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Rob Shaw: B.C. needed an ambitious budget with big ideas. Instead, we got an update

Is this the 12-month agenda to revitalize a New Democrat government at real risk of stagnating after six years in power?
Premier David Eby's first budget as premier, and Katrine Conroy's first as minister of finance, was tabled Feb. 28

Maybe expectations were too high for Premier David Eby’s first budget. Or maybe his NDP government is saving its big ideas for next year’s election campaign.

But whatever the case, the new premier’s new budget on Tuesday was an underwhelming read. Perhaps even worse, it seemed uninspired.

What were the biggest items in the new $80 billion 2023-24 fiscal plan?

The completion of two old election promises made by John Horgan (free prescription contraception and a renter’s rebate), the top-up of existing affordability programs that most people barely know exist and a new addictions treatment plan that falls embarrassingly short of the one proposed earlier this month by the Opposition BC Liberals.

They are not necessarily bad ideas. Free prescription contraception, in particular, is a worthwhile endeavour that all of B.C.’s political parties support.

But is this the budget of a premier who claimed he was itching to take over from his predecessor?

Is this the spending plan of an administration that claims to have bold ideas to tackle the biggest problems of our time?

Is this the 12-month agenda to revitalize a New Democrat government at real risk of stagnating after six years in power?

No, it is not.

Which is what makes this new budget so surprising. Most were expecting big swings at big problems. The fiscal room is there. Spending is up almost 13 per cent from last year. With people worried about affordability, inflation and interest rates, nobody is batting an eye at the projected $4.2 billion deficit. The NDP could have even gone higher.

BC Green leader Sonia Furstenau hit the nail on the head in her budget response, saying Eby missed a key moment in his premiership to redefine the province, like legendary New Democrat premier Dave Barrett did in the 1970s when he created ICBC, the Agricultural Land Reserve, the Labour Relations Board, Pharmacare, the air ambulance service and the Human Rights Code.

“I think there was some hope and expectation that premier Eby would be jumping up on that table saying let's show them what’s possible, let's demonstrate the value of an NDP majority government, a government that’s really focused on transformative change,” said Furstenau.

“Instead, we got an update on last year’s budget.”

Among the most perplexing items in Tuesday’s budget was a $1 billion plan for mental health and addictions treatments beds, to try and stem the overdose crisis that has killed more than 11,000 British Columbians and is continuing to do so in near-record numbers.

With enormous fiscal runway, you would have thought New Democrats could have at least matched the $1.5 billion addictions plan put forward by the Opposition BC Liberals earlier this month. But, for whatever reason, they did not.

Instead of eliminating fees on existing public drug treatment beds that can be as high as $40 per day, the NDP chose to leave them in place, perpetuating a financial barrier the Liberals propose to eliminate entirely.

Instead of specific new regional care centres for addictions treatment promised by the Liberals, the NDP offered a vague plan to expand the Red Fish Healing Centre model in Coquitlam elsewhere, eventually, somehow.

The Liberals pledged to start tracking treatment bed waitlists and to use data to maximize services. The NDP did not. The Liberals proposed a surge-capacity model to fund private beds when the public system is full, so that people in need aren’t turned away. Again, the NDP did not.

Is there a political strategy at play by the NDP in making the BC Liberals look like the more compassionate party on helping treat addictions and mental health? If there is, it’s stupifying.

BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon called the budget “very, very disappointing.” But secretly he must be pleased. He looks very premier-like in crafting an addictions plan that the Eby administration, with all its resources, can’t seem to match.

The Greens, meanwhile, pointed out the budget’s missing investments in transit outside the Lower Mainland, its lack of steps to raise people out of poverty and its decision to fund key climate items out of contingency funds rather than stable operational funding.

“To literally characterize spending on climate action as a contingency is the equivalent of throwing your hands up in the air and saying, ‘Eh, we’re not that interested,’” said Furstenau.

Although the NDP has portrayed itself as in the middle of a massive action plan under a new premier, Furstenau said the budget shows otherwise.

“You had $6 billion in surplus and an $80 billion budget, and you basically are trying to walk to first base,” she said.

New Democrats fell back on the words “historic” and “record” when it comes to certain parts of the budget, including $2 billion more for health care this year, $1 billion for housing and homelessness and $137 million this year for public safety. But is it leading to anywhere concrete? It felt more like an abstract collection of large numbers with buzz words attached than a solution to ER wait times, tent cities, skyrocketing rents and prolific offenders.

“This government in their six years has almost doubled the debt to $100 billion in the current financial plan, there's going to be projected deficits of $11 billion over the next three years, and my question to British Columbians is this: After two terms of NDP government, do you feel like things are better off today than they were six years ago in 2017?” asked Falcon.

“Does anyone feel like anything has gotten better?”

That sounds a lot like an election ad. And potentially a very effective one at that.

“I’ll make the case that Dave Barrett would have recognized that where we are at with climate change and inequality, and the need to invest in people and communities, and that climate change is the vehicle for that investment,” added Furstenau. “He would have recognized that.”

The Barrett NDP government lasted only three years, but its legacy lives on. This NDP government has lasted twice as long, with maybe half the results. Budgets like this one illustrate why. The funding was plentiful. And yet, the ambition seemed lacking.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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