Legislative Session: Fourth Session, 39th Parliament
This is a DRAFT TRANSCRIPT ONLY of debate in one sitting of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. This transcript is subject to corrections, and will be replaced by the final, official Hansard report. Use of this transcript, other than in the legislative precinct, is not protected by parliamentary privilege, and public attribution of any of the debate as transcribed here could entail legal liability.
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 15, 2012
The House met at 1:35 p.m.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
Introductions by Members
Hon. M. Polak: In the House today I would like to recognize Paul Lacerte, of the British Columbia Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, as well as chiefs, elders and aboriginal leaders and the delegation who participated in this morning's gathering of aboriginal men standing up against violence towards aboriginal women and children.
These strong men gathered this morning and took part in a press conference earlier this afternoon to raise awareness about a very serious issue, one that affects each and every one of us, and that is the issue of violence against aboriginal women and children. These men are standing up against a problem that has haunted aboriginal communities for far too many years but which the members of today's gathering are determined to address. I applaud their efforts and their determination, and I would ask the House to please make them all very welcome.
Hon. G. Abbott: As the last surviving legislative intern on the floor of the House, with the departure of our old pal Barry Penner, it gives me great pleasure to introduce the class of 2012 legislative interns, who are arrayed in the most stunning fashion up in the gallery behind you, Mr. Speaker. I'm certain that the one thing they miss is not being able to look down more directly on you.
May I introduce Kristian Arciaga and welcome Derek Csath, Leila Farmer, Jacob Helliwell, Paula Krawus, Carly Lewis, Ian Madison, Ella Rebalski, Matthew Scarr and Colin Whelan. Will the House please make them all welcome.
As you know, I was an intern a few years ago — technically speaking, 1975. As part of the inaugural internship program we were, of course, primary students in that 1975 year as opposed to university graduates, as all the exceptional young people here today are. I know that they will enjoy this experience. I certainly enjoyed it. I do issue this warning, though. For me, the Legislative Assembly has been rather like the Hotel California — you can check out, but you can never leave. So, welcome.
J. Horgan: Although I was never an intern, I was called to the office at Reynolds high school in 1973 to become a page in this place. I thought I was in trouble, so I didn't show up, but I would have been here earlier if I hadn't been on the edge.
I want to join the Minister of Education in introducing the interns who'll be serving the NDP caucus over the next number of months. Just for my colleagues' benefit, really, I've found where they live in the basement. I've unturned the rocks and moved away the boxes, and we've found Leila Farmer and Ella Rebalski, both from the University of Victoria, who are the first people you come to when you go downstairs into the basement, past the boiler room. Beside them is the loner, it appears. That would be Matt Scarr, University of British Columbia.
But I want to focus on Ian Madison and Colin Whelan — Ian from the University of Victoria and Colin from a campus in Burnaby on a hill. The two of them are by the library, down the stairs, by the electric panel. There is one window for interns, and Colin gets it — good for you. I went in to meet them this morning, and I said: "I need a briefing note on royalty policy in 20 minutes. Which one of you two is doing it?" It was Ian who said, "I'll do it." He's the keener in the bunch, so pile up on him.
Would the House please make the NDP interns very, very welcome.
Hon. H. Bloy: It's my pleasure to introduce some international students from Simon Fraser University who were here touring this morning and met with my colleague from Coquitlam–Burke Mountain earlier today. We had Lyndon Lee, Vivien Sham, Elizabeth Mondragon, Marton Jalkoczi, Petr Salaba, Hanson Wong, Jin Nancy Wu, Rachel Qin, Yitong Hayley Dong, Kimberley Yu, Alan Chung and Dong Cheng Cai. Would the House please make them welcome.
J. Kwan: It's been a while. I'd like to join the Minister of Aboriginal Relations in welcoming the members of the aboriginal community, members of the Aboriginal Friendship Centres Association, to the Legislature earlier today. I believe that they are still going on with the session over at the Hotel Grand Pacific, where I and my colleague the critic for the Solicitor General joined with them on their campaign, really, to have aboriginal men stand up and gather together against violence against aboriginal women and children.
We heard moving speeches by the speakers and by the panel of people really saying that they will now take on ownership, together with all of us, to end violence against women and children. The campaign is about a moosehide, which is symbolic in a variety of ways. In some communities they'll be using the deer hide as a means to raise awareness and to end violence against aboriginal women and children. In some cases they will be using bearhide, from particularly men in Kent prison, where the bear symbolizes that they can't bear to hurt women anymore. I ask the House to please welcome them and thank them for their efforts.
D. Black: I want to introduce a visitor from the city of New Westminster today. Kevin Sage is here in the visitors' gallery. He's a young activist from my community who is also studying at Simon Fraser University. I ask all members of the House to please make him welcome.
J. McIntyre: Now that we're back in session and following along yesterday's vein, I also have a birth announcement. But I have to hastily add: not me, not my family. In fact, it's on behalf of a constituent, Paul Lalli, who is a former councillor in the district of Squamish. He was hoping that the House would make his second son, fourth child, Rajan "R.J." Singh Lalli, who was named by his two sisters and born December 13, 2011, in Squamish General Hospital…. He was hoping that we would all make R.J. feel welcome.
(Standing Order 25B)
SCOTTISH CULTURE AND HERITAGE
L. Reid: January is a celebratory month for those of Scottish descent, beginning with the first footing on New Year's Day. It is about who knocks on your door. The next big celebration sees us join with men and women of Scottish heritage to celebrate the birth of Robbie Burns. The 15th Field Regiment of artillery hosted an amazing Burns supper at the BCIT aerospace campus in Richmond, which featured the Welsh Men's Choir, the Pipes and Drums of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and the band of the 15th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Air Force.
The camaraderie in the room was lovely to behold, as the event was attended by many who had served overseas, Richmond's first responders and the community at large.
These groups are representative of many groups around the world who celebrate the life of Robert Burns, a Scottish poet perhaps best known for writing the words of "Auld Lang Syne." I know members would agree that symbols are important in both our public as well as our private lives. The historical significance of yesterday's introduction of the Black Rod is just one example.
Symbols represent our identity and how we understand each other, both past and present. Some may ask why a tartan is a symbol for British Columbia. The B.C. tartan was initially created to mark the double centenaries of the union of B.C. and the Confederation of Canada in 1966 and 1967. It was eventually recognized in legislation through the British Columbia Tartan Act of 1974.
The provincial tartan has five colours, each with its own significance: blue for the ocean, white for the dogwood, green for the forests, red for the maple leaf, and gold for the Crown and the sun on the shield and flag.
I will say that an official tartan pays tribute to the many and varied contributions of Canadians of Scottish ancestry to Canada. Sir John A. Macdonald and other fathers of Canadian Confederation, who laid down the legal and legislative basis for the new nation of Canada, were Scots. The direct impact of Scottish culture on Canada has been and continues to be significant. So to all the other Scots in the world: happy Robbie Burns.
OF WESTMINSTER BUILDING
D. Black: On numerous occasions I've spoken in this House about the rich heritage of the city of New Westminster, the oldest city in western Canada and the first capital of British Columbia.
Today another milestone was celebrated in the Royal City at a special ceremony held to honour the 100th anniversary of the construction of the Westminster Building. Located on Columbia Street, this iconic landmark has been home to many notable businesses over the years. At seven storeys high, it was for many decades one of the tallest buildings in the city.
The current owners have established a centennial fund to take on projects which will honour the building's history and leave an appropriate legacy for the future. They've asked local historian Archie Miller to begin researching the building's construction, to research the tenants, and have put out a call to New Westminster residents to pass on any old photos or stories related to the building's past. In addition, they are looking for partners to invest in a series of LED spotlights, similar to the ones used to illuminate heritage buildings in Vancouver's Gastown.
For many years the flagpole on the roof of the building was a city landmark, pictured in photos and postcards from years gone by. But it was taken down many years ago. To celebrate the building's 100th birthday, today, National Flag Day in Canada, our flag will proudly fly atop the roof of this heritage building once again.
I know the citizens of New Westminster join me in thanking the owners for all they are doing to preserve the Westminster Building and to ensure it continues as a city icon for another 100 years.
CAMPAIGN TO END VIOLENCE AGAINST
ABORIGINAL WOMEN AND CHILDREN
G. Hogg: Last year Paul Lacerte, executive director of the B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, attended a national conference on ending violence towards aboriginal women and children, and 160 people attended. Only five were men. That bothered Paul.
Last September Paul watched his daughter Raven skin a moose, and he saw much more than his daughter skinning a moose. He had a vision; he saw an opportunity. He saw a gathering, a movement to get aboriginal and non-aboriginal women and men to stand up against violence towards women and children. He started gathering and cutting moosehide, and the movement gained support and focus. The moosehide campaign had begun, and today aboriginal men have made a commitment to stop violence against women and children.
Vancouver Island did not have moose, so they cut deerhide, and their motto became "You don't have to hide, dear." The Kent prison cut bearhide, and their motto became "We can't bear to harm our women and children." From the era of residential schools to the era of self-responsibility, awareness is growing and action is occurring. They wear, we will all wear, moosehide pins, deerhide pins and bearhide pins to show our commitment to action, to talk to friends and relations, to take a stand.
Today the moosehide campaign is here in the provincial capital, and each of us honours all men who are standing up, who are speaking up and who are taking action to support healthy, caring relationships and communities, who are standing up to become part of the solution.
Next week Paul is taking the moosehide campaign to the national meeting of the Assembly of First Nations. We are all honoured to support the spread of the campaign to aboriginal organizations and communities throughout Canada. Today we raise our hands to all who are committed to the moosehide campaign.
TOQUE TUESDAY CAMPAIGN
AND YOUTH HOMELESSNESS
S. Hammell: Last week British Columbians joined Canadians from coast to coast for Toque Tuesday, a collective effort to help put a cap on youth homelessness throughout Canada. The winter toque campaign is a fund- and awareness-raiser by raising the roof, with the purpose of drawing attention to the rise of youth homelessness across our country. These toques are sold for $10 by community volunteers.
Today I rise to recognize the work Pacific Community Resources has accomplished this year with the toque campaign. The national campaign set a goal of selling 45,000 toques across Canada, and Pacific Community Resources doubled their sales from last year, selling over 3,000 toques throughout the Lower Mainland.
Last week on Toque Tuesday I attended an event in Surrey where members of the Surrey Fire Fighters, the RCMP, the B.C. Lions and the Surrey Eagles were joined by locals from The Front Room shelter for a game of hockey and a barbecue. Two members of this House, the members for Surrey-Whalley and Surrey-Fleetwood, participated in the hockey game, helping to draw attention to the homeless issue in Surrey.
If we all act, we can prevent much of the homelessness we see throughout British Columbia. These toques are a fun and easy way we can commit ourselves to helping the cause. If you see a volunteer selling a toque, consider a purchase. One toque is equivalent to a bus pass or clothing for a youth's first job interview. Ten toques is equivalent to one week in supportive housing for a youth, and 200 toques is enough to support a youth to go back to school for a year or enrol in an apprenticeship program for two months. If we work together, we can put a cap on homelessness here in British Columbia.
SOUTH ASIAN CULTURAL SOCIETY
M. Dalton: I'm pleased today to speak to the House about an organization that, since 2006, has been doing a great work in my constituency, the Ridge Meadows South Asian Cultural Society. The mission of the association is to reflect the rich diversity and heritage of the peoples of South Asia and their contribution to Canadian society. The society has provided tens of thousands of dollars in funding to local charities such as the Family Education and Support Centre, the Ridge Meadows Hospital and the Cythera House.
Each February the society hosts a gala featuring South Asian dance, musical performances and delicious food. Their galas are always a success, with near-sellout crowds.
This year's gala will welcome Mr. Anand Kumar, a globally recognized mathematician from India. Mr. Kumar overcame poverty and created the Super 30, a program which helps coach financially challenged students. Super 30 has been featured on the Discovery Channel and the BBC and has received international acclaim.
At the annual gala the society also recognizes a South Asian citizen of the year. Through their work, the society inspires pride in their own heritage as well as their Canadian identity. The Ridge Meadows South Asian Cultural Society demonstrates the values we share as Canadians and how meeting the needs of our community pulls us together.
The society was started under the leadership of Dr. Biju Mathew. Other members of the board include Regie Mali, Ed and Paul Gurm, Rustum Yezdargian, Randhir Sanghera and Paul Gill. Mr. Speaker, for all of the work that the society has done and continues to do, we thank them.
REVELSTOKE CHILDREN’S CHARTER
N. Macdonald: In 1989 the United Nations adopted the convention on the rights of the child. This important initiative addresses the rights of children everywhere.
On January 12 Revelstoke unveiled its own children's charter to raise awareness and understanding of the roles we all have in striving for the best outcomes for children. Revelstoke has long been a leader in making the community a safe and nurturing place for children. In fact, in 2009 Revelstoke was found to have the lowest recorded vulnerability in its preschool population of any community in British Columbia. Revelstoke has been recognized for its exceptional programming and its resilient partnerships. It is with great determination that those who work in the early childhood education field and the teachers in our school system meet each new challenge.
The Revelstoke children's charter is just one more step in Revelstoke's ongoing commitment to excellence in this critically important area. As MLA for Columbia River–Revelstoke, I was proud to accept and endorse the Revelstoke children's charter. By signing, I agreed to recognize and advocate for children's rights.
But I also agreed to ask this question before making decisions on legislation and policy. What impact will this decision have on our children?
The Revelstoke children's charter lists 15 things that all Revelstoke children have a right to, and the 15th item is this: all Revelstoke children have the right to "be served by governments that honour their responsibilities to children."
So to truly implement the goals of the children's charter, we cannot just depend on local citizens to ask the hard questions about how to ensure that our decisions put our children first. We as a provincial government and as elected officials must also take this pledge.
DELAYS IN COURT PROCEEDINGS
AND INTERNET LURING CASE
A. Dix: My question is for the Premier.
On January 25 Judge Daniel Steinberg of the Provincial Court stayed charges against a man accused of attempting to lure children on line for sexual purposes.
Judge Steinberg, in dismissing the case due to a 27-month delay, had this to say: "There is…only one word to describe the current state of the Provincial Court of British Columbia's ability to handle its caseload: abysmal."
We are losing more and more cases, and increasingly serious cases. I'm sure the Premier would agree that cases involving sections 152 and 172.1(1) of the Criminal Code count in that category. When is her government going to realize the seriousness of the crisis they caused in the court system and take real action to fix it?
Hon. C. Clark: We are taking real action to fix this. We have been taking real action on it. That includes the appointment of 23 new judges — nine in just this last month; the hiring of new sheriffs; more money for legal aid; a doubling of the jail capacity in the Interior.
All of that is a substantial investment in a system that needs it — no question about it — because stays and delays are unacceptable for victims. They are unacceptable for society. No one wants the system to work that way.
But here's the thing. We're putting more money in at the same time that crime is dropping, that the number of cases going to court is dropping, and the length of cases is actually staying the same. It just doesn't add up. We are adding more money to the system, but in addition to that, we have a greater responsibility to British Columbians. That is to get to the bottom of why, while there is more money and less work coming into the system, the delays are getting longer.
Mr. Speaker: Leader of the Official Opposition has a supplemental.
A. Dix: This circumstance is not happening in other jurisdictions. This is the direct result of years of inaction by the government. A 13-judge shortfall — the only province in Canada to have allowed this to happen. Closures of courthouses. A 16-month delay in Surrey, on average; 16 months in Chilliwack, on average; 14 months in Vancouver and Port Coquitlam, on average. That's what's happening.
You know what? It didn't happen overnight. It's happened because of years of action and inaction on the part of the government. It's one thing to complain about judges, which apparently is what the government is doing. It's another thing to take the issue seriously, and the government hasn't.
The judge in this case said: "I find that the consequences of the government's decision-making and priority-setting have meant the creation in this case, as in many others, of an intolerable delay. It offends the very real need…to suppress predatory behaviour on the Internet. The government has spoken through its actions, and the stay…is the consequence."
When is the government, when is the Premier, going to take real action to address the crisis, the real crisis, in our court system?
Hon. C. Clark: This is an issue that deserves a great deal of government attention, and we are making sure we devote that attention to it. Victims — and citizens in general, more broadly — need to know that the justice system is working for them.
Confidence in our justice system across this country has been at a low ebb for over a decade. We have a lot of work to do to try and enhance that. We need to increase transparency in our courts. That's certainly one of the things we can do. We need to add resources, which we have been doing, as I said. We've already added nine new judges in just the last month, and a number of other areas. We are making substantial systemic reform in areas like family law by diverting a large number of cases from our court system out to much less costly mediation. We are continuing those reforms.
But we need, as I said, to get to the bottom of this problem because as we add more money, as we divert cases from court, and as the crime rate goes down, the delays get longer. We spend more per capita in British Columbia on our court system than they do in Ontario. We need to understand more deeply why money isn't just solving the problem.
I know the Leader of the Opposition has one solution to every problem, and it's just to spend more money. Well, here's one case where we've already shown that that isn't enough to make it work.
Mr. Speaker: The Leader of the Opposition has a further supplemental.
A. Dix: The Premier of British Columbia seems to suggest that the government of the last 11 years — the only government in Canada to reduce the number of judges over the last five years — has no responsibility for the catastrophe that is happening. When you see a stay in a case involving attempting to lure children for sexual purposes on the Internet — you see a stay in such a case — that's a crisis. That's serious business.
I don't accept the fact. I don't accept the view of the government that they don't have the resources to deal with these issues. They ought to deal with these issues. They are a priority in British Columbia.
To quote again from Judge Steinberg: "There is no amount of press releases or talk show appearances that is going to fix the overstretched limits of our institutional resources. There is only one course of action that will fix the current situation, and that is action, not words." Those are the words of the Provincial Court judge.
Will the government accept its responsibility for this crisis that's happened under its watch? What action — what serious action — are they going to take to fix it?
Hon. C. Clark: Well, let me read the member some quotes from the newspaper. "A backlog of 20,000 court cases has some accused criminals walking free, and Crown prosecutors are planning to revolt." That's pretty serious business. It's from the Vancouver Province, on October 2, 1998.
Let me read you another one. "It's a systemwide overload, the chief judge said. The Attorney General said Tuesday he is very concerned about the mounting backlog of court cases and considering the appointment of possibly three new judges." That's from the Vancouver Sun, October 30, 1997.
This is a very serious problem. It's something that our government is absolutely focused on fixing. So what we need to recognize, though, unlike the Leader of the Opposition, whose answer for every problem is just spend more money…. Just raise citizens' taxes. Go get the money, spend it, and you'll solve the problem.
I don't think that just raising taxes and spending money is going to solve a problem like this one. We have been adding new resources to the justice system. We are going to continue to do that as part of systemic reform. But as I said, the numbers don't add up. We have a much greater responsibility to those people in 1997 and the people today who aren't being adequately served because we haven't gotten to the bottom of it yet.
K. Corrigan: This party has been in government for 11 years. It has overseen…
Mr. Speaker: Members.
K. Corrigan: …the dismantling of the justice system and has done nothing to address it. Judge Steinberg's reasons for staying the charges are a damning indictment of this government's mismanagement of the justice system for years and years. He says:
"The nature of this charge is one that society in general has a very strong interest in seeing determined by trial in the ongoing effort to suppress the avenues of harm which have opened up given the current ubiquitous nature of the Internet, its easy access to people of all ages and the need to protect vulnerable young people who may fall prey to Internet predators. There is no question in my mind that there is a very strong societal interest in this matter."
The most serious of charges, huge potential for harm if we as a society are not able to prosecute such cases successfully. Yet here we have the accused walking free after a 27-month delay, more than two years.
So my question is to the minister responsible for our justice system. When is she going to fix these problems and make sure that those accused of the most serious of offences do not walk free without a trial?
Hon. S. Bond: Once again, I would like to share another quote with the member opposite. "Criminal cases are delayed to the point where we risk dismissal or reduction of thousands of charges," Chief Judge Robert Metzger said, "because the court system is unable to meet the accused's right to trial within a reasonable time." Unfortunately, it's a little inconvenient for the member opposite. That happened in the Vancouver Sun in 1998.
The issue is that we have a system in need of reform, and in fact, that's exactly what we've been doing. This government, for example, began the community court. And let me tell the member opposite that, in fact, we're seeing a new way of trying to manage people who are very complicated to deal with within the court system. Just recently we celebrated the tenth anniversary of the drug court in British Columbia — unbelievable success, ten years of success.
This government began to focus on prolific offenders, because the tragic circumstance in the justice system is that a small percentage of people continue to come in and out of our system, in and out of our system. So we created a prolific offender program. We have continued to look at innovation. We're going to do that, but we're also going to look at how we can ask some questions about systemic reform.
Mr. Speaker: The member has a supplemental.
K. Corrigan: Well, maybe the Premier and maybe the minister can be responsible and take some action today, instead of asking the people of this province to watch yet another criminal go free as we talk about systemic change somewhere down the road, in a year or two.
In his judgment Judge Steinberg quotes from Associate Chief Judge Gurmail Gill in a recent case of impaired driving that was stayed:
"The current delays being experienced in the justice system are not ones that can be described as temporary or unforeseen, nor do they stem from a sudden upswing in case volumes overwhelming the system. Clearly, the cause of the problem is a court with significant and chronic reduction in complement, despite the provision to government of timely and detailed information outlining the shortage as well as the potential consequences of failing to address it."
Not temporary, not unforeseen. You were warned time and time again, yet this government continued to ignore the overwhelming evidence and cut our justice system far beyond what it could handle.
My question, again, is to the minister responsible for the justice system. When is she going to stop ignoring the evidence and fix these problems now?
Hon. S. Bond: As a result of some of the significant reforms that we've made as a government, we've seen 13,000 fewer cases actually show up in courtrooms across British Columbia. And we're going to continue to look at reform.
In fact, this is the government who, for the first time in three decades, revitalized the Family Law Act. Why is that important? It's important not just because families are numbers and that we need to be concerned about backlogs. It's important because there are different ways for families to find resolution in complex, very combative circumstances.
So what we're going to do is move those cases out of courtrooms wherever possible. In fact, for the first time in a long time we actually had a constructive, positive discussion about that in this Legislature. That's the kind of constructive behaviour that we'd love to see. We discussed the Family Law Act. We agreed that it needed to be changed. Those are the kinds of reforms that are going to make long-term differences in the province of British Columbia.
L. Krog: I'm not sure about the long-term differences, but in the short term criminals walk the streets of British Columbia who should be in jail. The fact is if this government spent more time looking forward instead of looking in a rearview mirror, perhaps they'd take the time and put the resources into dealing with the issues that affect British Columbians today.
