British Columbia

B.C. government says last year's surplus was $1.3 billion more than predicted

On what could be the B.C. Liberal Party's final full day in office before being voted out of government, finance minister Mike de Jong provided unaudited numbers showing the province's economic health was better than anticipated.

Mike de Jong says B.C. had a $2.8 billion surplus, but numbers remain unaudited

Finance Minister Mike de Jong provides a financial update to reporters on June 28, 2017. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

On what could be the B.C. Liberal Party's final full day in office before being voted out of government, Finance Minister Mike de Jong provided an unaudited fiscal update showing the province's economic health was better than anticipated. 

The government had a $2.8 billion surplus in 2016/2017 — significantly higher than the $1.5 billion predicted in February's budget. 

"GDP growth in 2016 dramatically outstripped forecasts. We're almost three times the national average," said de Jong, explaining the increase.

In January, B.C.'s economic forecast council projected a 3.1 per cent increase in GDP for 2016 and 2.3 per cent increase in 2017.

Earlier this month those figures were revised to 3.6 per cent in 2016 and 2.9 per cent in 2017.

"We made the best decisions we could based on the data we had provided by officials," said de Jong.

"Our adherence to that approach is why B.C. is in the enviable position that it is today, and a position to consider these additional investments." 

The B.C. Liberal throne speech last Thursday did contain many new promises, including 30 that weren't in the party's election platform, such as removing tolls on the Port Mann Bridge and increasing welfare rates by $100 a month.  

In total, the new commitments are estimated to cost $2.6 billion over three years — figures de Jong says are now affordable.

It's likely a moot point however, as a non-confidence vote is expected to remove the Liberals from office on Thursday. 

"I spent seven years in opposition. Looks like I'll be going back," said de Jong at one point during his presentation.  

De Jong also admitted the decision to give an earlier update was sparked by the political uncertainty. 

"We've got an awfully good track record when it comes to financial statements that have received a clear bill of health," he said. 

"I should think people would be very interested to know how we've done. The auditor general's office is advising they'll be in a position to issue the certificate next week, but that may be for someone else other than I."

'Irony might be the kindest word I could use'

De Jong was at times nostalgic, defensive and fiery during his 70-minute presentation. He veered from defending the B.C. Liberals' 16-year economic record to refuting criticism that his party has drawn out the post-election process of facing the house for a confidence vote.

"I've heard all this stuff about delay. There is nothing improper in these circumstances about speaking to British Columbians about how our circumstances improved," he said.

"And what's the other thing we've done? I wrote a letter to the Speaker asking to clarify the role of the Speaker in these unique circumstances. How is that improper?"

He also admitted it might have been beneficial if the Liberals had delivered these financial numbers — and the increased spending promises associated with them — prior to the election that reduced them to 43 seats.

"Irony might be the kindest word I could use when I reflect," said de Jong, highlighting the increase to welfare rates as one example. 

"An ongoing freeze on temporary assistance rates, I think, people viewed as being inconsistent with our assertions about the strength of the economy. If that is so, then surely you can share a little bit more of that," he said. 

"And in retrospect, we probably should have." 

Both the NDP and Greens denounced de Jong's announcement, mostly for its timing. 

"[The figures] can only be viewed as draft at this stage; we must wait to see if they hold up to scrutiny," said Green Leader Andrew Weaver. 

"It is encouraging to hear that B.C's economy is doing well. However, releasing this information out of political calculation is inappropriate."