2011 Legislative Session: Fourth Session, 39th Parliament
The following electronic version is for informational purposes only.
The printed version remains the official version.
official report of
Debates of the Legislative Assembly
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Volume 29, Number 1
ISSN 0709-1281 (Print)
ISSN 1499-2175 (Online)
Celebration of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago's 50th anniversary of independence
Messages of welcome and appreciation
Motions Without Notice
Ratification of membership of select standing and special committees
Hon. R. Coleman
Orders of the Day
Second Reading of Bills
Bill 20 — Auditor General for Local Government Act
Hon. I. Chong
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2012
The House met at 10:04 a.m.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
JAMAICA AND TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO'S
50th ANNIVERSARY OF INDEPENDENCE
D. Hayer: Happy Valentine's Day to everybody. We know we want to start off nicely today.
I would like to congratulate Maryann Pyne, Trevor Walsh, Inside Kolours Multicultural Multimedia and Entertainment, Dave Smith, Andrew Serrant and the Trinidad and Tobago Cultural Society of B.C. as well as the Jamaican-Canadian Cultural Association of B.C. for hosting a great Valentine's dinner dance, held last Saturday to celebrate Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago's 50th anniversary of independence this year.
Also recognized at the event was Black History Month, declared every February in British Columbia.
I also want to thank all the volunteers, sponsors and all of the members and directors of those organizations for excellent work they do every year. I want to congratulate them. They did excellent work.
MESSAGES OF WELCOME
L. Krog: I hope I won't be breaching the rules around mentioning the absence of a member, but I am particularly delighted to welcome back to this chamber the only person who is my constituent in this chamber, and that is the member for Parksville-Qualicum. We wish him well and welcome him home. [Applause.]
R. Cantelon: Thank you very much, Member, and I want to thank both sides of the House for their kind good wishes and felicitations. They were reassuring to me and very heartfelt by myself and my family, and it's good to be back. In fact, I can honestly say it's very good to see everybody, considering. [Applause].
Motions Without Notice
RATIFICATION OF MEMBERSHIP
OF SELECT STANDING
AND SPECIAL COMMITTEES
Hon. R. Coleman: First of all, this morning, by leave, I'd like to inform the House of the changes made while we were not in session to the members of the select standing committees on Children and Youth; Parliamentary Reform, Ethical Conduct, Standing Orders and Private Bills; and the Special Committee on Cosmetic Pesticides — as a result of members going to other careers, I guess you could say.
By leave, I move:
[That the written agreement effective January 5, 2012 between the Government House Leader, Hon. Rich Coleman, MLA and Sue Hammell, MLA on behalf of the Opposition House Leader, John Horgan, MLA, and further that the written agreement between the Government House Leader, Hon. Rich Coleman, MLA and the Opposition House Leader, John Horgan, MLA, effective January 26, 2012, hereby setting forth the membership on three parliamentary committees of the Legislative Assembly for the 4th session of the 39th Parliament be ratified as follows:
SELECT STANDING COMMITTEE ON CHILDREN AND YOUTH — Joan McIntyre (Chair), Claire Trevena (Deputy Chair), Mable Elmore, Gordon Hogg, Douglas Horne, Leonard Krog, Kevin Krueger, Richard T. Lee, Nicholas Simons, Dr. Moira Stilwell.
SELECT STANDING COMMITTEE ON PARLIAMENTARY REFORM, ETHICAL CONDUCT, STANDING ORDERS AND PRIVATE BILLS — Colin Hansen (Convener), Harry Lali (Deputy Chair), Donna Barnett, Jagrup Brar, Murray Coell, Mike Farnworth, Randy Hawes, Jenny Wai Ching Kwan, John Les, Norm Letnick.
SPECIAL COMMITTEE ON COSMETIC PESTICIDES — Bill Bennett (Chair), Rob Fleming (Deputy Chair), Murray Coell, Scott Fraser, Michael Sather, John Slater, Ben Stewart, John Yap.]
Hon. R. Coleman: Just to inform the members. They will have noted on the event schedule that has been circulated that we will rise this morning at 11:50 a.m. in order for the members to make their way to the front steps for the commencement of the jubilee special event. Then at 1:25 the bells will call all members back to the House for the continuation of the jubilee ceremonies and the Black Rod ceremony, with the House resuming normal daily business at two. At 11:50 this morning we will do, by leave, an adjournment motion till two o'clock this afternoon to facilitate that.
Orders of the Day
Hon. R. Coleman: In this chamber I call second reading of Bill 20, intituled the Auditor General for Local Government Act.
Second Reading of Bills
BILL 20 — AUDITOR GENERAL FOR LOCAL
Hon. I. Chong: Good morning. I certainly am privileged this morning to rise and move second reading of
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Bill 20, the Auditor General for Local Government Act.
I'll allow a moment for members to leave the chambers and take on other business, if they will.
As part of her families-first agenda, the Premier made the commitment to establish an office of the auditor general for local government, and the purpose of the new Auditor General for Local Government Act is to establish this new office. Bill 20 would provide for the creation of a provincially funded auditor general for local government — the acronym I'm sure everyone will get used to: AGLG.
[D. Black in the chair.]
This legislation would provide for the AGLG to, first and foremost, conduct value-for-money audits of a number of local government operations each year. It would also make recommendations. The AGLG would also produce public reports and identify best practices arising from those audits.
The auditor general for local government would support local governments by providing recommendations about how to find efficiencies and improve the effectiveness of their operations through performance audits. The AGLG would support local governments in maximizing value for money from taxpayer dollars. Audit reports by the AGLG would provide information and recommendations to assist local governments in choosing how best to deliver cost-effective, sustainable services that meet the needs of citizens.
Existing local government legislation features a large number of financial accountability rules. However, there is a gap. There is no requirement for independent value-for-money performance audits, and this legislation is about filling that gap and, in the process, enhancing the strength of our local government system. Performance audits add value because they can help point to best practices, to opportunities for improvement and increased efficiencies.
Performance auditing is different from other external audits, such as financial audits. As many will know, financial audits focus on whether financial statements are an accurate representation of actual financial position. Performance auditing, however, focuses on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the design and delivery of programs and services.
Independence in conducting performance audits is vital to the credibility of any auditor general. That's why, for example, the auditor general for local government would be appointed for a fixed term and would have other powers and protections that the provincial Auditor General has. That's why the AGLG would also have the sole discretion to select the local governments to be audited.
At the same time, the AGLG must be accountable, and that's why this act would require performance audit reports of local governments to be made public and why the AGLG would have to publish an annual service plan.
That is also why the act provides that the performance of the AGLG would be monitored by an audit council of at least five individuals with relevant expertise, appointed by the province — individuals identified through consultation with UBCM and other stakeholders and who have knowledge of accounting, auditing and provincial or local governance.
Bill 20 is about striking the best balance between independence and accountability. For example, the AGLG would have to provide the local government being audited an opportunity to comment on the draft report and would be required to include a summary of those comments in the final published audit report — similar to what is done at the provincial and federal levels, I might add. In that way, audited local governments would have an opportunity to comment on the AGLG's proposed recommendations, yet the AGLG's performance audit would remain and retain its independence.
Just as it is important to outline what the AGLG would do, it is also important to clarify what it would not do. The AGLG would not examine policy choices of locally elected officials about issues such as tax rates, local government structure or land use planning, and the AGLG would not duplicate local government accountability measures already in place, such as annual audited financial statements, five-year financial plans or electoral approval of capital borrowing.
There is no question that citizens expect their governments to be accountable and responsive, and there is no doubt that communities of every size and shape are indeed facing challenges. The AGLG would provide another source of information to local governments — professional expertise funded by the province primarily to assist local governments in making the most of taxpayer dollars.