This serious shortage of judges arose because of deliberate government policy. The reason people are walking the streets is because of deliberate government policy. Those aren't my words. Those are the words of Provincial Court judges across this province, who have said it over and over again. This government closed courthouses. A previous government actually opened courthouses.
So perhaps today in this chamber this government could take seriously a fundamental responsibility of every democratic government, which is public safety. I'd like to hear this Premier stand up today and tell us what she's actually going to do to ensure that there aren't more dreadful cases like the one discussed in this chamber today, appearing in the newspapers. What is she actually going to do?
Hon. S. Bond: Well, first of all — and we've been very clear about this — any stay is one that's unacceptable. In fact, what we're going to do is continue to work on the kinds of reform that British Columbia has actually led in. Let's look at one of them right here in Victoria. We have an innovative Victoria Integrated Court. That court dealt with approximately 100 offenders in the first year, and it operates with brand-new justice resources.
You see, Mr. Speaker, it's not simply about continuing to look at the court system the way it exists today. We actually have to be bold, ask questions about what we can do. But in fact, that's at the same time that we've been investing resources.
Let's look at streamlining small claims court procedures, for example, at Robson Square. In fact, we have special mediators and justices of the peace instead of higher-cost Provincial Court judges. Imagine this. Over 4,000 cases were included in the project evaluation. They were resolved, I might note, 39.2 percent more quickly than the old system and at a lower cost to taxpayers. I'd say that's an example of what we are doing.
OMBUDSPERSON REPORT ON SENIORS CARE
AND SENIORS ADVOCATE
K. Conroy: When it comes to care for seniors, it's clear that the government's actions don't match their words. After all, this is a government that in 2005 brought in the seniors budget and promised "the best system of supports in Canada for seniors." Well, yesterday the Ombudsman came out with a scathing report that clearly shows the Liberals have failed on almost every front in seniors care.
Since 2007 the opposition has been calling for a seniors advocate. The Premier could make it happen immediately, not wait six months for more consultation — now. There's a bill on the order paper that could be passed very quickly. Will the Premier commit today to a first step in real action to give seniors an independent voice and bring in a seniors advocate without delay?
Hon. C. Clark: Well, I'm delighted that the member has paid attention to the government's actions on seniors. I'm also glad that the Ombudsman…. I want to thank the Ombudsman on behalf of the government and everybody in the Legislature for her very hard work on what I know was a long project for her and one that looked very deeply into some of the issues there.
We are responding to it, and we are responding to it with a seniors advocate. We want to make sure that seniors in British Columbia have a voice to the government, so we are going to make sure that happens. I know that the Health Minister — who's in Winnipeg today, by the way — is working on that.
But I just want to be clear about the government's record on seniors. We have reduced access to residential care from one year, as it was in 2001, to 90 days today. That's pretty good. There is no longer a threshold for the homeowner's grant for seniors. I think that's pretty good as well. Shelter aid for elderly renters now goes out to more than 15,000 eligible seniors. We've renewed the seniors supplement. In addition to that, seniors who are earning less than $40,000 a year pay $1,000 less in taxes today than they did in 2001.
I guarantee you this, Mr. Speaker. That's one thing that absolutely would not be true if the NDP were still in government today.
Mr. Speaker: I just want to remind members not to acknowledge whether a member is in the House or not in the House.
The member has a supplemental.
K. Conroy: Let's talk about some of the real stories, the real situations that happened to seniors in the last ten years — stories like Eldon Mooney, the senior who choked to death at Sunrise of Lynn Valley and whose family was told that he died peacefully in his sleep. In 2007 we brought up tragedies that occurred at Beacon Hill Villa.
Go back to 2006, just after the seniors budget was announced in this House, and recall the story of the Albos from Rossland, who were split up and died away from each other after 70 years of being married. Under the Premier's so-called agenda, it will be the fall at the earliest before we see a seniors advocate introduced in this Legislature.
If the Premier is serious, if she wants to ensure that seniors have an independent voice now and that stories like we're talking about today don't continue to happen, she will get up today and bring forward the legislation that's on the order paper and ensure a seniors advocate is here now.
Hon. C. Clark: I want to first acknowledge the pain that those families have felt, the pain that the families the member has referenced have felt as a result of this.
My own mother struggled with a brain tumour for many months in hospital. I cared for her in my home toward the end of her life. I understand how difficult just that is. To, in addition, be struggling with news like the member has talked about is incredibly difficult and only adds to people's grief.
Having said that, though, there are thousands of people in British Columbia who dedicate their lives selflessly to looking after seniors. Many of them are volunteers; many of them are paid to do that and make it their life's work.
We have an excellent system for caring for senior citizens. We need to make sure that we continue to improve that, though. A seniors advocate will be part of that improvement, but so will making sure that we have detailed residential care facility inspection reports, making sure that we have consistent provincewide standards for all seniors care services and a whole number of other things that the Health Minister talked about yesterday. This is an incredibly important issue for our province and our country, and we are going to do everything we can to make sure that we get it right.
M. Farnworth: I think those comments by the Government House Leader there indicate this government's attitude to this report. It frightens them. It frightens them so much that they call it a prop.
A report with 176 recommendations about the state of seniors care in the province of British Columbia, 143 findings and stories about a husband who had to lobby for over a month for his wife to get an X-ray. And that's the minister's response? It's a prop? That says more about this government than anything else you can imagine, hon. Speaker. One of the key….
Mr. Speaker: Members.
M. Farnworth: Boy, have we touched a nerve.
One of the key recommendations in this report is around advocacy, something this side of the House has been pushing for years against a government that's been in power for 11 years.
With 176 recommendations and six months just to decide on one, one can only imagine how long it's going to take to deal with the other recommendations.
So my question to the Premier is this. There's a bill on the order papers right now that will enact a seniors advocate. Will the Premier commit to doing that today?
Hon. C. Clark: In fact, I'm delighted to inform the House that we committed to doing that — to appointing a seniors advocate — yesterday.
Mr. Speaker: Members.
FAMILY FARM TAX CASE
M. Sather: Enno Paat and his family have farmed the same land in Pitt Meadows since 1951. Enno's dad died in 1979, and his mom passed away in 2008 after two months in hospital and three months in hospice.
Enno inherited the farm, and he was shocked to discover that he's not going to be receiving the family farm tax exemption simply because his mother died in hospital. Mr. Paat is also being nailed with a $90,000 tax bill.
Will the minister address this issue today? Will he assure Mr. Paat that he will get his tax exemption?
Hon. K. Falcon: Well, I think probably the appropriate thing to do is to share the information with my office. I'd be happy to look into that in further detail for the member.
Generally speaking, the rules are fairly clear with respect to how we treat a farming property. If there was farming that was taking place on that property prior to an incident, a very unfortunate incident like the individual that was deceased, it continues to be treated as farm property.
But I would be very happy to get all of the details from the member opposite and clarify that for the member and try and settle this for the family in a manner that is respectful of the loss they've obviously suffered.
Mr. Speaker: The member has a supplemental.
M. Sather: Well, I e-mailed my letter to the minister on January 9 or 10 and sent it to him, as well, by mail. I haven't received a response.
Now not only has Mr. Paat lost his mother, but he's being assessed with a huge bill that he can ill afford. This government decision is ridiculous. Why should a farmer have to be on their farm when they die in order that their family can get the tax exemption?
What about if they go to hospital and they die the next day in hospital? The family is not eligible for the family farm tax exemption? What about if they're on holiday for a couple weeks and they die? The family is not eligible for the family farm tax exemption?
I'd like to know how the minister — first of all, that he would become up to date on it — could justify this blatant tax grab and this miscarriage of justice. And I need him to commit today, get up to speed and commit today that he will do the right thing and restore Mr. Paat's tax exemption.
Hon. K. Falcon: That interpretation is just so incredibly irresponsible. The member should at least know that this and decisions made by the tax department of the ministry are made in accordance with legislation. It is not individuals that just individually can make their own decisions on each case. It is legislation.
I would also point out the exact same legislation that existed back in the decade in which they were in government. I imagine that there may have been the occasional case that came forward then, too, that they would have had to look at whether that required a legislative change. None was made.
Now, as I've indicated to the member….
Hon. K. Falcon: And he keeps yelling out, "Read your mail," and of course I do read my mail, as I'm sure all members of this House do. We get a large volume of mail, and I do my very best to get back as quickly and as efficiently as we possibly can. And I will do that in this particular case too.
SURREY SCHOOL DISTRICT
PORTABLE USE AND FUNDING
H. Bains: Surrey school district has grown by over 2,700 students since 2005-2006, the last year the school district received any government approval for capital to add any school space.
We now have more than 7,000 students in over 250 portables because of this government's failure to invest in new schools in this fastest-growing community. That's why it's so disappointing that four months after hosting a photo op promising new schools for Surrey, we're still waiting to deliver on that promise.
My question to the minister is this. It takes years to build a school, years that our students will be forced to spend in portables rather than real classrooms. Why are Surrey families still waiting for this government to deliver on school funding that was promised last October?
Hon. G. Abbott: First of all, I'm very pleased to advise the member that I had a very good meeting just last week with the board of education of Surrey school district. We talked about the capital projects. They were very, very grateful for the over $100 million investment in Surrey that was announced. That was part of a $353 million investment across this province in new education facilities, including two new schools in Surrey, two new additions in Surrey, three new school sites in Surrey. And we look forward to working with Surrey on this.
I must say that one of the things we don't want to do — because I appreciate the member's reference to portables and to parents being anxious that their kids are not always in portables…. The one thing we wouldn't want to do is get back to the 1990s when 363 portables were in operation in Surrey school district alone — 363 portables.
[End of question period.]
Mr. Speaker: Members.
BLACK HISTORY MONTH
Hon. H. Bloy: I am pleased to inform the House that the government has proclaimed the month of February 2012 Black History Month in British Columbia.
We are a culturally rich and diversified society, and people of African descent have been a vibrant part of British Columbia since at least 1858. During this time they have made notable contributions to cultural, economic, political and social development in the province.
I am proud as minister responsible for multiculturalism that we are able to recognize and commemorate these contributions by people of African heritage by proclaiming February 2012 Black History Month.
A. Dix: I think it's fair to say…. Of course, as you know, hon. Speaker, ordinarily in this House when ministerial statements are made they are shared with the opposition and so on. And sometimes people forget, and that's okay.
But this is a really important issue in British Columbia. I really advise people — and the minister, I think, will have some information on his website — that if they look up on the Internet, Black History Month, the number of events during this month, people can go to and learn about the history of British Columbia.
This Legislature is part of that history, because of the extraordinary contribution of a former Speaker of the House, Emery Barnes, who made just an enormous difference. He came to British Columbia to play professional football and stayed and made an enormous difference. Rosemary Brown, who did the same, and so many others.
So I really recommend to people that they get involved in just what the minister is talking about. We should get involved and attend the events of Black History Month. It will make, I think…. The learning experience for all of us would be one to follow.
I'd like to cite just the works of one author, Wayde Compton, who's written about these books. I recommend those books. They're available here in the Legislative Library to all people to British Columbia.
I think it is very important that we take the opportunity to learn about the history of our province and to ensure, hon. Speaker, that some of the mistakes in our history that have been made in the past aren't repeated and that we celebrate the extraordinary history of British Columbia, especially during Black History Month, the history of black Canadians in British Columbia.
Hon. I. Chong: I rise to table a report. I have the honour to present the 2011 annual report for the Property Assessment Appeal Board.
J. Horgan: I seek unanimous consent to move second reading of Bill M203, the Representative for Seniors Act, 2011, in the name of the member for Kootenay West.
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Members, it has to be by leave. Is leave granted?
Leave not granted.
Mr. Speaker: Members.
Orders of the Day
Hon. R. Coleman: In this House this afternoon we'll continue second reading of Bill 20, intituled the Auditor General for Local Government Act. Should we complete second reading, we will move to second reading of Bill 18, intituled Advanced Education Statutes Amendment Act, 2011. And should, on the very outside of possibilities, we finish second reading on that, we would then move to second reading of Bill 15, the Attorney General and Public Safety and Solicitor General Statutes Amendment Act, 2011.
Mr. Speaker: Members hurry off to their other commitments.
Second Reading of Bills
Bill 20 — AUDITOR GENERAL FOR LOCAL
G. Gentner: I rise to address the Auditor General for Local Government Act, Bill 20.
It's certainly been a wonderful time over the last couple of months for me and my family, relative to the newborns that have entered our domain, so to speak. I rise to speak on a very important bill which I believe is going to affect the relationship, the well-known good relationship, that senior levels of government have had and have tried to have with local government for several years.
[L. Reid in the chair.]
You know, hon. Speaker, I do sit on Public Accounts, and I have to tell you that there are different interpretations of auditing and what it all means. Frankly, auditing is indeed a numbers game. How you play those numbers can be interpreted many different ways. Of course, what auditors general try and do most importantly…. They don't deal necessarily with the policy of government; they deal with performance based on the criteria set out, namely through budgets, etc.
Now, we on this side endorse accountability, and we also endorse, of course, performance audits. They are what make us representative and accountable to the people we represent. But it's very important that we have a third opinion to look at how government and governments are dealing with their day-to-day taxes. But you know, if only the present government would take heed of what the present British Columbia Auditor General reports, there might be some hope, some optimism, within this bill — optimism for the so-called new Auditor General for Local Government Act or, as formerly referred to before, MAG, the municipal auditor for local government.
I don't know why we changed, shifted gears here. I guess it came from MAG, and I guess the acronym now is AGLG, the auditor general for local government. Perhaps the spin doctors opposite decided that referring to it as a MAG seems to cheapen it. Maybe we're talking about a magazine or a tabloid or something of that nature.
The auditor general for local government had to be spun a little differently. I mean, is it really the auditor general for local government? I think in many ways, when you read the document, it's the auditor general for the Liberal government — AGLG. That's really it, isn't it?
This is a bill that's being presented in order to deal with this government's interpretation of how to look at municipal books. When you decipher the code, I think that's what it really means. It means a bill that's really set up to be a whipping post of local government and the blame game to defer this government's own mismanagement into municipalities, who are in many ways more transparent than this government will ever know.
I know that from personal experience because I did sit on municipal council for a number of years, and it's quite an arduous process in order to present a budget. The process starts in October. You go through it thoroughly. You go through it publicly. You have the meetings in front of the public. The public has a right to examine it. It goes through arduous oversight. So I think it's very much for us to dig a little deeper into what's being presented here in Bill 20.
Now, let's begin by looking at the auditor general for local government and its definition of "local government" within the act. Local government "means (a) a municipality, (b) a regional district, (c) a greater board, (d) a board, a commission, a corporation or another organization that…is…controlled by one or more municipalities, regional districts or greater boards." I want to keep that in mind — "greater board" or a board "controlled by one or more municipalities…."
Which brings me to TransLink. A municipal board or another independent Crown? Or is it like B.C. Ferries? It's sort of in this grey area that we haven't been able to decide. The government opposite has put it in limbo. And according to the definition, is it a board that had some control by municipalities, or is it another nefarious Crown corporation?
In the aftermath of this uncertainty, we're hearing quite recently from various mayors and their belief that TransLink, which is a huge organization, should be audited. We heard from the mayor of Surrey that an audit should be conducted on TransLink, and Mayor Jackson of Delta has referred to the board as nothing more than a board that spends money like drunken sailors.
The question is: is there an independent audit that can be conducted on TransLink? And most of the mayors are saying to this bill: "Well, if that's what this bill is all about, bring it on. Bring it on. Yeah, we're for it."
On October 27, 2011, the Mayors Council on Regional Transportation, also known as the Mayors Council, in a public meeting called the government's bill by challenging how far the municipal auditor general would go regarding municipal expenditures in governance including a performance audit.
They met and resolved that the government was set to go ahead with MAG, as it was called. If there's an independent agency that wants to audit local government, let's begin with the biggest elephant in the room — TransLink. Makes sense.
The resolution was: "Whereas the Premier of the government of British Columbia has indicated the intention of the government to forthwith appoint a municipal auditor general to review matters involving value for money…." The municipalities and regions called the government, therefore, on its intent. And what is the intent? I believe it's a whipping post to blame municipal governments for misrepresenting the taxpayer — to open the books, so to speak.
However, we have to do the comparative analysis. In my years on municipal council versus the years in this House, I would trust the local government's accountability any day over the shenanigans of the government opposite. We've gone through the HST. We talk about the brochure that went out to support it, the lack of transparency. There seems to be hesitancy, hiding, sneakiness. We still wait for a bill to rescind, with an honest discussion about the accounting of our own revenues and taxation. Yet here we are today debating how we're going to go after municipal governments.
Now, the Mayors Council challenged the fortitude of this government by saying: "Okay, bring it on. Let's have it." I have the letter, a receipt from the minister herself relative to the letter sent. In many ways what the council said was: "Therefore be it resolved that the Mayors Council…request the Minister of Transportation and the province to include TransLink under the eye and umbrella of the new municipal auditor general…." The eye and the umbrella — they requested that. I think the eye is really being poked by the umbrella.
The request went to the Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development early in November, and the minister's decision was not received until January 11. Why so long for such a decision? Because I think the ministry had already made up its mind and really wasn't going to change it.
In the letter from the minister back to the Mayors Council, this is what the minister said regarding auditing TransLink: "I appreciate the resolution from the Mayors Council as a vote of confidence that the auditor general for local government will provide real value by helping local governments identify ways to get the best value for money for their services and operations." The government is saying: "You want to play? That's really nice. That's really wonderful, but…." Ah, the old "but" — that conjunction of hypocrisy, if you will.
The letter goes on to say, "However, the resolution raises a number of questions" — a number of questions. "For example, how would a role for the auditor general for local government work in relation to TransLink's unique governance structure…?" Interesting — unique governance structure.
Suddenly maybe it isn't under the purview of municipal government — a structure that was put in place, however, by the former Minister of Transportation and minister of megaprojects, who now, of course, is the Minister of Finance. You know, we've created a lack of accountability by creating this new governance model, and they're saying now that it's unique. Well, you're not auditable after all. We can't audit you because you are, after all, a rare species created by us, the government. That's interesting, isn't it? It's unique, and maybe because it's unique, we will not use this new tool to look at the biggest elephant in the room, which is supposedly represented by municipal government.
I go on. "For example, how would a role for the AGLG work in relation to TransLink's unique governance structure, wherein the Mayors Council itself plays a key oversight role in reviewing and approving transportation plans developed by the board of directors?" That's rich. No, hold it. The mayors — suddenly it's agreed upon — play a role, a key role in the B.C. Liberals' downloading onto their decisions. I mean, they're now saying: "You are the players, municipalities. You control the oversight. You review. You approve transportation plans."
But hang on a second. This instrument of government, this new auditor general, will not have the ability to do the proper audit. I mean, I find that quite astounding. You know, plans. Here it says, "You have the ability for transportation plans, municipalities' plans developed by our process of selecting who we want on the board" — we the government. Yeah, they're saying to municipal governments: "You're all players, but let's not audit the books under this new type of system." I think that's hypocrisy. That's hypocritical.
It goes on to say: "Additionally, the mandate of the provincial Office of the Auditor General includes scrutiny of provincial money provided to TransLink." The provincial Auditor General can audit the money we so graciously give to TransLink. We're going to allow him to go 100 percent on the capital money we send to the regional system of TransLink. Interesting. We'll let him do it.
When it comes down to performance, well, he can't just do a complete job. I mean, how can you audit TransLink if you're going to just look at maybe a third of the expenditures of the revenue relative to capital? But when it comes on the operational side — no, sorry. The provincial auditor won't do it. He can't do it. No wonder he won't do it. He has to look at the whole enchilada.
The government says in the letter here — the minister: "Oh, the provincial auditor can audit, but only a portion of it. The rest we cannot audit relative to, of course, this new mandate of ours, the local government auditor who will not be allowed to do so."
The letter goes on to say…. I also have to ask the question of property taxes. And we know what the new organization and structure of TransLink is: the ability to raid money from property tax holders in order to pay for the infrastructure and the operation of TransLink. That was something that was foisted upon by this government, a new shift on revenue. The provincial government had their hand in certain tools, able to find moneys. However, when it came down to property taxes, it was generally accepted that that would be looked after — given to, of course — by the local government.
But that's what the government did. It endorsed this new ability to take money from property homeowners to pay for TransLink. That's fine and dandy. But now the government says: "But it's not our fault where the money is coming from and how it's spent." You know what? That's up to the B.C. Auditor General's domain, who is limited on what he can do. They're also saying, of course, when it comes now to this new auditor, he's not going to be responsible at all for TransLink. It's no wonder the B.C. Auditor General won't touch this TransLink, because we know that's really quite a political mess created by the Liberals.
To continue, the minister says: "How would it work to have two different auditors general with different mandates looking at this one unique entity?" Hello? We're not going to do two audits. We're not even going to allow one audit. I guess I'm missing something here. This is a government that rants and raves about the need for accountability, but it's not even willing to step in and audit, help the local governments in the region who are supposed to be partners of a major corporation called TransLink. They're not going to allow them to do what's right through this instrument that's here today in Bill 20.
What they're really saying is: "Gee…." Let me read that again. How would it work to have two different auditors general with different mandates looking at this unique entity? "Gee," the government is saying, "We really don't know what to do." Two audits. We've got one that is independent, arm's-length, called the B.C. Auditor General, who's accountable to this House, and the other one that's our so-called in-house auditor general. It won't work. So we won't have an audit at all. Wow. And you wonder why the mayors are upset.
The litmus test, the elephant in the room, is TransLink. We want accountability, and this government is introducing a bill today that's excusing any audit on TransLink — the runaway train itself. Let me continue with this lovely soft letter from the government, from the minister: "These are just two examples of the issues the province would need to think through in looking at the Mayors Council resolution." La-di-da. "We're going to think it through." In other words, it's negligence. "We are going to neglect an audit on TransLink because that criteria does not fit into our new bill."
You have to ask yourself why. How would it work to have two different auditors general with different mandates looking at this one unique entity? In other words: "We've messed it up so bad, this entity, that we won't audit it. We created a problem, but local government, you deal with it, because we're not going to put the instruments to do so in this bill relative to the governance and accountability of local government and regions."
I mean, this is a very condescending letter. It's irresponsible to treat local governments this way — and, of course, the taxpayers. The province is going to have to think it through. Aw-shucks. Golly. You're unique, but not that unique. You're not a municipal or local government entity.
