GreeNDP’s political mix a recipe for uncertainty

Higher taxes, stalled infrastructure projects, mixed messages to investors among concerns for B.C.’s business community

Provided an NDP minority government can last four years, B.C. businesses will need to brace for an era of higher taxes, soaring public-sector spending, cancelled infrastructure projects and an all-out political war against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Last week, BC Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver and BC NDP Leader John Horgan unveiled details of a supply and confidence agreement that will allow the NDP to govern as a minority for four years, although, because one of the plans is to shift the fixed election date from May to the fall, the NDP’s term could be as long as four and a half years.

Minority governments in Canada rarely last that long, but some ‘GreeNDP’ policies are set to be implemented in the first legislative session.

Horgan and Weaver have agreed to raise B.C.’s carbon tax by $5 per tonne annually starting in April 2018, eliminate Medical Services Plan premiums and strike a fair-wages commission to recommend the implementation of a $15-per-hour minimum wage. Horgan also wants to scrap bridge tolls.

They’ve also committed to increase spending for health, education and child care, although the agreement avoids any mention of the Greens’ promised free daycare or the New Democrats’ promised $10-per-day care.

The NDP has also agreed to implement a pet Green party policy: a guaranteed minimum income pilot project.

It’s unclear how the NDP plans to pay for the increased spending and loss of revenue, although the NDP platform proposed raising corporate income taxes, spending the current surplus and raiding the province’s $500 million Prosperity Fund. 

The NDP and Greens have also put major infrastructure projects such as the $7.4 billion Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, $8.8 billion Site C dam and $3.5 billion George Massey Tunnel replacement project in their crosshairs.

“I think the prevailing feeling within our network now is certainly one of uncertainty,” said BC Chamber of Commerce president Val Litwin. “Our members feel there’s now much uncertainty around some of these key projects for B.C. That concerns us.”

Last week, Premier Christy Clark acknowledged the inevitability of an NDP minority government but said she plans to remain premier until sometime in June, when she’ll convene the legislative assembly and deliver a throne speech.

The NDP and Greens would vote against the speech – a non-confidence vote that would trigger the process to install Horgan as premier. With 41 and three seats respectively, the NDP and Greens will have a single seat more than the Liberals. All it will take is for one NDP or Green MLA to die, get sick, resign, cross the floor or simply miss a budget vote for the new government to fail.

“External forces may upend it,” said University of British Columbia political science Prof. Richard Johnston. “All it will take is one byelection going the wrong way and all of a sudden they’re back into the soup. They have none of the parliamentary wiggle room that a handful of exemplary cases have had in the past. No margin.”

The four-year agreement proposes some fundamental changes to the way politics will work in B.C. In the first sitting of the legislature, the NDP would propose legislation that would ban union and corporate donations to political parties, as well as donations from non-residents, and cap individual donations. It also plans to table a motion to hold a referendum in the fall of 2018 on proportional representation.

Other planned reforms include:

•a multi-year prohibition on lobbying by former senior civil servants;

•restrictions on government lobbying; and

•moving fixed election dates from May to the fall.

The GreeNDP agreement commits to “employ every tool available” to halt the $7.4 billion Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and send the Site C dam project to the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC)for review.

There are currently more than 2,000 people working on the dam project.

“We’re not going to stop work at Site C while that review takes place,” Horgan said. “But we have a six-week and a three-month time frame for preliminary response and final response. All of us want to hear from BC Hydro: What have you signed, how binding are these agreements and what are the consequences of proceeding?”

Asked if he thinks the BCUC can make a decision in such a time frame, Mark Jaccard, a former BCUC chairman, said it could, “especially if the question is narrowed to cost relative to alternatives and timing of the project’s completion.”

Resource industries can expect changes in the way projects are approved and regulated.

The agreement would formally endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that indigenous people have the right to “free and informed consent” on resource development.

The federal Liberal government likewise pledged to endorse the declaration, then backed off when it realized that a First Nations veto would require an amendment to the Canadian Constitution.

The NDP plans to reform the provincial environmental assessment process and replace the current professional reliance model, which puts the onus on companies, not the government, to conduct and pay for things like environmental impact studies. Under the changes, provincial agencies, like the Ministry of Environment, would be responsible for those studies.

On transportation, the NDP and Greens have agreed to work with the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation to come up with a “more fair and equitable way of funding transit.”

The agreement does not mention the $3.5 billion George Massey Tunnel replacement project, but it’s a safe bet that those plans are now destined for a shelf in the Ministry of Transportation.

Business groups like the chamber, Greater Vancouver Board of Trade and Business Council of British Columbia were counting on the George Massey Tunnel replacement to remove a major regional transportation bottleneck.

Litwin hopes to impress on the new NDP government that projects like the George Massey bridge and Trans Mountain pipeline are not just Vancouver issues.

“This is about more than just the Lower Mainland,” he said. “This is about the province of B.C. and what helps drive and support a thriving economy.

“And the message from the BC Chamber network to this new incoming government will be: there’s a whole lot of province outside of the 604 and 778. So let’s not forget about the 250 and the communities that rely on some of these big projects and, frankly, that are connected to the economic success of the whole province as well.”