B.C. budget gets as much discussion for what was left out as what was put in
New mandate gives the party time and space to decide which priorities to move quickly on
It's almost trite to note how much the pandemic has changed annual events, but B.C.'s first budget since February 2020 was another example.
What is usually a massive event at Victoria's conference centre with hundreds of reporters and stakeholders became another virtual news conference with technical difficulties.
And what can often be the biggest opportunity for the government to announce changes became a day where the status quo was mostly repeated.
"The pandemic will end. When it does, B.C. will be ready for the opportunities that come with recovery," said Finance Minister Selina Robinson in introducing her $69 billion budget, one that forecasts multi-billion dollar deficits for the next three years.
There were some new announcements, particularly around expanded funding for reconciliation initiatives and 195 new substance use treatment and recovery beds across the province. But much of it was repeating or building on commitments made during the course of the pandemic and the provincial election.
So, in a budget with relatively little that was new, focus turned away from what was in it — to what was not.
No paid sick leave
For some, there was disappointment in the lack of movement on paid sick leave.
"It's disappointing and a missed opportunity for this government to bring in a very necessary prevention measure," said Laird Cronk, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour.
As the vast majority of businesses in B.C. have remained opened through the pandemic, paid sick leave has been considered by some as a way to ensure vulnerable workers don't feel pressured to show up when they have symptoms.
On a day when Ontario announced it would consider such a program, B.C. opted for a status quo approach in its budget, with Robinson telling reporters that the province would continue lobbying the federal government to take the lead.
"The federal government failed to deliver," acknowledged Cronk. "[But] the province needs to do what they've done in the past: be nimble, fill in the gaps."
Other groups critical of the budget noted the lack of large advances on $10-a-day child care, or climate action policies or the Massey Tunnel plan or immediate steps to curtail a housing market that seems as active as at any point since the NDP came to power.
"If the government is not going to make attempts to cool the market, they'll have to significantly scale up investment in affordable housing supply," said Jill Atkey, CEO of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association.
"This is a tough budget, there's no question. Lots of choices needed to be weighed … but the way the market shifted in the last year, we're going to have to see more investment."
Majority = more time
Leeway for it being a "tough budget" wasn't shared by the opposition parties, the initial post-partisanship of the pandemic era now far in the rearview mirror.
"This was the moment for transformation. This was a moment when this government could have seized on all of the sacrifices that have been made and all of what we've learned in the last year," said Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau.
"Huge spending and huge debt, but no plan on how government is going to move forward, so it makes it very problematic for anybody," said B.C. Liberal finance critic Mike Bernier.
Of course, one big thing that has changed politically in the last year is the NDP having a majority government.
Which means it can ignore opposition criticisms without the threat of a confidence vote and can take its time on all sorts of commitments.
"We have a four-year term, and that's something we've committed in the four years," said Robinson on a question about why the government didn't move forward on a promise for free prescription contraception.
"This is year one."
The government can give itself that grace period — and whether the public is as charitable won't be determined until 2024.