But this is what the minister of the day — who's now, of course, the Minister of Finance — said about the incorporation of TransLink, the changeover. This is what he said when he introduced the TransLink board and handpicked the TransLink board itself. "This will allow politicians" — municipal politicians — "to do what they do best — determine the strategic vision, approve long-term strategic plans and set future directions." The minister of the day said: "There will be no confusion about who's making decisions on their constituents' behalf."
Okay, so what do we have? TransLink sits in limbo. The minister now says: "Well, it's a unique situation. These people will not be allowed to force us to do an audit through this new auditor general." Yet the previous minister said: "No, no. TransLink is yours." Talk about doublespeak. Talk about poppycock.
I mean, this is a huge entity that's getting away, and because it's unique and the government refuses to deal with it, we have no idea of performance. We know why the mayors are screaming. We hear about the fare evasion, the runaway costs. No wonder people are upset.
The government, in its vision, has decided to create a bill that's going to deal with local government. The former minister said: "Well, this is attached and a partner of local government, and the definition makes it very clear that a board that's partnered with local government should be part of this act."
Well, how credible is this act? There's no accountability because the government's hands are tied, so to speak. Yes, let's call it what it really is — the auditor general Liberal government act. It will not create oversight, and it is deemed, as I said earlier, somewhat unique.
Now, we have two different auditor general processes going on. We have the independent current B.C. Auditor General and the other, new auditor general, who is handpicked by the minister indirectly. The auditor general for local government will be accountable to the minister, but not to this Legislature. Let's make that clear.
It'll report. Its reports will not necessarily come to this Legislature. These reports could easily be sanitized, and they can be ready for execution. They can be fired when ready with no defence. So I want to ask: what happened to the process and the appointment — this fair and open and honest government, supposedly?
Unlike the B.C. Auditor General, the new auditor general for the government will pick its own from the government's handpicked audit council. It's sort of similar to what happened with Transit board — isn't it? — where the mayors have got to choose candidates handpicked indirectly by the government.
The selection of our Auditor General comes through a rigorous process based on openness and consensus-building. Pursuant to subsections 2(2) and (3) of the Auditor General Act, a special committee of the Legislative Assembly unanimously recommends to the House the Auditor General.
The process is rigorous, open and fair. A special committee is appointed from Public Accounts that represents a balanced proportion of government and opposition. From Public Accounts, the Chair is from the opposition in order to give a watchdog approach to government and, above all, the spending of money — a watchdog not on policy per se but strictly on the money itself or the numbers.
So when you look at the methodology behind picking an auditor general for the province…. I'm reading, basically, the criteria. It said that it should meet the requirements of openness and fairness. The recommendation, therefore, comes to the House unanimously.
But this process is not unanimous. It brings me back to the accountability of the Local Government Act, as we're seeing here. It won't be accountable to this assembly. The auditor general is not an independent agent of government but an instrument of government. The local auditor general is not accountable to municipal leaders. So what happens when you have a quasi–politically appointed auditor general?
Well, we went through it before. We had an Auditor General. His name was Mr. van Iersel. He got the job as the Auditor General. He was not the unanimous choice of the committee members, as he had held a series of senior financial jobs within the government.
You know, I remember when that happened. It came to Public Accounts. We couldn't agree. He had previously been a comptroller general, and there was some discrepancy between agreement about all sides. It was a controversial appointment. As an independent officer of the Legislature, the Auditor General is supposed to have all-party support. The Liberals and the NDP failed to agree on the candidate, so the government, with its majority on the Public Accounts Committee, appointed Mr. van Iersel in an acting role within an indefinite period. They rammed it through.
Now, in the interests of accountability, the House should have unanimously agreed on the candidate and the process of selection with input from municipalities, I believe, as well. That's the role we've been going…. It should be an all-party selection process that is accountable to this House. And yes, we should also consult with the local governments to find ways that they can be included in the selection process.
But that's not happening. Consequently, it became a problem for the government and for Mr. van Iersel to continue to sit as acting Auditor General. He started to lose the confidence. It wasn't his fault. It was the process itself that skewed the office. There were questions around having someone who came from government — again, the comptroller, no less. You were going from being the auditee to the auditor.
The same can be said regarding the integrity of the process behind this bill. However, no one — I want to make it very clear — on this side of the House ever questioned Mr. van Iersel's competency or integrity. But perception is everything, and because of the Liberal politics behind the appointment, Mr. van Iersel was questioned.
He was a good and competent servant, but because he was pushed through by the government without going through due process — which is the same flaw in this present bill — whereas all parties were unanimous in the selection, he didn't have a chance. So the office itself was in question.
Now, the body that regulates chartered accountants across the province also raised concerns about the independence of B.C.'s acting Auditor General of the day. They were worried about what was going on. I'd certainly like to see what the Institute of Chartered Accountants is going to say relative to this new appointment. I mean, Mr. Arn van Iersel caused a potential problem because he could be in a position of auditing work he did as B.C.'s longtime comptroller general. That was from, of course, the Institute of Chartered Accountants.
So I just want to put up the cautionary flag that while the government continues to believe that this is going to be open and transparent, I think it is damaged already. I feel for the new so-called auditor general, because I don't think that he's going to get the confidence — not of this House and certainly not from local government.
I think the real intent here is, again, that we're setting up a system whereby the government can choose certain municipalities as their whipping posts, to blame municipal governments for misrepresenting the taxpayer, to open the books, so to speak. However, any analysis is a comparison analysis, and I have to tell you that in my years in municipal government I believe that we had a very good representation and transparency and were under the eye constantly of those who elected us.
As a result of the accountants institute, they had to have ongoing discussions with the Auditor General to make sure it meets all the independent standards of the day. "There is clearly a potential problem," said the institute's chief executive officer of the day, Richard Rees, "but we will look at whether there's a problem in the context of a very complex set of rules." A complex set of rules — rules whereby the watchdog isn't governed by a political agenda.
That's what the essence of this bill is. We are seeing interference, I believe, in the integrity of an auditor general, where they should be accountable to this House and accountable to municipal leaders and, of course, in this case, TransLink — the partners, the mayors, who want to know what's happening with their transportation systems.
Now, how does this government really treat auditors general? Well, we know. When we talked to Mr. Doyle recently…. He went to the Finance Committee and suggested that their budgets are limited. You know, I'm saying: why don't we take the $2.6 million and put it into our proper Auditor General and put together a sub–auditor general that is accountable to this House? But that didn't happen.
Currently, when you go to his office in Bastion Square, what do we find? They're not putting any money into that infrastructure. In fact, there are rats running around the corridors of our Auditor General, and they're now going to go ahead and open up a new AG — I mean, heaven for these furry little guys. We're talking about big rats. They've got names for them. Big rats. The former Premier — I can see him standing right now with his hands out. This is how it would go. He'd say: "Big rats." And you know, with his protégé, Mini-Me, who is now the Minister of Finance. He'd go: "Oh no, they're big. They're bigger rats. They're even bigger." But this is what the government should call…. This is big stuff. That's in the brochure.
J. Rustad: I'm pleased to stand up in support of Bill 20, the Auditor General for Local Government Act. Following the previous speaker…. With the initial rant on TransLink, I was kind of thinking that he might have gotten a little off the track, but then he went off and ranted about the provincial Auditor General. I was kind of wondering when he would actually get to talking about what's really in the bill and the facts there, but he managed to dance around that. I understand that's kind of the way they like to go about doing those sorts of things.
I want to start talking about something that I saw, just a little story in the past about an incident I happened to notice in a community. I was working one day in a community, and I happened to be overlooking a park. The night before there had been quite a windstorm, and some branches had fallen down off of some big trees. The city did a great job, and they came out to clean that up. But I want to describe just how that happened.
In the morning around 9:30 or so a truck showed up with a nice chipping facility attached to the back, and two people got out, one with a power saw and one, I guess, that was going to be running the chipper. The guy that was going to be running the chipper sat and watched while the person was operating the power saw and went out and bucked up a few of the branches that had fallen down and took down a few other ones that looked like they were dangerous. Then he kind of shut down awhile, and the guy fired up the chipper and started putting some of these pieces through the chipper.
Before long it was lunchtime, and off they went. They came back after lunch and proceeded with this.
Sometime in the afternoon they had to go and empty the back of the truck of the stuff that was in there and came back. Ultimately, what ended up happening is that this process of going back and forth with one person doing stuff ended up taking all day for two people in something that, marginally, you could probably look at and say that maybe that could be a couple hours' worth of work. I'm sure there were legitimate reasons for why this process took that long, but the question is: was that good value for taxpayers' money? Was that good value for how taxpayers' money should be spent in the community?
J. Rustad: Well, there may be…. The member opposite here just said that there were legitimate reasons for that. Maybe it was part of a union contract. Maybe it was a safety concern — whatever it may be. But the question is: is there value for money?
J. Rustad: The member opposite just says: "This is not about Bill 20. This is about union." That leads me to wonder why anybody would oppose accountability? Why would anybody oppose respect for tax dollars?
I have in my office a poster that I have up there. I've had it up since the day I was elected — sorry; just after I was elected, because it took me a while to actually get it framed and posted and put up. "Think like a taxpayer" is what the poster says. I have that in my office because every day I go into my office, I look at that, and I think about the fact that individuals, families, struggling to get by, are paying taxes for services. I know when I go through my communities all across through the north and I talk to individuals, they want to know that their dollars are being respected and that their dollars are being spent wisely.
What this is designed to do is to do just that. It's a tool that will be able to provide local governments with some opinions as to whether or not certain projects, certain things, are getting value for money. That's a very important key in terms of everything.
Now, I want to raise a thought with this, and that is that some of the communities we have seen in the United States today are bankrupt. They have gone…. Whether it's signing too generous contracts and benefits or whether it's how they've spent money, whether it's their inability to be able to raise taxes — however it may be — they're bankrupt. They're finding it difficult. They're giving out IOUs because they can't meet their needs and their commitments.
So the question I have is: did they have a local government auditor that was doing value-for-money audits? Would that have been able to help that situation, to protect those taxpayers from that situation, to give taxpayers a sense that they're getting value for the money that's being spent and that what is being spent can be sustainable?
When I think back on it…. I am going to throw something out from the member for Stikine that was just ranting a little bit about maybe this is about unions or not. Look, there's no question that there is a component to this around the cost structure. When you look at municipalities, the most significant cost structure is wages and benefits. So what we're talking about is: are those dollars being spent efficiently.
But it's not a coincidence that CUPE, for example, spends…. I think about 30 percent of the mandatory union dues that they collect are spent on non-union activities — in particular, political activities. Why wouldn't they? They get to support local political campaigns. They get to try to push through and elect local individuals, and maybe they're going to get a better contract out of it. There's nothing wrong with that, I suppose. That's within the law. Some people may say it is wrong. Some people may say it isn't. But the question is: are those contracts that come through and the way things are being done the best value for money?
I know some municipalities where there are more people now working earning more than $100,000 a year in wage and benefits than there are less than $100,000. It's great. I'm glad people are earning a good wage and they're able to do things. But the question that really remains for me is: is that the best value?
There are other communities of similar size that have three times the workforce, and yet they're still able to do the same things and take care of the same issues. Which one has the better value for money? I don't know those answers. I don't, but it would be nice to know.
I know, for example, in many of my communities…. I have very small communities in northern B.C. They haven't got a large budget. They can't afford to do a lot of things, but they try to be as efficient as they possibly can. Is there something other communities might be doing that they could look at and copy? How do they know? How can they find out about that?
They have their organizations — the Union of B.C. Municipalities and their northern groups — and they're able to get together with other councillors and mayors and talk from time to time. But how can you really measure things as to whether the water costs in one community versus another community…? Somebody is doing something a little different, and there's a better value in it.
That's really the value of having an auditor general for local governments. It will look at the value for money, it will look through at the details of everything that's being done, and it will try to get to the bottom of what the best way is to do things. What's the best way to be able to move forward on projects, to be able to see things through, and ultimately, what is the best value for a taxpayer?
I do wonder, when the opposition stand up — and they go on a rant, and they come at this — why they won't support that. Why don't they like the idea that we should be getting value for the taxpayer? Why don't they think like a taxpayer?
When I go back and I think about the various communities that I represent and communities that I've been in, there's no question that there's more than one way to do things. There's more than one way to skin a cat, and there is more than one way to get to an answer. So one community takes one path, and one community takes another. Both aren't wrong in terms of what they're doing, but it would be nice to know, certainly, when I pay my municipal taxes…. When I pay my regional district taxes, that is, since I don't actually live in a municipality, I want to know that those dollars are being spent well — the things that are important.
I need my garbage taken away. In a municipality you've got to worry about sewer and roads and dealing with potholes and water. You want to make sure all those things are there. You want to make sure they're sustainable.
That's another big question. As infrastructure ages, communities have to put money aside so that they're able to try to renew that infrastructure when it comes up. The question is: are communities doing that? Is there a liability that's out there for taxpayers that isn't being addressed? Perhaps an auditor general will be able to answer some of those questions and be able to help communities through their planning and the processes they go through.
I'm very proud of the communities I have in my riding and the way that the mayors and councils have been able to respond to crises like we have seen in Burns Lake or other types of issues that have come up. I'm very proud of what they've been able to accomplish.
I also am very proud of the fact that they engage the public. They engage, and they have these discussions as best they can. However, also in my travelling across the province, I know that some municipalities are not as engaging as others, so there isn't quite as much opportunity for input. But I do believe that there is a true value in making sure that everything that is being done has that opportunity to be able to know and that second look to say: is there value for money?
In the province we have this done by the Auditor General, and sometimes we don't like the answer. Sometimes we don't agree with the answer, and we decide that we're going to do things a little bit different. But there is value, whether we implement the recommendations or not. There is value in knowing what somebody else is looking at, having those comparisons, having that value for money and being able to stand up and be accountable for it. Ultimately, I think that's what this is really about: being accountable for tax dollars.
I'm very pleased to be standing up and supporting this. This is something, after I was first elected in 2005, that I started talking to my colleagues about. I was on Public Accounts, I believe in 2006, and I was talking to the provincial Auditor General about: would it be possible at that point for the provincial Auditor General to be able to take on some of those roles? We talked about what would have to happen in legislation and stuff.
As this has progressed through, I'm very pleased that our current Premier has brought this forward as a priority, that she wants to see this sort of thing going forward, because I know for a fact that many people I talk to would like to see this. I also, from my own personal perspective, have a bit of satisfaction on an issue that, when I was elected, was something that I wanted to see, and I'm very pleased that we're moving forward on it.
With that, I'll take my place. I want to thank the members opposite for making it clear what their perspective is, particularly where they stand, which is clearly not with taxpayers. I want to thank the members on my side of the House for their standing and supporting something that I believe will add true value to local governments and to our province.
V. Huntington: I'd like to thank the members of the opposition for their kindness in letting me move up the speakers list. I really do appreciate it today.
I'm pleased to have this opportunity to speak to Bill 20, the Auditor General for Local Government Act. Much has already been said, and I hope to add a somewhat different perspective to the debate. Like most members in this place, I heard the corporate community demanding something be done with property tax rates — the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Fraser Institute, the B.C. Business Council, Catalyst Paper, and the list goes on — and I have sympathy for their demands.
Like most members in this place, I heard the leadership contenders of the Liberal Party respond "yes" to a question at an all-candidates meeting, a question that seemed to come from nowhere: if elected, would you appoint a municipal auditor general?
No discussion with local governments, no discussions of the pros and cons, no consideration of what should be a respectful relationship between provinces and municipalities. A promise with no thought, no information, no studies and no reviews. A promise in the face of no issue except corporate complaints about property taxes. A promise in the face of no problem except the corporate complaints about property tax. No wonder the UBCM claimed it was a solution looking for a problem.
Nobody likes their property taxes, and almost all of us would like to see them lowered. But that needs careful analysis, a review of how all governments account for their mill rates. Is it true that a municipality needs to keep up with the annual inflation rate? What is the real relationship between the residential and commercial and industrial rates? What impact do labour rates and benefits have on the delivery of services? Does industry really pay much more than they get back in utilities and services? Should industry be at par with the commercial and residential rates? Is that fair?
Do provincial downloads affect the economic delivery of services? What is the total cost of those downloads? Does the value of industrial land taxed at a lower or even residential rate really cover the costs of the services? What is an equitable tax distribution?
Should taxation cover only services — isn't that the big question: water, gas, sewer, police, fire? What about all the esoteric services that make up community? Should industry help pay for our libraries and recreational centres and parks and rural roads, or should industry be above a contribution to social well-being? And if it should not be above that contribution, what should a reasonable expectation of contribution be?
These are the questions, and so many more, that need to be discussed in this province, but we avoid them. We go to court. We let special interests force us to precipitous, inexplicable reactions, and I have to ask why. Why Bill 20? Why the Auditor General for Local Government Act? Nobody except industry asked for it. Almost nobody but industry has said anything good about it. But here we are, debating a bill that is spending at least $2½ million of our tax money in a time of serious deficit and debt to create a power that already exists within government. Why? And how did this happen?
It happens because someone needs to save face. It happens because special interests want it. It happens because we haven't asked the right questions or spent the time discussing the right answers. It happens because government is arrogant. Most of all, it happens because I think government and industry need a public relations scapegoat, an independently reviewed and accused scapegoat.
They need that scapegoat before they can step into the real purview of local government, the setting of municipal property tax rates. To do that, they need to show that the legislated requirement to balance budgets isn't enough. They need to show that gross waste and mismanagement are the real tax culprit. By Jove, we need an auditor general for local government. He or she will save the day.
Regardless of my skepticism, I do have to admit that it's difficult to argue against an office that is charged with the conduct of a performance audit. The extraordinary work of the provincial Auditor General has made me an ardent believer in the wisdom of that office, so I originally was willing to overlook what I think is a sorry and unprofessional reason for the introduction of this legislation.
But then I read the legislation. I would hope that in this House we could all agree that critical to the success of any auditor general is a rigid independence that must be afforded the office. There must be no opportunity for retribution within the term of office. The value of the audit is in its professional honesty. What is discovered must be reported. The recommendations must be free of interference and free from the fear of interference.
But Bill 20 does not create an independent municipal auditor general. It creates a flawed structure that is ripe for political and special interest interference or, at a minimum, influence.
The minister recommends the appointment of an audit council to cabinet. He determines membership on the council by consulting with UBCM and representatives of business, taxpayers or local government "professionals." Hear the chamber of commerce, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the B.C. Business Council. He must choose from people with knowledge of accounting — good; auditing — good; provincial or municipal governments — good; and any other "subject area set out in the regulations." Cabinet appoints the chair.
So first off, we have an appointed council and chair. The council is already beholden and moulded by government. This council not only recommends who should be auditor general; it also gets to recommend the removal or the suspension of the auditor general. The council also reviews the auditor general's service plan and can recommend changes to that plan. It can review the performance audits, and the auditor general must consider the comments and recommendations. It can comment on the proposed final audit reports and comment on the proposed final annual report.
This means that the goals and objectives of the service plan can be manipulated by the audit council. The proposed performance audits and final reports are subject to review and comment by the audit council. Because this council can recommend the suspension or removal of the auditor general, can this auditor general truly feel free of interference or influence? The answer is a resounding no in my opinion.
The issue is not that the above scenario might happen. The issue is that the above scenario is possible and is written into the legislation. The structure of the auditor general's office is flawed from the start.
No one can quarrel with the benefits of a performance audit. Examining value for money should be a requirement of every government. Actioning the recommendations of a performance audit should also be a requirement. Government efficiency and effectiveness are critical now as never before.
But commanding a flawed and unwanted structure into legislative being is an arrogant and unreasonable approach. The lack of participation by elected representatives of the province is now typical and a favoured form of governance — the removal of elected oversight, consultation after the fact, decisions that respond to special interests.
There is a better way of doing things, but we seem to have forgotten what a better way demands of democracy. It is a shame, and it is worrisome.
R. Hawes: I stand today to support the legislation. Let me start by just saying I was a mayor for three terms. I think if I were a mayor today, I probably would not like this legislation. But you know, it all depends on whose ox is being gored, as they say.
I understand why most mayors and most councils don't want to see a municipal auditor general. Nobody wants somebody looking over your shoulder. Nobody wants anyone second-guessing the decisions you've made.
But I'm not a mayor now, and I'm looking at things from a different perspective, from a provincial perspective. I look at things from a taxpayer's perspective perhaps more than I did when I was a mayor. At the provincial level — or surely at the federal level — you begin to see that the different levels of taxation, piled one upon the other, really have great impact on families — much more than I think you see when you're at the municipal level and you're dealing just with property taxes.
Let me just go over a couple of the reasons that I support this and where I think it's a valuable tool for municipalities. Let me first give a couple of examples from my own city, or at least one — from Mission. Mission received a grant from the government to build a path around a park. It was a substantial grant, about a million dollars, and it was a great program. It's a walking, hiking, biking trail.
They came in under budget, and they had some money left over. Rather than putting the money back to the provincial government or putting the money to some use within the city that would have been supported by taxpayers, they decided that what they should do, like other cities have, is do something about bike lanes.
Well, there are no bike lanes in the city I live in. What they've done is painted signs with bicycles and directional signals in the middle of the streets. Then they put signs about every 200 metres, saying "Bike route." Well, everyone who rides a bike in my city already knew that every street, really, is a bike route, because every street you can ride a bike on. It's a very hilly city, and riding up some of the hills is pretty much impossible, but they're designated with these signs painted on the street.
I can tell you that it was a source of huge anger among the taxpayers in the city that I live in; in fact, so much anger that that combined with a few other things resulted in every member of the council and the mayor being actually thrown out — all but one — in the latest civic election. The taxpayers got their revenge on the council for what they did.
Now, I'm not saying that is necessarily a healthy thing. I certainly wouldn't want to say that the solution to everything when taxpayers aren't happy is to just dump the council. What the city said about the bike lanes was that there was no cost to the taxpayer because this was surplus money from a government grant.
Well, as a taxpayer — I'm a property taxpayer — I was pretty angry about that. In fact, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper suggesting that, first and foremost, the rationale for these is pretty flawed because there are no bike lanes. Bicycles painted in the middle of the street make no sense to me at all. In fact, it might create some liability if a biker riding in the middle of the street gets hit by a car. But my point was that maybe we need — and I said that in the letter — a municipal auditor to come and speak to this council about the fact that there's only one taxpayer.
You can't say that when you embark on a program that's really kind of foolish and not at all supported, it costs nothing. That makes no sense, yet this is what the council said. I think the municipal auditor, in those kinds of cases…. I don't think that's an isolated case in British Columbia. I know these sorts of things go on in other places.
