Martyn Brown: On balance, John Horgan's platform works for me

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      Elections are always to some extent referendums on four elements: (1) the desire for change under a new government; (2) the party leaders; (3) the parties’ visions and platforms; and (4) the local candidates.

      This characteristically super-long exposition from me is principally about the third consideration, as it pertains to the NDP. It might surprise some of those who only know of me by my past B.C. Liberal pedigree.

      After reviewing the NDP’s 105-page Working For You vision for change, I am somewhat surprised and pleased to say, on balance, John Horgan’s platform works for me.

      “NDP—Works for Me”.

      I haven’t yet seen that slogan on any campaign button, bumper sticker, lawn sign sticker, or other promotional item. Just saying, New Democrats. You should own #WorksforMe.

      Certainly that is my big takeaway, as I hope it will be yours, if you bear with this magnum opus.

      Overall, the NDP’s balanced platform is an optimistic and admirably bold program for needed change. It is certainly more income sensitive and more environmentally sensitive than the B.C. Liberals’ uninspiring, self-aggrandizing, status quo platform.

      After all, what’s not to like about the NDP’s new platform?

      Certainly not its final pages, featuring Horgan’s entire team of 87 candidates—the most demographically balanced team ever fielded in a B.C. election. Congrats to all of you.

      Over half of those candidates—44 of them—are women, a first in B.C., or perhaps anywhere in Canada. The diversity of age, ethnicity, and experience is equally impressive. Works for me.

      B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan, seen at the Vancouver Vaisakhi parade, has a diverse team of candidates.
      Charlie Smith

      On that account, as on so many others, Horgan’s platform stands in stark contrast to the B.C. Liberals’ platform, which is predictably all about Christy Clark.

      The latter’s 128-pages feature 41 images of Clark’s preening face, in various portraits, selfies, and snapshots of her hard at work. You know, just working hard at being the centre of attention, as she does so well.

      The rest of the Liberals’ platform photos look like stock images of who-know-whos. Probably mostly Americans.

      Yet in all those pages, there is nary a single picture of Clark’s team of candidates, and only a few in which even a cabinet minister shares Premier Photo Op’s limelight.

      Pictures, and the lack of them, tell us all we need to know about the purpose of a platform in Christy’s eyes: it is always a place to put her on a pedestal.

      The NDP’s full platform document is decidely less glitzy, with only 10 photos of Horgan and far fewer graphics.

      It is almost “all business”. Lots of bullets, facts, and words. They might not be especially fun to look at, but they are far richer in forward-thinking content and vision than Premier Pixie Dust’s platform.

      Though I remain skeptical of Horgan’s plan to finance and fully deliver on some of his boldest commitments—especially those that would take as many as two more terms in office to execute— stretching their implementation out for years, works for me. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

      There is nothing wrong with being aspirational. It is what visions are all about.

      More importantly, none of Horgan’s targets are wildly off the mark, as Clark’s trillion-dollar LNG pipe dream was from Day One.

      The NDP’s platform may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you can’t say it is not ambitious.

      B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark is often the centre of attention, whether she's out in public or in her party's platform.
      Charlie Smith

      Let us review some of the largest ticket items and boldest ideas in question.

      $10 a day childcare, to be phased in as affordable, over 10 years?

      Time will tell, but sure, if we can afford it. It seems we can, the way Horgan envisions steadily easing into that new state entitlement program, a space all politicians have been too reluctant to travel in the last 20 years.

      God knows it will save young working families a bundle—about $1,325 a month, based on the median fee paid by parents of toddlers in Metro Vancouver.

      Those with annual incomes below $40,000 will not pay any fee for that service. Nor should they. Though if I had my druthers, I would not make the child care program universally available to B.C.’s wealthiest citizens, who don’t need taxpayers’ help to lighten their load.

      Building 114,000 rental, social and co‑op homes over 10 years?

      A laudable goal that seems realistic enough, even if it would require the NDP to win three straight elections to implement it.

      In a world that is as dark as this one is for so many renters and people in need of affordable housing, best shoot for the stars. The worst we can do is miss that mark and maybe hit the moon, which would still be major progress compared to the near-hopeless course that Clark’s cabinet has put those people on, millennials especially.

