to Rise. If you see that film and you compare the conditions today, not much has been changed. Still those bad living conditions are there.
To improve these terrible housing conditions, what steps has the ministry taken to improve these cabins or houses at the farms in B.C.?
Hon. M. Coell: As part of the federal agreement with Mexico, there are inspectors that inspect the individual accommodation. I believe, too, that the accommodation must meet municipal standards as well, and those standards would be set out in the Municipal Act.
R. Chouhan: Is there any role for the Ministry of Labour when the inspections are done?
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Hon. M. Coell: The inspection of housing is set out in the federal agreement, and an independent inspector is appointed through that agreement to inspect the accommodation.
R. Chouhan: What role does the Ministry of Labour play in order to make sure that workers who work in British Columbia who are housed by these employers…? Sure, there may be a federal agreement. There may be other territorial agreements. There must be some responsibility of this ministry to ensure that the workers live in houses that are livable.
You know, I have seen that some of these cabins are 4 by 4, 4 by 6. I know that in one case in Abbotsford, it was a chicken coop turned into some of these cubicles — terrible conditions. So there must be some role, either WorkSafe B.C. or directly through the Ministry of Labour. Somebody must be responsible for that.
Hon. M. Coell: I do appreciate the concern. I think the reasoning is that as a ministry, we don't have the responsibility for accommodation for any workers in the province. That would come under municipal government for housing.
In this instance, the federal government has written into their contract that they must be inspected by an independent registered inspector in British Columbia, but it's not something that this ministry would take part in if it's already being done by the federal government.
R. Chouhan: I mentioned earlier about these comprehensive studies done by various different agencies, about the conditions of farmworkers, and several recommendations were made. I ask sincerely of this Minister and Ministry of Labour to look at those recommendations made by these agencies seriously, because we cannot sit here, wash our hands and simply say it's not our responsibility. It's not acceptable, Minister.
Let me read some of these recommendations so that we can make sure the workers are protected. First of all, to adopt comprehensive regulation for migrant workers, housing and improved housing inspections. This ministry should take responsibility.
We should also restructure the SAWP program. If it's not working to the benefit of workers in British Columbia, then we should make sure it is taken care of.
We should require employers to demonstrate a satisfactory record of compliance. You know, when an order is written and there is some violation, do we monitor it? Do we go back and make sure they comply with it? If they don't, what are the penalties?
Then, enable the immigration of SAWP workers. This is a really an interesting recommendation by this study. It says: "Sign the United Nations international convention on the protection of the rights of all migrant workers and members of their families."
You know, this recommendation is saying that when the workers come here, although the minister has said that they have the same rights like any other workers, the evidence is to the contrary.
What we have seen, when workers arrive in British Columbia, is that they do not have the same rights. They don't have any access to the B.C. health care system. They don't have access to the same dispute mechanism system that other workers may or may not have. Basically, what happens when there's a dispute, because they're working for one particular employer, is that they are sent back home.
So I would ask the minister: would the minister seriously consider accepting any of these recommendations, if not all?
Hon. M. Coell: I am aware of both of the reports that the member has commented on, and we will take those recommendations seriously.
R. Chouhan: I thank the minister for making that statement, and we will be following it very closely.
Now, let me talk briefly about the domestic workers. A few months ago the west coast domestic workers organization surveyed 800 caregivers in B.C. In the survey, what they have found out is that workers were not getting any help from the employment standards branch when they had an issue. The perception with almost the majority, with more than 90 percent of these workers who were interviewed…. They said that they thought they have no employment standards rights under the Employment Standards Act. That is how they perceived their work situation.
My question is: what steps has the ministry taken or plans to take to educate these workers about their rights?
Hon. M. Coell: We've talked this afternoon about a number of things that the ministry is doing to educate employers and employees, and I think that's an ongoing job. That's not something that you can just say we'll do once and then forget about it. I think we have to expand the number of languages that we have information in. We have to increase the number of sessions where we talk to employers and employees.
From my perspective, we have some groups in our communities that can assist us. The intercultural societies could become partners, and they are partners in that. We'll have to continue to do that.
I met, the member may be interested, with a group of people who came as nannies to B.C. over the last few years, and they were sharing some of their experiences with me last week on labour standards. It's an important thing for British Columbia to have people continue to come to British Columbia. I think we always need to find ways to
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make them feel like they're at home when they're here. I agree with the member that many don't.
It's a daunting task to move to a different country to work. I think we need to continue to have that support, whether it be education or information that lets them know what their rights are, what their obligations are, as well as what opportunities will be there for them in the future. So I appreciate the question that the member has posed, and I think we will continue to be supportive and have those education programs in the forefront of our ministry.
R. Chouhan: The minister mentioned about working with some groups in the community. My concern is that many of these groups have lost their funding under the new budget. How do we expect these groups in the community to continue to assist the ministry when they're worried about their own existence? Is there any program in place by this ministry to make sure that those groups are functioning in order to get that support that we are talking about?
Hon. M. Coell: One of the things we do and will continue to do is provide that information and the programs free of charge to those individual societies that will use them.
R. Chouhan: On July 13, I believe, this year the B.C. and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council met with the minister and made a submission. In its submission the union asked the minister several things. One was that they were asking that under the Ministry of Labour….
Let me read this one recommendation. They were talking about the number of workers who work in the construction industry that don't have the same protection as many other workers may have. In one instance they talk about when we're talking about temporary foreign workers….