Frankly, we elect city councils all over British Columbia that many times don't have a whole lot of experience, sometimes no experience in business and sometimes no experience in handling money. I think the municipal auditor function acting as a guide can be very helpful for some of these councils. That's one of the examples from my city.
I know that some years ago there was great consternation about the tax levels of some of the ports in greater Vancouver and other parts of British Columbia. You know, if you're sitting at the local level and looking at property taxes and you're setting the tax rates, the targets that are the easiest are the ones that don't vote. Businesses, things like ports, don't vote and are not going to pick up and leave. They can't leave. So you have a captive victim really, and we were taxing ports, in some cases, pretty much out of existence. They couldn't compete with the ports in other parts of either British Columbia or….
In fact, in Canada we were driving some shipping to the United States because of our tax rates. Those are the kinds of places that a municipal auditor needs to come in and speak to those municipalities.
Now, the municipal auditor is not going to have the power to demand change. The municipal auditor has the ability and would be expected to point out flaws, to point out errors, to point out where they could do things a little differently where what they are doing is perhaps hurting jobs or the economy or hurting other taxpayers within the city. The city councils can choose to ignore the advice. If they ignore the advice, and it will be public, I suppose they do so at their peril from the taxpayers.
Now, there's been a lot said about the provincial Auditor General and how the government deals with what happens with the provincial Auditor General. I have to say that from time to time the Auditor General puts out reports that, frankly, are not overly flattering to government. I mean, we all know that. And there are always recommendations in the Auditor General's reports.
Some of the members on the other side — actually, several members on the other side; Columbia River–Revelstoke, for example, or the member for Esquimalt–Royal Roads or others — have intimated that we routinely ignore what the Auditor General for British Columbia says. That's just absolutely false, and I'm sure they would like to retract those statements. Certainly, if anyone were to ask the Auditor General or his office, the vast majority of recommendations made by the Auditor General are acted upon.
From time to time — and they are the rarest of times — those are not acted upon. The government will tell the Auditor General's department why we're not acting on them and we don't agree. But for the vast majority we do agree. We do implement the recommendations that are made, and we have always done so.
The Auditor General actually is an excellent tool for the government. We don't have to follow what the Auditor General says. We can decide not to follow his recommendations, and in a lot of cases, we would be doing so at our peril. There's no difference between what happens with the Auditor General for British Columbia and what is being proposed here — a source of advice.
Now, here's the part that galls me. Members on the opposite side should just hang their heads in shame as they stand up here and spout off about accountability and how we're attacking municipalities and our motives and we're interfering with municipalities.
Madam Speaker, I was a mayor in the 1990s. In Mission, where I live, there's a railroad bridge that goes across the Fraser River. It's a very significant piece of infrastructure. There are some railroad tracks there. The city itself gets zero benefit from the railroad. The trains pass through. They don't even stop there, and when they do stop, it's only to idle and spew a bunch of fumes that nobody wants. But they don't pick people up; there's no railroad stop. So property taxation was the only benefit the railroad gave the city of Mission — and for many other cities in British Columbia, the same thing.
The NDP in the 1990s introduced Bill 55. They said the tax rate is too high on the railroads. They removed railroad bridges and railroad tunnels from property tax rolls, and then they put a cap. They rolled back the tax rates on railroads that were on the property charged by municipalities, and they put a cap on what could be charged. There was about $16 million taken from the coffers of municipalities. It cost the city of Mission $550,000, which was over 5 percent of the tax collection at that time.
That was just an absolute interference, and at UBCM, just unanimously, the cities of British Columbia revolted. They carried signs with a big "55" and a line through them. In fact, it's the only time I'm aware of that a Premier of British Columbia was booed at his speech at UBCM. Premier Clark got a tremendous booing because of what the NDP did to municipalities with Bill 55.
When we went as a group, a committee of mayors that were selected to speak with the minister of the day that was responsible for this, we made a very impassioned plea. He just got up in the middle of the meeting and said, "I don't care what you say. This is going through," and that was the end of it.
So for them to stand up and talk about interference is like the height of piety. Words fail me when I think about what happened in the '90s. It is about as hypocritical…. Well, hypocritical is actually too polite a word.
I remember that municipalities got grants all through the '90s. It was a pretty important part of the budget of every city — the municipal grant program. The NDP of the day said: "Well, we're going to slice that. We're going to cut those grants way back." But the Premier of the day, Premier Clark said…. That's Glen Clark.
R. Hawes: Cheer away, because the rest of us don't remember him too fondly. However, interestingly, the Premier said: "I'm not going to cut grants any further. This is it. This is the only cut you will receive. I want you municipalities to relax. Here is my promise to you. There will be no further cuts in grants."
A couple months later, whack, the grants were gone from almost every city in British Columbia. There was a meeting held in Vancouver, in a hotel downtown, where mayors and councils from all over British Columbia gathered to say: "What are we going to do about this Premier that has lied to us, that has deceived us? What will we do?"
And from that meeting the anger spread out, and we all know what the results were in….
Deputy Speaker: Member, please, your point?
Point of Order
D. Routley: Madam Speaker, the member is using unparliamentary language referring to the former Premier.
Deputy Speaker: I think….
Deputy Speaker: Members.
R. Hawes: Madam Speaker, I'll withdraw that, just to make it easy on you.
Deputy Speaker: Member….
Deputy Speaker: Members. The previous speaker was allowed some latitude. I am more than happy to cease offering that option.
R. Hawes: I'm happy to…. If it upsets the members opposite, if the facts upset them, let me withdraw that.
R. Hawes: I won't say that Premier Glen Clark lied. I think I'll say, then, that he was an extreme stranger to the truth when it came to the grant program. He promised not to cut the grants, all along knowing that that's what he was going to do, because the NDP government of the 1990s had zero regard for municipalities.
Deputy Speaker: Member, bring your comments back to the contents of Bill 20.
R. Hawes: I'm coming to the context of the bill, Madam Speaker. In fact, I am speaking about the comments, and I'm commenting on the comments that have been made by the members opposite on this very bill. Their comments are, frankly, pretty fallacious. They are not accurate statements.
We're in a political time; I understand that. I understand how the members opposite actually secretly support this bill wholeheartedly, but they know that because the municipalities aren't supporting it, politically they might score a point or two. So they're interested not in what's right but what they think is politically right.
Frankly, on this side of the House we've always thought that to be wrong. We should be doing first what's right. On this side of the House there is a strong belief that first you set principles, then you set rules and laws around those principles, and then you apply politics. Clearly, on the other side of the House the reverse takes place. It's: "Let's set politics and then build some policy, and let's build rules around politics first." That's absolutely the wrong way to rule. But that's what we're hearing from them here with what they are saying with this bill on the auditor general.
They've said that the inspector of municipalities actually could be doing this, and they've referred to this being a financial audit. The municipal auditor that's proposed here, first and foremost, will not be conducting financial audits. That is not the purpose. You can't get a layperson, though, to go in and do a performance audit, which is what's being proposed here.
Value for money is what it's called. That's, I know, for many of the members opposite a very, very foreign concept. We saw that in the '90s.
It's interesting how the members opposite like to talk about the past 11 years, but they don't want to go any further than that. It's sort of edge-of-the-page memory. "We never want to remember the '90s when we were in power," because they know it was the worst of times, referred to by almost anyone you can think of.
Now the revisionism starts, and we've heard the revisionism from the Leader of the Opposition talking about how economically they were a powerhouse in the '90s, where statistically, every statistic out there defies that. But you know, I get it. It's politics. I get politics. I get that when you're in opposition, you oppose. That's what you do. But let's face it. Let's really face it. You support this. You know that it's the responsible thing to do, but you're playing politics here.
So speaker after speaker on your side is going to get up and continue to play politics. And you know, on this side we get it. We understand it. In fact, during the '90s, when we were in opposition, probably we would have acted the same. We didn't need to act the same. The people rose up; the municipalities rose up. And they rose up for good reason.
However, I think what we need to do here is understand that when we hear the opposition talk about why a municipal auditor general…. Speaker after speaker over there refers to the business community — you know, the B.C. Business Council, the chambers of commerce — those evildoers out there that are trying to earn profit and, coincidentally, provide some jobs, not that we really care about that. That was obvious in the '90s from their side.
I don't think there's anything wrong with listening to the business community if they say: "Hey, you know what? You're taxing us out of existence." In my city I can tell you that at times when property values were remaining fairly constant but there was a new assessment done on some of the commercial buildings in the downtown core area with businesses that were hanging on by a thread, the tax rates didn't really change but because of the value change — right? — huge, sometimes 300 percent tax increase on some businesses barely hanging on by a thread.
What happens in communities when that happens? Viable businesses — businesses like menswear stores or dress shops or hobby stores — begin to close. What takes their place? Pawnshops, moneylending places — you know, the quickie loan places. You start to see a whole other element move into the downtown core. A lot of that is because the municipality didn't understand that you're taxing businesses that you really want, to maintain a healthy core, out of existence. And we've heard that all over British Columbia from small business. Members opposite like to say that we're the friends of big business. Well, I tell you what. It's small businesses that are the engine.
We know that on this side. On that side I think what they talk about when they say "big business" is…. Mom-and-pop operations fall into that envelope for them, because in the '90s they taxed everybody out of existence — big companies, small companies. It didn't matter. They were leaving as fast as they could.
A great philosophy for them was: "Let's make the big companies small, and then the small companies…." Instead of saying, "Let's make them big," it was: "Let's just make them nonexistent." Every company that had an opportunity to move moved.
Cities in this province have some problems with the mix of tax rates. We hear that in the city of Vancouver. We hear the debates that are going on at their council. The industrial tax rates and the commercial tax rates are very high compared to…. Well, I won't say compared to the residential rate, but they're very high, and they're hurting businesses.
So now you want to try to balance it. But by balancing it, you've got to do something with that residential tax rate. Well, that's voters. So you're going to lose some votes. Do you want to do that? Well, maybe not. This is the argument that goes on back and forth in city halls.
I sat there as a mayor for three terms. I know the kind of thinking that goes on. I know the pressures that are there from the residential sector, and I know the thinking of: "Gee, you know, I don't want to offend the people who vote for me." The easier target has always been the ones who can't vote for you — the businesses. But now I move to this level of government, and I start to see: "Well, wait a minute. There are families here in those businesses that have jobs that are going to be lost." There is a whole other element here to think about.
I can see that what's going on over here is not being applied. They're not thinking about that. They're not thinking about families. They're not thinking about jobs. They're not thinking about an economy. They're thinking about: "Gee, how can we get a few more votes? UBCM said this." They didn't think that in the '90s. When they had an opportunity to go out and speak to municipalities, to actually do something that would be helpful to municipalities, they stuck the knife in pretty hard with things like Bill 55, and they didn't listen.
That's what I can see. When you listen to the rhetoric over there, that's what's coming again if, God forbid, they ever get back into power. They like to now look at polling that shows that hey, they might have a chance. They get all excited.
I can tell you, Madam Speaker, that the people of British Columbia must not forget what did happen in the 1990s. They must not forget the exodus. They must not forget that we were losing population, particularly the population that has some money to invest and create jobs. Capital just flew out of this province in the 1990s, starting with the corporate capital tax that was, again, a promise that wasn't going to happen by the first Premier of the NDP, Mike Harcourt, and then quickly we got corporate capital tax that stopped all of the Asian money coming in, in a big hurry.
Capital doesn't have loyalty. It goes to the friendliest market, and that's another thing these people don't understand. The municipal auditor is going to assist the municipalities of British Columbia to ensure that their taxpayers are getting value for money. That's what's key here.
Municipalities don't have to listen. That's also a very important consideration. The government has no interest in manipulating the auditor or trying to embarrass anyone. When he goes out and provides some advice to a municipality, the municipality can choose to take it or not take it. If they choose to follow the advice that's given, great. That's a benefit to the taxpayers of that municipality, to the economy of this province. If they choose to totally ignore it, well, I guess they do so at their peril. There's no sanction from the government, but I can guarantee you there is likely to be a sanction from the property tax payers in that municipality. That's what's going to drive change here and, I think, change for the better.
So I hope that the members opposite are going to be really frank, forthright and honest about what they really believe. They know this is a good move — politically, from the UBCM standpoint, not the best. But I believe the taxpayers of British Columbia understand that this is something that's in the best interest of all taxpayers in British Columbia — that when there is something being done in their municipality that doesn't provide value for money and if they have a city that's rolling off the tracks, the municipal auditor can come and assist them in getting back on the tracks with a voice that is independent.
They don't think that it's independent, because it's not a creature of the Legislature; that it's going to report back to a ministry or work under a ministry. That doesn't mean it's not an independent voice for the municipality. That's what will be provided here. I can tell you it is a healthy thing. It is a good thing. It's an overdue thing. It's done in places like Toronto, in the Maritimes, in Quebec. There are municipal auditors general in jurisdictions right across this country. They're functioning well, and they'll function well here too.
Madam Speaker, I thank you for the opportunity to at least say a few words here. I am waiting with anxious breath — or holding my breath. I'll put it that way. I'm holding my breath that someone on the other side will have the integrity and honesty to jump up and say, "Yeah, this is a good thing for taxpayers," because it really is.
With that, I'm going to take my place and listen to if there's any semblance of sanity that comes from the other side.
D. Donaldson: I'm happy to take my place in debate of Bill 20 in second reading, the Auditor General for Local Government Act. I want to put my comments in the frame, in the words of the minister who introduced this bill, of value for money.
Before spending $2.6 million, you need to know what the problem is that you're trying to address, and that's what the mayors are saying and councillors are saying about this act. They said it at the UBCM in September. They said it last month when I met with mayors of some of the major cities, and they said it just this past week when I met with mayors in the constituency of Stikine.
First, let's look at what the government says it isn't addressing in this bill. What it's not addressing, it says, is policy. It's not addressing the objectives of local government. In fact, section 3 of the bill reads: "…the auditor general must not call into question the merits of policy decisions or objectives of a local government."
At the UBCM, the newsletter during the UBCM, when this topic was being addressed…. The newsletter wrote: "The province has promised that the auditor general for local government would not have any more authority than provincial or federal auditors general to probe into matters of government policy." This is what the minister has also said, and yet what we just heard from a previous speaker, the member for Nechako Lakes, on the government side is that cost structure of wages and benefits is what this is about.
Well, if cost structure of wages and benefits for employees such as CAOs of municipalities is not a matter of government policy, then I don't know what it is. Now we have the minister who introduced this bill and a caucus member at odds, saying opposite things about the purpose of the bill. So it's no wonder the mayors are confused and councillors are confused about what the purpose of this bill is. We also had, at the UBCM….
The minister committed that the auditor general for local government would not set or order changes to tax rates. In other words, industrial tax rates, for instance, were not under scrutiny by this bill and by the auditor general for local government. Yet here we had another speaker from the government side, the member for Abbotsford-Mission who just spoke, and his words were: "taxing businesses out of existence." This was one of the purposes that the auditor general for local government should address. So again, we have the minister and a member of the caucus at odds over what the purpose of this bill is. It's no wonder mayors and councillors are saying: "What's the problem the government is trying to address with this bill?"
Some of the messaging from the other side is that this bill is about accountability. Let's be clear. On this side we're in favour of accountability and honesty and transparency with the public. But based on this government's track record, it's a bit of a credibility gap when they start talking about accountability.
We had a quote, and again we have a quote from the member from the government side — Nechako Lakes — who just spoke this afternoon, saying that taxpayer dollars must be respected and dollars spent wisely. Earlier the member for Kootenay East spoke to the purpose of this bill and said: "This is about making local government more responsive to the taxpayer, the way that the province has to be responsive to the taxpayer."
Well, let's deal with the second half of that quote first: "…the way the province has to be more responsive to the taxpayer." That is a bit rich coming from this government. Responsive to the taxpayer by saying the deficit would be $500 million a couple years ago when in fact it was $3 billion — is that accountability? We're talking about accountability.
Or is it saying that they would not bring in the HST before the election, and then the HST was brought in after the election? This is in direct contrast to what the member on the other side previously said that Bill 20 is about: the way the province has to be responsive to the taxpayer and the way municipalities have to be more responsive to the taxpayer.
What's their definition of honesty and openness? Is it saying that you believe in balanced budgets, but then having to amend your own balanced-budget legislation because of the deficit after deficit, year after year, that this government has put on the taxpayers? It's a bit rich, the second half of the quote from the member for Kootenay East, so let's look at the first half of the quote that he spoke about earlier. This is about making local government more responsive to the taxpayer. This is apparently what Bill 20 is about, according to the member for Kootenay East.
Well, perhaps he's showing his lack of elected government experience. By legislation, municipalities must produce an external audit and must balance the budget every year — no deficits. Now, that's accountability. My experience in ten years as a municipal councillor was with the external audit process. It was thorough. It was a lot of hard work on behalf of the CAO and the external auditor to come in. There was also budget time, when we had to grapple with producing a deficit-free budget every year.
That's the accountability that's already in existence. When the member for Kootenay East is saying this Bill 20 is about making local government more responsive to the taxpayer, I think he's missing out on the fact that there are checks and balances, which exist today, that make municipalities far more responsible to the taxpayer than this government has ever demonstrated in its behaviour in the last 11 years.
Layered on top of that accountability is the inspector of municipalities. The inspector of municipalities may require a local government auditor to provide a report on any matter and may hold an inquiry into any local government matter and make recommendations to cabinet. So there's another layer of accountability.
Of course, we have the provincial Auditor General, who has the power to investigate any municipal project that involves any provincial funding. So let's talk a little bit about the Auditor General as an independent officer of the Legislature.
By contrast, under Bill 20 the auditor general for local government reports to the minister and takes direction from an audit council appointed by government. The same government that misled on the HST, lied on a promise not to sell B.C. Rail and does not follow its own balanced budget legislation is going to direct an audit council to investigate municipal affairs. Now, that's a bit rich, and even the cabinet….
Deputy Speaker: Member, I will ask you to withdraw that remark.
D. Donaldson: Oh, okay. I withdraw that remark, hon. Speaker.
Then we have a cabinet minister, who has the purpose of this bill that is at odds with two caucus members, on the purpose of the bill. You know, there's a bit of an accountability issue there. I will give….
D. Donaldson: I'm pointing to Nechako Lakes.
I'm going to give the benefit of the doubt to the government on this bill in one aspect. That's the performance audit aspect and maximizing value for money.
Now, if you're really concerned as a provincial government in maximizing value for money, the $2.6 million, then wouldn't you look at whether the Auditor General could do this job? The Auditor General, who has the expertise in performance audits, who is efficient….
I'm Deputy Chair of the Select Standing Committee on Finance. The Auditor General presents his budget every year. He points out that he is the most efficient, cost-effective Auditor General in Canada, compared to other provincial funding. And the structure is in place as well.
If you were concerned about maximizing value for money, wouldn't you look at an existing structure, an existing independent officer of the Legislature — an efficient independent officer, perhaps — to do the work? But no, this is not what happened. We have $2.6 million going to the creation of a new office. If you were looking at value for money, would you not look at what independent local government auditors could do?
[D. Horne in the chair.]
You know, when the member for Kootenay East spoke about the purpose of the bill — and I'm just looking for the quote from him on that — he said: "When I talk to them about this and 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 I talk to are actually quite open-minded to that."
In fact, perhaps he's not attended UBCMs as an elected official, but at UBCMs this is exactly what happens. There are organized, structured talks, where people get together and share ideas and share best practices. This is what happens already with the municipal governments at the UBCM.
I would ask that if the performance audit is the key, then rather than spending $2.6 million on an entirely new office, why wouldn't you spend considerably less than that, if that's your true objective, and support municipalities, support the UBCM and, at considerably less cost, fund local government auditors to conduct performance audits that could be shared at UBCM in the forums that already exist. If you're looking at value for money, you're not looking at the best use of dollars when you're creating this office under Bill 20.
Let's look at what the opportunity costs are of creating the auditor general for local government. Opportunity costs are the costs of what could have happened if the money was spent elsewhere. Well, we have municipalities downloaded with victim services by this government. Smithers — the council spends $26,000 a year on victim services that they didn't spend before. That was downloaded to them. So that's an opportunity cost that's lost.
We have municipalities having to support a lot of organizations that used to get gaming grants from this government, and those services are being downloaded onto municipalities. We don't have a DriveABLE office in the northwest. Seniors have to drive five hours to Prince George to take a DriveABLE test — five hours. So instead of funding, under Bill 20, $2.6 million for a new office, the opportunity cost is lost to provide a DriveABLE. We're talking about value for dollars, as the minister describes.
Law offices in Hazelton. Community law services have been cut. They exist on a bare skeleton. If you're concerned about the justice system and delays in justice, then why are you funding as a priority Bill 20 — $2.6 million? Wouldn't it be better to put those funds in a priority area like justice?
Reading rooms in Atlin and Telkwa were cut under this government. That's an opportunity cost of Bill 20.
College programming in Dease Lake. This is an employment issue. It's been cut by this government. If you're concerned about employment, you would fund that. Opportunity cost of Bill 20 is not having the value for the dollar to go and fund opportunities for training like that.
So where has this come from? All I can assume, from what we've seen and what we've heard from the Premier, is that this came from her leadership contest. Again, another member, the Premier of this Legislature, has no municipal elected experience. So she made this promise without a lot of knowledge, I assume, about the issue, and this is what's happened. The opportunity costs….
The municipalities didn't ask for the auditor general for local government. They said it was a solution looking for a problem. It came from a leadership race, and now the taxpayers are getting stuck with a $2.6 million bill. They're not being able to use that money for some of the more important aspects I've outlined — municipalities, victim services, justice system backlogs, DriveABLE for seniors, training in colleges so local people can have local jobs.
This is the outcome of an ill-thought-out campaign promise by the Premier during her leadership race, and now we are suffering through it and the taxpayers are going to suffer through it. This is what this bill is about. It's not about more accountability. The accountability is there. It's not about performance audits. There are other mechanisms that are less costly that could be employed, which I'm sure UBCM would be happy to hear about and would like to be brought into the conversation on. That is why I cannot support this bill.
D. Hayer: This Bill 20, Auditor General for Local Government Act, is a good bill. We all have a perspective on it, and I think we are all here to represent our constituents, cities, municipalities and districts.
Let me just start with something about the city of Surrey. The city of Surrey has over 10 percent of the population of the province of British Columbia. It has almost 10 percent of the MLAs that are represented in this assembly here. The mayor of Surrey is Dianne Watts. She was just recently elected with over 83 percent support of Surrey residents. Before the election she said she supported the auditor general for local government.
I talked to her earlier this week, actually on Tuesday, and she said that she still supports it. As a matter of fact, when the press release went out, her name was stated with her remarks in there.
