Norm Letnick Acknowledges Lack of Consultation on ALR Changes

Norm Letnick, Christy Clark’s latest agriculture minister, is acknowledging that there has not been real consultation to allow for the Liberals’ Bill 24 to move forward, say the New Democrats.

“Mr. Letnick’s latest public comments reflect that the Liberals never received any mandate from farmers and British Columbians across this province to make such sweeping changes to B.C.’s revered Agricultural Land Reserve that undermine our food security and farming sector,” said New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix. “Not only did the Liberals not campaign on changing the ALR, after entering office they never once consulted on this legislation.”

Letnick acknowledged Wednesday that the opposition to the legislation from within the agriculture sector is causing him to revisit the government’s lack of consultation on the legislation.

“This legislation impacts farmers and ranchers, but it also affects every British Columbian,” said New Democrat agriculture critic Nicholas Simons. “The decision to protect land suitable for agriculture 40 years ago was for the benefit of future generations. Having two zones and the ‘regional panels’ make decisions about agricultural land too political.”

“One of the Liberals’ primary premises for Bill 24 – that a majority of farmland in the ALR outside of Vancouver Island, the Fraser Valley and Okanagan, is not productive farmland – has been thoroughly discredited by experts, who have informed the premier that the opposite is true,” said New Democrat small business critic Lana Popham.

“This not only reveals the Liberals’ lack of knowledge on the true overall value of the ALR, it reinforces that they never held any informed consultation on the ALR as part of the Core Review process that led this legislation. Real consultation would have resulted in better public policy that truly supports farmers, farming and our food security. Until such consultation takes place, Bill 24 needs to be shelved.”

A letter soil experts sent to the premier last week unequivocally stated that Bill 24 was putting at risk millions of hectares of high-class agriculture land located in the Interior, the Kootenays, and the north.

Dix and Popham were in Kamloops Thursday meeting with agriculture groups as part of the Official Opposition’s ongoing effort to pressure the Liberals to shelve Bill 24, and to adopt legislative measures that actually promote farming, productivity in the ALR and B.C.’s food security. To achieve these ends, Dix has tabled the BC Local Food Act, which is being endorsed by agriculture groups including B.C. Local Food Systems and Farm to Cafeteria Canada.

The main elements of the legislation include implementing a comprehensive strategy on government purchasing locally grown food; reintroducing the successful Buy BC program; mandating a legislative committee on food and agriculture to prepare, in consort with the agriculture minister, a plan to increase local food production, marketing, and processing. The plan would set targets and implement policies to meet those targets which would be reported on annually in the legislature.

ICBC’s $110-Million Blunder

Transportation Minister Todd Stone tried to avoid scrutiny in the legislature by hiding information about ICBC’s $110-million blunder, say New Democrats.

“Rather than immediately notifying the public about this mistake – which meant many people were overbilled for years on their auto insurance – Minister Stone hid this information until after he had finished debating his ministry’s budget in the legislature,” said New Democrat ICBC critic Mable Elmore.

After news broke that ICBC is on the hook for $110 million in billing errors, Minister Stone responded that he was “as angry as I expect British Columbians to be.”

“It’s not good enough for the minister to come out after media broke the story and claim he is angry,” said Elmore. “We want to know why he hid this important information from the public for more than a month.”

Elmore also noted that the minister served three years on the board of directors at ICBC before he was elected, including in 2013 when the billing error first became known to ICBC.

“Rates are on the rise, with a 4.9 per cent increase last year, and another increase coming this year,” said Elmore.

“Now, ratepayers are being put last again by this minister’s decision to put political damage control ahead of accountability. People deserve better from this minister, and from ICBC.”

Crown Counsel Decides to Not Press Charges Against Lakeland Mills

The failure to press charges for the Lakeland mill explosion reinforces that a public inquiry into the government’s failure to provide workers in this province protection and justice is essential, said New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix.

“In 2012 within the span of four months, two mills exploded, four workers died and more 40 were left injured. Two years later, justice has been denied to the families of the deceased and the survivors,” said Dix.

“Today, Crown Counsel’s decision to not press regulatory charges against Lakeland Mills only underscores the need for a full, public and independent investigation into WorkSafe BC.

“They have clearly botched two major investigations, leaving victims without justice. This is yet more evidence that under the Liberal government, WorkSafe BC is failing in its core mission to keep workers safe. The tens of thousands of workers who are at industrial job sites around the province deserve to know that someone is going to get to the bottom of this failure.”

Dix also said this decision lets another company off the hook for yet another preventable tragedy. Like Babine Forest Products before it, Lakeland must have been aware of the hazards of wood dust and simply did not do enough to prevent these deaths.