In their submission on page 9 they say:
"Even before the recent construction boom in 2003 the Ontario Construction Secretariat estimated over 76,000 undocumented workers in the province's underground economy.
"The BCYT-BCTC has called on the Ministry of Labour to establish advocacy centres for migrant workers similar to the Alberta advisory offices for temporary foreign workers in Edmonton and Calgary. We refer the minister to previous submissions for a detailed discussion on this issue."
My question is: has the minister considered this submission, this recommendation made by the union about temporary foreign workers coming to B.C.?
Hon. M. Coell: I do remember those recommendations. As with any recommendation that we get, we certainly give it the certain due diligence and thought that is requested.
One of the things that I thought when I saw that was that we have FrontCounter B.C., which possibly could be an avenue for that. Also, Service Canada is another one that could be used. They are already set up to do those. So we're looking at what options may be available to accomplish that request.
R. Chouhan: In that summation they also discussed various other aspects, like Labour Code, labour relations board. Let me go through it one by one so that we can have some answers that they asked for.
In Ontario the construction industry there is recognized as a unique industry under the Labour Code. Is there any plan by this minister and the Ministry of Labour to make the same uniqueness for this industry in B.C. under the Labour Code?
Hon. M. Coell: I have referred that letter to staff for some recommendations and some analysis. I haven't gotten that back. I think that was around the middle of July that I met with those, and I haven't gotten any recommendations back from staff at this point.
R. Chouhan: They also pointed out, under the labour relations board, the functioning of the labour board, stating: "Administration of the Labour Code is as important as the law itself. The board cannot function without the trust of the community. A recent Supreme Court decision finding bias at the board must be addressed. Resolving this bias decision cannot just be settled with more litigation and appeal."
This is not only the first union or the last union talking about bias at the labour relations board. I have heard from many other unions as well how litigious it has become at the board. What steps has the minister taken to address that concern?
Hon. M. Coell: I know the court hasn't finished with that particular decision as yet. I think it's important that there be fairness on the board through the appointment process, so that both labour and the employers have confidence in that board, and we'll endeavour to do that with appointments in the future.
R. Chouhan: Just the one last issue on this submission. Maybe we have covered that. Sorry.
Now let's talk about child labour. I have in my hands some very scary numbers on the injury rate for children in the workplace. The B.C. government, as we all know, changed the province's Employment Standards Act, making B.C. the most child labour–friendly jurisdiction in North America.
Employers were previously required to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Skills Development and Labour as well as permission from parents and school authorities to employ a child between the ages of 12 and 14. The
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new rule allows children to work with only the consent of one parent or guardian and does not include prohibitive occupations or activities such as using power tools or other heavy machinery or selling door to door.
The new regulations also allow children to be employed for up to four hours on a school day, to a maximum of 20 hours per week when school is in session. Children may be employed up to 35 weeks when school is in session.
Since 2004 the number of reported injuries to children 12 to 14 years old at work has increased from six children in 2003 to 35 children in 2007.
Let me ask this question first, and then I'll read some of the numbers. The question I have is: if this government continues to believe that 12-year-olds belong in the workplace, what is the plan to increase enforcement to protect these children?
Hon. M. Coell: I'm actually glad the member has brought this up, because I think it's a very interesting area to discuss.
One of the problems, I guess, that we had as government was that under the former regime, many, many children did not get permits. There were more people working that weren't reported. Now an employer has to have a permit for someone 12 to 14, and if one of our inspectors goes in and they don't have that permit, they're in a little bit of difficulty. So that's why you see an increase.
People are actually getting those letters from parents, if they're an employer. In the past — for some reason, and I suspect that it was just laziness on some people's part — they didn't bother getting the permits. So there were literally thousands of children working, mostly in small businesses, whether it be a corner store or a family business, and they didn't bother to get those permits.
What we've tried to do is to protect…. Someone under 12 could actually be in the movie industry or something like that. They have to have a permit so that they are tracked and then the parents' written permission for the 12-to-14-year-old. They're still covered under the same employment standards as everyone else in the province, and I think that we have to be diligent to make sure that they're working in safe conditions — if they're working at all, at that age.
R. Chouhan: Well, if that's the case, then the minister would agree that all those changes were made earlier, in 2004, to take away the requirement that both parents were supposed to be in agreement when a child was employed or was seeking employment. There was also a requirement from the school principal and the director of the employment standards branch.
If you're so concerned about children's safety, why don't we have those measures in place again? What's stopping this minister from doing that? Otherwise, I would ask the minister to stand up and simply say: "We don't care about the children." If you do, then this is a fundamental, basic step that this ministry can do. Is the minister prepared to do that?
Hon. M. Coell: I think that what I tried to explain to the member is that the previous system wasn't working. People weren't applying for permits, and there were literally thousands of young people working in the province that were unreported. Now we put the onus on employers to get a letter for each and every child that works for them, so I think you've seen more compliance with labour standards under the new regime than you did under the old one.
R. Chouhan: That's simply not true. If you work with the activists in the community who are dealing with child labour issues out there, they will tell you a different story.
Why do we allow a child, a 12-year-old, to work? Is it because we have the highest child poverty in Canada? Because those people are so desperate that they have to work out there?
When people are living in those conditions, a single parent would be less inclined to follow all the rules that the minister is talking about. So we want to make sure when children are going to work, that first of all, they have the age and the maturity, that they have the skills and experience and that they have the protection. The evidence says we have none of that, but still we have thousands and thousands of those children employed in a very unsafe condition.