      Rome is never built overnight and it can never be built by those who sit on their hands and stare at their navels.

      Curious that B.C.’s so-called “development party” has never had much appetite for such an obviously needed aspirational commitment to developing affordable housing. Follow the money, RCMP, and special prosecutor, I say, and you may learn why that is the case.

      Creating 96,000 construction jobs by building schools, hospitals, roads and rapid transit over the next five years?

      Can’t vouch for the number, but it sounds like a lot of jobs that work for me. Anyway, there is no doubt we need the added infrastructure and would be wise to build and finance it now, while interest rates are still low.

      Eliminating MSP premiums over four years, with a 50 percent reduction next year?

      Hallelujah. Especially if the NDP sticks to its platform plan to achieve that mighty $2.5 billion pledge without raising other taxes on families to pay for it.

      Then again, partially funding that relief for the many, through new surtaxes on the few—i.e. on the wealthiest two percent—also works for me. One suspects there is more than meets the eye to come in that regard, than can be discerned from the NDP’s platform.

      As a political strategy, if nothing else, I’m fine with waiting until after the election for that shoe to inevitably drop, pending the advice of Horgan’s “non-partisan MSP Elimination Panel” on “how to protect health care funding, while phasing out this unfair flat tax”.

      Money does not grow on trees, and I have little doubt that we will all have to pay for that commitment to varying degrees.

      But in the end, a Horgan government will be limited in how it can act by the expectations its own platform is setting in the minds of all those who vote NDP in this election.

      Phasing in a $15/hour minimum wage by 2021, with increases each year?

      If anything, that is too long to wait for most minimum wage workers, who are too often this century’s equivalent of indentured servants, given their student and family debt burdens.

      To say their options for making ends meet are limited is an understatement.

      The need and merit of that commitment to a $15/hour minimum wage is not in doubt. No one can credibly claim that Horgan’s timeline is not doable and judicious.

      The B.C. NDP wants to scrap tolls on the $808-million Golden Ears Bridge.

      Ken Lord

      Eliminating tolls on the Port Mann bridge and on the Golden Ears bridge?

      That sure works for commuters, whatever the wisdom of that policy might be, in respect of its less scrutinized impacts on congestion and emissions.

      Any way you slice it, putting anywhere from $1,500 to $1,860 of after-tax income back in those beneficiaries’ pockets is nothing to sneeze at.

      Personally, I would have gone for a new income-sensitive tolling regime, to make road tolls more progressive, as I have previously advocated.

      Were I in Horgan’s shoes, I would not have offered to provide quite that same level of universal relief to B.C.’s wealthiest individuals or to commercial truckers.

      Whatever. Horgan’s plan works for the people it targets, if not for Metro Vancouver’s mayors and councillors, who will have to cope with its most serious fiscal, structural, and political consequences.

      Rolling back ferry fares on small routes by 15 percent, freezing fares on major routes, and restoring the 100 percent seniors’ weekday discount?

      Works for me, as somone who is happily retired and lives on Vancouver Island, much as I do not need that or other seniors’ cost-saving entitlement programs.

      Surely the most sensible thing to do is to revisit the entire cornucopia of seniors’ entitlements discounts to make them more income sensitive. In a perfect world, I would do away with all those perks for the wealthy people who don’t need taxpayers’ help to subsidize their property taxes, ferry fares, or myriad other costs.

      Rather than tag those with far lower incomes to help foot the bill for those benefits that are universally provided to anyone who turns the magic age of 65, I would realign those programs, including the ferry discount, to target only those seniors who make less than, say, $150 K a year.

      That would be fair and sensible, if politics was not an issue. Anyway, who am I to look a gift horse in the mouth?

      Freezing B.C. Hydro rates for a year and stopping ICBC’s planned 42 percent rate increase?

      Works for me, in the short term at least. Though almost certainly, the chickens will eventually come home to roost on that pledge, as the growing s#%t pile of debt pressuring B.C. Hydro rates and ICBC’s structural cost-drivers inevitably raise those rates and premiums.

      As page 15 of the NDP platform points out, those costs are also largely due to the billions of dollars in “dividends” the B.C. government sneakily reaps from ratepayers, motorists, and ferry users.

