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Throne Speech Chance for NDP to Mark End of BC Liberal Era

‘This is where they get to put their stamp on their mandate.’

By Andrew MacLeod 8 Sep 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative bureau chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

The next few days are key for British Columbia’s new government with a throne speech Friday to be followed with a budget on Monday, say observers.

“Obviously it’s really important,” said Michael Prince, a public policy professor at the University of Victoria, adding it’s a critical time for the minority NDP government. “I really do think it’s this odd juxtaposition of a mood of change, the end of an era... [while] at the same time I wouldn’t quite call it transformative yet.”

The NDP was sworn in as government July 18 and John Horgan became premier. The party defeated Christy Clark and the BC Liberals in the legislature in June with the support of three Green MLAs.

While the government has announced several decisions over the summer, the throne speech and budget are an opportunity to articulate a broader vision. “It sets the agenda for the rest of the legislative session and it will underlie their priorities and commitments,” University of British Columbia political science professor Maxwell Cameron said.

Iglika Ivanova, a senior economist and public interest researcher in the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said, “This is really what’s going to set the tone for this new government. It’s very important they do it right.”

And Dermod Travis, the executive director of the watchdog group Integrity B.C., said, “This is where they get to put their stamp on their mandate. This is the first, and they better get it right.”

Political finance reform

Travis said the public will be watching to see which promises make their way into the throne speech and which are delayed.

Travis hopes for quick action on campaign finance reform, which the NDP had committed to taking at the earliest opportunity. “It better be in that speech from the throne and it better be passed this session,” he said.

At the very least the government should act on the areas where the three parties with MLAs in the legislature agree, including setting a preliminary cap on individual donations and banning corporate, union and out-of-province donations, he said. The cap on donations from individuals should be lower than the $5,000 the Liberals proposed in a bill that failed to pass first reading in June, he said. “That’s way too high.”

For areas where there’s disagreement, including how to fund political parties and whether there should be new campaign spending limits, the government would be wise to send them to committee and give it a mandate to consult the public, Travis said.

UBC’s Cameron said he’s watching for “realism” on electoral reform. The government has promised to put a question about changing the electoral system to the public in a referendum to be held in conjunction with the municipal elections in the fall of 2018.

“That’s not a lot of time to go through any kind of a process for selecting an alternative and educating the public,” he said. Past referenda in B.C. and a botched federal process hold lessons for the B.C. government, he said. “If you’re serious about electoral reform, it doesn’t happen fast.”

Headed wrong way on electoral reform, says prof

Taking a “half-assed” approach to such an important question is inappropriate, Cameron said. He noted that no dedicated minister was assigned to electoral reform and that responsibility was given to Attorney General David Eby, who is also charged with fixing ICBC and revamping the human rights commission.

“It sounds to me like they don’t understand what it’s going to take to do it,” he said. “I favour changing it and that’s why I’m concerned... It looks to me like they’re heading in the wrong direction.”

A rushed referendum will make it easy for opponents to campaign against changing the system, he said. “If the government doesn’t get its act together, the opponents will quickly take the lead and frame the issue for the public.”

Cameron will also be watching to see the government’s understanding of issues important to parts of the province that didn’t vote for them and for action on political finance reform. “That’s a critical thing and it will be a massive betrayal of the public if they fail to act on that,” he said, adding there’s pent up desire for change. “We have a terrible problem with money in politics. That I think would be a critical problem for them to address.”

The CCPA’s Ivanova said the government has been clear what it wants to do over four years. But she added, “We don’t know exactly how they’re going to prioritize it.”

The agreement with the Greens is clear on several actions to be taken during the first sitting of the legislature, and the budget should include updates known to be needed, including the cost of fighting forest fires, eliminating bridge tolls, raising welfare rates and implementing the education agreement reached with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, she said.

“The big question for me is what they’ll do on the corporate and personal income tax promises they made,” said Ivanova. Finance minister Carole James hinted a “nice surprise” will be in the budget, but it’s unclear what that means and for whom the surprise will be nice, she added.

Rebuilding capacity

Ivanova is also looking to see if there’s more money for transit infrastructure, social housing, the opioid crisis, mental health and addiction treatment, and school seismic upgrades.

There’s also a need to rebuild the capacity in many ministries, including those tasked with conducting environmental assessments, after years of outsourcing and cuts to staffing, she said. And there’s a need to strengthen the rights of tenants and to explain how the government will implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“I do want to see action on poverty reduction that’s bigger than funding for a pilot basic income project,” she said, arguing the social safety has been “gutted” in the last 16 years.

UVic’s Prince said it will be interesting to compare Friday’s throne speech to the one delivered in the dying days of the BC Liberal government in June that drew heavily on the NDP and Green platforms. “A lot of the thunder has perhaps been taken away from the real NDP throne speech,” he said.

Similarly, the budget will be an update that’s unlikely to make a big departure from the one the Liberals presented in February, he said. People will have to wait until February or March for the first “full blown” NDP budget.

“There’s a momentous change in the air, [but it’s unclear] whether this throne speech and this budget will carry that same momentous impact,” Prince said.

He said he expects to hear messages about affordability, change and co-operation, as well as demonstrations that the new government is more caring than the last one. “The messaging will be very important for signalling intentions,” he said. “B.C.’s finally after all these years going to look at poverty in a much more systemic and strategic way than the last government did.”

But action may be moderated, as it was with the decision to back down on a timeline for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, he said. “They’re wanting to signal to a lot of groups, particularly the private sector, that they’re competent managers.”

There will also be an opportunity for the NDP to define the government they are replacing, Prince said, much the way the Liberals did after taking power in 2001. “This is the NDP’s chance to label the last 16 years,” he said. “They’ll do it. They should do it. That’s what political parties do. It’s part of democracy.”

The throne speech will also likely repeat various commitments agreed to with the Green Party, including increased penalties for lobbying violations, a multi-year ban on lobbying by former senior public office holders and moving the fixed election date to the fall.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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