So when I hear from the members here how all the mayors and councillors and districts are against it…. They should ask four of the colleagues they have from Surrey. They will tell you that our mayor, who was elected with 83 percent of the support, clearly supports it, along with her team on city council — because all the team on her side was elected. One hundred percent of the council that ran on her slate was elected in Surrey.
I think part of our job as an MLA is to support our constituents in our areas. I support our mayor, and I support this Bill 20. The importance of Bill 20 is that it recognizes that there is only one taxpayer in British Columbia and that all level of governments have the responsibility to ensure that our taxpayers get the best value for the money, for the taxes they pay.
Bill 20, the Auditor General for Local Government Act, is supported not only by this government but by municipal leaders and taxpayers across this province. They recognize, as we do, that there needs to be oversight in spending to ensure taxpayers are protected. This bill, however, is not an imposition on municipal government.
The office of the auditor general for local government will not be requiring municipalities and cities to adhere to its opinions. It will merely recommend what should be the best course of spending the taxes they receive. I know there is great support out there in our communities for this oversight. Dianne Watts, the mayor of my own city — the city of Surrey — is fully supportive of the office of the auditor general for local government, as are many mayors across the province.
As we have all heard, in some municipalities the increase in spending is twice as high as their growth of population. That leaves an extensive and excessive burden on the taxpayers in those municipalities. That rate of spending growth is simply unsustainable.
Now, I know that in some communities infrastructure development has not kept up with the growth of population, and thus some councils are forced to spend large amounts of money to provide needed services. Well, there comes a point when a third party is needed to ensure that the money spent by council has been or will be done in the most efficient and effective way.
The office of auditor general for local government will provide that needed third-party oversight. But as I stated previously, the auditor general for local government office will not be the heavy hand of senior government imposing spending rules. It will simply be, after receiving the financial decisions of council, offering a recommendation. It will be up to the council and their respective taxpayers to either accept or ignore the fiscal advice given by the auditor general.
Those recommendations will be based on what the office — a fully independent arm of the government, I might add — believes is in the best interest of the taxpayers. That is good, because every penny of municipal taxes that comes out of the taxpayer pocket is after-tax dollars. After we pay our provincial and federal taxes, you are only left with approximately 50 percent of the money in your pocket. So when you pay municipal taxes, you are using after-tax dollars.
That means that to pay municipal taxes, some people may have to cut back a little on what they spend on their families. That is the one reason why this bill is before us. It is part of our Premier's family-first agenda. In the throne speech to open the session the Premier committed not only to ensuring that families were first in our province but that we would establish this office of municipal auditor general to ensure those taxpayers, those tax-paying families, are protected by giving value for the hard-earned tax dollars families contribute to local governments, to municipalities and cities.
The office of the auditor general will be funded by the province, so it will not be an added burden on the municipalities. They will not have to pay an extra penny on that from the city's budget. It will in fact be a great benefit to those villages, towns, regions, districts and cities because it will help them ensure that when spending is undertaken, it is undertaken with the best possible value for the tax dollars spent. That means increasing efficiency, improving effectiveness and ensuring due diligence in spending of the tax dollars they collect from taxpayers.
Again, I repeat that this office will not be imposing its will. It will only be recommending ideas and solutions. It will be up to the various municipal councils and, therefore, the taxpayer to decide if the recommended route is the best one for them all. The office will not determine priorities in spending. It will merely offer recommendations that the duly elected municipal council can choose to follow or reject and wait for the taxpayer to decide if those were the best decisions.
Therefore, in fact, it is a safety net for the city's spending. It will allow council to have an independent, arm's-length overseer reviewing the project and spending, at no cost to them — an office, I might add, that could see something council and staff have missed in assessing the cost of a project and preparing the budget.
The office will look at how municipalities develop their bureaucracies and point out possible efficiencies and spending cuts. It will look at the major infrastructure projects and offer possible ways to either reduce costs or make projects more efficient. This is effective assistance provided at no cost, and as I said before, there will be no interference or taking away their authority by the provincial government.
I know my own city of Surrey is looking forward to this office of the auditor general for local government, because it is the fastest-growing city in Canada. It will, within a decade or so, be the largest city in British Columbia. My city is undertaking a monster project to service our rapid growth in Surrey. Our council relishes the fact that with the passing of this bill, it will soon have independent oversight to a system, free of charge, in dealing with the huge costs that such growth requires.
But to be clear, Surrey already has introduced many innovative efficiencies that have helped to keep expenditures in check, as evidenced by its lowest tax rates. The city of Surrey has a relatively sophisticated expenditure control system and governance in place. That is why it is important to understand the support my city has for this bill and the office of the municipal auditor general.
Surrey council believes very strongly in openness, transparency and accountability. Therefore, let me tell the House exactly what Mayor Watts, from the city of Surrey, and the city council say about the office of the municipal auditor general.
"The city of Surrey supports openness, transparency and accountability with all levels of government, and we need to ensure that we are producing tangible benefits and value for taxpayers," says Mayor Watts.
"The city of Surrey has the lowest municipal taxes and second-lowest business taxes in Metro Vancouver, and compared to other Canadian cities, our residents pay among the lowest taxes in the country. We must continue to ensure those tax dollars are being used efficiently and effectively," says Mayor Watts, who went on to say: "A municipal auditor general has the ability to provide increased assurance that taxpayers are getting value for their money and allow for the best practice to be shared across the province."
She further confirms her opinion of the importance of this bill and the office of auditor general for municipalities when she said:
"All levels of government should continually be looking at ways to increase openness, transparency and accountability, because taxpayers need to know they are getting good value for their money."
Mayor Watts is not the only one in her endorsement of the municipal auditor general. Nanaimo mayor John Ruttan, Saanich mayor Frank Leonard, Coquitlam mayor Richard Stewart and former West Vancouver mayor Pamela Goldsmith-Jones all support the creation of this office. Additionally, the councils of Okanagan cities Penticton and Vernon have already written to the ministry expressing their interest and actually asking to be placed first on the list of municipalities to be added when the office is created.
The reason this council and many others are supportive is that the office of auditor general for local government will conduct performance, value-for-money audits only. It creates a separate, independent office that does not report to the Legislature. It supports, not duplicates, a strong accountability framework currently in place for local governments.
It has a mandate more limited than the Office of the Auditor General of the province of B.C. But it is merely restricted to making recommendations rather than imposing solutions. It does not affect local government's ability to make policy decisions about taxation, land use or other services by second-guessing policy and policy choices of the councils of local government.
So let's recap a little on the value of this office so that what we are debating today is understood. British Columbia has a strong local government accountability framework. Existing legislation such as the Local Government Act, the Community Charter and the Vancouver Charter set out rules of financial accountability for B.C. local government.
However, there is currently no requirement for local government to undergo performance or value-for-money audits. The federal and provincial governments are all subject to oversight by Auditors General, and several other Canadian jurisdictions have taken similar steps to ensure taxpayer dollars are invested wisely at all levels of government.
Halifax is required to have a municipal auditor general — MAG. I was earlier this January visiting Halifax, and I talked to many people there. They seemed to be happy that they have a municipal auditor general and that it's been making them more effective, more efficient.
Nova Scotia is on its way to implementing the provincewide MAG office for all of their municipalities. Toronto is required to have a MAG, but other Ontario municipalities are being given the option of adopting or implementing MAG. In Quebec municipalities with populations of over 100,000 people are required to have a MAG.
So we are not reinventing the wheel here. It already exists. We're just modifying it to use in British Columbia so that we can help our cities and our municipalities.
What the government is doing with this bill and with this office is helping local government by offering neutral, non-binding advice that will assist them in spending more efficiently, improving programs' effectiveness and efficiency. As one can see by reading Bill 20, the mandate of the office of the local government auditor general is related to municipalities, regional districts, Metro Vancouver water and sewage boards and the various other bodies controlled by 190 local governments that operate in our province.
The auditor general's first priority will be to undertake the important work of performance audits on municipalities and regional districts. In future other local government or special purpose local bodies such as the Islands Trust and the Okanagan Basin Water Board could come under the office of oversight.
Just so everybody in the House has a clear understanding, this bill is not our government imposing its will on municipalities and all of the functions of local government. We conducted an extensive collaboration with the stakeholders, with the intent of keeping taxes low for everyone. We've consulted widely with all involved and potentially affected by the office of the auditor general for local government, AGLG — including the Union of B.C. Municipalities, business groups, other affected parties, taxpayers — to determine how best to structure the role of the AGLG, the auditor general for local government. Stakeholders will continue to be key components as we look to establish this new office.
We also asked local governments for their input on their potential role — the purpose, function, reporting and scope of the proposed office. Just so everyone is aware of that, this is not a one-person operation as a part of this legislation. The AGLG will report through an audit council made up of at least five persons with expertise, for a term of up to three years.
To ensure that this will work, the Union of B.C. Municipalities has provided valuable input on the composition of the audit council. Other groups invited to provide input on the council's composition include the Local Government Management Association, the B.C. Business Council, the Government Finance Officers Association, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the B.C. Chamber of Commerce. In fact, the audit council's first order of business will be to make a recommendation to the minister on the appointment of an auditor general for local government.
I support this bill and the establishment of the office of the auditor general for local government because local governments will still have an unrestricted ability to make policy decisions about taxation, land use and other services. We're not taking away any of the authority. All we're doing is providing a helping hand through recommendations to assist in the efficient, effective spending of municipal tax dollars. As everyone who pays municipal taxes will confirm, that is good and a needed thing.
I want to say in closing that I support our mayor, Dianne Watts, and our city council. I support our taxpayers, who are saying that we do need an auditor general for local government. I hope all of the members in the House will reflect on that and will talk to their constituents. Rather than just speaking the party line, I hope they reflect what their constituents are saying. I'm hoping our four MLAs from Surrey will reflect on our mayor of Surrey, who was elected just recently with almost 83 percent of the votes — will support her and support her views, because the municipal level is closer to the taxpayer. They represent much more closely the views of the constituents than any other level of government, because day-to-day decisions are made by them that affect them daily.
I fully support this bill, and I hope the rest of the House will support it too. Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to say my views on this Bill 20.
B. Routley: It is indeed good to be back in the Legislature and have this opportunity to represent the fine people of the Cowichan Valley.
I want to say right up front that I will not be supporting this bill, and I intend to explain precisely and clearly why I will not be supporting this bill.
When you look closely at this legislation, you have to ask yourself: what exactly is the problem this government intends to address? Well, what's absolutely clear is that this auditor general for local government has not been asked for by the Union of B.C. Municipalities. No, the Union of B.C. Municipalities initially described the AGLG as a solution in search of a problem and voted at their September 2011 convention to continue discussion on the matter with the provincial government while disagreeing about whether the AGLG was even necessary.
I recently went to see the Cowichan Valley regional district and listen to our local politicians that are there representing local government. On the CVRD there are various mayors. There's the mayor of Duncan, North Cowichan. They had, at this meeting, representatives from Lake Cowichan council, representatives throughout the region and area directors from throughout the Cowichan Valley. What they told me was that they generally supported the Union of B.C. Municipalities in that they question why this is even necessary. And we're going to delve into that in more detail.
Some area directors even suggested that this present Liberal government needs to get its own house in order before they start looking at municipal governments, and I think they're absolutely right. I've heard Liberal after Liberal get up and speak about value for money. Well, where is it? Where is the value for money in this process, hon. Speaker? Where is it? It's not forthcoming. I haven't heard one Liberal speaker stand up and talk about how we're going to get value for money. It's not there.
There's no analysis. There was no analysis done. This is one of those ready-fire-aim approaches that just came about as a result…. Talk about political pandering. That's what has gone on here. There was no analysis done on why we needed it, no value-for-money study done whatsoever by this government, and they know it. All it is, is good spin that they've put out, but their own words do not match their actions.
Fiscally, this government is planning to run a deficit, which local governments cannot do. You know, it's interesting, the difference between local governments and the provincial governments. The lawyers for Young Anderson, at the Union of B.C. Municipalities, gave them a legal opinion, and here, in part, is what it says: "Local governments in B.C. are very different in their position from senior levels of government that have auditors general, in that deficit financing is statutorily prohibited at the local government level; municipalities and regional districts cannot budget for a deficit. Meanwhile, the province has been free to accumulate debt…."
In fact, this government has run up contractual commitments of over $80 billion, all a cost to future governments and to future generations of British Columbians. Where is the transparency in all of these public-private partnerships or P3 deals? It's not there. There's no transparency. They talk a good talk about transparency and accountability, but it's hidden by a veil of privacy arguments, and almost nothing is being disclosed on what goes on in these backroom deals.
Again, on the value-for-money argument, it's just not there. Where is there even a shred of proof of value for money on those projects? All those P3 projects, value for money — have we ever heard that? Have we ever had a report on value for money? I'd really like to hear from any of these Liberals who've got up and talked about, "Oh, it's such an important principle. It's just so important," yet we have no reports whatsoever coming out of all of the backroom dealings, and billions of dollars in long-term costs to the province and future generations.
So where do you suppose this legislation actually came from? Well my, my. Let's have a closer examination. Apparently, the genesis for this legislation came from the Liberal Premier's grab-bag of promises when she was running as a candidate for the B.C. Liberal Party. Come on; let's face up to the facts. That is what happened.
The Liberal government had a bunch of candidates running for Premier, and one of the promises that was made by the current Liberal Premier in her grab bag of promises was that they were going to look at putting in place a municipal auditor general or the auditor general for local government.
One of the members here, the member for Abbotsford-Mission, says that…. He accused us of playing politics. Now there's a joke. I have to just say: isn't it interesting? What goes around comes around. You want to say that we're playing politics? This is clearly a political move that has absolutely nothing to do with canvassing all of the stakeholders involved. This was all about backroom deals with friends and insiders of this B.C. Liberal Party. That's what was going on.
This bill was a commitment that was made during her leadership campaign as a result of lobbying by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the B.C. Chamber of Commerce. Why did they want action taken on these local governments? Exactly why did they want action taken on local governments?
Well, you know, there's an old saying. When you have an issue like this, what you do is follow the money. You ever heard that before? If you've got an issue, just follow the money, and you'll find the answer.
Well, sure enough, even in the early lobbying days of these business organizations, what they were talking about was taxation. Oh, surprise, surprise. They were talking about taxation, and it would be about their taxation that they were most interested at the end of the day.
Let's have a look more closely. The B.C. Chamber of Commerce said in a January 18, 2011, news release that "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." Do you need to hear that again? "The B.C. Chamber's policy on creating equity in the property tax system."
But we've heard the minister now say that this municipal auditor general will not have the power to comment on tax rates. All we're going to get is a performance audit. They call it value for money, and we're going to get into more detail about value for money, but this performance audit and the legislation that's proposed limits the range of matters to which the auditor general can comment.
The support that the B.C. Chamber of Commerce gave to this bill back then is clearly misplaced. They gave this bill back. Really, they should be taking their support back, because it won't be able to do what they say it should do…
Deputy Speaker: Member.
B. Routley: …what the B.C. Chamber of Commerce said it should do, and clearly it will not do what they want it to do.
Also, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business has concerns about municipal employees' contractual rights — my, my. This legislation will not permit the auditor general to enter into or comment on anything in that area because it's a policy area controlled and decided by the municipality, which is as it should be.
I know that multinational corporations…. For example, we've got Catalyst that has been complaining about taxes in North Cowichan — okay? In fact, they were refusing to pay their taxes, and they were challenging the community and taking the matter to the Supreme Court, where they lost. However, I might add that they've had some success with their refusal to pay their taxes and their court action strategy. At the end of the day, the North Cowichan council and mayor have reduced Catalyst's taxes.
It's interesting to note that the taxpayers in North Cowichan have had their taxes for an average home go up by 15 percent, and Catalyst has had their taxes go down 7.59 percent. But this was not all they wanted — not at all. It wasn't all they wanted. So they and others like them, I believe, thought for and hoped for intervention on high.
This is where the new Liberal Premier comes into the picture. At the Union of B.C. Municipalities, when all of this came to light, they asked government exactly what gap this government is trying to fill. They do not run a deficit. They are already audited by an external auditor. The pushback from local government was clearly loud enough to get government to make some commitments to municipal governments, and that is when the government made certain concessions to the Union of B.C. Municipalities.
The government committed in September 2011 to the UBCM that the AGLG would not — would not — make or overrule policy decisions of elected officials. Interesting — they gave them a whole list of what they were not going to do. Usually governments are talking about what they will do, but they were clearly on their heels and on the defensive, and they gave a list of what they were not going to do.
So they weren't going to overrule policy decisions of elected officials. They were not going to set or order changes of tax rates. They would not call into question the merits of a program or policy or objectives of local government, and they would not be making binding recommendations.
This is important. At the end of the day, we're going to spend…. This government wants to blow $2.6 million just for starters. They want to blow the taxpayers' money on some boondoggle program that at the end of the day…. It says right here that they made a commitment that it will not be making any binding recommendations or imposing any requirements — none.
They won't duplicate or displace existing accountability measures. You know, this would have been a real surprise, I think, a real disappointment to the business groups that this government had promised some real action. Oh yes, when they were meeting them I'm sure they promised they would soon be poking around in the cupboards of local government. They'd be doing that on behalf of their corporate friends and big business donors. Absolutely, they'd be poking around in the cupboards of small local governments.
But take note. They have no definition of value for money that these Liberals keep talking about. Yes, define value for money. I want to hear it defined because I want to hear any one…. I challenge any one of these Liberals, male or female. You go home and you tell your spouse: "You know what, dear? I want to have a little chat with you. I've decided on a new program. I have decided on a new program, and I am going to call it value for money. I want to see…. When you bring home a dress or a suit, I'm going to determine whether or not we got value for money."
Come on. Do they really think that in any relationship that's the way to behave? Are you going to tell somebody in a relationship that at the end of the day you're going to be the determiner of value for money? You know, your spouse brings home some beautiful dress, if you're one of the male MLAs, and do you think that I'd dare…?
I would not be married 41 years, I can tell you with absolute certainty, if I said to her: "You know what, dear? I've been thinking about it. I've been thinking today that I want to decide whether we got good value for money. I want to know how much that cost, and I'm going to be deciding whether or not maybe you could have got a better deal. Maybe you could have gone to Zellers or Wal-Mart or somewhere and got a real deal. They have ones that look very much the same."
Is that what value for money means? Come on now. Give your head a shake. It makes no sense whatsoever.
I pored over the documents to see if there was a definition. No definition of value for money anywhere in the documents whatsoever at all. They have no idea. They have no idea what value for money means. They have no idea. That's just making it up as they go along. It sounds good, so let's just say it. More jiggery-pokery at the end of the day — more jiggery-pokery.
When you take note….
Deputy Speaker: Members.
B. Routley: Exactly what does this mean when it comes to local governments? I can just see this auditor general rooting around in the cupboards and looking. There are the pens and the pencils. And maybe there's, you know…. What kind of computers have you got? You know, you could get a better deal. You go down to Costco. You can get a real deal on some of these things.
Is that why we're paying $2.6 million? So we can have somebody wandering around Wal-Mart saying…. You know, price-checking. We've got a price-checker here. You can be sure that this new $2.6 million office…. They're going to want to have a calculator so they can walk around and shop and compare and report back. And they could probably write pages. Oh, value for money. What fun that will be.
It will be absolutely a boondoggle, and these fellas and MLAs know it. At the end of the day, they know that that's what's going on. So I would argue, after this little demonstration has made the point, that value is in the eye of the beholder. That's what local governments have the right to do, to do things. And it's whether it's the art on the wall on the way in the door….
Can you imagine? The auditor general comes in and says: "Oh, you've got a picture on the wall there. Is that your community?" "Yeah, that's the community." "Well, how much did you pay for that?" "Oh well, it was a good cause and so we made a nice donation." "Oh well, we're going to have to write that down in the report. What kind of value for money is that?"
They can have just an absolute boondoggle, page after page of nonsense that doesn't mean anything. And we all know that at the end of the day, this does not meet the test. It just simply does not.
Now, let's take a look. You know, these guys…. I've been listening. It's been with real interest. I've been listening with real interest. They get up and speak. "Oh yeah, we've been thinking this through for years and years now. This is such a wonderful plan. It's going to be real groovy. It's going to be so groovy at the end of the day. We really need this because our…. It's not because our boss thought this up on the way to the campaign trail. No, no. This is all about…. We're going to have transparency. We're going to have some kind of…."
You know, the member for Nechako Lakes — I watched him with real interest. In fact, I turned the volume up because I thought: "Man, let me…." I wish I could play it again, because he said when it comes to accountability, who would not want more accountability?
Well, let's camp there for a little while, shall we? Shall we just camp there and talk about accountability and how this government, when it comes to being accountable, they don't meet the test themselves? And here they have the audacity to be thinking: "Well, let's point all of our fingers the other way to local government. Maybe if we could get folks to forget about all of the trail of disasters that we've got going on, maybe if we point all our fingers to local government, maybe we can get them looking over there. Yeah, we plant a little suspicion. We need to have value for money."
So let's talk about some of the disasters. Thank you for that introduction. At the end of the day, some of the examples are…. And this sounds like evading accounting standards. My, my.
In the 2011 Auditor General report reviewing the government's financial reporting, he was noting that if a public corporation were given an audit opinion with a reservation, the B.C. Securities Commission would normally place a cease-trade order against it.
The B.C. Liberal government just continues to ignore these matters, misappropriating funds from B.C. Hydro. In the 2011 report into B.C. Hydro's practice of deferring costs, the Auditor finds that the B.C. Liberals have been padding their bottom line by creating the illusion of profitability where there is none. My, my.
At the end of the day, we've got a government that's calling, pleading for more accountability, and they're pleading for that to apply for them, I'm sure. But when you look, you don't have to look very deep. It is just completely full of the kinds of things that are just scandalous when you look at it.
Imagine — a government accused by their own Auditor General of "padding the bottom line and creating the illusion of profitability where there is none." At B.C. Hydro this was going on.
Instead of facing up to their financial mismanagement, the B.C. Liberals have just changed the law to put off the problem. My, my. Oh, and let's talk about one that I've ranted about in here before. You know, you're calling for accountability. Let's have a little light shine where it needs to shine.
Forest land giveaways. In the 2008 Auditor General report into the land giveaways to the forest companies, he stated that the minister "did not do enough to ensure due regard was given to the public interest." Oh, my, my. So no, no concern for public interest.
You know, that was kind of out of the way to have to go and talk to the public. They were having too much fun in the back room with a big company, and they were saying: "Yes, sir. No, sir. Yeah, would that be okay, sir? Could we give you all this land and then not charge you anything for it? You won't tell a whole lot of folks, will you?" Well, oops. Oh, my.