Establishing an AGLG does not change the legislated recognition of local government as an independent, responsible and accountable order of government. The AGLG's role would be to provide objective, neutral, third-party advice through non-binding recommendations that local governments can decide whether or not they want to act on, depending on what makes sense for their communities and what reflects the priorities of their electorate. The AGLG would be another valuable tool that local governments can use to optimize service delivery and help them address their community priorities.
Obviously, as a person who has been trained in accounting and auditing, I see this position as one that is extremely valuable and as well, having served in local government, how this will assist local governments to do that much more to represent and be accountable to their citizens. I would encourage and ask all members to lend their support to this important piece of legislation.
With that, Madam Speaker, I do move second reading and anticipate and wait for the remarks of my colleagues.
H. Lali: I would like to reiterate the comments of a previous colleague and wish everybody a happy Valentine's Day. I guess all of us are here and our partners are elsewhere, so through you and the televised reporting I'd like to wish a happy Valentine's Day to all of the partners of the individuals that are here.
Having said that, I just want to say it's great to be back in the Legislature again and be able to do the people's business and debate with the hon. members opposite, on the government side, and hear what everybody has to say on both sides of the House.
Now, obviously, before us is the second reading of the bill for the auditor general for local government, the AGLG. I want to state that the official opposition does not support the government on the bill, and there are a variety of reasons, which I will be outlining.
H. Lali: I know my friend from Chilliwack is very, very interested in hearing the reasons why we don't support it.
Having said that at the outset, I want to say first off that when we are talking about the issue of accountability or — what's the word I'm looking for? — transparency, when you look at this side of the House, we wrote the book on that, hon. Speaker. We totally believe in accountability, and we also….
H. Lali: You know, the hon. member for Chilliwack is talking about the 2009 fudge-it budget of the provincial government that is on that side of the House — when it was supposed to be $500 million and ended up being $3.6 billion. That's the fudge-it budget I think he's talking about.
But in terms of accountability, we want accountability. We want accountability not only from our Members of Parliament at the federal level; we want accountability from the government and also all the members of the House at the provincial level. At the same time, we want accountability at the local level, at municipal governments, regional districts, First Nations and all of the elected bodies.
There should be more accountability, and we support that. We've always supported that. We've got a history of that on this side of the House, of not only speaking in favour of transparency and accountability but actually putting our money where our mouths are.
We brought in — under Mike Harcourt when he was the Premier in this House, under an NDP government — the toughest conflict-of-interest laws in the entire country. They weren't just regs or putting in place like they do federally, with a watchdog. Rather, you were accountable to the House, to the people of British Columbia through the Conflict of Interest Commissioner, to make sure that no politician had their hand in the cookie jar. We did that.
We also brought in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. At that time, it was hailed right across the western world and in North America as a flagship for freedom of information. Many jurisdictions across Canada and the United States have used that law that we brought in, the act, almost 18 years ago as a model to base their freedom of information on.
What we found with this government, the Liberals, was when they came into office they actually made six dozen changes to the Freedom of Information Act to keep the people's information out of their hands — 72 changes. That's what they made.
Further to that, we brought in a new Election Act as well. It made not only political parties but also individual candidates who were running for office more accountable to their constituents and to the people of British Columbia, so that they would have to report where the moneys came from in order to fight their elections. It was never done in the province. We did that. There are a whole lot of other areas where we did that, as well, but those are the three main ones.
So when I hear the hon. members across the way talk about accountability and transparency, they could learn a few things from the NDP opposition, Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, on how to bring about accountability and transparency, because that's what we put forward starting almost 20 years back.
But this bill that is before us is not about transparency, and I'll talk about that more in a minute. If they really wanted more accountability and transparency, there are a lot of processes already in place in institutions and bodies that actually do that. Current regulations and current legislation provide for that.
Just to give you an example, at the municipal level, at the local level, are some of the accountability measures that already exist such as, for municipal governments, a requirement to balance budgets each year and not run deficits, unlike the government on the opposite side running a huge deficit, the largest deficit in the history of this province — huge debt. It's over $100 billion right now.
They like to say it's off-books, but still, at the end of the day, it's the taxpayers of British Columbia. It's the people who pay the rates who are responsible for paying down that debt, whether it's on-books or off-books. That's what has happened, but it's not there for the municipal governments. They're bound by provincial law that they must balance their books each and every year.
They have to hold a referendum on major capital expenditures, depending on the size of the municipality. Do you want to spend money on a capital project that's over
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a certain limit? You've got to go to the people and hold a referendum to be able to do that. So they are accountable that way. They also have to, at the local level, provide for public consultation on annual financial plans to issue annual reports, including reports on performance measured against defined goals.
Local government also has to produce an annual external audit. That's already there. One of the things that a constituent at the local level, who thinks there is something fishy is going on, or an organization…. They can ask for an external audit, and municipalities and regional districts do that as a matter of accountability and transparency. They can undertake a performance audit of any particular program or project in conjunction with the existing audit process that's already there.
Local governments also have oversight by the office of the inspector of municipalities. I know my hon. colleague, the critic for the Minister of Finance, is going to actually talk about that in his eloquent way when he takes his place in about half an hour or so, to be able to do that. So I'm not going to delve into that, because I know he's going to do that.
The inspector of municipalities has considerable investigatory powers. They have that. They can investigate. There is a lot of power. If the minister and the government want to use that, they can. They can re-fund the inspector of municipalities to be able to do that, instead of pulling the funds out like they did with so many other entities of government, to make government less accountable and less transparent to the people that it's supposed to serve. They can do that. The minister can do that. The government, the Premier, this cabinet — they can do that if they really want transparency.
The inspector of municipalities is already also able to hold an inquiry on any local government matter and is able to take complaints about local government operation. It's there. It's there in the legislation; it's there in regulations.
The other one — this is the really important one — is the provincial Auditor General. The provincial Auditor General has the power to investigate any municipal project that involves any provincial funding. It's there, and I know the hon. critic for Finance is going to talk about that in more detail when he gets up. But it's there — and many other entities and processes, regulations, legislation. It's there, if you want the accountability.
If the government truly believes in accountability, they would use the existing regulations and the legislation to provide that from whoever it is that is lobbying them that they are to have more accountability at the local level. Use what's there. That's why the laws were made. It's there.
You know, hon. Speaker, this legislation just totally misses the mark. It totally misses the mark on what the government said it was going to do, and I'll talk about that more later on. It just doesn't do that.
Here we have a duplication and a multiplication of services that will take place. We have the very, very capable office of the provincial Auditor General, which ought to have been used to say, "Look, we're just going to give you a little more authority and power in addition to what's there" — to be able to do that rather than go out and spend more money on another level of bureaucracy. An unnecessary level of bureaucracy, I might add. But this bill misses the mark. I don't think the government gets it.
It's not about transparency. It's not about independence, as the hon. minister states it is. If this was about independence, like it is in other provinces…. There are other provinces that have it. Some of the audit for the local government is on a voluntary basis where the communities can go out and do that. Or for others, it's different. But if it was going to be truly independent, then it ought to have been accountable to the UBCM, which is made up of officials who are elected at the local level by their constituents. Every three years, when there is an election that occurs, they are accountable. They're accountable at election time. They're accountable through scrutiny through the media. They're accountable through questioning by various councillors and regional district reps in terms of the meetings that they have — open public meetings.
It ought to have been accountable either via the UBCM in terms of the reporting mechanism or through the provincial Auditor General, which we already have in place. Also, if the government chose, they could have brought it in like in other provinces, answerable to the Legislature. That includes all 85 members in this House. It includes the cabinet members over there. It includes the government back bench on the other side as well. It also includes Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. That's what this institution, this parliament, is made up of. This institution is made up of a number of groups that actually form a fundamental part of government, including cabinet, the government caucus and Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.
We have other commissioners that are in place. We've supported the children and families advocate, the seniors advocate. I mean, those are all measures that actually were put forward by the official opposition. The government, after dragging their feet, brought those in. We supported that. We supported that, because we are answerable to the people.
