B.C. budget: Surplus for the rich

Child poverty rates in BC remain high despite budget surplus. | Photo by Donald E. Curtis.

Child poverty rates in BC remain high despite budget surplus. | Photo by Donald E. Curtis.

At a glance, the B.C. budget introduced last week by the B.C. Liberal government tells a story of success and prosperity. This year’s surplus was larger than expected, at a whopping $879 million.

As the only provincial administration not currently running a deficit, Finance Minister Mike de Jong was able to boast, “We are the fiscally healthiest team in the league.” Indeed. Unfortunately it’s become fashionable to prioritize so-called fiscal health over and above every other indicator of well being. The reality unaddressed by this budget is that B.C. is suffering from a chronic case of inequality.

Year after year, this province has amongst the highest levels of child poverty in Canada. But there is nothing in this year’s budget to indicate that the government cares to address this problem. Income assistance rates remain at cruelly low levels especially for single parents struggling to survive in a city like Vancouver with prohibitive housing costs. Provincial funding for education remains inadequate, and there is no sign of serious provincial investments for affordable child care. Between paying the rent and paying for day care, too many families are feeling the squeeze.

Child poverty is part of the social deficit hidden by all the triumphalism of a fiscal surplus. A closer look at the budget can only lead one to conclude that the B.C. Liberals have no intention of addressing this human deficit, which compounds annually in opportunities denied and lives lost prematurely. The budget provided the biggest tax breaks to those who don’t need any help, eliminating the $150,000/year tax bracket, while increasing various user fees like MSP premiums.

As opposition NDP finance spokesperson Carole James put it, “As if it isn’t enough that families are being nickeled and dimed by rates and fare hikes, they are going to pay to give a break to British Columbians who need it least.”

It’s not so much that this government’s budget fails to address the problem of inequality in B.C.; it’s more like the budget is designed to make inequality worse. As civic advocate Sandy Garossino put it on Twitter, “Inequality appears to be official government policy.”

This is the often unspoken truth about neoliberal, free market ideology. A rising tide lifts all boats, they say disingenuously, while doing nothing to ensure that everyone has a boat in the first place.

Criticism of the B.C. budget was loudest from labour and environmental organizations. David Black, President of the trade union COPE 378, for example, complained that “the richest in B.C. are getting a big break from the B.C. Liberals on the taxes. The government should balance the books fairly, not by hitting average families.”

Torrance Coste of the Wilderness Committee took aim at the B.C. Liberals’ failure to seriously address the climate crisis: “British Columbians want real leadership on climate change, but this government has failed to deliver, yet again – providing small incentives for things like electric cars while working to build a whole new fossil fuel industry is irresponsible in 2015.”

Speaking of fossil fuels, economist Iglika Ivanova of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives argued, “The government is betting too much on the potential of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) and mining industries to bring jobs and growth to the province; none of the benefits are expected in the next three years.”

That’s almost an understatement. The B.C. government relentlessly touts the potential of expanded LNG exports. Christy Clark is equal parts Premier and LNG salesperson-in-chief.

As it happens, just two days after the budget, Premier Clark was happily welcoming a new tax break for LNG facilities announced by the federal government.

So while fossil fuels and budget surpluses get all the attention, we’d be wise to focus more on our collective social and ecological deficits.