Today, in my response to Budget 2020, I spoke about our need to focus our efforts on building resilient communities across BC.
I am supportive of many of the programs and policies in this budget, but as a whole, it takes an incrementalist approach that is far too rooted in looking backwards. What we need today is for governments to make courageous choices, choices that recognize the necessary transformation upon us and that commit to making the most out of the shift that is coming, whether we prepare for it or not.
S. Furstenau: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. And thank you to my colleagues for the warm welcome as I rise to take my place in the debate on Budget 2020. One of the things that I actually enjoy about being part of the Green caucus is that we neither need to provide a wholesale endorsement of this budget, nor do we need to provide a sweeping condemnation. Instead, we can occupy the middle ground, recognizing that budgets are about priorities and trade-offs and also recognizing that while we are proud to support much of what is in this budget, there is also much that we would do differently.
I am fully supportive of many of the programs and policies in this budget, but as a whole, it takes an incrementalist approach that is far too rooted in looking backwards. What we need today is for governments to make courageous choices, choices that recognize the necessary transformation upon us and that commit to making the most out of the shift that is coming, whether we prepare for it or not.
One core goal that all of us in this place should be pursuing is: how do we build and support resilient communities? Where does this budget deliver on this goal, and where does it fall short or take us in the wrong direction?
The first pillar of a resilient community is economic security. In a time of significant global uncertainty, we should be making choices that make us less vulnerable to things that we can’t control. We need to become less reliant on global commodity prices and the boom-and-bust swings that come with them, instead supporting manufacturing and prioritizing adding value right here in British Columbia.
We need to be investing in technologies and companies that are part of the solution to climate change. But in pursuing the expansion of LNG, the government is taking us in the opposite direction and tethering us to a high-risk sector that is largely beyond our control, and the B.C. Liberals have also been cheerleaders for exactly this type of old-school development. We only need look to our provincial neighbour next door to see what hitching our economy to fossil fuel commodity prices will do. Predicting what the price for LNG will be, or any fossil fuel, for that matter, is a fool’s game. The world is transitioning. The smart money is on leading that change, not clinging to a 20th-century economy.
So what’s at risk if we continue to pursue LNG? We can already see that the B.C. Business Council is advocating for even more subsidies than what have already been provided, all in the name of competitiveness. In 2020, government should not be putting money behind fossil fuel companies to make them competitive, especially with the growing risk that these become stranded assets, massive projects with huge public dollars behind them that fail to deliver a fraction of the promised revenue. Even worse, there is growing evidence that natural gas is simply not cleaner than coal or any other type of fossil fuels.
Mark Carney, the current governor of the Bank of England and the next UN special envoy on climate change, has repeatedly stressed the need for financial systems and governments to have a concrete plan today that gets us to net zero by 2050 and that we need to be putting money behind those who are solving the problem or are part of the solution and taking money away from those who aren’t moving fast enough. BlackRock, pension plans, universities, even entire countries are divesting from fossil fuels. Sweden recently sold off Canadian bonds because it felt that our greenhouse gas emissions were too high.
We are not the outliers in making the point that continuing down the path of fossil fuel development is no longer a viable, economic strategy. It’s not only environmentally disastrous to continue to expand fossil fuels at this moment in our history; it is no longer a financially sound strategy. Instead, our economic opportunity is in building a clean economy and, in doing so, deliberately spurring local innovation and ensuring that B.C. businesses have opportunities to flourish in the transition to a clean economy, because economic security relies on thriving local businesses.
I was struck by the comments I read recently by Catherine Holt, the CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce. She articulated the critical role that government plays in supporting thriving local business. It goes far beyond the oversimplified message that we often hear — that business owners are concerned, first and foremost, with low taxes. Of course a competitive taxation environment is important, but the needs of business are far broader and more nuanced. In many ways, the concerns of individuals and the concerns of business align. I hear similar scenes from the many business owners in my riding and across B.C. that I’ve met with over the years.
Businesses need workers who can afford to live in cities where they work. They want to see better public transportation and child care to support their working lives. They want fair taxation and regulations. They want to contribute to climate solutions and be rewarded for doing so, and they want a government that is efficient and effective.
Government plays a central role in all of these areas, contributing to the social fabric that supports people at home and at work and that builds communities that can become destinations of choice for both businesses and workers.
Catherine asks: “What if we had housing that didn’t require you to mortgage your children’s future, or if child care was available at a reasonable cost rather than relying on your worn-out parents or your neighbour? What if you didn’t need a car because the bus goes by your stop every eight minutes, as do the new rapid bus routes in Vancouver and in many cities in Europe and Asia? What if health care didn’t require taking hours off…to sit in a germ-ridden clinic to have five minutes with an overworked GP you’ve never laid eyes on before? Or what if university tuition was only $250 per year, as in France?”