In this instance, the reporting mechanism…. Actually, sometimes it's kind of a little confusing as well. They don't report to the Legislature. The auditor general that they want to put in, the AGLG, is not reporting to the Legislature. It's reporting to the minister. Wait a minute. It reports also to the audit council that they put in place.
Well, that's kind of different. No other jurisdiction in the country has that. What was the big need to set up a separate body with a whole lot of costs loaded on as well,
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to have that power and control actually go right back to the minister's hands and to the audit council? I might add that the minister goes out and finds five people to put on this audit council. It's the five members who go out and find the auditor general and make the recommendation not to this House, not to the people of British Columbia, but to the minister and cabinet.
So nobody in this House has any role like we do with the Conflict of Interest Commissioner, like we do with the provincial Auditor General. We have a select standing committee of the Legislature whose role it is to actually go out and find the right person, and then to appoint that person through a vote in this Legislature.
None of that is there, because the minister will go out and handpick the five people that she will find — handpick them after the stamp of approval is there from the Premier and the cabinet as to who those five people are going to be.
For all we know…. I mean, even the makeup isn't that varied. There's a fairly heavy emphasis on the one side, from the business community, as opposed to a well-rounded group of people from across the province. No, it's from a select group of people. What is there to say they're not going to go out and find friends and insiders to sit on the audit council and then be able to sift through the resumes and do the search and find a friend or an insider to be the auditor general for local government?
There is no surety. There is no independence. There are no unbiased recommendations that will come forward in terms of the appointment process. So the minister handpicks five people through cabinet approval to sit on the audit council, and then the people on the audit council will go out and handpick whoever it is and make that recommendation to the minister — which, when you read the fine print in the act, is a rubber stamping.
The minister has got to — basically, it says "must"; it doesn't say "may" — consider that recommendation. We'll have lots to say, also, at the committee stage. So in other words, the minister goes out and finds five friendly people, handpicks them to sit on the audit council, and basically, whoever they turn around and select for appointment must be considered.
So who really has the power here? It's not this Legislature. It's not the members or the…. Hon. Speaker, a lot of members from across the way have been elected at the local level, the municipal government. A lot of folks on our side of the House have also been elected, prior to coming here, in some form of municipal or local government.
I wonder what the government caucus members, those sitting on the back bench, really have to…. I am interested in hearing what they have to say. I am interested in hearing what the members who are on the back bench, especially if they were in local government prior to coming here and additionally especially — I think I made up a word here — the members from rural B.C. who represent the small communities who don't have the capacity, don't have the financial resources, to be able to look after all the costs that will be added on….
When the local auditor general says, "I've got an investigation going on here, and I need all this information," small communities…. I can just think of communities like Lytton and Lillooet and other small communities across the province — Clinton, etc. Those are in my riding, and there are so many small communities represented by Liberals as well. The added costs that they're going to be burdened with on top of whatever audits that they do themselves — it's an additional cost.
It might not be a big cost for some of the bigger communities, but for little communities it's going to be a huge cost. It's going to be a huge cost for them, and the government hasn't taken that into consideration, especially since they've been off-loading so much. For the last 12 years now they've been off-loading onto municipal governments. Time and time again that's what you see from this government.
So I'm interested in hearing if the Liberal members who are not in cabinet will actually stand up for their locally elected councils and regional districts and support the view that they put forward at the ground level. I know our members on this side of the House have not only consulted with our locally elected regional and municipal governments; we talked to some of the mayors and councillors that the Liberal MLAs represent as well, and they're not happy about this at all.
UBCM was not happy about it. What do they call it? A solution in search of a problem. That's what the UBCM said, because this was not brought forward through any kind of consultation. This was brought in because the Premier, on the leadership campaign trail, was promised by a certain group: "If you take this position, we'll support you in the leadership bid." It was one of those backroom deals. There was no consultation.
What did the Finance Minister say about some of those things — the current Finance Minister, who was also running for leader? What did he say? He said, "Ready, shoot, aim," or something like that. Ready, shoot, aim — right? Goes out and fires, and then: "Gee, I think I should have aimed."
Once the Premier, who was campaigning to be leader, became the leader, became the Premier, while she'd made that backroom promise…. "Well, now I guess I better deliver on that promise that I made." Ready, fire, aim. That's exactly what was said: "Well, gee, I think I'd better do some consultation." It was a sham of a consultation, anyway. You have to make the decision, then turn around and take it to the UBCM, and they'll have a look and go: "Well, I think we'll do a bit of a consultation, because you guys are really upset."
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A solution in search of a problem. That's what they said. I know what the local leaders in the members' communities opposite are saying, because we've talked about it. They are not happy. They are not happy with their MLAs.
I'm interested to see here if these members across the way are going to take their place in this House, stand up for their constituents or stand up for the ill-thought backroom deal that the Premier made with a certain business group in order to get their support to win the leadership, because we know where the Finance Minister stood — the ready-fire-aim approach of the Premier.
It's what the Deputy Premier had said during that campaign. And we know the member for Cariboo-Chilcotin. She was a mayor for many years and has been on local councils. I know what she said. "This is not something we need. We already have the processes in place."
I want to hear in the next few days what the member for Cariboo-Chilcotin has to say, whether she's going to stand up for her constituents and actually speak what's on her mind or kowtow to the Premier because she made a backroom deal with a particular group in society.
This audit council we were talking about has a huge amount of control. The minister has a huge amount of control. And all of these reports, when they come in after the investigations, don't come into this House. When the auditor general makes a report, it has got to go back through the audit council so that they can review it and maybe change the report. We'll never know what the original report had recommended and what the changes were or are going to be.
Not only that. It goes from instead of the auditor general being answerable to this Legislature and the people of British Columbia, the local auditor general is going to be answerable to the audit council first. And they'll mess around with the report and send it back to the minister. And the minister is going to mess around with it a little bit more and then send it to the cabinet. And the cabinet is going to have some secret dealings on this behind closed doors, which nobody will know about, and then this report will come out. Oh, finally they're going to make it public.
That's how this is going to…. There's no independence here. The minister gets up and talks about independence. What a sham it is. It's not independent. It's totally controlled — controlled by this Liberal minister and the Liberal-appointed audit council that's going to be there and this Liberal cabinet. Where is the accountability, if there was a hue and cry at the local level to have this accountability? Where is it? It doesn't exist in this bill. It just does not. It's all about power and control, because that is the way the Liberals do business and have done it for 12 years.
You know, I just want to talk about what the Premier has said. During her leadership race she said there was some provincial partnership that was needed, and on January 28, 2011, in the Nanaimo News Bulletin — and I'm going to quote the Premier here — the Premier says: "A municipal auditor general would certainly be making sure they're ensuring best practices."
She said: "We also have to recognize it's a two-way street. Provincial government often asks municipal governments to do more and then doesn't give them any money to do it. We have to define how that relationship works, because I don't think it's fair to just keep downloading on local governments all the time."
That's what she said. There's nothing about downloading in this bill. That's a promise she made. At least, before she became Premier, she was on the people's side. "Oh, the provincial government is a nasty government. It's been downloading onto municipalities and regional districts, and that's got to stop. That's got to stop," she said, "because it's a two-way street."
Then also on CKNW on January 18, the Premier, at the time when she was running her campaign, said: "It's not just about the provincial government downloading costs and downloading responsibilities and then saying to municipal governments, 'Hey, guess what. You're not fulfilling your duties here.' The provincial government has to pick up its end of the bargain, too, and do a thorough examination about whether or not the province is holding up its end." Those were telling words. That's what the Premier believed before she became Premier. But she didn't hold herself to this.
Yes, there's the issue of off-loading. We talked about that. That's what she was referring to. But there's the other issue. It's a little hypocritical when you have the Liberals bringing a bill into the House about imposing an auditor general on local government when they themselves do not take the advice of the provincial Auditor General.