      They are a hidden tax that Horgan’s plan rightly criticizes. Unfortunately, it says too little about addressing that problem, beyond punting it, pending a “comprehensive operating review”.

      But there is no doubt that those government-imposed costs have been largely responsible for the cost increases since 2011 that the NDP platform highlights.

      They include an extra $419 a year for the average B.C. Hydro customer, $235 more for the average ICBC customer, and $28.30 per return ferry trip for a car and driver, on the major routes.

      Interest-free student loans, a $1,000 completion grant for graduates of college, university, and skilled trades programs, restoring free adult basic education and English as a second language?

      That sure works for students. It will also get them working faster, at better paying jobs. That should work for all taxpayers, economically and fiscally.

      Raising income assistance and disability rates by $100 per month, and raising the related earnings exemption to $200 a month?

      Who would that not work for? As if you can’t guess. Not a priority for the well-paid folks in Clark’s cabinet, anymore than it was for the Campbell government, when I was there.

      The Clark government is demonstrably not working to help make life even remotely affordable for those low-income individuals and families.

      It is not prepared to make even those modest investments, to help those who are able to work, lift themselves out of poverty, with meaningful employment that might alleviate or ultimately eliminate their dependency on social assistance.

      Again, on this issue, the NDP did not try to outspend the Greens, who propose raising income assistance rates by 50 percent over the next four years. A bold and noble platform commitment, for sure, but not at all realistic, in my humble assessment.

      Horgan’s platform is by contrast eminently reasonable and clearly affordable. It offers a welcome first step toward helping those most in need, yet without also unduly and even cruelly raising false expectations of what any new government will be able to responsibly afford.

      On that score, the Greens’ plan earns full marks for vote pandering, but the NDP’s plan is actually one that can and likely will be done in a heartbeat, under a Horgan administration.

      Many conservationists will appreciate the NDP's plan to prohibit hunting grizzly bears.
      Jens Wieting

      Outlawing the grizzly trophy hunt?

      Read my piece on that in the Straight and you will learn why that commitment more than works for me. Fantastic.

      My hat goes off to John Horgan and all New Democrats on that long overdue commitment, made last fall. The polls suggest their position is also widely applauded by the vast majority of British Columbians in every region.

      The groundswell of political action by those who have for so long fought to ban the grizzly trophy hunt has paid off big time. In both the NDP’s platform and in the Green party’s platform.

      Difference is, only one of those parties stands to make that dream a reality in government.

      I sure would not bet a plug nickel on the Liberals’ supposed new “commitment” to “work with Coastal First Nations towards the elimination of the grizzly bear hunt in the Great Bear Rainforest”.

      Even that isolated policy reversal, on the eve of an election, is a damning indictment of failure and inaction by a party that has actively profited from the donations of those who enjoy killing for the bloody “fun” of it, in that reserve and elsewhere.

      Horgan’s platform would end the horrific practice of grizzly trophy hunting, dead in its tracks.

      Banning Big Money in politics, giving everyone a say on proportional representation, and outlawing partisan advertising by government?

      If you have read any of the myriad articles I have written in the Straight and elsewhere on all of those subjects, you will know that all of those commendable commitments are measures I have strongly advocated.

      As such, Horgan’s platform on those priorities sure works for me.

      On each issue, the NDP has shown real leadership that vests its trust in the wisdom of all voters to realize the changes they want through the collective power leveraged by their individual ballots.

      Anyone who really wants to achieve those things, including a new electoral system based on some form of proportional representation, now has a platform that should work for them, as it does for me.

      Unlike the past efforts at electoral reform, which were spearheaded by the Campbell government when I was there, this one promises to be different. For one thing, Horgan has vowed to actively campaign for proportional representation in his promised referendum, which would only require a bare majority to pass. This time, that change seems more likely than ever.

      All of those items above are just a sampling of some of the more headline-grabbing commitments that Horgan’s New Democrats are offering to advance their three overarching platform priorities:

      1. Making life more affordable.
      2. Enhancing crucial public services, and
      3. Creating jobs and economic growth that is environmentally sustainable and socially responsible.

      On every major issue, be it health care, education, social services, public safety, economic development, or fiscal management, the NDP’s platform presents a cogent vision. Those subjects are too vast for inspection here.

