Affordability questions loom in the background of an unsurprising 2022 B.C. budget
5th NDP budget addresses emergencies of the past year, while leaving age-old provincial problems unfulfilled
For all the historic uniqueness of the 2/22/22 date, the budget presented by B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson was a lot of what the government has presented before.
"We are stronger together," said Robinson at the start of her 2022/2023 budget presentation Tuesday morning, outlining a $5.5 billion deficit planned for the upcoming year.
This is the NDP government's sixth year in office, and the budget built on a number of its long-stated commitments: to advance reconciliation, to create $10-a-day child care, to build more affordable housing and provide more support to those most vulnerable. Add in immediate funding needed for wildfire, flooding and pandemic emergencies, and it led to a relatively surprise-free budget day in terms of big new promises.
"We've taken a look at how we can best invest to make sure we have a strong economy, a strong environment and a strong society," said Robinson, repeating the link between the economy, environment and society several times throughout the day.
In a budget that projected deficits for the next three years, it was a way to underline the government's belief that a successful budget is more than just a balance sheet.
But some people wanting even larger changes believed the commitments didn't match the rhetoric.
'Lower level priorities'
"Can we only find urgency to fight the pandemic?" asked Paul Kershaw, a University of British Columbia assistant professor and founder of the non-profit Generation Squeeze.
While the province is dedicating billions of additional dollars each year in health supports for the pandemic, only $100 million to $300 million more a year is being provided on the affordable housing, child care, and drug poisoning files, with no giant change in approach.
All while basic income support and disability rates remained the same. Not enough according to Kershaw, in other words, to materially transform the status quo.
"The numbers show clearly these are lower level priorities in the 2022 budget," he said.
"I don't want to get in the game of comparing [different] crises, but we are at the point where we need governments not only to walk and chew gum, but to multitask much more."
Robinson defended her government's track record on child care still not being the $10 per day originally promised in 2017, saying that "building a brand new social program does take time," and argued housing prices were becoming more affordable prior to the pandemic.
But Jill Atkey, CEO of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, said the government needed to update its pre-pandemic housing strategy.
"The landscape has changed since 2018, the affordable housing crisis has become worse, not better," she said, adding that there are a number of projects that have been tentatively approved but still require government support.
"The sooner we can get that funded, the sooner people can move into those homes," she said.
Steady as she goes
While there wasn't a lot of over-the-top praise for the budget from outside groups, neither was there too much vitriolic criticism from stakeholders invited to the event.
Part of that was likely due to most groups getting a little of what they wanted, with increased investments made along a wide swath of social programs. Part of it was likely due to B.C. enduring a second year of a pandemic, a massive wildfire season and a historic flood, tempering expectations.
Even the opposition B.C. Liberal response — "nothing but recycled slogans and broken promises" — underlined the fact that the reasons to like or dislike this year's budget were much the same as previous years.
"British Columbians were waiting for this second-term NDP government to make their words, slogans, and campaign promises a reality and finally produce real results on affordability," said Liberal finance critic Peter Milobar.
"People are done waiting for this government to actually follow through on their promises."
At the same time, the government continues to have relatively high approval ratings based on recent polls.
Which may be why, when Robinson was asked what her biggest surprises over the past year were, she responded with "how we, as a government, have pulled together."
In other words, it's a confident government.
And having won a resounding majority less than 18 months ago, they have the political space to continue on any number of issues with its incremental approach.