As a matter of fact, we've had members openly challenging the provincial Auditor General because they don't like the findings that they've seen. The member sitting across the way from Prince George was one of them. I think it was a year ago when he openly challenged and made fun of the Auditor General and told him to keep his nose out of the province's business.
That's the kind of contempt that the Liberals have shown to their own Auditor General — the province's, the people's own Auditor General right here in this province. And they've got the gall to bring in something at the municipal level when they themselves don't even take the advice of their own Auditor General. That's the hypocrisy here. And the length to which they have hidden transparency and have shown they are not accountable to the people…. They seem only to be accountable to those who dump wheelbarrows full of money at the Liberal party headquarters to fight elections.
I want to now turn my attention to the minister's comments. Actually, before I do that…. I know that
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the Premier has also lately been talking about taxation and linking that to the auditor general. There is nothing in the bill about taxation. There's absolutely nothing in there, nothing about how it's going to affect policy-making at the local level. So why does the Premier keep going around the province talking about taxation and linking it to the local auditor general when it's not even in the bill?
It shouldn't be in the bill. That's for sure. But it's not even in the bill. It leads me to wonder: has the Premier even read her own act? Has she read the bill herself to see what's actually in it? It's nothing to do with taxation, but she talks about it.
During estimates last year the minister and I talked about this. At that time I told her: "You know, the official opposition is totally in support of accountability and transparency. We love to have that at every level of government." We had a little back-and-forth friendly debate.
Here's what the minister said in response to some of my questions: "As the member will know, the financial statements of all municipal councils currently are either comprehensively reviewed or audited, I believe, by independent auditors, so that already takes place." Through her own admission the minister says that it already takes place.
The minister also continued at the time:
"We don't want to duplicate those kinds of things" — well, they're duplicating it — "so we will have to proceed very carefully, working in collaboration, as I say, with the Office of the Auditor General, if that is to be the case, and working with UBCM to understand their expectations of what is required, because they do represent local governments, but at the same time taking a look at what is taking place in other jurisdictions to find if we can get the best out of all those…practices that exist and then incorporate them here in British Columbia and have a solution for what we want that I think everybody will accept and appreciate."
"But would the office of the municipal auditor general be located and operated and funded as a part of the existing Auditor General for British Columbia?" That was the follow-up question that I asked.
The answer was: "I'm sure the member has the document that I have that" — and she names the Premier — "had offered, where she had made the commitment that we would fund the office as part of the Auditor General's office and that the office would provide advice on financial decisions to provide a measure of accountability" — nothing about setting up something outside of the provincial Auditor General. The minister said that.
The Premier, according to the minister, had promised it would be through the existing Auditor General. That hasn't taken place, hasn't kept up to any of the commitments that the minister or the Premier have made over and over again.
The minister admits on the record, in this House, that those processes are already in place through the existing Auditor General and the Municipal Act in order to provide those kind of audits.
I know I only have about a minute left. I also want to say that this is the wrong priority. The $2.6 million could be spent on rural hospitals or elsewhere, like keeping courthouses open.
Deputy Speaker: Member, are you the designated speaker?
H. Lali: Yes, I am. I guess my time goes on for a bit. I will speak for a few more minutes.
H. Lali: I know the members opposite are just totally enthralled and want me to speak for the full two hours, which I won't. I'd hate to disappoint my friend from Chilliwack. I will not be speaking for two hours. Yes, I am the designated hitter here, but I will speak for a few more minutes to finish off my thoughts, because I have a couple more points I want to raise. Of course, it's the issue of priorities.
Hon. Speaker, we talked about accountability. One of the ways to be accountable obviously is that when you say something before an election that you're going to do, you actually do it. Or you say before an election you're not going to do it, and you don't do it.
But with this Liberal Party, this Liberal government, it's: "Say whatever you want before an election, and do exactly the opposite afterwards." Whether they're promising not to sell B.C. Rail before an election and then actually sell it; whether they say, "Oh my god, no, no, no. It's not on our radar. We're not going to bring in the HST" and secretly they've been negotiating and actually do it right after winning an election….
The member for Chilliwack raised the issue of fudge-it budgets, $495 million. That's it, bottom line. "I draw the line in the sand." The Finance Minister said that, from Vancouver. "We're not going to do it. It's not on our radar." Premier Gordon Campbell said the same thing.
Hon. Speaker, guess what — $495 million, drawing a line in the sand.
H. Lali: Maximum — that's the word. That's right. The Finance critic says "maximum." How many times did the Finance Minister say that? How many times did then Premier Gordon Campbell say that? The Finance Minister, that I could count, I think said it at least about 30 times on the record. That's it. It's not going to be any more than that. It's there in quotes. But guess what. That fudge-it budget of theirs is $3.6 billion.
Say one thing before an election; say something the opposite after an election. Where is the accountability in that? Where is the transparency? It's the same with their priorities — their mixed sense of priorities. Their
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priorities are not the people of British Columbia. Their priorities are the back-of-an-envelope kind of promise that you make in order to get your votes to win the leadership or make sure the finances keep coming into the provincial coffers — their provincial party coffers — to fight an election.
When the boardrooms of the corporate world put down their foot and you see a little bit of an earthquake, they shake, the Liberals, and do exactly what they tell them to do — not the people of British Columbia. Remember, this was the Canadian Federation of Independent Business — B.C. Chamber of Commerce types — who wanted this. Nobody at the ground level was asking for it — not the municipal leaders, the regional district leaders. Nobody asked for it. Constituents were not saying: "Oh my god, everything is going out the window."
No. It's about their friends and insiders asking them to do a favour, a backroom deal for them to actually do this. That's their priority. Their priority is not keeping hospitals in rural British Columbia open or rural schools open. They've closed over 200 schools in the last 12 years, mostly in rural B.C. They've closed hospitals, and they've downgraded the health care services.
Health authorities are not getting the appropriate amount of funding. They've got $500 million for a cost overrun on a downtown convention centre, but not hospitals. They'll provide $575 million for a retractable sunroof on a downtown Vancouver stadium in what is arguably one of the rainiest cities in the world — a retractable sunroof — instead of Community Living B.C., protection of children or providing legal aid for the poorest of the poor. That's their sense of priorities.
As we speak, from midnight till 8 a.m. every night this February the Princeton emergency room is closed. There's a sign there that says to go to Penticton or to Kelowna or elsewhere. It's closed because they can't get a few thousand bucks from this government to try to keep it open.
But they found $2.6 million. That's their priority — not to keep the small rural hospitals open or to be providing funding through Community Living B.C. to protect our children and to provide money for those folks who are disabled, who need it the most.
They've got $6 million that they've provided — for what? — to keep the mouths shut of those guys who were going to spill the beans on the Liberal corruption scandal regarding B.C. Rail. That was their priority — but not enough money for any of the necessary services.
This is no different. It is a confused sense of priorities. They have wrong priorities. This is not, first of all, asked for, and secondly, it's not needed. At this time there are other priorities that need to be funded.
It's a shame that none of the Liberals sitting on the back bench have the courage to actually stand up and tell the Finance Minister and the Premier and the minister that this is unnecessary. This is a duplication that's creating another bureaucracy.
If you really want independence and if you really need to have transparency and accountability, we have a provincial Auditor in place already that can do this. Save the 2.6 million bucks. Spend it elsewhere, where it's needed.
Also, they do all sorts of things. Often you don't find out. They do it on a quiet basis. They quietly announced a couple of reviews. The Finance Minister announced on January 10 an expert panel review of business taxation.
I've got the February 10 release from the UBCM, and it's their comments. They say here in this release: "The guidelines for the expert panel state that the review will include an examination of municipal property taxation of business and its impact on business competitiveness and investment. Recommendations must address issues of affordability and sustainability for local governments within the framework of the Community Charter." All well-meaning.