Then it suddenly becomes a public matter. And you know, the questions do need to be asked. Giving away the assets…. What's worse? In giving away the assets of the people of British Columbia — that are worth millions of dollars, not just to this generation — you robbed future generations of British Columbians of their land rights, of their part, of their entitlement to walk through those woods, to stand by those streams. You robbed them, and you gave it away, and it's totally outrageous.
Deputy Speaker: I would remind the member….
B. Routley: These are the facts, hon. Speaker.
Deputy Speaker: Member.
B. Routley: Let's talk again about how….
Deputy Speaker: Member. I'd remind you to get back to the debate of Bill 20.
B. Routley: Thank you. You know, on Bill 20…. And I thank you for that reminder, because Bill 20 reminds me, when I think about it, that here they're calling for an auditor general for local government — you know? Isn't that fine? So if you're calling for an auditor general for local government, you must be so in love with auditors general and see the value…. In fact, you've been thinking about it. You think: "$2.6 million this year and then, you know…."
By the way, those folks are going to need computers and phones and desks and staff. And of course they've all got to be hand selected. Oh, that's going to be vetted in a real public way. These folks are all lining up. Yeah. Now how do you get to be on that list, eh? How do you get to be on that list?
Tell us about who gets to be on the list — the special select list that's going to be selected by who? The people of British Columbia? Oh, no. That would be the minister. That's right. The minister is going to select — handpick — the people for those five jobs, and then they are supposed to make recommendations. Do you think the minister will have anything to do with that? I'm shocked and surprised — shocked and surprised — at the absolute intervention, the lack of transparency, the lack of any kind of program or plan under this legislation.
There's one thing for sure that we know: that there has been no money for audit work done whatsoever on this. No, no, it was political pandering, pure and simple. Did they do any study? None. Zero. Absolutely nothing to do with it. And one of the problems we've got in British Columbia is the fact that whether it's communities or in the province of British Columbia….
You know, I'll tell you. I was on the select standing committee. I travelled all over the province — and some of the folks here know that this was so — and just about every year that I've gone on that tour there's a common theme that came out over and over and over again from big business, from communities, from the chambers and from the local universities, and that was that we are falling down on the job.
This province of British Columbia is falling down on the job in doing proper training, whether it's trades training, getting students ready for the jobs of the future…. And instead of spending $2.6 million on this boondoggle, we could be actually doing something about helping kids go to school and university. We could be doing something about making sure that trades training doesn't get messed up.
And while we're talking about trades training — because, again, this is another one of these transparency things that the folks on the other side have been calling out for…. They've been pleading for more transparency, so I'm just here to help. I'm trying to help with some of that transparency and shining a light.
Under the trades training, in 2008 the Auditor General found that the province brought in a new model for trades training.
Deputy Speaker: Member. Member.
B. Routley: They didn't provide adequate guidance or funding or quality assurance to the development of trades training. My, my. Isn't that something? I've….
Deputy Speaker: Member. Member.
B. Routley: Yes?
Deputy Speaker: Member, I'd remind you that we're debating Bill 20 at this point.
B. Routley: Under Bill 20. You know, I've listened with interest to the Liberal speeches on this matter, and they've talked a lot about the need for transparency, for value for money. Why, after all…. They're saying they're just here to help local government, I'm sure. They are just here to help. We need a little transparency, but let's look at how they practise what they say they need. You know? At the end of the day, when you look at how they practise what they say they need, it's not there. It's not there at all.
You know, the Auditor General of British Columbia had to go to the Supreme Court to find out financial information, not once but twice after this government ignored the order over the Basi-Virk $6 million legal bill. Interesting. But this is the Auditor General, and this is all about…. We need more auditors. We need an auditor to look into the local government.
When you think about it, I would say that it directly relates how this government views the Auditor General and what they actually have in mind for another government. They want to apply a different set of standards to local government than they're prepared to accept with their own Auditor General.
E. Foster: I'll try to stick with the topic here today, which is Bill 20, on the local government auditor general. I spent 20-plus years in local government, and over that time, especially in smaller communities where you don't have resources to bring in experts all the time to look at things for you and help you out, I would have welcomed an opportunity to have an audit of this type done. This is a best-practice audit. This is a "best value for tax dollars" audit. This is not about a financial audit.
We keep hearing about this. Financial audits are done. The left side meets the right side. Nobody's stealing from you. You have good accounting practices. That's all done. But this is an opportunity for communities, especially the smaller communities, to get some value; to get some advice; to get best practices; to hear from the auditor general for local government and get advice on what other communities, the like communities, are doing. Just an opportunity to get — especially, again, from the smaller communities' point of view — some free help from the provincial government. So that's pretty good value for money.
I had a whole bunch of stuff here. It was great. I had a big bunch of it, and then my colleague from Surrey used most of it up. So I'm not going to take up a whole lot of time, but I just want to touch on a few points.
This is an opportunity for the municipality to find best practices but also for the taxpayers to be able to find out if their tax dollars are being spent wisely or where the municipality would have an opportunity to do a little better. From an accountability point of view, especially in local government and especially in the smaller and the rural communities, this is certainly the most accountable form of government. Everybody knows what's going on.
You do these audits, and if the elected officials heed the advice, change the way they're doing business, maybe pick up on some best practices and the people in the community see that they're getting good value for their tax dollars, those people will be re-elected. So it would be incumbent upon those elected officials to take this advice.
It's not mandatory. This is not Big Brother pushing the thumb down, but it's an opportunity for the elected officials and also the administrative people in communities to take this advice. Basically, what we're doing here is we're just ensuring that taxpayers at the local level are getting good value.
I know that one of the previous speakers from our side of the House talked about business — small business, large business. We seem to have an aversion to big companies that provide hundreds of high-paying, family-supporting jobs. On this side of the House we certainly relish those large companies with the family-supporting jobs coming into our communities, and we support them and hope that we can see more of them coming here and creating jobs.
This is an opportunity for local governments to see where they might change their practice, where they might be able to entice some of these companies and corporations that do pay big, family-supporting wages and benefits.
As a former local elected official, I would welcome the opportunity for this kind of advice so that I could change my best practices, encourage industry to invest in my community. I don't understand why anybody would be opposed to this. It just makes good sense.
K. Krueger: That's why they're opposed.
E. Foster: That's possible.
An independent auditor will address where money could be saved at the local level. I don't see the auditor general going to Wal-Mart with a calculator. It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. I like to shop at my local stores, anyway.
This gives British Columbians an idea where their hard-earned tax dollars are going. The auditor general for local government will help local governments manage their spending and resources.
When consulting with local governments, I have only heard positive responses to an auditor general for local government. One of the first things that comes to my mind: if you're afraid of an audit, what are you doing wrong? Or if you're afraid of an audit, do you think maybe you should be doing something different?
Just in that light, I've got a couple of letters here. I just want to read them into the record. This letter was sent on January 10 to the Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development.
"Re: Auditor General for Local Government
"At the regular open meeting held on January 9, 2012, council for the city of Vernon discussed the above-captioned issue and adopted the following resolution: 'That council directs staff to advise the new auditor general for local governments that the city of Vernon would consider placement on this list for consideration of an…audit. Carried unanimously.'"
This letter was sent to the Premier on October 13, 2011:
"Re: Municipal Auditor General
"At the recent UBCM conference in Vancouver the creation of a municipal auditor general to periodically audit local governments was discussed. Penticton city council met on October 3, 2011, and discussed the new service. It was agreed that your office be advised of Penticton's interest in being the first municipality to undertake audit at your earliest convenience.
"We understand that the municipal auditor general would also help share best practices among different municipal governments to ensure that a similar standard of fiscal responsibility and efficiency is being upheld by all municipalities. We look forward to the opportunity of participating in such an audit and your positive response to this request."
So these are just a couple of letters.
I've talked to the other municipalities in my riding, and they look forward to this. They think it's an opportunity for best practices for them. It's local governments like Vernon, Penticton, Lumby and other municipalities across the province who are recognizing the importance of government's accountability to British Columbians, and with Bill 20 we are doing just that. We are respecting our taxpayers, our voters, and building a stronger and more accountable government. We've listened, we've drafted, and we are here, determined to bring forward legislation that brings positive results to local communities.
A big thing about this is that we are going to have consultation on how this will be put together. The minister is going out to communities to see what they feel is going to be the best opportunity for them to prosper by this.
Bill 20 is about efficiency for local governments. It will not interfere in the local government's ability to make policy decisions about taxation, land use or any other of the operations of the municipality. But it will give them an opportunity to have a look at best practices. I keep going back to this, but this is what this is all about. Bill 20 is about efficiencies within the community, where the auditor general will provide information to help local governments choose the best way to prioritize and fund community projects and programs. I'm happy to see such strong support from local municipalities across the province for Bill 20.
Mr. Speaker, I thank you for the opportunity to speak today and join my colleagues in support of Bill 20.
D. Routley: I rise to indicate my lack of support and my intention to vote against Bill 20, and I begin my remarks by saying that the official opposition and its record shows that we are entirely in support of increased scrutiny, increased accountability and increased transparency in every way. It was the NDP government of the 1990s that introduced the toughest conflict-of-interest legislation on the continent, introduced the most advanced freedom-of-information legislation in North America at the time and introduced several measures of accountability that this government has taken great effort to dismantle, particularly around open government.
This NDP government in the '90s brought in an Elections Act that made parties accountable for their spending and for their behaviour during election campaigns. We support accountability and transparency. The problem with Bill 20 is that it fails to meet the test of delivering on those principles. What we have is a government that has done its best to mislead the province, to mislabel its efforts and to deliver Trojan Horse legislation that does often the opposite of what it's intended to do.
This is a government that brings forward legislation, and all legislation asks the people for their trust. All legislation asks the people to believe that what they state as their intention is indeed the goal that they seek, but then the people are asked to support that with trust. This is a government asking for trust. This is a government that delivered broken promises around so many issues.
Bill 20 does not encourage us to have any more belief that they are able to deliver on a promise. This bill would introduce a local government auditor general, an auditor general for local government that would fail to meet the test of independence. The auditing council that would hire the auditor general for local government would be selected and appointed by this government, by the government. They would hire and presumably be able to fire the auditor general for local government. This is hardly independent.
This government is a government that has a record of treating its own Auditor General with disrespect. It has been stated before, and I'll restate it here, that when the government made its infamous decision to remove the Western Forest Products lands from TFL oversight on Vancouver Island, the Auditor General referred to that as basically a failure to protect and balance the public interest.
How did the government respond to that condemnation by their independent Auditor General? Well, one of the members from Prince George, the minister at the time, attacked the Auditor General, told him to keep his nose out of their business, that he didn't understand how business was done in British Columbia. That's the record of how this government deals with the opinions of Auditors General. That is the way they've treated our own Auditor General. Our own Auditor General is independent and reports to this House, to all 85 MLAs, to the province, independently. He can start investigations independently and can arrive at any conclusion independently. This Bill 20 auditor general for local government will fail to meet that test of independence.
Also, how did we get here? How did we get to the place where the B.C. Liberals have proposed an auditor general for local government? Well, it was a hasty promise made by the Premier while she sought the leadership of her party, seeking a foothold, an issue that could propel her campaign, which was stalling. It was obviously done without the insight that would have been provided had she had any experience in local government, had she actually thought this through.
Local government, as has been stated by even some of the B.C. Liberal members, is the most accountable level of government. Processes are already in place that guarantee that accountability. Local government cannot run deficits. Well, the province can run deficits. Of course, Mr. Speaker, the B.C. Liberals have a balanced-budget law that they constantly…. It's an annual ritual to trot the MLAs into the Legislature to amend the balanced-budget law so that they can run their many deficits — the largest deficit in the history of the province, the three largest, and then the doubling of the provincial debt as a result of that.
This is a bit of the pot calling the kettle black, isn't it, that this government finds itself in such a desperate situation of failed trust with the public? We can see it in the polls. We can hear it in our communities. I'm sure they hear it everywhere.
They decided that the way to switch channels was to say: "Look over there; look over there. There's a problem with local government, and we're going to fix their problem." The very government that cannot live up to its own balanced-budget laws, the very government that delivered a fudge-it budget — promised repeatedly by the then Finance Minister to be $495 million, not a penny more, right up to the day when it became apparent that it was actually $3.6 billion, more than seven times what the B.C. Liberals had promised the deficit would be — this crew is going to tell the most accountable level of government how to do business. That's very encouraging.
Local governments' major capital projects have to go to referenda. They have to go to the people and make the case that what they're doing is value for money and represents the wishes of the community. There's an extensive process of debate around every project. Public meetings are held, and they go into the night in many cases. Everyone gets a chance to have their say.
Quite the contrary for the B.C. Liberals, who have the habit of ramming through legislation through closure, starting projects and allowing them to run grossly over budget — the convention centre being the most egregious example of that, where it went almost a half-billion dollars over budget — yet this is the crew that will clean up local government's business. That is encouraging.
Every local government in the province must go to the people on financial reports, on annual reports. They also must go to the people — their citizens — on reports measuring progress against their goals. Again, the most accountable level of government, the most directly accountable to its people, the most responsive level of government is going to be directed and told by this bunch how to do business — encouraging, encouraging.
Then they say: "…must do annual external audits." That's a current provision for local governments. So local governments must already do annual external audits, and yet somehow the "look over there" crew have decided that a local government auditor general is the way to clean up business for the most accountable level of government — municipal, local governments.
There's oversight from the office of the inspector of municipalities. The office of the inspector of municipalities can investigate, can hold inquiries. In fact, the mayor of Chilliwack, Mayor Gaetz, said in the Chilliwack Times on August 18 that there already had 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 this inspector, to undertake performance audit of any municipal body.
So the provisions already exist, and yet they switched the channel — the "look over there" crew. Next window, please. It's not our problem. There's no problem here. The problem is there. The B.C. Liberal government that downloaded so many costs and so many tragedies, in fact, onto local governments is the very government who is now pointing their finger to local government as being the source of a problem.
The UBCM convention received a paper, a legal opinion. It said that the Community Charter itself makes provision for this accountability. The law firm Young Anderson said that 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.
So again we see that Bill 20 is, in the words of the UBCM, a solution looking for a problem. In my words, the pot calling the kettle black, an attempt to switch channels by a government that finds itself in a desperate situation. Having failed the trust of the people of British Columbia, they now appoint themselves as the auditors of trust.
Another possibility — had the government wanted to increase the auditing powers over municipal government, had the government actually wanted to increase accountability and transparency — would be to use the Auditor General's office itself.
How would this Bill 20 stand up to a value-for-money audit? Some $2.6 million to create another bureaucracy — $2.6 million that could be used in so many other worthy ways within the province of British Columbia, a province where we have seen huge deficits in our classrooms, hospitals and communities through cuts to public services.
So how is the government able to justify the expense of $2.6 million to create a redundant bureaucracy when the Auditor General could indeed do this work and probably do it much more effectively. The Auditor General already has the power to investigate any municipal project that involves even one dollar of provincial money. Why not expand the powers and the responsibilities of the Auditor General's office?
The Auditor General in British Columbia is a leader in the nation in performing value-for-money audits. In fact, they're involved in projects that will be leading and setting examples and setting the best practices for the nation's auditors in performing value-for-money audits.
Yet somehow this B.C. Liberal government has seen it necessary to spend $2.6 million to create another office when, in fact, all of the provisions of accountability already exist and any additional provisions or steps that they would like to take can easily be undertaken by our already excellent Auditor General's office. How does this Bill 20 effort stand up to a value-for-money audit? I would suggest not very well.
If this were really about transparency and accountability and not about the B.C. Liberals simply trying to change the channel, then the B.C. Liberals would have taken the advice that they had been given by many in this House and outside, that the provisions already exist, that the Auditor General's office would be the better option. But they knew better.
Independence could be achieved in a number of these ways as well. The Auditor General provides that independence. Why didn't they go to the Auditor General? The UBCM provides this independence. Why doesn't their auditor general for local government report to the UBCM? Why doesn't their auditor general for local government report to the Legislature — all 85 members in this House, in the entire province — as do other independent officers: the Conflict of Interest Commissioner, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, the child and youth representative, the Ombudsperson?
Why would they set up a new office that is going to be hired by a council of five appointed by them and accountable to them, to the minister and to the cabinet and not even to their own entire caucus, let alone the 85 MLAs that represent this province? This is obviously a lack of independence, obviously open to political interference. And that is obviously one of the desires of the B.C. Liberals in setting up this office.
No other jurisdiction in Canada does this in this way. Yes, there are other auditors general of local government, but none lack the independence shown here. None operate this way. None are hired by government appointees. None report simply to a minister.
While the other offices of this Legislature are independent, they're also hired independently. They're also hired in a bipartisan way. A select standing committee is formed to go out and hire the conflict commissioner, to go out and hire theInformation and Privacy Commissioner, the Representative for Children and Youth. These people, these offices, are hired through a select standing committee, bipartisan, with members from both sides. That is a longstanding principle, and it was put in place to maintain the kind of independence and neutrality that is necessary.
Here we have the B.C. Liberal government, whose history is characterized by the terms "friends" and "insiders." I mean, all the way through. We can look to the B.C. Rail deal. We can look throughout their history and to their donation track to see how they've behaved in terms of serving their donors.
The overview of all of this is a government that's in desperate trouble, that needs to change channels, that doesn't want to be accountable for its own behaviour, so it sends a message to local government. It tries to say to the province: "Look, we're interested in transparency and accountability for someone else — for someone else."
Deputy Speaker: Members.
D. Routley: Unfortunately, the UBCM's characterization of a solution in search of a problem fits this Bill 20. What problem are they fixing? There's a whole lot of this "look over there" on the other side. This is a little bit like an arsonist who shows up at a fire with a pail of water and then wants to be patted on the back and given credit. It's a terrible failing of trust, again, by the B.C. Liberals.
So what's it really about? Well, the B.C. Liberal members in their debate on this bill have constantly referred to taxation levels and taxation balance between industrial and residential taxation, when in fact the bill never mentions this. In fact, the minister has assured that the bill will not address these issues.
So which is true? Is the bill meant to be a mechanism for intervention into setting municipal tax rates? Is it set to scapegoat local governments for not being able to meet the downloaded costs that the B.C. Liberals introduced to local governments and then provide the rationale and the support for their intervention? Is that really what's happening?
The Premier has talked about this as well. The Premier has talked about linking tax rates to the auditor general for local government. The minister, the same. And yet out of the same mouth they deny that this is the intention of the bill. Repeatedly they refer to issues such as program value and wage rates within municipalities, even though they say, and the bill says, that the auditor general for local government will not have the power to intervene or to bring opinion to those issues, to choices by local governments.
So it really begs the question: why the disconnect? Why the disconnect between what the minister and the Premier have said, what the bill reads and what the members of the B.C. Liberal government have said in this debate? Is it because their stated intention is not the true intention?
I mean, who asked for this? Did we hear local governments saying we don't have the capacity to audit, even though they have to do external audits every year? Did we hear local governments — did we even hear the local taxpayers — crying out and saying: "You know what? We need the provincial government to step in and correct our local governments"?
Quite the contrary. Local taxpayers have every opportunity to have a voice through public consultation around every major project that a local government undertakes, around every report that a local government issues. And yet the government that even suppresses debate in this House, that never makes itself accountable to the people, that disputes the findings of our own Auditor General provincially, is going to stand in judgment and point to local government and say: "Yes, local government is the problem. Yeah, look over there, that's the problem over there."
So we like to look at….
Deputy Speaker: Members.
D. Routley: How did we get here? The Premier was looking for that foothold in her leadership campaign, so she made a promise without really thinking it through, without seriously thinking it through. We've shown it to be unnecessary. In fact, their own members have agreed that it's unnecessary.
The member for Cariboo-Chilcotin…. This is a quote from the 100 Mile House Free Press, February 16, 2011. That's one year ago — isn't it? Just exactly one year ago. Isn't that incredible? Just a year ago the member for Cariboo-Chilcotin said: "I don't believe we need any more red tape in the way government does their business. I was a mayor for 18 years, and I can tell you that, basically, municipalities are very well monitored."
There's a bit of a disconnect, Mr. Speaker. There's a bit of a disconnect. Just for the sake of clarity, let's read that again. This is a B.C. Liberal member from Cariboo-Chilcotin, who was a mayor for 18 years. She said: "I don't believe we need any more red tape in the way government does their business. I was a mayor for 18 years, and I can tell you that, basically, municipalities are very well monitored."
D. Barnett: And they are.
D. Routley: And they are, she repeats for me now. They are. Absolutely. I agree with her.
I've tried to show that all of the provisions that the B.C. Liberals state they are desiring already exist. Local governments are already the most accountable level of government in so many ways.
The inspector of municipalities…. The Auditor General provincially can intervene and investigate any project with even a dollar of provincial money, and that's practically every major municipal project.
So it's quite unnecessary if your goal is to promote increased accountability and transparency. But if your goal is simply to switch the political channel, if your goal is to point at the problems over there and say, "Next window. There's no problem here," then maybe this is necessary.
If your goal is to provide the support to intervene in the business of local governments, maybe this bill will provide that. Maybe this bill will be able to scapegoat local governments for the failure to meet obligations unfairly downloaded on to them by this B.C. Liberal government. Maybe it will do that.
But if it were to promote accountability and transparency, it fails. If it were to promote accountability and transparency delivered by an independent agent, it fails.
In the end British Columbians are left scratching their heads again, saying: can we trust them? Can we trust them? Can we trust the B.C. Liberal government? What are they telling us? What are they telling us this time? Are they telling us they won't tear up HEU contracts? No, they already did that. No, they're telling us that they can provide independent, clear accountability for local governments as though it doesn't exist.
Are they telling us that the debt is $46 billion when, in fact, $80 billion is off–balance sheet? The Auditor General points to the fact that they ought to be reporting some, at least some, of that $80 billion as debt. Are they hiding from their own Auditor General? Yes.
No, that's not what they're telling us this time. This time they're telling us they can deliver independent accountability and transparency to local governments as though it doesn't exist.
Are they telling us that they can build a convention centre for $400 million when in fact it will cost $900 million? No, that's not what they're telling us this time. This time they're telling us that Bill 20 will deliver independent clarity, transparency, accountability to local government as though it doesn't exist already.
Are they telling us that they're going to spend $400 million for a convertible roof over B.C. Place stadium this time, and then have it cost $600 million? No.
D. Routley: No, $575 million? Is that what they're telling us this time? No. This time they're telling us that they can deliver accountability and transparency to local government as though it doesn't exist already.