My question, again, is: why is this government so uncaring? Why is this government not taking steps to protect these vulnerable children in B.C.?
Hon. M. Coell: There actually hasn't been a change in the age by which a child can work. The change has been that you need a permit from government for age 12. From 12 to 14, you need your parents' permission, and the employer must have that in writing.
R. Chouhan: Let me read some of these numbers that I have in my hand. People will be shocked, because they're horrifying.
For the age group between 12 and 14, the number of short-term disabilities and long-term disabilities and fatal claims in 2004 was eight. In 2007 they're 19. The female children in that age group increased from one to 16. The total, where we had nine before, is 35.
Similarly, in the age group of 15. From 2003 it was 25, and now for male children, it is 81. Female — from nine, it jumped to 45 in 2007. A total of 34 in 2003, and now it's 126.
For age group 16. Again, for male children, it jumped from 130 to 192 in 2007; for female, from 38 in 2003 to
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110 in 2007. For age 17, it jumped from 200 to 354; for female, from 127 to 184. For age 18, it jumped dramatically from 600 to 851, and for females, 248 to 321.
The total of all these children who were injured from 2003 to 2007 was, I would say, 76 in the age group of 12 to 14; 365 for the age of 15; 1,060 for age 16; 2,186 for the age of 17; for age 18 — 5,257. They are shocking numbers. They are horrifying.
Has this minister or ministry taken any steps to stop this nonsense going on out there, putting our children in such a dangerous situation? All the steps the minister is talking about obviously are not having any impact. We would like to see any concrete steps the Minister and Ministry of Labour are taking. Are there any plans?
Hon. M. Coell: I think the member, as I can remember, is reading from a Georgia Straight magazine article sometime in June. I remember reading it.
I think one of the things the member, and I would agree on, is that we need to continue to educate employers and parents around these issues of safety. I think it's important to — and we do — talk to parents and supply information to parents on the jobs that young people would be entering into.
There are, believe it or not, 360,000-odd young people between the ages of 15 and 24 who work in the province of British Columbia. That's a lot of young people. My experience — and the member, I think, with his background, would share the same experience — is that young workers are at risk because of inexperience, and they sometimes have an injury because of that inexperience.
I think that one of the things we continue to do — and I know WorkSafe does, because young workers are treated no differently than workers the member's age and my age — is we all have the same laws that govern the workplace, no matter what age we are.
I think that WorkSafe has done a good job of continuing to educate younger people about the dangers that are inherent in different types of work, whether it be farming, as we talked of earlier, or whether it be working in a small business with family members.
I share the concerns that the member brings forward and can assure you that WorkSafe B.C. shares those concerns as well and is always moving to educate and to provide information to employers and parents of young workers.
R. Chouhan: I think that when we are talking about education, we must educate ourselves first and admit that, you know, this situation is so serious in British Columbia…. Child poverty, year after year, is the highest in Canada. We are putting these children in that situation — it seems like intentionally — when we're not taking those steps to protect them.
My question is, again…. Give me concrete evidence of any steps taken, other than the statements made by the minister. Have any concrete steps been taken to protect these workers from these injuries and unsafe workplaces? Any evidence.
Hon. M. Coell: I can give an example if the member wishes. In 2007 WorkSafe created new occupational health and safety regulations, which provide specific requirements for the orientation and training of new and young workers. They are moving continually in that direction.
R. Chouhan: The numbers that I read were only up to 2007. I don't think they were from the Georgia Straight or where. I don't have any Georgia Straight article. Anyway, are there any numbers, any sort of statistics, available for the year 2008?
Hon. M. Coell: The information I have from WorkSafe would be that the disability claims accepted for 2008 were 41.
R. Chouhan: Before I continue, my colleague has some questions to ask. Then we'll proceed from where we leave.
K. Conroy: My questions are related to WorkSafe B.C. — or WCB, as I like to refer to it. There's a change that the WCB made in 2002 which made it so that it became impossible for people with asbestosis that were diagnosed with mesothelioma…. After they had retired, they could no longer be compensated.
In our community in Trail we're dealing with a number — they're primarily all men — who have been diagnosed with this horrible disease, the majority of them after they've retired. It's obviously a workplace injury; it's a workplace disease. It's a disease that they have only contacted at their workplace. They've worked all their life at Teck Cominco and have contracted this. Some of them have been diagnosed ten, 20, 30 years after they've retired.
They worked in good faith up on the hill. Their families supported them to work on the hill. Now they are facing not only these, the majority of the people — the widows that are facing the loss of their husbands — but they're also facing issues around poverty and struggling to make ends meet because they're not getting any kind of compensation for this horrendous disease that is obviously work-related.
What I would like to put to the minister is: when are changes going to be made so that this small group of people in this province will not have to live with this issue where they are not fairly compensated for this disease that is obviously work-related, which they contracted in the workplace and that they should have been protected from? They weren't, and now they've died from it. Their
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families are suffering, and the men that had the illness were suffering prior to them passing away.
I want to ask the minister: what are they doing about it?
Hon. M. Coell: I appreciate the question. I'll try and answer it in a number of different ways, and if you don't get the answer you're looking for, just ask again.
I think you're referring to Bill 49, which was brought in a number of years ago. That replaced the idea of lifetime pensions with a monthly benefit that does end, as the member said, at age 65, and then there's a lump sum retirement benefit. It's consistent with other jurisdictions in Canada, and we moved to that.
