VICTORIA — The ongoing Coastal GasLink pipeline protests have put Premier John Horgan’s government in crisis mode for the past month.
But there is one silver lining for the Horgan administration: The blockades have completely overshadowed analysis of the new provincial budget.
That’s a good thing for the NDP. Because the more you read Finance Minister Carole James’s latest fiscal plan, the more you realize what an uncomfortable document it is for New Democrats to support.
It’s essentially an austerity budget, full of quiet hacks and slashes to programs and services you would never have imagined facing the sword under an NDP government.
James has cut funding for public transit, civilian-led police investigations, food inspection, environmental protection, parks, conservation officers, forestry enforcement, First Nations initiatives, international trade, small business, mental health policy and research, road safety, tourism, anti-racism and hate speech prevention programs, multiculturalism and sports.
The figures are buried deep within the line estimates of the budget itself, and conveniently never mentioned in the many pages of semi-factual government communications material.
“Budgets are about choices,” James told reporters at the Feb. 18 budget lockup.
“It’s about taking a look at the resources we have, and the priorities that we have as a government. I think if you had taken a look at the past governments what often would happen at this time, when you saw moderation in the economy, is that you would see programs and services cut. You would see programs eliminated. You would see services and supports for families eliminated. We’re not doing that.”
James is on year two of mandatory cuts across all ministries, to achieve $300 million in annual “discretionary” spending.
What’s been trimmed so far? James and her ministry won’t produce a list, insisting it’s hard to track because the money goes back into services (despite the fact each ministry is required to submit to her a clearly itemized list of potential cuts and consequences).
Still, you can spot the cracks in the facade.
B.C. Transit has warned about a stall to ridership growth after government shrunk its operating grant. James told transit to draw from its operating surplus to make up for the changes. By next year, what was once a $42-million financial cushion against any unexpected changes to bus service levels will be gone, as B.C. Transit empties its piggy bank to help the NDP balance its budget.
What are the other implications of the budget?
Safety inspections for meat, seafood and agri-food products cut by almost 12 per cent.
RoadSafetyBC, which runs traffic safety programs and monitors unfit drives, cut three per cent cut.
The civilian-led Independent Investigations Office that oversees death and serious injury cases against police cut three per cent.
Environmental protection, air and water quality monitoring, managing pesticides and responding to high-risk environmental emergencies cut three per cent.
BC Parks maintenance cut two per cent, and conservation officers patrolling those parts cut two per cent.
Forestry enforcement cut six per cent.
International trade cut seven per cent (but, presumably, not overseas trade junkets by cabinet ministers).
Small business, immigration and refugee worker programs cut 2.4 per cent.
Tourism, arts and culture cut 1.5 per cent.
Anti-racism and hate speech prevention programs, along with creative economy funding, multiculturalism and sport cut two per cent.
Some of the reductions are particularly jarring, given James’s own budget speech.
“We know that delivering on these priorities means strong climate action, meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and a commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion,” she said.
What then to make of a 13 per cent cut to B.C.’s “climate action” program that “provides support for the activities required to meet the province’s climate action target”? Those targets are supposed to be met by the government’s new CleanBC plan, which is a centrepiece of the NDP-Green power-sharing deal. If that worried the Greens, and independent MLA Andrew Weaver, they didn’t show it — all three voted in favour of the budget Thursday.
Then there is the ongoing reconciliation crisis with First Nations, sparked by the pipeline protests. For some reason, the government chose this year to cut the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation by almost 10 per cent.
Horgan admitted to reporters Thursday his government has more to do to improve mental health and addictions. But his government shaved almost five per cent off the division in charge of researching and growing new mental health and addictions services.
It’s true the budget does offer small inflationary increases to cover caseloads in social services, disability, child welfare, education, and elsewhere. Health care, as usual, got the biggest lift. And there’s just enough cash for affordable housing and $10-a-day child care plans to keep them on their 10-year-long implementation schedules.
The money wasn’t enough to avoid criticism from community groups that the province continues to underfund victims of crime and sexual assault survivors. Long-time NDP supporters who wanted to see an increase to social assistance, disability and shelter rates were also left disappointed.
Overall, it was the kind of budget that could have been written by the previous B.C. Liberal government during its heyday of prudence, caution and austerity.
James did have a choice.
With the economy softening, and international uncertainty rising, she could have dipped the budget into deficit to continue funding the NDP’s ambitious election promises and social programs.
Despite encouragement from some left-leaning economists, James chose not to go that route.
The result is a budget full of cuts that would be toxic for the NDP to take to voters in an election campaign. Perhaps the biggest take-away from the whole exercise is that Horgan must be extremely confident he’s not going to the polls this year.
Luckily for James, she’s got one more budget before the next election.
Expect that one to miraculously open the floodgates of spending in all areas, washing away the bitter taste of this year’s cuts and clawbacks to government services. Then, the NDP will put this Liberal-lite austerity budget on the shelf, and never, ever, speak of it again.