The B.C. government presented a cautious preview of the coming year with its speech from the throne Tuesday, announcing the formation of a rural advisory committee while lowering expectations for mining and natural gas exports.
Read by Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon to begin the spring legislature session, the speech stated the appointed rural advisory committee would “provide independent and impartial advice on helping rural B.C. increase opportunities, manage growth and meet its full potential in communities big and small.”
The speech also made reference to a five-year action plan for the “agrifoods sector,” which has experienced $1 billion in growth in the past three years. An agrifood advisory committee will continue to work on a fish and seafood strategy as well.
Agriculture critic and Saanich South MLA Lana Popham, who is leading an opposition standing committee on agriculture and food, said the government’s reliance on closed-door advisory committees does little to foster public input.
“Agriculture is always a piecemeal project in B.C.,” Popham said. “There’s a committee here, some projects there, but it never relates to a long-term agricultural plan. … On the Saanich peninsula alone, the meat regulations haven’t been fixed since they were fiddled with in 2007. Farmers can’t process meat locally. We have the ability and interest to do more here, but that’s something I asked the minister to focus on a few years ago, and it hasn’t been done.”
Premier Christy Clark said the government will soon start construction on the $8 billion Site C hydroelectric dam and revamp the education system to fill an anticipated skills gap.
“We’re sticking to the plan, and we’ve been successful with that plan,” Clark told reporters. “I know it doesn’t make great headlines in the newspapers, but I don’t think we want to change so we can help you get a news story.”
The government will also allow a temporary tax hike on annual incomes of $150,000 or more to expire, resulting in $230 million less in annual tax revenue, said Rob Fleming, B.C. NDP MLA for Victoria-Swan Lake.
“Tax cuts for the top two per cent of B.C. income earners does nothing to help middle class families pay their bills or build prosperity,” Fleming said. “I think what we’re seeing is Christy Clark has done nothing but campaign since 2011, and people are finally seeing this government has no focus. Their ridiculous 2013 campaign slogan around LNG has come crashing down.”
As the government continues to await investment decisions for liquefied natural gas facilities, the speech notes that LNG “could create 100,000 jobs and the revenues to eliminate our debt,” adding that exports are needed to maintain a gas industry that already employs 13,000 people.
Much of the speech touts earlier achievements, including the carbon tax on fuels and a settlement with B.C. public school teachers after a bitter strike last year.
Fleming, who is also opposition education critic, said the throne speech mentioned opening three new B.C. offshore schools but said nothing about education funding.
“Nobody opposes off-shore schools, but to make that a government goal in the throne speech while we have the threat of school closures across B.C. is hard to hear,” Fleming said. “We’re likely going to see another flat funding scenario for the third straight year in education.”
Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA and B.C. Green Andrew Weaver said the government failed to address MSP premium reform, a poverty reduction plan or a housing first strategy in the throne speech.
“There are plenty of things this government could and should be doing right now to actively strengthen and diversify our province,” Weaver said in a blog post. “Without fail, whenever an idea surfaces about how our government could address a pressing social or environmental issue, they trot out rhetoric about how the best way to address it is to grow our economy. The government has been saying for years that the economy is growing. Yet they continue to wait for it to start offering solutions to crises in funding for education, health care and social services.”
The speech referred to five new mines opening since 2011, but avoided mention of northeast coal mines that have closed due to low commodity prices that also threaten the operation of metal mines in B.C.
NDP leader John Horgan questioned Clark’s intention to keep cutting “red tape,” an obsession of the B.C. Liberals since 2001.
“They cut red tape at Mount Polley,” Horgan said of gaps in inspection that predated the collapse of the mine’s tailings dam last summer.
The government confirmed it is about to table a third straight balanced budget on Feb. 17, and hinted at new spending aimed at expanding the economy.
The government also plans to launch a new “medal of good citizenship” to recognize those who donate their time and money to improve their communities.
-with files from Tom Fletcher