I am sympathetic to what I hear from the member. I understand that WorkSafe is looking at a number of options with regard to catastrophically disabled and terminally ill workers as well. At this point the board, to my knowledge, has not made any decisions about that or any recommendations to government.
I've met with the B.C. Federation of Labour. They've made the same recommendation to government, and we're taking it seriously.
K. Conroy: Then could we please have some kind of a time frame? If the ministry and WorkSafe are taking it seriously, then surely to goodness there's some kind of time frame so that we can offer these families some kind of hope that there is, in fact, a time frame, and like other conditions it could also be retroactive so that these families have something to look forward to.
Hon. M. Coell: I have spoken to the board as well. As the member knows, the board is independent and can make some of those decisions itself. If the decisions required a legislative change, they would be making that recommendation to us. But at this point, I don't have a time frame.
K. Conroy: It's also my understanding that the minister himself can raise these issues with WorkSafe B.C., and perhaps put some pressure on that the government itself….
It's my understanding that the issues around presumptive cancer for firefighters actually came from government. That didn't come from WorkSafe B.C. So maybe that could also happen with these workers and these people that, I think, justly deserve the right to be compensated.
Hon. M. Coell: I have, through my staff, encouraged WorkSafe B.C. to look at this issue.
K. Conroy: So as the minister suggested, I will keep asking again and again until we do get some resolution to this situation, because as we speak, there's a very ill man in Trail whose family is struggling with the situation.
The Chair: Call vote number….
R. Chouhan: Don't be too fast, Mr. Chair. We are not done yet.
My question is about the minimum wage. As we know, as of, I believe, September 1, we are the lowest in all the provinces in Canada when it comes to hourly minimum wage.
You know, I hope the minister and this government will agree with me that it's so embarrassing when we talk about beautiful British Columbia and when we are talking about the abundance of resources here. We are inviting the world to British Columbia for the Olympics next year, but yet we are unable to increase the hourly minimum wage.
Since 2001 no increase has taken place to address this situation. I find it, I'm sure…. The minister may or may not admit it, but you know, he must be finding sitting here very embarrassing.
Now if you look at these numbers…. The B.C. Liberal government are saying that if you increase the minimum wage to $10 an hour, as we have asked for, it would increase the cost to small business by $450 million.
Yet there is no evidence — none whatsoever. The claim that the B.C. Liberals are having is based on a statement or some submission made by the B.C. Chamber of Commerce. Yet even the B.C. Chamber of Commerce has offered no firm facts to back up their claim. What we have seen in the last while….
The Premier gave himself a 109 percent increase in wages, yet the workers working in those situations making minimum wage are stuck at either the training wage of $6 an hour or $8 an hour.
My question is to the minister. Is there any compassion left in this government? Would there be any steps taken to increase the minimum wage to address that situation, the embarrassing situation that we have here in front of us?
Hon. M. Coell: I know we will disagree on this issue, but I want to outline some of the things that we have done to help people who make minimum wage.
When we took office, someone making minimum wage was still paying taxes. They do not pay provincial taxes in this province anymore. We have eliminated the MSP payments for people who make minimum wage. Those all put money back in people's pockets.
What we look at is that the average hourly wage in British Columbia is almost $22 an hour, and the average wage amongst youth is over $13 an hour. Those are the sorts of numbers that we want to see, and we want to see more and more people making that wage.
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I think the other side of that…. I would encourage the members on the other side, the next time we have tax reductions for lower-income people, to support it and the next time we lower or remove MSP payments for lower-income or minimum-wage earners, to support it. Those are important, and they put money back in people's wallets as well.
R. Chouhan: Those are, I'm sure, very fine statements, but they have no substance in them. They're hollow statements, as we all know that the amount of increase the Premier and the MLAs have taken…. If you put the same percentage increase to the workers' wages earning hourly minimum wage, they would make close to $14 an hour, I guess, at this time.
My question is: apart from all the statements and the disagreement that we have, how much longer do B.C.'s lowest-paid workers have to wait before they see any increase to the minimum wage? Is there any plan?
Hon. M. Coell: As the member and I have talked before, at present there are no plans to change the minimum wage.
R. Chouhan: I may have a few more questions, but my colleague has some questions to ask.
B. Routley: Thank you for this opportunity. One of the things that I did in my previous life was deal with safety issues on the plant floor. As I'm sure that the minister is aware, there's been a lot of work done in trying to deal with safety matters in British Columbia and the rising number of fatalities that we had after the period of deregulation.
I'm aware, for example, of the particular case of Ted Gramlich, the faller that was killed on the coast of British Columbia. The circumstances were indeed tragic. In fact, he essentially bled out, there on the hillside, because of the fact that the government of British Columbia had raced towards a plan of deregulating in B.C.
The company TimberWest's own evidence at that hearing was that they had signed off on a plan with a contractor on the hood of a pickup truck. On the hood of a pickup truck. The contractor himself, when he was questioned…. Of course, these kinds of actions — as you know, people can't be held accountable when they're involved in something like this.
The contractor himself admitted under questioning that he'd just signed it off like he'd been at the bank signing off buying a house and signed off some insurance documents or whatever without reading the fine print. He just said he signed it off.
We had some of the most major forest companies in British Columbia, in this case TimberWest, saying: "Well, you know, we contracted out, and so now the responsibility all falls to the contractor." They had literally signed off a deal on the hood of a truck.
