High Expectations confront New NDP Gov’t in British Columbia

by Gary Porter

Victoria, B.C.: After only 120 days in office, the freshman New Democratic Party government on Canada’s west coast had to face delegates elected by the membership of the mass labour-based party at its provincial convention, November 3-5. Expectations were high on the major issues affecting working people, indigenous communities, women, visible minorities, and the impoverished in British Columbia. After 16 years of harsh Liberal Party rule, public services have been slashed, fees increased, the public infrastructure neglected, the environment ravaged, climate change ignored, labour rights attacked and all restrictions on corporate campaign financing were removed — resulting in a wild west show of bought and sold politicians.

In the May 2017 election, the NDP won 44% of the vote, and the Green Party 16%. The parties won 41 and 3 seats respectively out of a total of 87. The two parties came to an agreement by which the NDP formed the government, with Green Party support on key issues.

Almost 800 delegates came from labour unions and riding (electoral) associations, the party youth wing and the women’s rights standing committee. The delegation reflected the true face of BC where over 30% of the population consists of visible minorities, 6% are members of indigenous nations and about 30% of the labour force is unionized. While professionals and some small business operators were present, big business was not in the convention hall.

The NDP Premier, John Horgan and several cabinet Ministers reported on early actions of the government. The list included: increasing welfare by $100 monthly, increasing the amount recipients can earn before social assistance reductions occur, cutting provincial medicare fees in half and promising to eliminate the fee completely over time, increasing the minimum wage (though it will take years to reach the goal of $15/hour), and announcing its opposition to the proposed Texas-based Kinder Morgan pipeline designed to carry bitumen from the Alberta Tar Sands to the fragile Pacific coast. The pipeline would result in an eightfold increase in tanker traffic in the Straights of Georgia and Juan de Fuca, endangering the marine environment, and affecting Vancouver, Victoria, and potentially Seattle.

The Premier announced he was “reviewing”, rather than opposing, the massive Site C power dam project in north-east BC. The project is outrageously expensive, unnecessary and likely to serve primarily to power development of the tar sands in Alberta. Some indigenous people oppose the project while others support it. Some unions, such as United Steelworkers support the project, and other unions reject it. Environmentalists uniformly condemn it.

The NDP government could play a leadership role and counter pose green public energy projects, incorporating equity hiring policies for women, indigenous peoples and visible minorities in a new green energy sector.

In fact, the NDP government faces a huge opportunity to get profit-oriented capitalist businesses out of energy production and distribution by simply expanding the scope and purpose of the government-owned BC Hydro, which distributes electricity to residences and businesses in B.C., and by taking over private energy corporations and operating them solely to meet public need rather than private profit.

The NDP leadership, however, is not socialist. It is social democratic — committed to reforming capitalism, not replacing it. Even so, social democratic parties have undertaken ambitious nationalization programs.

The convention delegates participated energetically in convention floor debates, although a mere five hours was devoted to dealing with resolutions submitted by unions and local party associations.

Socialist Action supports the NDP Socialist Caucus, which is open to all NDP members. The SC advocates social ownership and democratic workers’ control of the principal means of production, distribution, transportation, communication and finance. It advocates a dramatic reduction of work hours, with no loss of pay or benefits, to ensure that the working class obtains the benefits of automation. The SC calls for nationalization of polluters, the right to self-determination for indigenous peoples, fair trade, and for swiftly putting an end to Canada’s participation in imperialist military alliances such as NATO and NORAD.

Socialist Caucus speakers at the mic ripped the federal Justin Trudeau government’s tolerance of the utterly unfair tariffs on BC lumber imposed by the Trump administration, proposing that Canada cease buying American war planes, which would result in a loss of hundreds of billions of dollars to the U.S. arms industry. The SC advocated an annual cost of living increase to keep pace with the minimum wage, and argued for free tuition for all post secondary students to make education truly accessible to working class families and other low income British Columbians
These ideas won substantial, even wildly enthusiastic support, although none were formally adopted. The reason for that is simple: amendments can not be moved directly from the floor. Only motions of referral, with specific instructions to the resolutions committee, are accepted. Typically, referred motions never return to the floor due to the lack of adequate time for policy debate.

The convention did adopt resolutions for the reestablishment of a Human Rights Commission in BC, measures to fully restore union collective bargaining rights, for proper funding of the infrastructure, for much improved public transport in BC. The gathering called for halting the seizure of indigenous children by the child welfare system and instead demanded efforts to help indigenous families deal with the issues of drug addition, poverty and joblessness, and a plan to build 1700 affordable public residential rental units. Delegates mandated repairs to the infrastructure of the BC Hydro corporation and the BC Auto Insurance Corporation, badly undercut by the previous government which opposes publicly owned services on principle.

In addition, the closure of the wild west show, of unlimited corporate donations was approved. Party and candidate donations will be restricted to individuals only and to a maximum of $1200 annually. Unfortunately, this puts an equal sign between unions and private for-profit corporations, which mis-educates workers, limits the political intervention of workers’ organizations, while capitalists with enormous resources will always find a way around the rules. The NDP government pledges to introduce a system of proportional representation in BC, and to increase training for child care workers, expand childcare facilities and charge only $10 daily per child. The convention demanded that the Trudeau federal government establish a framework to add pharma care and dental care to existing medical coverage for all.

When the convention endorsed the $15/hour minimum wage, BC Federation of Labour President Irene Lanzinger said labour is patient, but not too patient — insisting that the measure be fully implemented before the end of 2018. The palpable tension between popular expectations and bureaucratic opportunism is a sign of things to come.

Photo Credits: Joshua Berson Photography