B.C. throne speech: Cost of living, housing, health among budget priorities

Ahead of what the province has described as a “likely economic storm,” the B.C. throne speech appears to be putting a priority on British Columbians’ finances.

The document, read aloud by Lieutenant Governor Janet Austin on Monday, underscores the importance of government funding, noting privatization in areas like health is not the way to go.

The throne speech stresses how inflation has squeezed household budgets and put more pressure on personal finances than ever before.

“People who work hard and play by the rules need someone on their side,” it reads.

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Noting that the rising cost of living has become “by far the biggest source of anxiety for people,” the throne speech is pointing to various provincial supports that have been rolled out in the months since David Eby took the helm as premier.

From the B.C. Affordability Credit to the BC Hydro credit, the province adds child care costs and ICBC insurance rates have also been a focus over the past few months.

While few details are being offered about any new potential supports, the throne speech says the province promises to “keep working to help people with new measures targeted to those who need it most, including people with lower incomes and families with children.”

This, the speech says, includes extended child care savings to parents with school-aged kids by the fall, not just those in kindergarten and younger.

Meanwhile, the throne speech outlines what it calls “new pay transparency legislation,” which is set to be introduced in the upcoming spring session.

The province refers to this as “a critical tool to shine a light on the gender pay gap and move closer to equal pay for equal work.”

“And it will go after organized criminals, rich tax evaders, and corrupt officials from around the world who mistakenly think they can hide in B.C. at the expense of hard-working people,” the throne speech reads, adding the province will “send a strong message by seizing their homes and profits.

Housing affordability

The B.C. government is going into the new fiscal period with a massive surplus — $5.7 billion at the last fiscal update in November. As was expected, housing will be a priority for the province, with affordability top of mind.

“For too long, the housing market has worked very well for speculators. And it has worked very well for investors who have used the housing crisis to make excessive profits by purchasing homes and flipping them for a higher price,” Austin said in the delivering of the speech. “All of this has driven up the cost of housing and put it out of reach for many people.”

In a year-end conversation with CityNews, Eby noted that one of his promises for 2023 was to keep rental prices from skyrocketing. His plans included placing restrictions on corporations’ ability to buy up rental buildings, with an announcement made on Jan. 12 going hand in hand with that pledge.

The throne speech says the Rental Protection Fund will “safeguard renters against evictions or rent hikes by the big investment companies that want to buy affordable rental buildings and make money through exploitation and eviction.”

Promising “major new investments to increase housing and services near public transit hubs,” the province says it will refresh its housing strategy in the fall session, with new laws expected to turn that strategy into something tangible.

These new homes will be geared toward the middle class, as well as seniors and others at “greatest need.”

Health care

Much of the B.C. surplus is also expected to go to the health sector, with B.C.’s throne speech vowing to “strengthen” the sector, while increasing the “ability to do surgeries, offer family doctors, and make sure people have care they can count on.”

This comes in the form of funding for hospitals, previous announcements of a new medical school in the Lower Mainland and expansion of an existing one, and the new pay structure for physicians to help people find family doctors.

It also includes the new process to help get internationally trained nurses accredited faster, as well as the ongoing discussions with the federal government over the health transfer agreement.

The throne speech takes aim at other jurisdictions where privatization has been touted as a tool to address pressures. This, however, is not the route B.C. will be taking.

“Some jurisdictions are pushing for more privatization, allowing the wealthiest to buy their way to the front of the line. Make no mistake, that doesn’t fix the line. It would only lead to more costs and longer lines for the rest of us,” the document explains.

The throne speech adds more privatization “is a dangerous step towards a two-tiered system we know British Columbians do not want.”

With more work needed to get back on track following three years of a pandemic, the throne speech highlights the importance of also putting money into substance use care, mental health, and cancer treatment supports.

This includes a “new model of addictions care,” which goes hand in hand with the decriminalization pilot project, in effect for the next three years.

Other priorities: safety, homelessness, climate

The throne speech says legislation is coming to “crack down on gangs and money laundering,” as part of “new measures to keep people and communities safe.” It is also promising new laws to target the “non-consensual sharing of intimate images.”

The measures outlined in the speech include varying announcements made last year to address safety in B.C., including a dedicated plan for the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, as well as changes to the provincial bail policy targeted toward violent offenders.

Supporting those experiencing homelessness is another ongoing task, with the throne speech stressing the need to take urgent action to move people from “dangerous encampments to more secure housing.”

“And a long-term plan is being developed with every level of government and the community to address the ongoing crisis in that neighbourhood,” the throne speech says of the Downtown Eastside.

Funding will also be earmarked to continue work on Indigenous reconciliation, building on previous announcements and agreements, the province says.

“The future lies in a rights-based partnership approach to decisions respecting land, water and resource stewardship,” the speech reads. “We will ensure this future through the ongoing implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. One that will provide stability and predictability for industry, while ensuring First Nations can meaningfully exercise their rights. One that recognizes First Nations working to pursue sustainable economic development and long-term partnerships with industry, benefit not just First Nations—but everyone around them, now and into the future.”

The throne speech also cites new legislation around climate change and readiness coming this spring session.

We’ll need to wait until the budget is unveiled at the end of the month to get more specifics on the government’s plans.

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