As a result there was no plan in place for a helicopter faller out there working in one of the most difficult regions in the province of British Columbia. What was discovered was — guess what — there was fog down in the area. So the first available helicopter to get to him and the closest one couldn't take off because there was fog down below.
Now, I know that we've had all kinds of time to follow up on those recommendations. So I'm very interested in hearing from the minister on what specific actions the Minister of Labour has followed up on — I'm sure they must have followed up on — to ensure that every faller in the province of British Columbia has an adequate evacuation plan, emergency procedures and a ready standby helicopter to assist in the case of another recurrence of a Ted Gramlich–type situation.
So I wait to hear from the minister on what specific plans he knows about that are in place to help fallers in a similar situation.
Hon. M. Coell: I suspect that there will probably be more than one question, because this is an important issue. I can tell you from WorkSafe B.C.'s position, they're very concerned about the high number of injuries and fatalities in the forest industry. This is a longstanding issue, but it recently has got worse.
WorkSafe has initiated a review of all faller fatalities between 2005 and 2008 to identify trends and to learn lessons. Prevention strategies are being developed to address any issues that are identified. WorkSafe is also working with the forest industry employers, the unions and safety associations to drive down the number of injuries and fatalities in this industry.
In recent years WorkSafe has also hired additional safety officers focused specifically on forestry and has increased the number of inspections in the industry. The B.C. Forest Safety Council is funded through WorkSafe B.C. and is paid for by employers in the forest industry.
I just want to add that I share the member's concern about this issue. Following the death of Ted Gramlich, which the member mentioned, a coroner's inquest, consisting of a five-member jury, issued 23 recommendations to TimberWest Forest Corp., WorkSafe B.C., the B.C. Forest Safety Council on behalf of the forest industry, to the chief coroner and to the Ministry of Labour.
Two of the recommendations were directed to the ministry, and seven others were directed to both the ministry and the chair of WorkSafe B.C. These recommendations have been addressed by amendments to part 26 of the occupational health and safety regulation and by a current concept paper regarding the accountability and the protection of self-employed workers in the forest industry.
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I know that the member knows that there's an increase in self-employed forest workers, and that in itself has created a problem we need to address.
B. Routley: The question was very specific, and I'm still hoping for an answer. That is: is there a plan in place currently in the province of British Columbia? You know, we can have all kinds of reports. I've seen this movie before. At the end of the day, there are specific recommendations — 23 recommendations. But I am concerned that tomorrow morning another faller from some contractor who's just been hired heads out onto the side hill, and he's going to go out there and knock down a tree again….
Unfortunately, with the best of intentions, history seems to repeat itself unless there's a plan. So I'd like to know. I don't know who's in charge of helicopters and ensuring that there's a speedy plan to help deal with particularly helicopter logging. But if you, Mr. Minister, were out there tomorrow morning on the side hill and you were attempting to fall in some very difficult areas like Ted Gramlich was, with his back to a bunch of rock, and he was in there trying to fall that tree….
One of the other failings, by the way, is that there was no first aid readily at hand. In fact, the first-aid man…. The evidence was that he didn't know where the faller was exactly — didn't even know. Like, he had to try and follow his path to get at this faller.
My specific question is…. I'd like to come back to it and hope for an answer. Is there any kind of a plan that deals specifically with providing a helicopter in the event that tomorrow morning a faller is injured on the side of a hill?
We've got all kinds of fallers who were hired by all these major companies, and I want to know what the plan is. Surely there's a plan available to help ensure that those helicopter fallers get off the hill, and I'd like to know what that plan is.
Hon. M. Coell: I think the member is talking about an evacuation plan for an injured worker. The regulation…. As he would know probably better than me, that plan has to be in place. The evacuation of an injured worker is obviously a very high priority in that plan. The plan, through the regulation, is established before someone goes into the woods.
B. Routley: Obviously, one of the concerns is the follow-up, and I've heard the minister say that there are extra people assigned to go out there and monitor to ensure that these kinds of things are followed up on and that there are actual plans in place. Now that the minister has told us about these extra people who are available to go out and do this, surely they would report back to the minister, and there would be notations about compliance.
Could the minister tell us what level of compliance? Is there 50 percent compliance amongst contractors? Have we reached 100 percent? Are we still making some slow progress but not there yet?
Hon. M. Coell: That's information I don't have with me, but I will get that information and forward it on in a timely way to the member.
B. Routley: Another area of concern with safety in British Columbia is trucking. The minister, I'm sure, is aware that one of the significant problem areas in the province of British Columbia has been trucking.
I'm aware, and I'm sure the minister is aware, that the basic standards in Canada are not necessarily required to be followed up with, and there have been exceptions in forestry. I don't know what other ministries have exceptions, but I know that in the forest industry there have been exceptions. With the rising number of fatalities, the number of hours to allow people to work out in the forest has been compromised.
There have been rules for people hauling freight right across Canada. But I'm sure the minister would find it somewhat alarming that here we have somebody hauling, you know, grapefruit across the country who has one standard, and the people in British Columbia that are assigned to drive off-highway or highway logging trucks…. In most cases it's highway logging trucks now. The time limits for them to be on the job have been quite excessive.
[J. Thornthwaite in the chair.]
I'm wondering if the minister has turned his mind to that matter, if there are any new rules or regulations about the amount of driving time that's permitted in the province of British Columbia.