The panel members. There are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven panel members here — seven panel members.
Also, there was a quiet review that was announced, which was the second one. It says: "Local government revenue sources review" — in order to look at provincial off-loading and future sources of revenue for the province, which is all good.
Here's what the UBCM said. This is from their newsletter here.
"Both reviews were topics of discussion during the meeting of UBCM's executive of February 3, 2012. During the portion of the meeting where we were joined by" — and it names the Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development — "the executive noted that local governments would be concerned that a panel investigating municipal taxation lacks local government representation. The executive also commented that the composition of the expert panel might lead to questioning of its recommendations."
This is very telling. This is all related. The Premier, when she talked about the local…. The municipal auditor general is what she called it at the time. She talked about provincial off-loading onto municipalities and how unfair it is and had promised that they would actually put in place a municipal auditor general and, also, to look at revenue sources and where the revenues are coming in, where the problems are, where the off-loading is and all of that. It's all tied in. She tied it all in.
The Premier mistakenly still talks about taxation as somehow it's a part of this bill, when it's not.
But to have these two major panels doing these two major reviews on municipal, local government taxation and other taxation and to not have anybody from the UBCM represented on either of these panels that are going to make the recommendations?
What was it the UBCM said? "A solution in search of a problem"? And what did the Finance Minister say about
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the Premier when they were both running for the same position? "Ready, fire, aim"?
To talk about transparency, to talk about accountability by Liberal members on the opposite side and then to not even include a single person from the UBCM to be a part of this expert review — it just smacks of, smells of hypocrisy. Say one thing, and do exactly the other.
To just have all of this power and control, just as the audit council and the minister have that over the municipal auditor general they are putting in place and just as they are now doing by excluding the very people who represent the taxed, the taxpayers…. To not have a representative, an elected representative from the membership of the UBCM to sit on that panel — that is a huge slap in the face. That's just not the way business should be done.
What else do we expect from this government? What else do you expect from this government? Because that is their modus operandi — to say whatever you have to say before an election to get elected and do whatever you have to do to actually stay in power, even if it means repeatedly going back on your word, as this government has done.
The minister said one thing during the estimates debate last year as to how they were using the existing Auditor General, provincially, and how it's not going to be an office that's going to be set up. She said the processes were already in place to do a lot of these audits anyway. Then to go ahead and do this because the Premier made a backroom deal in the middle of her leadership campaign…. It's a real shame.
That's why we'll be, for a number of reasons, voting against this bill and will also be bringing up a whole lot of the concerns of our constituents who are locally elected and the constituents on the opposite side who are also locally elected. Because if the Liberals won't speak for them, we will.
I'll take my seat right now and wait for members opposite.
B. Bennett: I'd like to say good morning to you, Madam Speaker, and to colleagues on both sides of the House. It's sort of good to be back here. You get tired after a number of years of being in this business of saying goodbye to your family, but it's important work that we do. We don't always feel that way when we're in this particular space, I guess, but it's important work that we all do here, so I'm glad to be back, and I'm glad to have the opportunity to say a few things about Bill 20.
I guess the kindest thing that I can say about the opposition's lead speaker on this bill is that it was interesting. A dissertation on why we shouldn't care about people's tax dollars — a very interesting point of view.
I was sitting here thinking about some of the constituents that I have in the East Kootenay. I know a young family. The father has to drive a cab at night and has a full-time job during the day. The mother also works. There are two children. They basically get by. They don't have a lot of money to take holidays or to go to restaurants and do the things that we probably take for granted sometimes in this House. But they pay their taxes to the province, and they pay their taxes to the federal government. They actually own a very modest home, and they pay their taxes to the city of Cranbrook.
Essentially, what I think I just heard from the opposition was that we don't really need to worry about how their tax dollars are spent by the municipality. We just, you know…. "Be happy, let the municipality do whatever it wants to do. We don't need to worry about how those tax dollars are spent." To me, that's borderline offensive.
I'm here as an MLA representing Kootenay East, at least in part — and it's a very important part of why I sought election, back 11 years go — to make sure that the tax dollars that are sent to us are spent in the most responsible way possible.
Does the government make mistakes from time to time? Of course it does. Any government makes mistakes from time to time. But we should always remember where the money comes from. For the opposition to take the position that we don't need to worry about where the money comes from with regard to local government — it's really difficult for me to understand how they could take that kind of a position.
I have to wonder. Listening to the previous speaker — and by the way, I really like his shirt-and-tie combination this morning but didn't agree with what he had to say — not talk about the bill, because he really didn't say very much about the bill, it occurs to me that perhaps the opposition really would like to support this bill. So I'm going to assume that.
I'm going to assume that the opposition knows that there is good reason to have an auditor general involved with local government and that they would really like to support this bill because they know it's sensible. They know it makes sense to care about people's tax dollars. But because of politics and because of partisanship, they're just not able, I guess, to publicly support the bill. But I think that secretly, when they talk amongst themselves, I'm sure that they say to each other: "You know, that really is a pretty good idea. It's too bad we hadn't thought of that when we had the opportunity."
I do want to say…. I know the minister has done a good job of describing what this bill is about, but I want to spend just a minute, really, describing what the primary purpose of it is. The primary purpose of this legislation is to assist local governments by offering neutral, non-binding advice that will assist them in spending more efficiently and improving program competitiveness.
[L. Reid in the chair.]
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Now, I know that there are municipalities, there are local governments today, who can't wait to actually have a relationship with this new auditor general. They are looking for the opportunity to show this new office how they do business, how they make their decisions, to get some feedback. They're genuinely interested in what this new auditor general will say to them about their processes, and they're open-minded to the reality that perhaps they'll learn something, which is, I think, a sensible approach by elected folks.
Bill 20 sets out what this auditor general can do. I think it's important to state what the auditor general will be able to do, because listening to the last speech, it seems that there is an attempt to describe the functions inaccurately.
First of all, the auditor general will be able to conduct performance — value for money — audits to make sure that that family I just talked about a minute ago is getting value for the tax dollars that they send to the city of Cranbrook.
Secondly, this will be a separate, independent office that doesn't report to the Legislature. I think that's a good thing. It will support the strong accountability framework that's already in place, and I take the point from the opposition speaker that there is an accountability framework in place, but it's not complete. There isn't an auditor general function for local government, and I agree with the minister and with government that we need one — be a more limited mandate than what we're accustomed to through the Office of the Auditor General of B.C.
I also take the point that the previous speaker made about how sometimes governments don't like what the provincial Auditor General has to say. I can remember being minister and being subjected to Auditor General reports and being very nervous about the release of those reports and then having to really deal with what the Auditor General had to suggest about how my ministry, the ministry that I was then responsible for, was doing business.
It was uncomfortable. And it is uncomfortable to have an independent officer taking a look at how you do business, but it's a healthy function. It's a healthy process. It's necessary, and it's a responsible thing for us to do provincially. It's a responsible process, and it'll be a responsible process at the local government level.
I think it's important to talk just for another minute about what this bill is not. It's not about encroaching on local government jurisdiction. That's not what this is about. It's about setting up a process whereby local government can get some independent advice about how they do business.
I don't actually understand why the opposition could be opposed to that. There will be no added cost, to take the phrase used by the previous speaker. The province will cover the cost of this. In fact, what there hopefully will be is some decreased cost — decreased cost to the taxpayer. Hopefully, local governments will learn through this process that there are better ways to do things, that they can deliver services more effectively than they're delivering services at the present time and save their taxpayers some money. So not added cost; it's actually all about decreased cost to the taxpayer.
I find it, I guess, disappointing — is the nicest way that I can put it — to hear the previous speaker. I'm not picking on the previous speaker. He speaks on behalf of the opposition. But I truly do. I think that this is one of those pieces of legislation that is not partisan. There's nothing partisan about this.