[D. Black in the chair.]
Are they telling us that they won't run deficits anymore? This time are they telling us that they have a law that will prevent them from running deficits, just as local governments are prevented from running deficits, and then trot us in here, all 85 of us, to change that law so that they can run yet another historically high deficit? No, this time they're telling us they can deliver accountability and transparency to local government as though it doesn't already exist.
Are they telling us that they hadn't run the three largest deficits in B.C. history? No, this time they're telling us they can deliver accountability to local government, as though it doesn't exist. Are they telling us that they will not sell B.C. Rail? Are they telling us that they'll perform a value-for-money audit on the $6 million paid out to silence Basi-Virk in the B.C. Rail trial? No, this time Bill 20 tells us that they can deliver transparency and accountability to local government, as though it doesn't exist. That's what they're telling us now.
Are they telling us that they won't bring in an HST? Are they promising that during an election campaign? No, this time they're telling us Bill 20 will deliver transparency and accountability to local government, as though it doesn't exist.
Well, I'll tell you, what doesn't exist is integrity in the government of B.C. What doesn't exist is accountability for the B.C. Liberals for the promises that they've made and that they've broken, the misleading that they did around the HST. Then now they tell us that Bill 20 will deliver accountability and transparency to someone else. Well, I don't believe them. I don't think the people of B.C. believe them anymore, and I think they're on the way out.
C. Hansen: I went back and did a little bit of research on the history of auditors general in British Columbia and the concept of the auditor general in British Columbia, and it was interesting. We actually, as a province — at least, we weren't even a province at the time — in 1861 had an auditor general at that time, and we had an auditor general through to 1917. But it wasn't in the same context as we know the modern-day auditors general and the role that they play in democracies and certainly play in jurisdictions across Canada at the federal, the provincial and now at the municipal level increasingly.
The Auditor General was actually, at the turn of the century, in the 1860s and 1870s, much more as we know our comptroller general's role today, but nevertheless, the title that was given at the time was Auditor General. In terms of the modern-day Auditor General, that came back into existence in British Columbia in 1976.
It was interesting because the person who really championed having a modern-day auditor general for the province of British Columbia was Garde Gardom. He was first elected as a B.C. Liberal member of the Legislature from the then two-member riding of Point Grey. I went back actually, and I checked through Hansards as far back as I could get them, and of course it was when Hansard was first brought in, in this House, in 1970.
Even in 1970 Garde was standing up in this House, advocating that we have an auditor general, in the tradition that we know today, of an individual who would actually not simply go in and audit the books as an accountant would typically do in a corporation, to sign off on financial statements and to make sure there was no financial wrongdoing, but as an auditor general that would actually look at how the interests of the taxpayer would be protected in a much broader context.
Garde Gardom faithfully raised that proposal every year, and of course in 1972 there was a change of government. The NDP government came in, in 1972, and they had three and a half years to bring in an auditor general to actually deliver on what Garde Gardom was proposing to the province as a member of this Legislature. And do you know what happened during those three and a half years when it came to that kind of accountability? Nothing — nothing.7
You know, Garde Gardom continued to advocate for that. Well, by the time the 1975 election came around, Garde Gardom had become part of a coalition government, with the election of the Social Credit government in 1975, and one of the very first things that that Social Credit government did, it being elected in 1975, was to start moving on the commitment to deliver on an auditor general in British Columbia.
Now, I came to work in this Legislature in March of 1976, as an assistant to Gordon Gibson, who was then the lone B.C. Liberal member in the Legislature. It was actually two months later that the Social Credit government of the day delivered on their promise of an auditor general. It was in May of 1976 that then–Finance Minister Evan Wolfe tabled the legislation to bring in the Auditor General for the province as we know today.
I can tell you that that legislation was passed, a few weeks later, unanimously, by all members of this House. But I went back and I started reading through some of the Hansards in the debate on the introduction of the Auditor General at the time. What I found peculiar is that the NDP members of the Legislature at the time hardly spoke at all in second reading. A couple of them stood up and said that they would be supporting this legislation, but it certainly wasn't the kind of rigorous debate that you would expect opposition to engage in, even if it was going to be a bill that was going to be passed unanimously by the House.
What I did find interesting…. And I think it sort of shows a pattern that goes back even into the mid-1970s. You know what the NDP members' biggest concern was about the introduction of an auditor general in the mid-1970s for the province of British Columbia? They were actually concerned that that Auditor General, once appointed, might have had the power to go back and look at the track record of the NDP government between 1972 and 1975, during those three and a half years. I can tell you that was not a pretty story in British Columbia political history, and there would have been lots of things that an auditor general could have sunk their teeth into during those years.
But, Madam Speaker, quite frankly, I've got to tell you, I was surprised that this NDP opposition today opposed this bill. I thought it would be the kind of thing that they could endorse, because it is something that can focus more light on how governments work, how our democracy works, how taxpayers' dollars are being spent at another level of government.
We've seen the effectiveness of an auditor general at the federal level. We've seen the effectiveness of an auditor general at the provincial level. I know, from the ten years that I spent as a member of executive council, that we didn't always welcome the reports of the Auditor General. But there was always something to learn from them. It would stimulate a discussion. It got things out into the open.
We didn't always agree. We didn't always implement the recommendations from the Auditor General, but it was done in a context where we were obligated to respond to those concerns. And if we weren't going to implement, we were responsible for actually explaining why and explaining to the taxpayers why we didn't agree with that particular finding or that particular recommendation.
When you look at the other ten years of record that the NDP have in government during the 1990s, I can sort of understand their reluctance to endorse the concept of an auditor general. The Auditor General during the 1990s was pretty brutal on that government and, I think, highlighted a lot of issues that the NDP government of the day could not respond to in a very reasonable way, because they were not defensible, in my view.
The other thing I find interesting, in following this debate today, is that 90 percent of what we've heard from the opposition members in their debate as to why they're opposing Bill 20…. If you took that same debate and those same arguments and you applied it to our provincial Auditor General today, what they would be arguing in favour of is getting rid of our provincial Auditor General today. If you look at their arguments, they're sort of saying…. The arguments are saying: "You know what? Everything is fine at the municipal level. They don't need the extra level of analysis." The same arguments would have been made by provincial governments resisting the implementation of an auditor general at the time.
I've heard the arguments of them saying: "Well, you know, this is $2.6 million, and it could be spent elsewhere." Well, I can tell you, the dollars that we spend today for the provincial Auditor General could be spent in other ways as well, but we in this House have made a choice for a provincial auditor general to be put in place, and that office is funded from taxpayers' money. And yes, it could be funded elsewhere, but it's not, because we have made that choice that that office should be supported.
I also found it interesting to listen to the debate from the member for Cowichan Valley when he was talking about how nobody could give him a definition of value for money. I found that one of the strangest arguments that has been made in this chamber in a long, long time.
I can tell you that one of the things that I feel some anxiety about, when we sort of start looking towards the next provincial election, is that I would like to know that voters are going to go into a ballot box in May of 2013 and have a sense that they have a choice between two political parties who could serve as government in British Columbia.
They have a choice of the B.C. Liberal Party, which actually has a good understanding as to what value for money means, a government that has actually been prepared to look at new ways that we can find efficiencies. It's not just always about doing things the same old way that it has always been done, and then if there is a shortfall, let's just throw more money at the problem.
What we have done on this side of the House, as government, is actually say: "We're going to look for efficiencies. We're going to take advice from outside, whether it's from the Auditor General or from others who can guide us on how we can actually find more cost-effective ways of delivering the services that taxpayers expect from their provincial government."
If I could wave a magic wand, this would be it. I would produce 4.5 million copies of Hansard of the member for Cowichan Valley explaining how he didn't understand what value for money meant. I would wave that magic wand, and I would have one copy of that transcript delivered to every single British Columbian so that they could read that.
I think the voters in British Columbia have to ask themselves which party can best deliver on a responsibility for how their taxpayer dollars are spent, can make sure that they get the best value for their taxpayer dollars that they have. I think if British Columbia voters read the Hansard from the member for Cowichan Valley, they would be very, very fearful if the NDP formed the government in British Columbia at any time in the future.
I went through and read some of the comments that were made by some local government officials about the introduction of the municipal auditor general. I just wanted to share some of those with the House, as I've copied them out of some of the media reports.
One is actually coming from Surrey Councillor Marvin Hunt. He says: "Generally speaking, we don't have a problem with it because ultimately it's a third party to come in and look at what we're doing, how we're doing things and make sure we are doing it in the best possible way." I think that is really good, simple plain language. Everybody in British Columbia can understand what that means. That's exactly what is meant by a municipal auditor general in British Columbia.
He goes on to say: "We hope that we're doing it in the best way possible…if we are not, we're glad for someone to come alongside us and say, 'Here's how you can do it better.'" I think that's the kind of spirit that we should welcome this new office in British Columbia.
In their 2011 report on municipal spending the Canadian Federation of Independent Business showed that actually the spending levels at the municipal level have grown faster than at the provincial level.
Now, should taxpayers be concerned about that? Well, I pay municipal taxes, and yes, I am concerned. I would like to make sure that my municipal taxes are kept as low as possible but still deliver the services that I expect for my family. But the amount of money we're talking about is not a trivial amount of money. We're talking about a total municipal operating spend in British Columbia of…. Well in 2009, which is the number I've got at my disposal here, it was a total of about $4.4 billion. That's a lot of taxpayer dollars.
I think we have an obligation to help facilitate the discussion, help facilitate the analysis, that ensures that taxpayers are getting that best value for money for those dollars as they are spent.
Now, there were other comments I came across, as well, in other news articles. I think I've heard this from some of the members on the other side of the House. This is one. I'm not going to name the municipal leader who said this because I'm then going to go on to totally, fundamentally disagree with what he said.
He said: "Unlike senior governments, municipalities are forbidden by law from running operating deficits." Now, that's an argument I've heard from some of the opposition members as to why we don't need an auditor general. I think, when people make those kinds of comments and when members of the opposition make those kinds of comments, what that demonstrates to me is they haven't got a clue what an auditor general's role is.
They haven't got a clue what the role of this local government auditor general will be, because it's not about whether or not they can run a deficit or not run a deficit. That has absolutely nothing to do with the function of an auditor general in this context.
What the auditor general's role is…. Whether a government is running a deficit, balancing their budgets or running a surplus, it really doesn't matter. What it's about is making sure that the taxpayers are getting the best value for the money that is there.
Here's another one. It says, "Personally I don't see a lot of value in it." This one official said: "Our books are audited every year." Well, again — and I've heard this come up from members of the opposition as well — that, too, has nothing do with the role of an auditor general, whether it's at the federal level, the provincial level or at the municipal level.
Yes, of course they have auditors that come in and audit their financial statements and make sure that money has not been misappropriated in an accounting sense. But this goes way beyond that. This goes way beyond that very narrow auditing function that, of course, we expect of governments at all levels.
As has been pointed out in the explanation of this position, the office is designed to provide neutral, non-binding advice. It is something that can shine the light of day on best practices. You know, we've got…. I don't know what the number is of the number of municipalities in British Columbia today, but we have hundreds of municipalities, obviously. And we have some municipalities that I know are doing phenomenal work when it comes to finding the best ways of delivering services to their citizens.
We should be identifying those best practices, and we should be highlighting them, and we should be celebrating them. We should be making sure that other municipalities around the province can appreciate where those best practices are and how they can emulate them in their municipality.
Now, I know that we've got examples across Canada of other municipal auditors general. Halifax has one, for example. Toronto has one. In Quebec, municipalities of over 100,000 people are required to have an auditor general. That's a fairly…. You know, when you talk about the cost, is that the most cost-effective way of actually delivering this very important service to municipalities, where every municipality has to engage an auditor general for each and every municipality?
I would argue that the approach that is being taken by this government, by saying we are going to have an office of an auditor general for local government that's going to serve the entire province, is a cost-effective way. And in fact, Madam Speaker, I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes seen across Canada as being a best practice in itself. Perhaps an auditor general is going to identify that as a best practice in the future — of having one office to actually serve the whole province, going forward.
I just wanted to highlight one other quote from another local mayor, actually. I think this one comes from Mayor Michael Smith. Not our esteemed journalist Michael Smyth, but this at the time was the mayor-elect of West Vancouver. His comment, I thought, was again quite to the point: "Any help we can get towards meeting our goal of spending every tax dollar wisely is a good thing…. The people doing the work would be sharing best practices, which can't be anything but a good thing for municipalities."
I think it's in exactly that spirit that we should be welcoming this office of the auditor general: to help identify what those best practices are. And I think that as municipalities start to work with this new auditor general and get the benefit of those insights — just as we get insights from our Auditor General at the provincial level and just as the federal government gets insights from the Auditor General at the federal level….
I think that probably what's even more important than what we as politicians at the federal and provincial levels get in terms of insight is the insight that the taxpayers get into how their tax dollars are spent.
Just as in May of 1976, when the B.C. Auditor General legislation was passed and that office was brought into practice — and I think we've seen the importance of that position at the provincial level — I think we too will see what a valuable position this will be at the municipal level in the decades to come.
B. Simpson: It's my privilege to rise in the House at the beginning of this session and speak to this bill. Just straight up, I will be supporting this bill into the next stage, into the committee stage. [Applause.]
I'm not quite sure why that's worthy of applause, because it's really in the committee stage that we will finally get past the politics of this and, hopefully, get down to the meat of it and address some of the questions that are being asked about the structure of this entity, how that entity will report and whether or not that entity will fulfil what the member for Vancouver-Quilchena said is the intent.
It's quite fascinating to me, as I stand in here, that this is, again, one of those classic cases of the fact that we are the duly elected representatives of ridings that are not homogenous. Yet we stand in this House and, because of party divisions, suggest that somehow we represent all of our local government, represent all of the people who have a particular opinion about this bill, in order to advance a party agenda.
That was writ large in the former member's speech, where he turned a debate about policy on the municipal auditor general into a question of which party you want to have elected and rule in the next election. I'm pretty sure the municipal auditor general is not going to be a ballot issue in the next election.
But the real issue that we have is what the intention is. To be fair to the opposition members, they're raising the question of intention, and to be fair to the government members, they're trying to claim that the intention is a good one.
The question of representation, for me, is critical on this issue, and I have a classic example of it today by way of a press release. The Cariboo regional district — the CRD; the city of Williams Lake; and the city of 100 Mile House — and I don't represent 100 Mile House, although some of my folks are associated with that — all issued a press release giving support to this bill in its intention.
I spoke with members of the city council of Quesnel. They are yet to have their discussion about it, but the general sense I got is that they're willing to support this in its intention. They have some provisos, and some of those provisos have been raised by opposition members.
One proviso is that at the end of the day they don't start bearing the cost of this post-startup. They don't want to find out that what they've signed off on is a bill from government for a function that they're still a little bit unclear about the intention of.
Secondly, they want to make sure that the intention is as the government states it: that the intention is for a stand-alone entity to give third-party advice on value for money and on best practices, and that that advice is truly independent and is not in the form of some agenda on the part of the sitting government, regardless of who that sitting government is. Quite frankly, by the time this municipal auditor general gets put in place, it may be a different government that's in power, so there could be a whole different intention.
We have a representation issue here. Again, I think that we do a disservice to the public to take what ought to be a public policy issue and turn it into an electioneering issue, but it's what this House seems to do.
My question about this and the reason that I give a sort of "Let's move into committee stage to look at it" is because, as with all things, the issue of informed consent is critical.
We do have municipal members in my riding who have given consent to this and said that they're willing to sign off on it — publicly declared that with a press release — but when I spoke with individuals who are involved in that and who are represented in the press release, it was clear that they have questions and that there has been information given to them that may or may not be accurate, and that we won't really know until we get into committee stage as we go clause by clause through this bill.
My intention, as their representative, is to take the debate from committee stage, feed it back to them and see if they're still as comfortable as they were when they issued this press release. That remains to be seen.
The member for Cariboo-Chilcotin has been quoted in this House. A member of the opposition just quoted that she made some comment a year ago. Well, one of the things that bothers me about that and always has bothered me about that is that surely we can be allowed to be more informed and change our minds.
The member for Cariboo-Chilcotin a year ago publicly stated what her impression was. If you asked me at UBCM, I felt that I would oppose this bill. If you asked me later on after I'd talked to some people, I thought it could be supportable.
We are supposed to evolve and learn and grow in this. It makes sense to me that that member would reverse her position. Acting as a former mayor with the first blush of this intention by government and then to be working with her local councils as this bill evolved and then have a change of opinion, that is perfectly acceptable. Apparently we have a brain in our head that can learn stuff and evolve.
I think that that's unfair to that member. That member and I have crossed swords many, many times over many, many issues, but I just think it's patently unfair that we beat each other over the head in this House with statements we've made before, which we've had a reversal of opinion on or that we're better informed on, and we make our opinion on that more informed position.
So the real question for me in this, as I look at committee stage and we try and separate the politics from the policy, is whether or not this function that is being proposed by government is a function that will be additive, so the function itself will be value-added to the system, if you will, as it provides value-added advice to municipalities.
I fundamentally support the auditor general function in the province of British Columbia and as an individual MLA have taken advantage of that position many, many times. Been to his office, talked to him about things that I think ought to be brought forward and to the public's attention that his office should look at. As a member of the Finance Committee, I had an opportunity to look at his service plan and budget.
All of those things are important. But I think it is the height of hypocrisy for government members to stand in this House and say that, you know, an auditor general is a critical function and we take advice from the Auditor General, etc., when we know some of the stuff that's gone on with this government and the Auditor General — the attacks on his budget, the attacks on him personally as a new auditor general and, of course, some of the shenanigans that are going around, a possible report that we're going to get tomorrow from that office.
So I think there is hypocrisy in the government's position that somehow the auditor general function should be just lumped by local government members who are concerned about that position and the function of that position relative to their ability, as a duly elected member of their city council, to do their function.
Those concerns are shown on a regular basis by the sitting government with respect to their own Auditor General, and so I think it's fair that some of those local government members have those concerns.
So what's really going on here? First and foremost, I do think — and the Union of B.C. Municipalities has reconfirmed that they still think — that this is a solution looking for a problem. That's not the language of opposition members. It's not my language. It's the UBCM's language.
It's quite interesting to me. I was watching some of the debate in the House in Ottawa over the gun registry, and on Power and Politics afterwards there was a discussion about the government's Internet bill. And it's quite fascinating on that case that the privacy commissioners and others are using that same language: that that Internet bill of Prime Minister Harper's government seems to be a solution looking for a problem, and the problem is being couched as child pornography.
But everybody that's looking at that is saying this has nothing to do with child pornography. The actual abilities that the bill is supposed to bring forward already exist. It looks like a debate like ours on this municipal auditor general.
I think the reason for that is that when governments move down a track for political purposes, when governments move down the track for a reason other than their stated intention, I think we're going to see more and more people be wary of that and push back, and that's a possibility with this.
I don't have an issue — the fact that the Premier, when she was in the leadership debates, in answer to a question, said that this might be looked at. What I do have concerns about is: is there an untoward agenda embedded in this?
There is reason for that concern because of the structure that's being proposed here and the quasi-independence. I don't like the use of "independence" that the government is using in this case because this is not an independent position in any stretch of the imagination, the way it's structured. I look forward to a counter-argument to that when we get into committee stage.
But also, my hairs on the back of my neck get up when I listen to the debate from government members who seem to keep coming back to the issue of taxes, property taxes and industrial tax rate and property tax rates. The member for Chilliwack in his debate on this actually said straight up that he would be 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 operation of this office. He said: "I have no doubt whatsoever that that's going to happen."
Other members have pointed to that as well. So it's hard not to sit, as an independent member of this Legislative Assembly outside of the partisan debate, and not see permeating and seeping into government members' statements that what they're really wanting is to put downward pressure on a tax regime that they don't have direct control over. It's part of their ideology that taxes are bad and taxes somehow have to be reduced.
I think taxes are good, and I think we need to have the debate about whether they've been reduced too far, as we're seeing all over the world. So I have a hard time listening to government members make the case for this, when on the one hand they're saying it's an independent office, going to do value for money and share best practices, and yet they all allow to seep into their argument that at some point property taxes are an inordinate burden.
I believe that this government still wants to get at the one area of taxation they have not been able to get at, to support the group of entities out there that they are more in bed with than anything else, and that's the large corporation. We know that since 2003 the large corporations in this province have been hammering away at property tax reductions, their industrial tax rate.
In Williams Lake and Quesnel it is an ongoing and vociferous debate between the industrial ratepayers and the council. We know on the Island it has gone to court as Catalyst Paper has attempted to set their own rate. In fact, we've had that debate in this House. I think it's unconscionable that the provincial government did not stand with its municipal counterparts and tell Catalyst Paper that it will pay its full taxes like every other citizen in this province. Instead they said: "Oh, let's see what the court decides."
If you have taxation power, you levy a tax. You pay your taxes. You don't allow a corporation to turn around and say: "We'll pay this amount because we think this is the value." I think the provincial government really failed in its responsibility to stand with those municipalities and say: "Catalyst will pay its taxes. We'll continue the dialogue about what that rate needs to be."
The government has also attempted through a competition council to put pressure on reducing industrial tax rates. They have now got a new panel going out and looking at business tax rates. Those are all facts. That's not partisanship. Those are facts. The facts speak to the fact that this government wants to get at industrial tax rates in some way and cap them or reduce them, because that, ideologically, is what they believe. They've made all kinds of arguments to that effect, and it's not the purview of this debate to get into those arguments.
So I am hesitant. I am concerned that in behind this bill is an agenda, that the solution to a problem that is yet undefined…. The problem is actually trying to figure out a way to get at business and industrial tax rates.
We have already had this government reduce the industrial school tax rate. The HST sell job was around reducing taxes for commercial, particularly large, corporate entities. They have reduced the corporate tax rate to the lowest in Canada, along with Alberta. They've done all of that. They have run up against the wall of what they're capable of doing any further. There's an entity called local government that has power over that last piece of taxation, and this very well may be a way to get at that.
So let's see in committee stage how this is structured, whether the structure will certainly keep it separate from government. All the claims have been made: whether the minister has too much influence, too much directive power, etc.
But the functions as described by government members I laud, if it is in fact a municipal auditor general that is independent, if it is a municipal auditor general that will do value-for-money audits with local governments as partners in that, that will share best practices with local governments and that through those best practices there will be a process in which taxpayers will get full value for their dollars — absolutely. My local governments, for the most part, seem to be in line with that possibility.
One of the questions that I just want to raise is the question of the true independence of this office. That's what remains to be seen in committee stage. The selection for this officer, certainly on the surface, does not appear to be independent. The selection should be the selection process for independent officers of the Legislature.
