The B.C. NDP government is “reviewing” a lot of things right now. ICBC, B.C. Hydro, B.C. Ferries, environmental assessment, hydraulic fracturing, the labour code, education funding and so on. Name a provincial government function and it’s probably being reviewed.
This is to be expected after a change of government. Back in 2001, the B.C. Liberals embarked on a “core review” to determine what the province didn’t really need to do. Now it seems to aim in the opposite direction, and there are “bumps in the road,” as Premier John Horgan has been saying lately.
A recent bump is the revelation that B.C. Ferries isn’t going to be made “part of the highway system.” This was a mantra of the NDP, and coffee shop wisdom across Vancouver Island, for many years. It was a constant refrain of North Island MLA Claire Trevena, a resident of Quadra Island who now finds herself the transportation minister.
Making the ferry service “part of the highway system” was code for massively increasing the already huge public subsidy so fares could be slashed. As one of the tireless advocates for this idea liked to say, the magic solution was to “suck it back into government” and get rid of the quasi-independent corporation that carries the debt and operates as a highly regulated business.
When the latest petition calling for this was delivered to the legislature, Trevena quickly ruled it out. People just want affordable service, not a change of structure, she said, having absorbed a big dose of financial reality during a few months in government.
Another constant NDP opposition demand was that B.C. create a poverty reduction plan with annual goals. Every other province has one, you know. (I guess that’s why poverty has been pretty well solved in Manitoba and Newfoundland.)
They’ve had to extend the deadline for delivering this made-in-B.C. program. Listening to the same advocacy organizations make the same demands for instant solutions turns out to be like listening to people who chose to move to a remote island and now don’t like the cost and inconvenience.
Speaking of islands, homeowners there are now spared from the burden of the “speculation tax,” which was announced in February as taking in vacation homes from the Fraser Valley to the Gulf Islands to Parksville, Qualicum Beach and Kelowna. This blew up in Finance Minister Carole James’ face, as people with second residences protested that they are not speculators.
James hastily rolled back the plan to cut the rate for B.C. and Canadian residents, and to exclude rural areas. What’s left of it lands on selected cities where a tight rental market won’t change due to this misguided effort.
It appears there won’t be a do-over on the much larger employers’ health tax, set to land on payrolls of $500,000 and up next year. This is another instant fix that is turning out to have unintended consequences. “Making employers pay” for health care is right up there with making ferries part of the highway system. It’s a dumbed-down slogan that doesn’t work as policy.
Many employers already pay their employees’ Medical Services Plan premiums. Now they’re told they have to pay a new tax on top of that next year, with the premiums to be phased out the following year.
It’s a massive bill for municipalities and the provincial government itself, as well as many businesses. If it doesn’t change, 2019 will not be a pleasant year for the NDP government, as its own agencies like hospitals and schools struggle to cut costs.
Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org