British Columbia’s new premier David Eby took his oath of office Friday and immediately set the tone for a domestic agenda replete with commitments to improving housing affordability, access to health care and the transition to a decarbonized economy.
But the premier also acknowledged all those intermingling issues will brush up against global and geopolitical unrest seen around the world, from worldwide inflation to war in Ukraine and trade tensions with China.
“We also know significant headwinds are coming,” Eby told reporters when asked how he intends to implement his commitments.
Following the retirement of now former premier John Horgan, Eby was sworn in by B.C. Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin, pledging allegiance to King Charles III, at the Musqueam Community Centre, south of Vancouver.
During a roughly 10-minute address to the audience of select dignitaries Eby spoke mostly about domestic social issues that need solutions, including the mental health and interconnected drug crisis in B.C. He also referenced the problems British Columbians are facing accessing proper public health care and the poverty and public safety matters affecting urban centres, especially Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Eby, 46, also acknowledged questions on the perceived erosion of trust in public institutions and politics.
“Trust has to be earned,” said Eby, who used his speech to speak to his experience as a pro-bono lawyer at the Pivot Legal Society before becoming an MLA in 2013. A champion of equal and fair access to the justice system, Eby said his work taught him that social solutions require trust, and such trust applies to government; without it, he said, proposed solutions will fail.
Eby said the public lost trust in government during the BC Liberal era, particularly when business interests in the private development industry steered policy, leading to rampant speculation and high housing prices.
Many of these social challenges have been impacted by several other emergencies since his BC NDP took power in 2017, Eby added: “We did the list: pandemics, wildfires, floods.”
But, affordable rental housing appears at the top of the list for Eby, the former housing minister.
“Our big economic challenge is linked to housing and linked to skills training,” said Eby, who hinted at new policies and laws to be announced next week on the housing front to accelerate building more rental housing.
Eby also announced two new credits coming to B.C. residents to ease “the cost of living” due to inflationary pressures: $100 from BC Hydro or FortisBC for all households and a more targeted, progressive tax credit to households earning less than $150,000.
“But,” said Eby, “if the pandemic taught us anything, we cannot solve this problem alone.”
And, “We’re not going to solve these huge challenges — most of which are global — overnight,” said Eby, after being sworn in.
Eby stands to inherit a standoff between premiers and the federal government on health-care transfers, with provinces demanding more money for their respective systems and Ottawa demanding fiscal prudence in return.
Still, Eby said a $400 tax credit for renters — a shelved promise from the 2020 election — is still on the table.
Asked about government revenues to address spending on social programs, Eby avoided answering the question as to whether he would raise taxes on the wealthiest corporations and income earners. Instead, he stated his domestic agenda will depend on economic growth.
Sitting on the Pacific Rim, B.C. has the greatest percentage of export trade with Asian countries, including China, among provinces and territories.
Asked about deteriorating relations between Canada and China, Eby provided some hints as to how he might stickhandle that issue.
“We are going to prepare for the risks we can prepare for, like climate change impacts. We’re going to engage and diversify our trade markets to make sure we are as secure as we can possibly be economically. We are going to use our resources to transition to a clean economy,” said Eby.
The B.C. government intends to expand licences for natural gas extraction in the coming decades, with China planning to be a significant buyer of the liquefied natural gas product. The plan pits economic growth against the global environment, an issue that led to the rise of his one challenger for leader of the BC NDP — Anjali Appadurai, who was disqualified in a controversial manner last month.
B.C. wood, minerals and food are also on China’s shopping list and Eby acknowledged the geopolitical tensions that stir unrest abroad may make waves that hit B.C.
“What I want to reassure British Columbians is in these times of international turmoil, my commitment for our government is to make sure this is a secure place for you,” he said.
“Our advantage in British Columbia is that we’re open to the world. And if we lose that advantage it is at our peril. Around the world, people are building walls and isolating themselves while British Columbia has a chance to say, ‘Hey we’re a place in this world where you are welcome and you can come and build a decent life for yourself and your families.’”
Eby, however, has dealt with nuances of B.C.’s international reputation before, calling out both domestic and foreign speculation in housing, while in opposition and as housing minister. He is the architect of the novel speculation and vacancy tax that targets foreign income earners who contribute to housing prices becoming detached from local incomes. He also spearheaded a public inquiry into money laundering that showed domestic regulatory gaps in addressing both domestic and foreign shady money.
Eby said he disagrees with any perception his policies and concerns unfairly targeted Chinese residents in B.C., when asked by Chinese-language reporters Friday. He turned his response to the work the provincial government has done on anti-racism initiatives.
Diversity and a commitment to First Nations reconciliation was a key tone set by the ceremony.
Musqueam elected chief Wayne Sparrow said the attendance of Eby and the B.C. government at the First Nation was representative of the commitments they had made to reconciliation and enacting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a legal guideline for future government policies.
“We’re standing with the province to find solutions on how we can move forward as First Nations people,” said Sparrow.
Eby was greeted on stage with a blanketing ceremony likened by Sparrow to “jumping in the canoe together to make sure we are all OK.”
Eby said it was an important symbol to recognize the partnership with First Nations on day one and that being sworn near his home riding of West Point Grey was also important.
Eby thanked his two young children and wife for allowing him to take on the job.
“You are my base, my foundation and I love you so much,” he said.