This is about making local government more responsive to the taxpayer, the way that the province has to be responsive to the taxpayer, the way that the federal government has to be and should be responsive to the taxpayer. That's what this is about.
It's a fairly modest piece of legislation. This is not going to change the world as we know it. It's not going to cost local government money. But what it's going to do is draw some attention or put some focus on the way local governments make their decisions about projects, about delivering services.
For example, if there's a local government out there that can deliver drinking water services for, let's say, one-half or a third or three-quarters of the cost of a community up the road, how do they do that? Wouldn't that community up the road like to know how that other community delivers that water for less money? Wouldn't that be a constructive, positive process? Wouldn't that be a good thing?
Well, that's what will come from this local government auditor general, and again, it's hard to understand how the opposition could be opposed to this. The member used the phrase "wrong priorities." I don't personally think that there's much higher a priority in the work that we do as provincially elected officials than making sure that we treat tax dollars with respect. I think that should be true, and frankly, I think it is true of most locally elected politicians as well.
I served as the Minister of Community and Rural Development, and it was probably the most enjoyable job that I've had since I came here 11 years ago. I think I had — I'm told that I had — a very positive relationship with UBCM. I chaired a committee on resource roads. I chaired other committees with members from UBCM. I worked very, very closely with local government on a provincial level.
I also have a first-rate relationship, I think, with local government officials throughout the Kootenay region. I am the only member of the government's Kootenay caucus at the present time, and so I attend the Association of Kootenay and Boundary Local Governments AGMs and have meetings on a regular basis with mayors, with councillors, with regional district directors.
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I actually work very, very closely with those folks. We work together on all kinds of projects. Sometimes I can help them find some money from the province that they need for diking or for water and sewer or for roads or something else. Sometimes it's just a matter of working collaboratively with them to help them to accomplish the goals that they want to accomplish.
I frankly don't know any local government, locally elected politician, that doesn't take their job seriously. They all take their job seriously. I admire what they do. They certainly don't get remunerated to the same level that we do here. Some of them spend a lot of time at the work that they do, particularly the mayors.
But even some of the rural electoral area directors that I know spend an inordinate amount of time serving the people that they're accountable to. When I talk to them about this, and when I say this is an opportunity to learn, maybe, some better ideas, some better practices — you know, what somebody is doing down the road in a different region that we might be able to learn from — the people that I talk to are actually quite open-minded to that.
I think, frankly, the opposition is going to be surprised and disappointed by the extent to which local government embraces this idea of a local government auditor general. I think this is going to be a very successful venture. I think the opposition is on the wrong side of this.
I'm actually very proud of the fact that we're doing this — it's probably a long time coming — and it's been my pleasure to speak in support of the bill today.
B. Ralston: I rise to debate the bill before the House. Let me say at the outset that we on this side of the House support increased accountability and transparency of all levels of government, but in this case, of local government. But let's examine the genesis of this particular bill, this particular commitment, and the proposed expenditure of at least $2.6 million.
The Premier, during her quest for the leadership of the Liberal Party, fastened on this idea as a commitment. It's clear from analyzing the reaction to it and the statements subsequently made by the Premier that this policy was adopted in haste and not really understood. Clearly, the Premier felt, after she won the leadership, some obligation to follow through and introduce this piece of legislation.
Now, we've heard from the member for Kootenay East. He says, speaking of an unnamed family in Cranbrook, that they are concerned about the expenditure of taxpayer dollars in Cranbrook. I was up there with him, with the Finance and Government Services Committee. We met the mayor. There was never any suggestion from the member, nor should there be, that that municipal government was anything other than competent, prudent and a good steward of taxpayer dollars in Cranbrook.
So if the member for Kootenay East has a concern about how Cranbrook council is operating, or any specific project, certainly the floor is open to him in his local media or maybe on a radio station — that seems to be the flavour of the day — or even here in the Legislature, to set forward his concerns. But notably in what he said, he didn't mention any specific project, just this unnamed couple in Cranbrook.
The minister says this legislation fills a gap. It's not accurate. It doesn't fill a gap, and, in fact, what the public proponents of this bill say about it is really not what the bill will do. For example, the B.C. Chamber of Commerce said in a January 18, 2011, news release, "The addition of a municipal auditor general is an important part of the B.C. Chamber's policy on creating equity in the property tax system," but we've heard the minister say that this, the municipal auditor general, won't have the power to comment on tax rates. A performance audit, and the legislation that's proposed, limits the range of matters in which the auditor general can comment. So the support that the B.C. Chamber of Commerce gave to this bill back then is misplaced, because it won't be able to do what they say it should do.
Clearly, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business has concerns about municipal collective agreements with their employees. Now, that is a legitimate subject of political debate, but this legislation will not permit the auditor general to enter into comment on that, that being an area of policy by the municipality.
So some might say…. And there are other issues that this bill will not examine. There's a burning issue in the province about taxation of industrial properties in municipalities — class 4 and 5. It's a difficult issue. We know Catalyst Paper took that issue all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada on their view that in the municipalities in which they operate, the amount of municipal tax they were paying was too much. On the other hand, the municipalities there and the mayors and councils have a different point of view about what an appropriate level of taxation is.
Certainly, that's a troubled and difficult issue and one that deserves to be addressed by government. In fact, the government did make a commitment back in the throne speech of February 9, 2010. That's back when they had throne speeches here in the Legislature; people may remember that era. "A joint committee on municipal property tax reform will identify specific steps to make property taxes more conducive to investment while ensuring municipal services are fairly provided for all taxpayers."
That review, following the throne speech, was announced in March 2010 and was supposed to give its recommendations to the UBCM — the Union of B.C. Municipalities — and the government by fall 2010. Dale Wall was the co-chair of this review, the deputy minister
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for local government. No report; it never came forward. So a difficult issue, identified by the government, now two years ago, and no report.
Yet the impression is being created, by putting forward this bill, that somehow the municipal auditor general will address that issue. That is not the case. It's no wonder that the Union of B.C. Municipalities, as my colleague from Fraser-Nicola has pointed out, described the proposed act as a solution in search of a problem. Many mayors say privately that this bill is unnecessary but are simply not going to make a public fuss about it, for their own good reasons.
In fact, if you look at what one of the leading municipal law firms, Young Anderson — Mr. Bill Buholzer — had to say in a newsletter published for the UBCM conference about this bill is that the power already exists to perform these kinds of performance audits within the Community Charter itself. Lest the members doubt what I'm saying, let me just quote directly from them:
"Under the charter, the municipal auditor has the power...to conduct the examinations necessary to prepare all such reports. This includes reports on, to use the language of the provincial Auditor General Act, 'whether the government...is operating economically, efficiently and effectively' in relation to any...municipal program or project or generally. If the province is willing to order these types of audits on particular municipalities or particular local government programs or projects, it already has ample authority to do so."
That's a leading municipal lawyer saying that within the Local Government Act there already is the power to order just these sorts of performance audits.
In fact, the mayor of Chilliwack said in an article in the Chilliwack Times on August 18, 2011…. That's Mayor Gaetz. She noted: "…until he resigned recently, there had already been an inspector of municipalities. 'The mechanism is already there to do the job that needs to be done.'" That's a reference to the role of the inspector of municipalities, within the act, who has the power, should the government choose to direct that inspector, to undertake a performance audit of any body in municipal government.
That power already exists, and that's very clear. The Community Charter sets that out, and apparently the government has chosen not to follow that.
Now, municipal governments — and the minister has referenced this — have the power and the obligation…. There's a lengthy section in the Community Charter about financial planning and accountability. They have to set out and adopt a five-year plan. They're subject to a financial audit every year. They have to go to referendum on certain capital projects. They have to disclose a number of things, and those are open to the ministry and the inspector of municipalities to audit, should they choose.
