The British Columbia government's Speech from the Throne today opened by promoting the opportunity the Olympics bring and closed by saying British Columbians should expect less from the government.
Along the way the speech, delivered by Lieutenant Governor Steven Point on behalf of the government, reiterated numerous past promises and ongoing initiatives while making several new announcements.
- a moratorium on mining, oil, gas and coalbed methane extraction in the Flathead Valley;
- families with children under the age of 18 who own property will be allowed to defer their municipal property taxes much as seniors are already allowed;
- "Legislation will be introduced enabling our universities to remove themselves from the government reporting entity," the speech said. "We cannot let accounting policy stand in the way of our students' interests or hold our universities back from pursuing their unique areas of excellence in partnership with others";
- a committee on municipal property tax reform "will identify specific steps to make property taxes more conducive to investment while assuring municipal services are fairly provided for all taxpayers";
- the government will "take a fresh look at B.C.'s regulatory regimes," it said, including the BC Utilities Commission, the BC Ferry Commission, TransLink and others;
- it hinted that the government may soon act on recommendations made by the comptroller general in the fall: "New accountability and transparency will be brought to BC Ferries as it continues improving services with new ferries, terminals and amenities";
- the government will pursue more public-private partnerships in "transportation, health delivery, education support services, systems management and more";
- Emily Carr University of Art and Design will get a new campus near the Centre for Digital Media at the Great Northern Way Campus;
- "New partnerships with the private sector and parents will enable the establishment of neighbourhood preschools for four-year-olds and three-year-olds within communities over the next five years."
Curtail your expectations, BC
The speech also repeated past promises to harmonize provincial and federal environmental assessments for major projects, a call it said was made more urgent by the recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling on the Red Chris mine.
"The government will work with other provinces and the federal government to establish one process for one project," the speech said. "Multiple governmental reviews replicate work, add cost, increase uncertainty, delay decisions, reduce investment and ultimately cost jobs."
Changes particularly need to be made to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, it said. "Currently, over $3 billion in provincially-approved projects are stranded in the mire of federal process and delay. This is unacceptable."
The speech, which bragged of the government's record of cutting taxes, said British Columbians should prepare for more cuts to services.
"Stemming the unaffordable growth in health costs is essential in meeting our obligation to rebalance the budget by 2013," the speech said. "As long as we are spending more money to pay for our services than we are generating in revenue, we are living beyond our means."
It added, "We must curtail expectations of government and look for new ways of meeting our needs within the substantial spending increases already provided."
Premier takes long range view
Premier Gordon Campbell said the speech was about taking advantage of the Olympics and using it to start building the kind of province we want to be in 2030.
During a post-speech scrum in his office he took question from reporters on several topics raised in the speech.
The property tax deferral for people with children under 18 years old will work much like the deferral currently available to seniors, he said. People who take advantage of it won't have to pay the taxes until they sell the home or they die, he said. "It's really saying we understand families have additional costs as a result of having children."
He didn't know how many people might use the deferral, but said there are as many as 400,000 families with children in the province. The decision won't be a hit to municipal budgets, he said.
Campbell acknowledged that his government has been pushing Ottawa to streamline the environmental assessment process for some time. "We're going to continue to push it," he said. "You have to be committed for the long term to these issues."
The federal government has been encouraging and he's met with Environment Minister Jim Prentice, Senator Richard Neufeld, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, he said. "My experience is you have to continue on this and be persistent on it."
The move would be about having "smarter" regulations and faster processing times, but would not amount to deregulation, he said. "There's nothing here that suggests you shouldn't be thorough in the review process."
Asked about BC Ferries, Campbell said the publicly-owned company is well run, but some changes need to be made. "There are some challenges that we face with B.C. Ferries in terms of openness, accountability and transparency," he said. "We will be dealing with those. There will likely have to be some legislation but you will hear more about that in the weeks ahead."
In an interview earlier in the day transportation minister Shirley Bond said the government will "very soon" be addressing issues raised in a report by the comptroller general released in the fall.
Government out of ideas: James
"I don't think anyone had high expectations for this throne speech," said New Democratic Party leader Carole James. "We know this is a government that is very focussed on the Olympics and that's what people expected in this throne speech."
The speech ignored the hard time many British Columbians are having, she said. "I did expect that the government would at least acknowledge the challenging economic times that are facing people in this province -- job losses, high child poverty rate, cuts in services -- and I didn't see any of that in this throne speech."
She added, "I saw a government that didn't have any ideas to deal with things post Olympics."
Streamlining environmental assessments isn't necessarily a bad idea, but she has doubts about the government's plans, she said. "Looking at deregulation for the sake of deregulation is worrisome. It's concerning because you could be looking at reducing environmental protections that are there for a reason."
James said she supports the Olympics and will be cheering for Canadian athletes, but added the tough questions about spending still need to be asked.
The speech talked about using the Olympics as a springboard, but had no specifics for how that would be done. "I didn't hear tourism mentioned once in that throne speech. Surely tourism would be the opportunity to be a springboard."