After a second emergency session of the B.C. legislature following a surprise election, Black Press legislature reporter Tom Fletcher spoke by phone to Premier John Horgan Dec. 18 about his government’s COVID-19 relief programs and the year ahead in 2021.
TF: The first round of BC’s $1,000 COVID relief payments opened April 1, and it was only to people who were approved for CERB, the federal emergency program, so it was a test of actual income loss from the pandemic. Now the second round is for almost everybody, and the price tag is up to $1.7 billion added to our record deficit. Was that an election ploy for short-term popularity, to respond to the B.C. Liberal sales tax cut, as you suggested yourself?
JH: Well, certainly it was partly in response to the sales tax initiative that the Liberals announced. But more importantly than that, it was to get dollars into the hands of low- and middle-income British Columbians so they could spend those dollars in their communities. And we saw from the quarterly report that came out [Dec. 17] that retail sales are down. Having money in your pocket is likely to increase retail sales. That will stimulate more activity, keep people working and keep businesses operating. So that’s the objective.
[In fact the quarterly report showed retail sales had already soared past pre-pandemic levels, due to a flood of federal money that far surpassed the actual income losses, plus the aid paid out by B.C. this spring to those who could show income loss.]
TF: Why no actual test of loss?
JH: Because it’s our view that low- and middle-income British Columbians are the ones who have struggled the most through COVID, whether that can be demonstrable as it has been with the CERB, or otherwise. Those high-income British Columbians have probably been able to weather dislocation in the workplace by working from home, or some other means. So we felt that the test was low- and middle-income, that you’re likely to spend the money rather than pocket the money, and that’s the outcome that we’re expecting.
TF: Speaking of people who have been hurt the worst, money was approved last March for small business and tourism aid. They’re still waiting and the program that was launched during the election campaign had to be retooled in December. How much did the election add to that problem?
JH: None, because the government, treasury board and then cabinet, approved the allocation of resources, and the criteria for the distribution of those resources are largely left in the hands of the professional public service. They developed the criteria, they put them in place during the election campaign, applications were called for, and what we heard afterwards is certainly that some of the criteria were too onerous and were restricting businesses’ ability to access the program.
TF: Now the budget is delayed to April 20, and with it new programs that might be needed in the next few months. Do you have any regrets about calling a snap election in the middle of a public health emergency and creating a 10-week delay?
JH: I don’t believe there was a 10-week delay. Before I visited the Lt. Governor [to request the early election] I was assured that the dollars that were required for the programs in the StrongerBC initiative had been approved, and then it’s up to the system to distribute those dollars based on fair and equitable criteria. That’s how all programs develop, whether there is an election or no election.
The additional time to prepare the budget for 2021 will be time well spent as we look at where the federal government’s going to be on transfers. I’m still optimistic that the federal government will understand that the Canada Health Transfer is a key part of our delivery of public health care in B.C., and the participation of the federal government over the past number of decades has been declining to the point where it’s about 22 per cent of the total delivery of service, where it used to be 50-50.
So I’m hopeful that additional time will allow the federal government to look at where they can assist the provinces with meaningful, long-term funding rather than just one-time funding, which has been well-received and we’re gratefully delivering those dollars to communities, to businesses and individuals.
TF: The federal government is now expressing concerns that increased health transfers might add to a structural deficit and possibly lead to a credit downgrade. Can B.C. really expect a major increase in the year ahead?
JH: All of the premiers, Liberal, Conservative and me, the New Democrat, are of one mind on this. The federal capacity to provide the resources that we need to deliver health care is greater than ours is. The Conference Board of Canada did a report for the Council of the Federation, all of the premiers. The chair is currently Francois Legault from Quebec. I’m not sure it was released publicly, but was used to make the case to the federal government, and we had a pretty vigorous discussion about it a few weeks ago, and we agreed we would continue to talk about it.
We have 10 premiers and three territorial leaders who are absolutely focused on this as being the number one issue for federal-provincial relations going forward. I believe it’s a real opportunity for the current federal government and the opposition parties. I’ve spoken with Jagmeet Singh, and my Conservative counterparts are speaking with Erin O’Toole to make the case that this is a generational opportunity to reset public health care. When better than as we come out from underneath a global pandemic where all Canadians have recognized the value of our public health system.
I’m very optimistic that our arguments are persuasive, and as time goes by, all of the three major federal parties will get behind us.