Let me just tell you, for example, the concern that I have. During my term we had Weyerhaeuser decide to experiment with their new flexibility of hours. I know of log truck drivers who came to me. In fact, Bob Storey was his name who came to me and said: "You know, I live in Mill Bay, and I'm driving all the way to the Chemainus logging division, to their dryland sort and then was required to work 12 hours." He would drive anywhere from three-quarters of an hour to an hour.
If you're a log truck driver in British Columbia and you're working 12 hours, there's no way that you can precisely time…. You can't have the whistle blow or something at 12 hours, and you just pull out of your truck and somehow get home, like some kind of issue of Star Trek where you vaporize and find yourself at home. That's not what happens.
What happens is that you finish the haul. If you're way back in the woods and you're halfway through your
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third haul, you're going to end up finishing the haul. Sometimes these fellows were working anywhere from 13 hours to 14 hours, and then they'd drive, as I say, three-quarters of an hour to work and three-quarters of an hour to an hour home from work. They were working pretty long shifts.
By the fourth day Bob made it home all right, which is a good thing. We can all be thankful for that. But his wife found Bob asleep at the wheel of his pickup truck. He just couldn't bring himself to drag himself the rest of the way home. He was just so happy to get into the driveway that he turned off the key, leaned on the wheel and fell asleep.
So my question to the minister is that given that truck driving…. I know that in the north it's even more of a concern — the long, long, long distances. I've had truck drivers say to me: "Do you really want the public of British Columbia — your mother or father or your family — to be sitting in a van or a car in front of a loaded logging truck, and somebody at the wheel is overtired, and they've had too long of a day?"
What exactly has the minister or WorkSafe done to develop a strategic plan to actually address trucking safety in the province of British Columbia? Do we still have separate…? Well, I guess that I have one question at a time. We'll hear about the plan for dealing with trucking and the issue of exhaustion at the wheel, and that kind of thing.
Hon. M. Coell: We on this side of the House share your concerns. There are two serious reviews going on right now. One is a review of part 26 of the occupational health and safety regulation, and the other is the Auditor General's review. We're hoping that there will be some recommendations that will be helpful. I share your concerns.
B. Routley: At this point there is no full review, obviously, if the matter is still in progress. Again, this brings back the concern of what kind of time frame do we have for completion of this? Every day that clicks by we've got people out there driving under those kinds of unsafe conditions and putting families in British Columbia at risk. That is, indeed, concerning and should be a concern for every British Columbian.
Anybody that recalls back…. I know there was a number of trucking accidents where exhaustion was a factor. I've got to tell you, from my own experience in talking to log truck drivers, that one of the fellows wandered off a road and tipped over his truck. I said to him: "Well, were you tired and exhausted?" He said: "Well, of course." I said: "Well, did you report that as part of your safety examination?" And he said: "Look, the last thing I want to do…. No."
He actually told me that he told the accident investigation that he was leaning over for his Thermos when he went off the road. I said: "Why would you not tell the complete truth on something like this?" And he said: "Because the fact is that if I report to my employer that I fell asleep at the wheel, I'm going to be disciplined — okay?"
Those are the facts. Like reaching over for your Thermos — well, that's kind of a grey area — you went off the road and you rolled this huge, expensive truck…. Apparently, he made the right move, because he wasn't disciplined. It's sad that that's the truth. It really is. You should be able to tell the truth in these safety matters and not be disciplined. But I've seen it over and over again that people have to take self-protection matters into their own hands because of these kinds of concerns.
So we have some work being done on the trucking issue. Is there any plan to develop new rules and regulations? Will the minister take whatever is discovered as part of what this group that's working on…? It's one thing to have some group off squirrelled away and whomping up some recommendations. But we've seen — again, time after time — that these recommendations just fall on deaf ears.
I find it interesting that you seem to share a concern about safety, and I hope that's true — that you would actually take action and take steps immediately to address any regulatory issues that need to be dealt with and to instruct those inspectors that are out in the field to immediately follow up and make sure that this kind of thing is going on. Could you fill us in on what your plan is to follow up on any recommendation?
Hon. M. Coell: I thank the member for sharing that story. A picture is worth a thousand words, and you just painted a picture for me of the issue. I am told that we will be looking at those recommendations this fall with the idea of making some changes within the next six months or so.
B. Routley: The other question I have on trucking is the issue of stopping vehicles from time to time. I want to address this to the minister. It's something that you may not be aware of and need to be concerned about. That's the issue of these bankruptcies. We've had a large number of bankruptcies in British Columbia. Well, I'll definitely start off by asking the minister directly. I think I know the answer, but I shouldn't assume that I know the answer.
When there are bankruptcies in the province of British Columbia…. I'll use Munns and the situation I went through with Ted Leroy — more than 300 loggers going bankrupt. I actually got a phone call from a log truck driver who said: "Would you phone the scales for me and have them check out our trucks?" And I said: "Well, why would that be necessary? Why don't you just put your tag on the truck and say that it isn't moving, if you're thinking that it's not safe? You're the mechanic. Why would you need that?"
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Again, to basically educate the minister and others about the safety issues involved, if there's a bankruptcy going on, the last thing that that mechanic wants to do is to be the reason why the employer drives the final nail in the coffin. If he puts that tag on that truck and now they can't produce, they can't get logs down to the dryland sort, you're just adding fuel to the fire. You could potentially be at the tipping point where you caused the bankruptcy and, of course, have all the friends and others that you worked with for all those years looking at you as the guy that caused the final nail in the coffin. They had no interest in doing that.