Catherine has articulated a vision that I can get behind. Some items in this budget take incremental steps in this direction.
The B.C. access grant, for example, will help make post-secondary studies more affordable and accessible for lower- and middle-income students. This is a needs-based upfront grant to students starting post-secondary studies. Through this program, the government will provide up to $4,000 per year for students in short programs up to two years and up to $1,000 per year for students in programs over two years. There is also a federal grant for students in these longer programs of up to $3,000 per year. Upfront grants like this not only improve access to education but also encourage completion by providing students support when they need it.
This budget also continues investments in implementing early childhood education for families across B.C. However, as a number of advocates have cautioned, the investment timeline stalls on the needed investments to truly deliver a high-quality, affordable early childhood education system. We have made progress on reducing the burden of child care on young families, but we must maintain an ambitious plan to make this real for all families.
Young families need to be able to rely on a high-quality and affordable early childhood education system. It’s also critical to remember that we cannot build a high-quality ECE system without educators, early childhood educators. They are the ones who will first instill the joy of learning in our children. They are a vital part of the education system, just like our teachers, and should be treated as such. We also cannot forget that this is about early learning as well as care. It must be high quality as well as affordable and have education as a central focus.
We will continue to urge the government to move the Ministry of State for Child Care from the Ministry of Children and Family Development to the Ministry of Education, because the Ministry of Education is best suited to fostering an educational continuum.
This budget also makes investments in infrastructure on health, transportation, education, post-secondary education and housing. Having high-quality infrastructure is an essential part of building healthy communities, and I welcome these investments. However, there is another example of where government’s choices should be driven by an overarching goal to support community resilience. The significant amount of money spent on the procurement and building of these projects can be leveraged to serve a larger purpose.
For example, government is investing billions in building new health facilities. One of these is the St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver. There is an opportunity here to build an innovation hub around the new St. Paul’s site that could serve as a major R-and-D precinct for health and life sciences research and innovation. The payoff from this would exceed any incremental investment needed from the province at this stage. It would support the growth of B.C. companies and result in better health outcomes for British Columbians.
Similarly with transportation investments. Government has committed $7.4 billion to priority transportation projects, yet we are still prioritizing expanding highway infrastructure while there are major transit gaps that exist in communities big and small across this province. We need a more deliberate focus driving what we are trying to achieve with infrastructure. All major infrastructure project decisions should be assessed through the lens of our climate goals and community resilience. This should determine where we prioritize investment and how the money gets spent.
One question I will be asking is regarding the reduction of B.C. Transit funding in this year’s budget. Public transit needs to be an absolute priority, and I have trouble reconciling the government’s stated commitments to investing in transit with the drop in funding this year.
Another aspect of this budget that I have significant concerns and further questions about is MCFD funding. We are still missing the shift that is so necessary in the ministry towards emphasizing prevention of apprehensions of children and, instead, working to keep families together. The child safety, family support and children in care services line item in MCFD estimates has seen an increase in this budget from $682 million to an estimated $731 million. It is impossible to see from this line item whether the increase is directed towards supporting families and preventing apprehensions or whether it’s continuing to go towards children in care.
There needs to be far greater transparency in how the budget in this ministry is allocated so that we can actually see where the government is choosing to invest its dollars. I will be asking more questions about this and holding the government to account on this issue over the session, because if we’re not investing in prevention and realigning the priorities of this ministry, we’re continuing to replicate the same patterns.
The problem is how we have chosen to fund this system and how the act that governs this area is interpreted and applied. In 2½ years, in my constituency office, we have seen the structural problems in how the Ministry of Children and Family Development deals with families and children. There is often little willingness to consider evidence-based and proven options in finding the least disruptive measures when considering the removal of a child.
Perhaps most detrimental to the well-being of children are the stories I’ve heard about how service providers communicate with the child’s parents, grandparents and extended family members. This is especially acute for Indigenous families, and I think all of us who are parents and grandparents in this chamber can recognize that there could be nothing more stressful than the threat of having our children removed from us.
My staff will work with families to advocate for a mother to see her babies more than one hour per week, only to be denied. Or we hear that a mother and a newborn’s visit took place in a service provider’s car outside a coffee shop. There appears to be a double standard. In court, you are innocent until proven otherwise. With the Ministry of Children and Families, you are guilty until proven otherwise. How do you prove a negative?
Nothing has substantially changed in the MCFD service provision in our community. Community members remain distrusting and afraid of MCFD, and our caseload remains the same year over year in our constituency office.
Most of the parents we do see quietly accept these circumstances. They’re smart and determined. Early on we began to notice a trend with each set of parents who would come into our office. Most of the families are Indigenous. Without fail, even faced with the reality that it’s unlikely that they will be reunited with their children, at some point, the parents will say: “I don’t want this to happen to another family.”