In the case of the city of Cranbrook, if the member or a member of the public or the family, the anonymous family that's referred to here, had a complaint about municipal spending, they could go to the inspector of municipalities, make a complaint, and there would be a decision as to whether this was something that ought to be investigated by way of a performance audit. So that power is already there.
Municipalities, many of them, justifiably are proud of their record of financial accountability. I met with, along with some other members of the opposition caucus, the mayor of Kelowna and the city manager of Kelowna. They point out that they have won awards. An organization based in the United States and Canada, government financial administrative officers organization…. They've won awards for the presentation and the financial reporting that they do, and that's the case with many other municipalities.
The minister doesn't name any particular examples, just this vague suggestion that there's a problem with industrial taxation or that collective agreements might be an issue politically. But none of those problems will be addressed by this act.
In fact, the Auditor General Act, and the Auditor General is very quick to reference that when he's before the Public Accounts Committee…. He can't, by his statute…. I'll read it. These are reports that "under subsection (8) or section 12 or an examination under section 13" — those are all the range of reports he has available — "must not call into question the merits of program policies or objectives of the government, a government organization or a trust fund." So that's a limitation.
We can certainly hear government members of the Public Accounts Committee expressing their concern if they think that the Auditor General, in anything he does, is straying into that prohibited area. But almost invariably, he is the one to reference that and will defer a question by saying: "I can't comment on a matter of policy."
Similarly, in the act that's now before this House, in section 3(5), it says: "In carrying out the powers and duties under this Act, the auditor general must not call into question the merits of policy decisions or objectives of a local government."
The kinds of questions that one hears about in public debate, which are generally policy questions, are legitimate areas for public discussion, but they can't be called into question by this auditor general. So you have an act where there are powers existing in the Community Charter already. You won't be able to address much of what people seem to think this act will do, so why is it being set up?
Why is it being set up, other than a very hasty and misunderstood commitment by the Premier in the heat of the Liberal Party leadership campaign? The member for Fraser-Nicola has referenced some of the comments made by other leadership candidates about the style that the Premier operates with, and I think this is characteristic of the manner in which the government is now proceeding.
In the news release which was set out in an announcement, the cost of this office is estimated to be…. It's not
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clear, because there was absolutely no detail. Imagine setting up an office designed to further financial accountability, releasing a report and saying simply: "It's going to cost $2.6 million." No detail. That's accountability. That's Liberal accountability for you.
This audit council will consist of no less than five. One is a chair; one is a vice-chair. They'll all have to be paid, according to section 18(1). Section 20 gives the minister a power to appoint staff to carry out these duties, and this office, this council, will then hire an auditor general.
The search for members of the audit council is already underway. The call has already gone out. I would have thought the government might have the decency to wait until the bill passed through the House, but apparently not.
The board resourcing and development office has already set out a call for prospective new members of the audit council. It went out some time ago.
So you have a government that's going to spend $2.6 million, an unnecessary expenditure, "shovelling money off the back of a truck," to quote a certain member of this Legislature. So $30 million for Boss Power; $6 million for Basi-Virk — all uncalled for, unnecessary, wasteful expenditures. This bill duplicates existing powers, it doesn't deal with the issues that proponents think it will, and clearly, it's not independent.
The member for Kootenay East and the minister…. The minister talked about this as kind of a hybrid. "Well, it's quasi-independent. It's the best of both worlds." You're either independent, or you're not. That's very, very clear.
Indeed, the member for Kootenay East spoke of it as healthy to have an independent auditor. He said that he didn't exactly relish the prospect, when he was minister, of being audited by the Auditor General. But the power of that office is that all members of the Legislature participate in a committee, and the selection of the Auditor General is unanimous, and that office is independent.
This proposed office will not be independent. The members of the audit council will be appointed by the minister rather than by an all-party committee, and they will report, ultimately, to the minister. So clearly the so-called independence — or the hybrid that the minister is trying to construct here, which simply doesn't exist — is going to be compromised by that, and to that extent it doesn't fulfil the goals that even the member for Kootenay East set out in what he said.
There was another alternative. I mean, if the government chose not to fund the inspector of municipalities, one could have asked the existing Auditor General to take this into his office — fund it, and have a separate division or some administrative structure in there and have him do that as a function of the independent office of the provincial Auditor General.
In fact, the minister in the estimates exchange that the member for Fraser-Nicola referenced seemed to think that was a good idea back when they were discussing it. I'm going to quote her. "I'm sure the member has the document that I have that Premier" — and then she uses the name; I guess that's because she wasn't in the Legislature then — "had offered, where she had made the commitment that we would fund the office as part of the Auditor General's office and that office would provide advice on financial decisions to provide a measure of accountability."
So that was contemplated, and clearly, the Auditor General would, if given that job, do an excellent job. In fact, the Auditor General's office is a national leader on performance audits. They are leading a national group constructing the methodology for conducting performance audits. And just so people know what we're talking about, quoting from the Auditor General's website: "A performance audit reviews the wider management issues of an organization or program and whether it is achieving its objectives effectively, economically and efficiently. They are sometimes called 'value-for-money' audits because they can advise whether there is value received for the money being spent."
So you have a national leader in these kind of audits who initially, the minister said, was being considered to house this function. But the choice of having an independent officer presiding over these offices was one that the government clearly rejected, preferring the course of political interference in the process. That's why the audit council is constructed in the way it is rather than having genuine independence, which the member from Kootenay East thinks was so valuable.
So you have a number of alternatives: either use the existing inspector of municipalities within the act or put the office within the Office of the Auditor General — two reasonable alternatives. But instead, what has happened is the government has decided to fund a new organization, to the undisclosed detail of $2.6 million.
That is why we reject the premise of this bill, and we won't be supporting it. These are not the kinds of priorities that British Columbians have. They're just not. There are many other projects. To achieve this end, there's a much more efficient and cheaper way to do it, rather than set up this kind of an office in the manner that it's being set up.
It's clear that the government has chosen the course of having an audit council that it appoints so that it can have control over the process, rather than having an independent auditor, a national leader in performance audits. That's why they've chosen to introduce the bill in this form before the House.
With those remarks, I would close my comments and just say that this is a clear example of the misplaced priorities of the government. When there are other issues that are crying out for funding — the justice system, Community Living, seniors, the future of the forest
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industry in British Columbia — this government has chosen to waste money, when the same objective could be achieved much more efficiently by other means.
With that, Madam Speaker, I conclude my remarks.
J. Les: It's my pleasure this morning to rise in support of Bill 20, the Auditor General for Local Government Act. Indeed, it's good to be back in the House. We've been away for a number of months, and it's always good to come back and engage in debate in this chamber — in this case on what I think is a very important piece of legislation. It is legislation that is crafted to ensure that taxpayers at the local government level across this province increasingly can expect good value for their taxpayer dollars, good accountability and good efficiency in terms of how those dollars are spent.
I must say I'm disappointed to hear that the official opposition will not be supporting this bill. I've listened carefully this morning to some of the debate by members opposite. I haven't heard any strong reason why they would not be in support of this legislation. It seems to be more quibbling than anything else — no substantial disagreement with the principle of this legislation.
I have a background myself in municipal government. I was privileged to serve for 16 years in municipal government, and I was involved with the UBCM. I was involved as the president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, so I had a pretty good opportunity to look at the municipal government landscape, not just across this province but nationally.
I found that there was always a lot to learn. There isn't one city or one municipality in this country — certainly not in this province — that has all of the answers. There is always a lot more to learn from one another, always a lot more opportunity for collaboration.
This legislation is very much geared to enable more of that collaboration and learning from one another. I am sure that after a few years of work by the auditor general for local government, that individual will not be reporting out and telling British Columbians that there was nothing further to learn, that there are no more opportunities for efficiencies in local government, that there are no recommendations that would lead to more efficiencies in local government spending.