“WorkSafe BC has one main job: to keep workers safe,” said Dix. “Yet despite the fact that people were pointing to wood dust as a factor in the Burns Lake tragedy within days, not enough work was done by the safety regulator nor by companies to ensure that mills were cleaning up their operations.

“This is on top of the fact that WorkSafe received a briefing from a U.S. expert in 2010 about the dangers of wood dust.

“This is failure on top of failure, which led to tragedy on top of tragedy,” said Dix. “The company failed to act. WorkSafe failed to monitor. Workers paid the price.

“The Liberal government must finally side with the victims, their families and communities who want the full truth to come out, and immediately call for a full, public and independent investigation.”

Stop Child Support Clawbacks

It’s time for the B.C. Liberal government to stop taking money out of the hands of B.C.’s poorest kids say the New Democrats.

Michelle Mungal

Michelle Mungal

“Child support payments belong to children, not to the government,” said New Democrat social development critic Michelle Mungall. “The B.C. Liberals’ child support clawback hurts B.C.’s poorest kids.”

New Democrats joined with affected families at the legislature this week to demand that Premier Clark stop taking child support from children of single parents receiving income supports like disability. The B.C. Liberals removed the income assistance earnings exemption for child support in 2001.

“Half of children being raised by a single mother live in poverty in British Columbia. The province has had the highest rate of child poverty in the country for more than a decade,” said Mungall.

Mungall added that B.C. Liberal MLAs are out of touch with poverty in their own communities. Maple-Ridge Mission MLA Marc Dalton suggested just this week that no B.C. children go hungry, and that youth homelessness doesn’t exist.

“Thirty per cent of all food bank users in B.C. are children. That’s evidence of real food insecurity facing B.C. families,” said Mungall. “We can do better, and we need to, not just for these families, but for the future of the province.”

Kwantlen Executive Payments Should Be Investigated

New Democrats are calling on the Auditor General to investigate executive compensation and reporting practices at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

“The B.C. Liberal government has not treated the allegations that have come to light at Kwantlen seriously,” said New Democrat advanced education critic David Eby.

“These are allegations concerning compensation practices happening when Minister of Advanced Education Amrik Virk was chair of the university’s human resources committee – yet this government still maintains that the appropriate response is an internal review that will report back to the minister himself.”

A series of leaked documents detail an alleged plan involving the minister to funnel $100,000 to the incoming president from the Kwantlen foundation that provides bursaries and grants to students, as part of a scheme to hide bonus payments to executives from public scrutiny.

New Democrats have repeatedly questioned Minister Virk about why, as a board member, he allowed two employment contracts for Kwantlen’s incoming president – one of which was made public, while the other, signed on the same day, was not publicly disclosed, yet provided for an extra payment of $50,000.

“There are staff at Kwantlen who have contacted me with information to bring forward, but they need to know that their jobs will be protected when they do, and that the information they provide will be given appropriate consideration. That will only happen when an independent investigation is called,” said Eby.

“Kwantlen students deserve to know that money that is earmarked for their education will never be used to secretly top up executive paycheques. A thorough investigation by the auditor general will help put this question to rest.”

New Democrats on the LNG Working Group Report

Harry Bains

Harry Bains

New Democrat jobs and labour critic Harry Bains released the following statement in response to the release of the LNG working group report:

“In 2011 Christy Clark released a jobs plan without any plan for skills training and apprenticeships. For three years New Democrats have been pushing the government to make sure the investment in skills training is there so British Columbians are ready to work when those jobs are created.

“Now the premier is finally acknowledging that it’s time to catch up by focusing more on skills training and apprenticeships and by bringing government, labour, industry and First Nations together to make sure British Columbians are ready to work.

“Unfortunately, because she’s late to the game, she has admitted we’ll have to rely on temporary foreign workers because we won’t have enough British Columbians trained for those jobs. That means we won’t see the full benefits of an LNG industry.

“In fact, this government dismantled our apprenticeship training system in 2004. This government is not just playing catch up – they actively set us back.

“If the premier had put a real priority on skills training and development instead of wasting millions on ads trying to convince people she had a sound plan, we’d be in a better position today to capitalize on jobs for British Columbians.”

Suzanne Anton on Distracted Driving

Today I heard Suzanne Anton, B.C.’s Attorney General, discussing the new “distracted driving laws” and how the penalty of $167 doesn’t seem to be stopping people from using their mobile devices while driving.
She is proposing, or at least musing publicly about changing the law so that instead of just a monetary fine, the penalty for texting while driving would also include adding three points to an individual’s drivers licence for each offence.
The increased penalties would be similar to the penalties for speeding while driving. That makes me wonder if the increased penalties for distracted driving will be as effective at stopping people from texting on the road as it has been at stopping people from speeding while driving?