For their own safety, though…. But his words to me on me on the phone I'll never forget. He said to me: "Look, the brakes on some of those trucks are down around 35 percent. When I start thinking about my family being out on the highway and one of our trucks coming up behind them, I couldn't live with myself if I didn't phone you and ask you to at least inform the weigh scales to start taking action and making sure that the appropriate folks check the trucks."
I guess my question is twofold. Is the minister aware of the need for additional diligence in the case of bankruptcies amongst contractors in British Columbia? And if he is aware, what plans has he taken to help ensure that the rest of British Columbians are somehow protected from people who may be cutting corners because they're in the throes of bankruptcy?
Hon. M. Coell: Yeah, I appreciate…. Again he sort of painted a picture for me, which is very helpful. When we're looking at these reports, I will definitely take your advice to heart in looking at ways to make not only people who are possibly going through bankruptcy but other issues around the same type of problem that you have identified for me…. So thank you.
B. Routley: You're welcome.
I guess the other issue as a follow-up is that you've got not just logging companies…. I think about Madill Equipment, which made feller-bunchers, loaders and all of that kind of equipment in the province of British Columbia. The story there was that I happened to talk to Harry Volk, one of the former owners of that company. I think they had about $8 million invested in the business at that point, and they sold it. I mean, this was a pretty good business venture.
[H. Bloy in the chair.]
They sold it for around $80 million to a New York group that came in. They were following his plan of producing so many loaders. I think it was 20 a month that they could produce. They would produce those feller-bunchers, yarders, loaders and that kind of thing.
Even though we had suggested to them that they may want to look at other opportunities, they actually turned down…. After they were in the throes of bankruptcy, by the way, the secretary said to me, "You know, I got a phone call from the wind and energy people, who said that they'd like help building their wind turbines and all of the equipment for the wind industry," and Madill actually — the secretary, at least, claimed this — turned it down, said they weren't interested and that they were busy building feller-bunchers and loaders for the logging industry. They had a plan, and they weren't going to deviate from the plan.
But now to the Ministry of Labour. Obviously, there were all kinds of impacts to people through bankruptcy and that kind of thing. Does the Minister of Labour have any plan to help folks that are going through bankruptcy in British Columbia?
I'm sure it's going to be a repeated theme. I know that it's the federal government that has some plans to deal with bankruptcies. There were some minimum rules. The federal government amended the rules so that when there was a bankruptcy there could be up to $3,100, I think it was, for workers and their families to get them ahead of the big banks and that kind of thing.
Has the Minister of Labour turned his attention to the matter of the rising numbers of bankruptcies and any additional protections that he may be able to offer or that his ministry could offer to help workers and their families in communities impacted by these kinds of things in British Columbia?
Hon. M. Coell: I think that the federal government…. I give them credit for that program. I think that is helping. I think that in the budget we tabled there are a number of initiatives that will help the forestry industry, from the HST through to lowering of business taxes. So there are a number of things that we've done in the budget that will get more debate, probably in the Ministry of Finance estimates. But there isn't anything from this ministry that we're specifically doing at this time.
S. Fraser: Thanks to the minister for being here and your staff. I'll be brief.
The questions around minimum wage have been asked by the critic already. I'm not happy with the answers we got, but they're out there. WCB — big problems in all our constituencies. I think there are shortfalls there, but the questions have been asked. I know time is limited. Forest safety has been covered very eloquently by my colleague from Cowichan.
I've got one other issue. Regulations have been brought in recently to deal with emergency workers on the scene of an accident — for instance, to try to protect them more. There have been some pretty tragic incidents.
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Can the minister just confirm those regulations and who they apply to as far as emergency personnel goes?
Hon. M. Coell: I wonder if the member could elaborate a bit more. I'm not aware or my staff aren't aware of that program. If you could just elaborate on it, we'll find an answer for you.
S. Fraser: It's a ministry. It's jointly involved, I suppose, with your ministry and Transport — so maybe more Transport, highways. These are highways issues, police personnel. There have been new regulations brought in around speed limits and that, when emergency vehicles are on the scene. Or maybe not an accident — that's where I'm going — but it's directly related to these emergency workers in the line of their jobs.
Does that sound familiar or ring a bell?
Hon. M. Coell: Actually, that would be the Minister of Transportation who's making those changes. There isn't anything from this ministry at this point.
S. Fraser: So I'll finish off here, just to follow up. It's been brought to my attention that, as the minister knows, a lot of the maintenance throughout the province is handled through independent contracting companies, working very closely with the emergency services. In some cases, they're the first on the scene.
Brought to my attention, these highway maintenance people are not being offered the same levels of protection under the new regulations. Hopefully, it's an omission, but the regulations do not apply.
In many cases these highways contractors are the first on the scene. They live in proximity to a road incident, an accident, a bridge that's out — something like that. So they can be on the scene first, but they do not seem to be afforded the same level of protection that the legislation was designed to bring in for the emergency personnel.
I don't know if the minister can comment, but there's certainly a role, I believe, for the ministry to play, because it is a worker safety issue.
Hon. M. Coell: As I said, it would be the Ministry of Transportation, but in my opinion, they should be.
M. Sather: I want to bring to the minister's attention a labour issue in my community, which he may be aware of given the length of time that it's gone on. This has to do with the strike at Extra Foods in Maple Ridge.