Secondly, how the service plan and budget for this office is put together and approved ought to be a function of the Legislature. Finally, the reporting ought to be to the Legislature. That's where I go back to what I opened with, which is the press release from the three local governments — the Cariboo regional district, 100 Mile House and Williams Lake — because embedded in that press release are some of the issues that I'm sure my local government members don't understand the nuances of and the implications of.
Embedded in the press release at the end, it says: "Bill 20, Auditor General for Local Government Act went into its second reading today. The AGLG will conduct performance audits and make recommendations to local governments to assist them in finding efficiencies and increase the effectiveness of operations." All well and good.
The next statement then says: "The AGLG will be a separate, independent office that does not report to the Legislature." What I'm trying to get my local governments to pay attention to is that means it is not independent. That means it is a function of government. It is a function of a minister in government, and it is susceptible to the whims and fancy of that minister and of that government.
This idea that somehow independence from the duly elected Legislature of British Columbia magically means that that office is independent is actually the reverse. It is the exact opposite. That's what I mean about making sure that my local governments are giving informed consent to this and informed support for this, because embedded in their own press release is some of the evidence that this may not in fact be what they think it is.
A true municipal auditor general should be a function of the Legislature of British Columbia, should have its service plan and budget approved by the Legislature, should report to the Legislature and should not be a function of government which, it appears to me, this municipal auditor general will be. It will be a function of government.
As I said, this government may not be able to get what it wants if, indeed, what it wants is to get at industrial tax rates and commercial tax rates, because there may be a change of government here very shortly.
But I don't believe that the municipal auditor general should be a function of any government, regardless of the partisan stripe of that government. The best value for local government is a truly independent officer, and on the face of it, I don't see this fulfilling that independence.
With that, I look forward to committee stage, where we will get into the details of this bill. I will be paying close attention to that, I may participate in that, and I will be feeding that debate back to my local government members. So if they are going to give support to this bill, they're going to do it in an informed manner, and then I will represent their views in here as I was elected to do.
R. Howard: It is a pleasure for me to rise today and take my place and speak in support of Bill 20, the Auditor General for Local Government Act. I thought I'd start with just giving some of my personal background and move on to try and debunk just a few things that I've heard today. Then I'd like to address why I think this is important, why it's important now and, lastly, just talk about some validators.
My support comes from my roots in local government. I spent seven years on Richmond city council. I had the opportunity to chair our finance committee and our public works. I chaired some other committees as well, but those two gave me the opportunity to look, in greater detail than I might have otherwise had the opportunity, at both how the city puts together its financial plans and how it consumes much of those dollars in public works.
I've also had the opportunity to sit on the Lower Mainland Local Government Association, which is an association of the 32 local governments from Pemberton back out to Hope. Provincially, since I've been here, I've had the opportunity to chair our Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services, and I've also sat on the Public Accounts Committee.
I really just say all of that to kind of describe my view, my paradigm, my perch on this issue. I think I'll come to my conclusion and then I'll back-feed it in how I came to that conclusion, and that's that I really don't understand so much of the rhetoric that I hear. On the one hand I hear that there's a great cheering section for the provincial Auditor General but a lack of support for a municipal auditor general. We see that there's a federal Auditor General, who is often viewed as shining a good and strong light on many issues federal.
So just right off the bat I'm caught a little off guard as to what the opposition is concerned with or why things have to be so divisive when, on the one hand, we talk about all the great things that come out of the Auditor General's reports provincially, but then we don't seem to have any belief that that same function can perform the same value at the municipal level.
For me, this comes down to accountability, respect for taxpayers' dollars, transparency and just making sure that we treat the taxpayers in this province and we afford them every opportunity we can to make sure that their dollars are being spent prudently.
We've heard that we don't — the opposition is saying that we don't — value the Auditor General. I think the term was…. I heard that we don't give him respect, and as a member of the Public Accounts Committee and as Chair of the Finance Committee, I really take exception to that. I think the Auditor General does great work, and I would put forward that there are hundreds if not thousands of recommendations that he has made over the years that government has adopted.
Various ministries and various departments within the provincial government actually take action based on his recommendations. Now, I don't think we agree all the time, and I don't think any reasonable person would expect us to agree all the time, but I think there's a level of respect there, and I think the numbers in fact show that.
The other thing I hear that offers some discomfort, because I think it is a little bit of an obfuscation, is that the local governments currently have year-end audits done.
I think it was the member for Vancouver-Quilchena who spoke, much more eloquently than I, on this subject. It's difficult following the member for Vancouver-Quilchena. It's a little bit like going on the basketball court after Michael Jordan has been out there for 20 minutes shooting baskets. He talked about the accounting kind of style of function. Do the receipts add up? I'm oversimplifying it, but the function of a municipal external audit is very different than a value-for-audit function.
When you look at even how city budgets are built — and I say, as Chair of Finance, that I've been there — one of the things that really startled me as the difference between civic government, local government and the provincial government is that at the provincial level the vast majority of revenues are property taxes. The property tax is set by assessments and mill rates, and the money comes in. Good year and bad year you set up the mill rates, and you collect your revenue.
The provincial side, as we've seen, is not that straightforward, because our sources of revenue — whether they be income taxes, personal or corporate, or royalties for mining or gas — can fluctuate wildly. I think that there is a good kind of principle there, that when we look at the local governments and their ability to secure stable funding year in and year out, to me it just adds more value to the idea of a value-for-money audit to make sure that the taxpayers are being well served.
You can't tell me…. As I tour around the Lower Mainland — and, in fact, tour around the province — I meet local government staff. I find that there is good support within the staffing levels at the cities, because very many of the staff are very professional, and they take great pride in what they do. They believe that what they are doing is the best and the most efficient way. But if the auditor general were to come up with a best practice that shed some light on how to do it better, these very hard-working, dedicated professionals, I believe, from everything I hear, would be very willing to grab onto that idea and take it and make it work.
I do run into the odd local government employee who also thinks this is a good idea because they think there are some more efficient ways to do things and they have limited success promoting that idea within their existing structure.
I had been meaning to, but just didn't have the time to, try and figure out what are the total budgets of local governments. What does that number look like? The member for Vancouver-Quilchena, I think, used the number $4.4 billion. If that number is even close to right, and you can save — you know, pick a number — 1 percent off of those budgets by prudent fiscal exercise and value-for-dollar audits by a local government auditor…. Like, 1 percent, you're talking over $40 million at a cost of $2.6 million. It's one heck of an investment to be able to track those kinds of savings.
I wanted to talk a little bit about why this is important. We've heard the statement "what is the problem that we're trying to address" as if there isn't one.
I say: "Really?" What is the problem we're trying to address? You don't know what the challenges are? Look at what….
H. Lali: Tell us.
R. Howard: I'm going to.
You just look at what's happening around the world. You just look at the international governments. You look at what's happening in Greece. You look at what's happening in other places in Europe — France. The list is getting frighteningly long. You look at what has happened down in the States, and there is a litany of examples where governments have not behaved fiscally responsibly, and they are being held to account.
R. Howard: I would love to talk. I will diverge just for a minute because I'm being…. Somebody is wagging their finger at me. We'll talk about our triple-A credit rating and how we've rebuilt our triple-A credit rating over the last ten years, compared to your government's successive downgrades. We can talk about….
Deputy Speaker: Order, order, please. Order.
Thank you, Member. Go ahead, please.
R. Howard: Why is this important? Again, on the backdrop of the fairly stark financial realities in international finance these days and other governments, as I've said, you look at what people think about high taxes or about taxes in general — taxes and levies and fees. I get feedback all the time that people think they're too high.
The Fraser Institute, just to quote one, has a Tax Freedom Day calculator. It says in round numbers that British Columbians pay taxes, and they work, up until about June 6 or thereabouts, for government. So their yearly earnings up until June 6 go to pay taxes and fees and levies for various governments. People that I hear from think that's too much. Taxes and fees and levies are too high.
So we park that idea for a minute, and then we look at the demand for services. We all know that the demand for services is ever-increasing. As I've said as Chair of the Finance Committee, when we travel the province you hear all sorts of really good stories about why government should spend more money. Look at the demographics that are going to drive health care costs, potentially.
You've got these cost escalators that are happening, these demands for services that are happening. You've got people that are fed up with paying high tax rates, and then you add a third element into this. You could probably add a few more than that, but the third is our aging-infrastructure challenge — right? Governments all over the world have aging infrastructure, whether it be roads, sewers, wires or pipes. Most of that stuff or a lot of that stuff was planted back in the '50s and '60s, and it will start to expire at some point in time, and we'll have to pay as that capital expires.
You can look at the current — it's been in the news a little bit recently — pension dilemmas, whether or not our pension system is going to be able to afford this demographic bulge that's happening — the aging-demographic bulge.
You have all these pressures that mean it is increasingly important that we understand that the taxpayers' ability to pay is limited, and all three levels of government must work together to make sure that we do that. The federal government has their Auditor General, and the provincial government has our Auditor General. This is the next step in the evolution, and it makes infinite sense to me that the local governments should also have an auditor general.
I want to just talk about validators. Again, it kind of goes to the issue of: why are we doing this, and where is the support? We have some significant validators in local government and business associations that have deliberated on this and come to a conclusion.
We have Surrey mayor Dianne Watts, who has said: "All levels of government should continually be looking at ways to increase openness, transparency and accountability, because taxpayers need to know they're getting good value for their money." There you have the leader of the second-largest local government in the province, who has thought about this and come to the conclusion that a value-for-money audit is a good thing.
I also know from work that I did with the Lower Mainland Local Government Association…. I sat with Councillor Marvin Hunt, and we talked a little bit at the time about what local governments could do to become more efficient. We talked a little bit about purchasing programs. I mean, Richmond has its own purchasing department, and it has its way of doing things. You know, they have an inventory of spare parts, let's just say, for traffic lights, signal systems. If a truck takes out one in a weekend, they don't have to wait for it to show up from wherever it comes from. They have the complete system in their warehouse.
That complete system might be worth — I don't know — a quarter-million bucks. It might be worth a half-million bucks. But it's expensive. Surrey also has a couple in inventory, for the same reasons, and it's all good stuff. But you look all over the Lower Mainland, and wouldn't it be neat if an independent party could come in and look at some of this stuff and say: "Hey, you've got two. They've got eight. They've got 16. Why don't you consolidate your inventories, to reduce costs to the taxpayer and not reduce services in any way?"
You also, when we talk about local governments…. There are recreation programs offered all over the province. You just can't tell me that…. Over the province there are a myriad of different ways of doing things, and there are some good ways and some bad ways. I think this is a step towards trying to find out what the good ways are. What are the best practices? Let's publish those and make them available to other local governments.
We have Saanich mayor Frank Leonard, who said: "I think having an auditor general for local government is part of a local government's evolution. We've become larger, taking on more significant capital projects and responsibilities, so we should also have more accountability. It's time for us to have similar reviews as exist at provincial and federal governments, such as an auditor general."
Again, in the evolution of local governments…. I was there, and I saw local government becoming increasingly complex in trying to meet the needs and ever-increasing demands of its citizens. I'm very much in line, I think, with Mayor Leonard's thinking — that this is a natural step in the evolution of local governments.
I'll wrap up here, I think. We've heard from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and there was one other, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, that had also weighed in on this discussion and expressed support — widespread support from stakeholders, from staff, from other politicians. We have a federal Auditor General. We have a provincial Auditor General, which has been…. All day long here I've heard about the great work that the Auditor General does in this province, and I agree. It's time to tackle the $4.4 billion budgets that the local governments have in the same way.
I'll close in just saying that in my view…. I've tried to outline why this is important, now, and look at the landscape that we're in, of people kind of fed up with paying too much money, demand for services high, infrastructure expiring and needs replacement. In my view, this is about leadership. It's about doing the right thing for provincial taxpayers. It's about transparency. It's about accountability and best practices, and I'm very pleased to support it.
M. Farnworth: It's a real pleasure to rise and take my place in the debate on Bill 20, the establishment of a municipal auditor general. There's just so much to go on here. The debate has been quite fascinating over the last number of hours — from the government side, from independent members of the opposition and from, of course, my colleagues in Her Majesty's Official Opposition.
I find in this debate an awful lot coming from the government side. They've made a number of statements, and they're justifying it. They're finding every conceivable way to justify it. But they've failed to address the single biggest problem with this piece of legislation — they don't want to acknowledge it — and that is the word "independence." Not as the member from Kamloops South might go "jiggery-pokery." He seems to think that that's the most important part of our discussion that he wants a definition of it. But it is the word "independence."
We are discussing the creation of a municipal auditor general. That is no small thing. That is not something that you would expect should be done on the basis of some ill-thought-out idea on a leadership campaign trail. But rather, you would think that that would be a piece of public policy that would come about as a result of a discussion with those in the area of local government — with UBCM, for example — establishing a working group as to how we can improve things, how we can make better accountability. The problem is that that really didn't take place.
We do have, as members have pointed out on both sides of the House, an Auditor General whom — we have stated on this side of the House — we have great confidence in. And apparently, government members also purport to have great confidence in the Office of the Auditor General.
The Office of the Auditor General, I'd just like to remind members…. I know that one of my previous colleagues, who I have a lot of respect for, did a little bit of research, as he said, on the nature of the Auditor General's office and provided some history about the establishment of the Auditor General back in 1861 and how it functioned until 1917.
Then it was brought back in 1976 by a member of the Social Credit government, which I'd just like to remind the House was not a coalition government. It was an actual political party that campaigned as a political party, had conventions and resolutions and grassroots organizations and was very much grassroots-driven. It was a party that existed at the same time with a Liberal Party, not a B.C. Liberal but a Liberal Party in this House, along with Conservative members. The late Scott Wallace was a Conservative.
It's only in 1991 that we actually saw the emergence of a B.C. Liberal Party in this province. So I just want to set the record straight there, because I do think it's important, particularly when government members are wanting to be certain that the facts and the factual information should be what is discussed.
Anyway, the part that I would like to add in this debate is around: what is the role of the Auditor General in its current context in the province of British Columbia? If you go to the website under "vision" — and I think it's one that we would all share — it is "a highly valued, independent legislative audit office recognized for excellence in promoting effective and accountable government." A highly valued, independent legislative audit office, hon. Speaker.
[L. Reid in the chair.]
Its mission: "To serve the people of British Columbia and their elected representatives by conducting independent audits and advising on how well government is managing its responsibilities and resources." Again, the word "independent" is central to its mission.
Its values: "Serving the public interest: being relevant to legislatures and the public. Independence and objectivity: being free of influence, conflict of interest and bias." Again, that word "independence" is central.
One would think that when we have such a terrific model in place already — an auditor general appointed by this House, by all members, free of any bias but completely and objectively independent — that would be a model worth replicating, a model worth looking at. Perhaps expanding the responsibilities and duties of this valued independent office would be something worth thinking about, because we know that it works and that it's cost-effective.
I can tell you that government, apparently, at one point did think that. They did think that. In fact, if we go back to the estimates of last spring, the current minister commented on just those things. "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."
It goes on to say: "We don't want to duplicate those kinds of things, 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" — clearly thinking about it — "and working with UBCM to understand their expectations of what is required…." Again, the former minister, in response to a question from my colleague from Fraser-Nicola. He has been in this House so long I am still tempted to say Yale-Lilloett, but Fraser-Nicola.
In response to the question that he asks, the minister says: "I'm sure the member has the document that I have that Premier Christy Clark had offered, where she…."
Deputy Speaker: Member.
M. Farnworth: I apologize. No names. I apologize. I do, yes. That was my mistake. I'm just reading from the transcript. I agree. I should know better.
Anyway, the Premier "had offered, where she 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."
Last spring they recognized that the Auditor General as it is currently constructed would be an ideal place to put the functions required for a municipal auditor general — their own words. What happened? Why have they lost confidence in the existing Auditor General's office? To expand the Auditor General's office, to expand the role, to expand the resources…. After all, they found $2.6 million for this greenfield operation that they want to create.
They want to reinvent all the things that are already in place in terms of staffing, in terms of a building, in terms of manuals, in terms of process, in terms of all of those things — a greenfield operation — when they could have taken that $2.6 million and put it into an auditor general's office that has expertise, that has processes in place, that has staff in place. As my colleague from Vancouver–West End has said, they may not have even needed all of that $2.6 million.
But the real question is: did they actually look at that? Did they actually look at what the cost would be of setting up a greenfield operation and compare it to what it would be to expand the role and responsibilities of the existing Auditor General to take on functions that would audit — performance value audits for municipalities?
Did they look at that? Well, if they did, they certainly haven't shared that information with UBCM. They certainly haven't shared that information with the public of British Columbia, and they certainly haven't shared that information with this Legislature. They clearly didn't do it.
M. Farnworth: The member says: "Not guilty." Well, I guess he is not guilty of being informed.
One really has to ask the question: what exactly is going on? Why wouldn't they do that? Why wouldn't you put in place a municipal auditor general's functions in the highly respected, as the government says, Auditor General? Well, I think it comes back to that word "independence."
I think that may have something to do with it, because when you look at the legislation, it becomes really interesting. The auditor general is guided by, in part, an audit council. An audit council has considerable powers — an audit council that's appointed by this government.
H. Lali: Handpicked.
M. Farnworth: Handpicked, as my colleague from Fraser-Nicola says — a handpicked audit council. Well, gee, that doesn't exactly sound the most independent way of doing things, by my book. What's wrong with the current…? They have yet to explain to this House or to the public at large or to UBCM what is wrong with the current Auditor General's office.
They offer up no evidence — no reports, no evidence, no documentation — to say why the change from last spring when the minister stood up in this House and said, and I think it's important to read it into the record at least one more time, 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."
Instead, the government wants to attack members of the opposition for being against value-for-money audits. A colleague across the way, the member for Vancouver-Quilchena, in fact seemed to be so put out by one of my colleague's speeches and remarks around value-for-money auditing that he said that if he had a magic wand….
An Hon. Member: He'd bring back Gordon Campbell.
M. Farnworth: My colleague said he would bring back Gordon Campbell, and I am sure that there are many days on that side of the House where they wish that in fact they could bring back Gordon Campbell.
Alas, that's not what the member for Vancouver-Quilchena said that he would do. The member for Vancouver-Quilchena said that if he had a magic wand, he would…. I thought he might take us back to July 22, the day before the implementation of the 23rd, and go: "Do we really want to go there?" I thought that's what he might say.
Instead, he said he would take his magic wand and make 4½ million copies of the member for Cowichan Valley's speech and send it out to every household in British Columbia. I couldn't believe what I heard, that that's what he would do with a magic wand, because clearly, the last time he had a magic wand he created 4½ million documents, and it cost $800,000, which never did get mailed but had to be shredded. How is that for value for money? If they want some value-for-money auditing done, how about we get a value-for-money audit done on that?
How about we get a value-for-money audit done on the $6 million settlement for Basi and Virk. How about that? How about we get a value-for-money audit done on B.C. Rail? I am not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen. Instead….
M. Farnworth: Well, the member says that they would like if I did that. I'm sure that they would, but I hate to disappoint them because I'm looking forward to the next 18 months and the election in May 2013.
M. Farnworth: Oh, I do know that the member from Kamloops…. I understand why, because then, I guess, he'll either be retired by the electorate or retire of his own volition and will be able to pursue things that he's much more interested in.
But look, the point is really clear. The government is saying that the opposition is opposed to a municipal auditor general. I don't have a problem with a municipal auditor general. What I have a problem with is a lack of independence — a lack of independence in the creation of a true set of processes and responsibilities in an existing auditor general's office.
I have a problem with a government that said last spring that that's what they would do, then changed their minds but don't offer any rationale why, don't offer any documentation why, doesn't offer any….
M. Farnworth: Sorry?
K. Krueger: Were you working on that when you were in cabinet?
M. Farnworth: I was working on many things. If I recall, hon. Member….
Deputy Speaker: Members, through the Chair.
M. Farnworth: Thank you, hon. Chair. If I recall….
M. Farnworth: Well, you know what? I'm going to stick to the topic before us — as tempting as it is — and that is the creation of a municipal auditor general. The problem is that it doesn't have the independence that it should have.
You cannot stand in this House and say that you're going to create an independent office, an independent auditor, when the audit council is appointed by government. That audit council chooses who the auditor is. That is not a recipe for independence. That is a recipe for everything that we have seen over the last 11 years from this government, which is bias, which is a lack of transparency and which has resulted in things such as $800,000 being spent on documents that end up getting shredded, and having to fight tooth and nail under watered-down freedom-of-information laws for the media to get a hold of them.
The record of this government is what inspires the mistrust on this side of the House and the public when we see legislation like this. We'll be going into greater detail at committee stage. Make no mistake about that. But even at this particular stage, on the principle and on the intent of the bill, on the way that it is constructed, we cannot and will not support it.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
Had they come forward with something, for example, that had been constructed with UBCM, that had had the input of the Auditor General, then it may well be different. Trouble is that that's not what we've got before us.
Now, I know that I have time and I can continue for some time longer. I see from my House Leader that he notes by the hour it is 6:50, and we have ten minutes left. I suppose we are sitting until 7:00, but he also suggests that we save it until tomorrow. So I will make a few more comments before I move adjournment of the debate.
One of the arguments that I have heard from this government as to why it's so important that this legislation take place and why it is so important that it be done in this fashion is because this municipal auditor general will be able to advise local governments on their best practices that they discover — on best practices.
What's really funny, though, is when you listen to the hon. members, it never applies to their municipality. It didn't apply to the member from Richmond, certainly, when he was on council. He didn't give an example of a practice or a project that took place while he was on council that would have benefited from a municipal auditor general coming in. It certainly didn't come in from any other member on that side of the House. You know, we haven't seen that, hon. Speaker. It's always every other municipality that can benefit from the looking of the municipal auditor general, not mine.
But the one thing that's really fascinating is that they all talk about the need for best practices. Well, my god, where on earth have they been every September in the province of British Columbia when the city of Vancouver or another major centre hosts the UBCM? The whole UBCM conference is just about sharing best practices in local government. One really wonders what they're doing at those conferences. It clearly isn't working with local communities because that's what they discuss.
At this point, noting the hour, I will move adjournment of the debate, and we can pick up on this stimulating discussion tomorrow.
M. Farnworth moved adjournment of debate.
Hon. I. Chong: I know we have another eight minutes left, but I understand that the members would like the House to now adjourn.
Hon. I. Chong moved adjournment of the House.
Mr. Speaker: This House stands adjourned until 10 a.m. tomorrow morning.
The House adjourned at 6:52 p.m.
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