Often, all they need to be able to parent in the way that MCFD expects is money and support. In most cases, their children were removed because they’re living in poverty and/or don’t have enough support to manage their home. That is why funding is such a crucial issue. Unless we change the funding structure as well as the culture, we will continue to see the same outcomes.
Children in care perform worse on every health determinant and are a significant cost to our health and education systems. We can’t let the status quo remain. As one Cowichan man said: “It’s easier for me to tell you who in my family hasn’t been in government care than for me to tell you who has.”
The act itself is not the problem. We need to change how we fund, interpret, and apply it so that we support families, so that parents trust MCFD service providers to serve their needs. We need a shift that puts the health and well-being of individuals and families at the centre of how government approaches child welfare.
Turning again to another aspect of the budget, one policy shift that has the potential to improve health outcomes is a change in how sugary drinks are taxed. In this budget, the government has eliminated the PST exemption that currently exists for soft drinks that are sweetened with sugar or natural or artificial sweeteners. At its best, this type of policy can signal a shift to emphasizing preventative health measures, with the potential for significant positive health outcomes.
It should not be seen as a revenue-generating tool, but a preventative health measure. We spend the vast majority of our resources in the Ministry of Health and a substantial portion of the provincial budget in helping people to recover when they are sick. Of course, an excellent health care system that supports recovery should be a priority of every government. But we also need a proactive approach to wellness that helps people lead healthy lives.
I support this elimination of the PST exemption on sugary drinks, but for it to be an effective tool that really has an impact on health outcomes, I’d like to see it embedded in a broader set of measures to encourage healthy food consumption.
A few years ago, Chile introduced a set of health measures to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks and other unhealthy foods. These policies included not only a tax on sugary drinks but warning labels and a restriction on junk food in schools. These policies worked together and have together resulted in an impressive outcome. The result is a 25 percent drop in sugary drink consumption in just 18 months.
In addition to measures to disincentivize unhealthy food consumption, we need a positive, holistic approach that helps people have access to healthy food choices. We need to build healthy foods into the fabric of our schools and work with partners to ensure that lower-income families have access to fresh, healthy foods so that they have real choice.
An interesting aspect of this policy is that it is the first time that the government has applied a gender-based analysis plus analysis to the policy. The analysis found that this policy will primarily affect young males, as males consume more soft drinks than females and that consumption is highest among individuals aged 14 to 18.
This brings me to an area of partnership with this government that I’m excited about — the work that we are undertaking to develop a set of genuine progress indicators for British Columbia. Putting all of this together, we need to realize that for most people, GDP growth isn’t felt. We need to be measuring what actually matters to people. GDP does not provide an adequate measure of progress or well-being. It doesn’t measure what really matters for British Columbians. And it doesn’t give us a true picture of the health of our economy or our society. It’s time that we stopped elevating it as the primary metric we use to define a healthy economy.
I’m excited to create a more holistic set of indicators that capture the health and well-being of British Columbians, our social connections and the state of our environment, because you have to measure and report on what truly matters if you’re serious about making policy meet those ends. I would be thrilled to see us follow the footsteps of New Zealand, which introduced their first well-being budget and runs all policies and programs through the lens of how they will affect the well-being of current and future generations of New Zealanders. I will keep working with the government to move this forward, and I hope and expect that this is the last B.C. budget that relies on GDP growth as the main metric of success of our economy.
In B.C., we have a unique opportunity to build an equitable and sustainable future and to create widespread prosperity and a high quality of life as we do so. The B.C. Green caucus is looking for a coherent economic strategy to create prosperity and position us for success in an era of unprecedented change. Government has to make smarter, more courageous choices that will allow us to meet our targets and embrace new opportunities for economic prosperity rather than spending significant time and resources to protect the status quo. We see the green economy as a central component of a thriving 21st century economy, one that harnesses all the tools of government towards the end of building resilient, sustainable communities everywhere in our province.
I also want to comment on the two roles my colleague and I play in this Legislature. We are both partners in CASA with the NDP and we are an opposition party. So while I am supportive of many aspects of this budget, I have also been clear about where I disagree on the direction the government is taking or feel that there are significant missed opportunities.
Some try to suggest that any disagreement between us and the NDP is a sign that something has gone wrong or that we must support every item in this budget in order to support the budget as a whole. I disagree. We have agreed to partner with the NDP in this minority government, and while we have shared areas of priority, we are also different parties and have different visions for this province. This is a healthy tension.
I think minority governments result in better outcomes, where policy is stronger and the governing party is kept more honest. They help to guard us against some of the excessive tendencies that can come from one party having 100 percent of the power.
So I will be supporting this budget, and I will be continuing to hold the government accountable for the choices it makes. I will be working to ensure that we are addressing the most pressing issues facing our province.