Child Support Clawbacks Hurt B.C.’s Poorest Children

 It’s wrong for the B.C. Liberal government to take every nickel of child support from B.C.’s poorest children, say New Democrats.

Michelle Mungal

Michelle Mungal

“Half of single mothers and their children in B.C live in poverty,” said New Democrat social development critic Michelle Mungall. “The B.C. Liberal government only deepens that poverty by clawing back every nickel of child support from children living in families receiving income assistance.”

The B.C. Liberals removed the income assistance earnings exemption for child support in 2001.

Mungall noted that 30 per cent of food bank users in British Columbia are children, and the province has had the worst child poverty in the country for a decade.

“Last year the B.C. Liberals took $17 million in child support from the poorest children in British Columbia – and then they spent $17 million on partisan pre-election advertisements,” said Mungall.

“Every year in the life of a child is precious – and thousands of B.C. children spent a year with fewer supports, in unhealthy housing, and with less access to healthy food because the B.C. Liberals took their child support to pay for partisan ads.”

B.C. Liberals Making Life Even Less Affordable for British Columbians

Once again, the B.C. Liberals are making life even less affordable for British Columbians – continuing with their ongoing litany of fee and fare hikes, hidden taxes and cancelled discounts.

Starting April 1, the following costs will increase:

  •  Hydro rates will begin their 28 per-cent climb starting with a nine-per-cent jump April 1. Over the next threeyears, this government’s hydro hikes will make life less affordable for B.C. families and hurt business to the tune of $2 billion. More than half of that will go into this government’s pocket to pad their budget.
  • Ferry fares will increase again by four per cent. This fare hike is on top of another 3.5-per-cent increase ferry users faced in January. Fares have gone up by more than 100 per cent on some routes since the Liberals formed government in 2001. In the meantime, service is getting cut on ferry routes up and down the coast, meaning B.C. families will pay more and get less.

Also on April 1, the following discounts will be cancelled or cut:

  • Ferry discounts for seniors will be cut in half. The callous decision by the B.C. Liberals shows the lengths they will go to in order to make British Columbians pay more and get less.
  • The LiveSmart program for businesses ends on April 1, eliminating an incentive for businesses to make energy-wise choices, and removing any opportunity for relief from the fee hike on the same day the program ends.

Plus, the B.C. Liberals are hitting families in the pocketbook this year with these increases:

  • Medical Service Premiums were increased on Jan. 1 for the fifth year in a row. And they will go up by another four per cent in Jan. 2015. At that point a B.C. family will pay $1,728 per year for the medical services tax. That’s double what they paid in 2001 when the Liberals formed government.
  • ICBC basic coverage is expected to increase by between 3.4 and 6.4 per cent by the end of the year.
  • Tuition will increase by two per cent, pushing post-secondary education even further out of reach for many families. Tuition has doubled since the B.C. Liberals formed government in 2001.

Significant Changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve

A bill introduced by the B.C. Liberal government will break apart the Agricultural Land Reserve, removing protections from 90 per cent of B.C. farmland and putting it at risk of industrial development, say New Democrats.

“Breaking apart the Agricultural Land Reserve is breaking trust with British Columbians, who overwhelmingly support the protection of farmland for today and for the future. The ALR was created to protect farmland in all of British Columbia, not just in some regions of British Columbia,” said Nicholas Simons, New Democrat agriculture critic.

“The way to support farmers is with program support like extension officers, farm insurance and other farmer friendly policies, not by opening up farmland to industrial activities, residential development and other non-farm uses.”

Bill 24, will give unaccountable B.C. Liberal appointees the power to allow industrial and residential development on 90 per cent of ALR land.

“At a time when California is in the midst of the worst drought in 500 years and British Columbian families are struggling with higher and higher food bills, the government should be supporting and encouraging farmers to farm their land, not encouraging them to remove it from the Agricultural Land Reserve,” said Simons.

“If the B.C. Liberals planned to dismantle the Agricultural Land Reserve, they should have put it in their election platform. They have no mandate to undermine these critical protections for B.C. farmland.”

Simons noted that one of the biggest reasons that the average age of farmers is increasing is because young British Columbians who want to farm can’t afford land. That’s largely due to a decade and a half of the B.C. Liberal government sending signals that ALR land is on the table for development.

“One of the biggest benefits that the ALR was supposed to provide was keeping land affordable for new farmers – by continually undermining the reserve, the B.C. Liberals have fueled speculation on B.C. farmland, putting it out of reach of young farmers,” said Simons. “This bill is not about helping farmers, it’s about helping land speculators and big industry to get their hands on agricultural land.”