Extra Foods is an economical grocery store that's owned by Westfair Foods, who are in turn part of Loblaw's conglomerate. Those workers have been out since December of last year, so getting over nine months now. This is a store that's strategically located in Maple Ridge in terms of the seniors population. It's a store that they were able to walk to and get a reasonable price for their groceries, which is, of course, very important to them.
The workers, of course, are suffering from reduced circumstances. There seems to be no hurry — if I can use that word — on the part of the employer to go to the bargaining table. Arbitration has been suggested and rejected. I'm just wondering if the minister…. I understand, of course, that the minister does not get involved in labour negotiations directly, but this is such a contentious issue in my community in terms of — I speak particularly again of — the seniors community, who are suffering greatly from this lack of services. For most of them, it's difficult to make it to a grocery store further afield.
I'm just wondering if the minister has any suggestion, any news, any information whatsoever that I can take back to the workers and the seniors in my community about this situation that might give them any glimmer of hope. Westfair, I guess, intends to bring in a store that is actually called No Frills, so they want to switch to that store. But as I understand it, it's kind of like a Costco store. The groceries are stacked up high and not user-friendly for seniors.
I'm wanting to know if the minister has anything that he can tell me that I can take back to my constituents that might give them some cause for hope.
Hon. M. Coell: I am aware of that situation. I think there are a couple of things that the union and the employer could do. They could go to the LRB and ask for mediation. I don't believe they've done that. They also could ask for an arbitrator, but they would both need to agree on that. It's not something that the ministry would get involved with in any way, shaping a dispute, other than to suggest that those are two options that they would have to go forward with.
R. Chouhan: I have a couple questions before we conclude, and I'm aware that we must finish at 6:15.
One issue is about WorkSafe B.C. We have heard that lately, in the last few months, WorkSafe B.C. has been spending lots of money, close to $100 million, to improve their computer programs regarding CMS. Has that program finished? Is everything in place? At what stage is that?
Hon. M. Coell: The member and I have talked about this issue before. The new computer system that WorkSafe put in replaced about 20 other computer systems. It was an upgrade that was needed to be done. It had a not smooth start, as the member knows. There were a number of problems with the system. They're being ironed out. They also have a team of people who are looking at some of the problems that were created with mostly cheques to individuals and to employers that were not correct. So there's a team that goes through those.
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Also, if there is a mistake that is made — I'm sure, with literally hundreds of thousands of cheques that are produced and reports that are produced a year, there will be some mistakes — there's a team that can correct that mistake that day. But there were a number of issues that WorkSafe were not happy with the introduction of the new system…. So it has taken probably the better part of three months to get to where they are now and, I suspect, a couple more months before it's functioning at 100 percent.
R. Chouhan: I also want to take this opportunity to thank the CEO who works at WorkSafe B.C., Mr. Anderson, who took time to come and see me, as well, to brief me about the situation at WorkSafe B.C. We found out that a couple of serious mistakes were made; for example, one service provider who had a bill for a few dollars was sent a cheque for $1 million.
Similarly, one widow or widower — I forget the exact case in that situation — was supposed to get some lump sum money and instead got only an eight-cent cheque, and that was repeated several times. I hope those kinds of mistakes are not made anymore, and I look forward to seeing the report from WorkSafe B.C. that everything is working fine.
In closing, I want to say that what we have seen today are cuts in the budget in a way that is going to be impacting the number of programs that the Ministry of Labour is responsible for.
We have seen the elimination of key jobs and the reduction of staff either through attrition or whatever. We have seen that there are no enforcement mechanisms that we all desire or would love to see to protect workers in the agricultural industry, in the forest industry and everywhere else. They are not there because of the funding shortfalls.
Then we have the domestic workers' situation. We talked about child labour, a very embarrassing situation. The numbers that I provided today speak for themselves. They show how many children were injured. The number of injuries has gone up dramatically from 2003 to 2007, and I don't see any program or any action in place to protect those workers. Child poverty is the highest in Canada. I haven't seen any steps taken to protect those families, those individuals who are in that situation.
We have seen the most embarrassing situation here, the minimum wage — the lowest in Canada. We are inviting the world to come to our doorstep next year, and we are going to show them we don't care about our workers. Yet we hear all kinds of fancy statements from this government day in and day out, and then they talk about how wonderful this place is.
In fact, if you look at the evidence, we are not doing anything. This government has failed miserably to protect the seniors, the students, the workers. The tuition fees are going up with everything else. It's just amazing when you are talking about tuition costs. We were talking about transit fare. We were talking about housing. We were talking about food costs.
Everything is going up, yet this government has chosen to not increase the minimum wage. That's so embarrassing, and this government should be ashamed about it.
But I want to say, in closing, that it was an opportunity for me to ask some questions. I want to thank the minister and his staff, each and every one of them, for taking this time to come and answer the questions. I look forward to receiving the information the minister has promised to get so that we can work on it, and we will continue to work together.
Hon. M. Coell: I'd also like to thank the member and members who have asked questions, and some have made some suggestions that I think were very good. I did make a commitment to get a number of documents to members of the opposition. I will do that as quickly as possible.
With that, I'll move completion of the estimates for the Ministry of Labour.
Vote 37: ministry operations, $21,631,000 — approved.
Hon. M. Coell: I would move that the committee rise, report resolution and completion of the Ministry of Labour and ask leave to sit again.
The committee rose at 6:09 p.m.
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