I doubt very much that the auditor general for local government would be reporting out to British Columbians with those findings. I am sure that after a period of time the auditor general for local government will have good and substantial recommendations to make that will lead to greater efficiencies with the local government taxpayers' money. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that that will be the case. If that is the case, taking that assumption, then I really wonder why it is that the official opposition can't bring themselves to be supporting this legislation.
J. Les: It is about accountability. It is about efficiency. But this is not being set up as an adversarial type of arrangement. Nothing is being imposed here. This is going to foster good public debate and discussion, which always should be attending the spending of taxpayers' dollars.
There are many municipalities that are exemplary, I think, in how they conduct their business, how they deliver services, how they procure capital assets. But my experience has been that there are also a number that could, I think, very much benefit from recommendations that derive from those very good examples in other communities across the province.
There's just no question about that at all, and particularly, for example, in the area of capital procurement. There are a great many capital projects that are brought in on time, on budget, with little or no risk to the taxpayer. But we've also seen some examples of where that has not been the case. An auditor general for local government, I am sure, would have some insight into that, would be able to draw on those very good experiences and would then be able to inform other local governments as to alternative mechanisms that they might utilize in the business of capital procurement.
The same thing is true with service delivery. There is often much opportunity for collaboration in service delivery, where duplication that often exists can be avoided and larger discounts can be achieved if municipalities work together. Why shouldn't we explore those things?
H. Lali: Dream on.
J. Les: We have great opportunities here on behalf of the taxpayers. The member opposite says: "Dream on." Well, actually, this is not about dreaming. This is about effecting the best possible outcomes for local government taxpayers.
Every year every homeowner in British Columbia and every business owner in British Columbia is sent a bill that's called their local property tax notice. They are, quite often, very substantial, and failure to pay those bills after a few years results in the loss of your house. So these are important and serious matters. I think there's a real obligation here to make sure that, respecting those powers, they are exercised in a way that respects the taxpayer and that provides maximum transparency.
I think it's a real step forward when this office will be established. Others have said, in the opposition, that these services could be delivered by the existing Auditor General or by the inspector of municipalities. This is, I think, the appropriate mechanism — where we set up a separate, independent office of the auditor general for local government. It provides a focus. It provides a forum.
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The members opposite, I'm sure, understand and recognize that the inspector of municipalities has never engaged in this kind of work. I think taxpayers across the province will understand and appreciate that a specific focus is being put on efficiency and accountability in respect of their local taxpayers' dollars.
Again, I listened carefully to the members opposite. Other than a few pet theories about the origins of the legislation, I heard no substantive reason why this legislation ought not to be supported.
There was talk about cost to small municipalities. Well, it's been made pretty clear that this legislation, this office, when it is established, will be funded by the provincial government. It is not going to be any great cost to local governments anywhere. I think some of those smaller local governments may in fact be some of the greater beneficiaries of this legislation as they often do not have the resources to consult and to collaborate with other communities, given their very limited resources.
Sometimes these municipal staffs in villages and very, very small municipalities are very small. Their day-to-day responsibilities almost preclude them from consulting and collaborating as they otherwise might.
So I'm not sure what it is that the opposition is afraid of. I'm not sure who it is, actually, they're covering for. But I can tell you this. The voters and the taxpayers of the province of British Columbia, I believe, are very much in favour of this kind of approach. They are very much in favour of ensuring that an individual and an office are being set up to ensure that their property tax dollars are being spent as efficiently and as effectively as possible. That's what it's all about.
As I said, I would be highly surprised if, after a few years of the operation of this office, there aren't at least some findings that will benefit taxpayers and far more than offset the cost of the operation of this office. I have no doubt about that whatsoever.
Given that that is the case, I think it is unbelievable that members of the opposition will not support this bill. It's been one of the most surprising things I've heard for some time. I guess it's one way of announcing that we're back in the Legislature. We're hearing things that really make one scratch one's head and say: "What is that all about?" Here we're talking about accountability to the taxpayer, efficiency in spending of taxpayers' dollars, and the opposition is opposed to it. I am really quite taken aback.
Therefore, let me repeat again. I am completely, 100 percent in support of Bill 20. I think this kind of efficiency, this kind of accountability to the taxpayer is absolutely why we are here and what we're here to promote.
Deputy Speaker: I thank the member, and I recognize the member for Alberni–Pacific Rim.
S. Fraser: Great to be back to this place, Madam Speaker, and hello to everyone.
I thought our critic did a brilliant job of explaining the opposition we have here. I thought, likewise, our Finance critic laid it out very eloquently.
It's bizarre that we're in this place today dealing with Bill 20. This is a bill that was, essentially, just the whim of the Premier. This bill was the whim of the Premier before she was Premier. This bill that we're debating today was the whim of the Premier before she was elected, before she was an MLA.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
There was no consultation between the Premier and local government when she made these commitments. There was no call from local governments for this. Indeed, local governments are required to run a balanced budget by provincial law.
The irony is not lost on anyone on this side of the House or the public of British Columbia. To foist an auditor general on local governments that's not really an independent office at all…. To foist such an office and oversight onto local government, which is already required by law to run a balanced budget, and have this happen from a government that's made an art form out of running deficits, when local governments aren't allowed to run deficits, is ironic in the extreme.
I would note that this $2.6-million-a-year expenditure on a municipal auditor general — an office that will be not arm's-length, will potentially not be objective, is not following any normal model for auditors general in Canada, not from any other province — is questionable, to say the least.
Local governments have made a lot of requests of government — which have all been ignored, as far as I can see — at the UBCM. This has never come up. I mean, local governments at the UBCM have complained about off-loading and downloading of this government, from the province onto local governments, which are required by law to run a balanced budget.
So to spend an extra $2.6 million on an auditor general, if you will, to oversee local governments is bizarre. Why did they ignore all of the resolutions of local governments and come up with this idea to provide an oversight that's already really there? The fact is that the objectivity of this office could have been laid out in a very strong model, just as the Auditor General exists today for the province. Indeed, the Office of the Auditor General for the province already exists. It is an effective model.
I would note that almost every report that that office, the provincial Auditor General, has done, criticizing or critiquing this government and the many ministries that it has audited, has found many problems with this government, and they have roundly ignored the advice of the
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Auditor General. So to come up with an idea that we need an auditor general for local governments from the government that roundly ignores its own Auditor General's recommendation is bizarre.
Hon. Speaker, $2.6 million a year could go to many things. It could go to seniors care. It could go to help missing women — the inquiry, to fund the groups that were denied legal funding. It could go towards children in care. There are many priorities that British Columbians are aware of and have been calling for help for from this government. That makes the expenditure of $2.6 million a year on an auditor general's office for local government a problem for the people of British Columbia and certainly a problem for the opposition. This is an unnecessary expenditure that will provide nothing that doesn't already exist and actually raises questions of the role of government in trying to influence local government.
This did not come about from any necessity called for by local government. It didn't come about by any consultation with local government. This new office that is to be created by this government — there's been no need established. Indeed, local governments today are free to establish an office and appoint their own auditor general, should they wish to do so.
Indeed, the provincial Auditor General has the power to investigate any municipal project that involves even one dollar of provincial expenditure. And as I did mention, municipalities are required to produce an independent audit already every year. It's part of the requirements under the Local Government Act.
Many of us from both sides of the House do travel to the annual conventions — the Union of B.C. Municipalities conventions and the local conventions too — and this has never come up as an issue, not once.
I see I am getting the nod, and mindful of the time, I would move adjournment of the debate and reserve my right to continue to speak.
S. Fraser moved adjournment of debate.
Hon. M. Polak: By leave, I move that the House adjourn until two o'clock this afternoon.
Hon. M. Polak moved adjournment of the House.
Mr. Speaker: This House stands adjourned until two o'clock this afternoon.
The House adjourned at 11:49 a.m.
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