      Suffice it to say, the platform mostly does them each justice, with thoughtful ideas and priorities that suggest a blueprint to build a better B.C.

      Sometimes the document’s rhetoric on those hugely important public policy issues is a bit too abstract, or lacking in specificity. That is to be expected in any platform.

      Platforms are high-level vision pieces that are principally intended to point to destinations and priorities in public policy. They propose mandates for change.

      Horgan’s platform provides enough details and ideas on how to achieve that desired change to do the job at hand.

      It should give NDP supporters and undecided voters alike a road map for change that asks us all to vote for something, as we also vote against those who stand in the way of that desired progress.

      All of that works for me, to the extent that none of it will break the bank, as cleverly presented in the NDP’s fiscal plan.

      The B.C. NDP platform held off criticizing the Pacific Northwest LNG plant near Prince Rupert.

      OK, so the climate action program does not go far enough for my liking, as I have previously suggested. Though it is a far cry superior to the travesty that another Clark government would invite on our province and atmosphere.

      The NDP’s modest carbon tax hikes, phased in over three years, starting in 2020, will work just fine for most voters, even if I don’t think they will be anywhere near sufficient to meet B.C.’s distant emissions reduction targets for 2030 and 2050.

      Most taxpayers are in no rush to meet the Trudeau government’s minimum $50/tonne national carbon price by 2022. Nor are they likely to embrace the B.C. Green party’s politically risky proposal to more than double that tax over the next four years—a policy I strongly support, as I do most of Andrew Weaver’s laudable vision for climate action.

      Anyway, I am delighted by Horgan’s firm opposition to the Kinder Morgan project. This platform passage reinforcing the NDP’s position is certainly music to my ears:

      “The Kinder Morgan pipeline is not in BC’s interest. It means a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic. It doesn’t, and won’t, meet the necessary conditions of providing benefits to British Columbia without putting our environment and our economy at unreasonable risk. We will use every tool in our toolbox to stop the project from going ahead.”

      Here, here. Now go “get em”.

      I was surprised and disappointed to not see any specific reference in the NDP platform, recommiting the party to its previous opposition to the Pacific Northwest LNG project, as it was approved by the Trudeau government.

      Indeed, to me, the NDP’s support (page 78) for LNG exports and fossil fuel development is anathema to B.C.’s climate action goals. It is one of the only elements in that platform that does not work for me.

      But compared to Clarks’ climate-be-damned, do-anything-to-get-a-deal cheerleading on that file, Horgan’s plan offers a more environmentally responsible alternative, as the only other serious contender to form the government.

      Besides, given the weak long-term price forecasts, global glut of LNG, and ongoing court battles to fight the Pacific Northwest LNG project, the economics are still likely to sink that project and Clark’s broader LNG fantasy.

      Horgan’s fiscal plan

      Perhaps best of all, from my perspective, Horgan’s plan is fiscally responsible.

      It sure gives me more confidence about the cost of the NDP’s spending plans and its general commitment to living within taxpayers’ means. For small “l” liberals like me, that’s a big deal.

      I well know how hard it is for any opposition party to accurately forecast the cost of its platform commitments without the aid of the bureaucracy. And I well understand Horgan’s trepidation about the true state of finances that might await an NDP government.

      All he can offer is his best “guestimate”, relying on the budget figures that the Liberals have provided.

      He has done just that, with a prudent and pragmatic eye to fiscally responsible government.

      I love his commitment to the goal of a balanced budget, which is not one that any government should slavishly follow if global economic and fiscal circumstances demand short periods of deficit financing to properly protect public services.

      John Horgan says if he becomes premier, he'll attempt to balance the budget each year.

      After all, as my colleague on a weekly CBC radio panel, Norman Spector, recently observed, if a government cannot balance the budget in these relatively buoyant fiscal and economic times in British Columbia, it never will.

      All bets will be off if the global economy goes south.

      Rising interest rates, punitive new American taxes on B.C. exports, the collapse of NAFTA, or any number of other factors could easily send our economy back into a tailspin.

      Horgan’s plan is innately aimed at recognizing that reality. It commits the NDP to balancing the budget, based on the evidence that is now available.

      But it also allows for the fiscal room to run any short-term deficit that might be beyond its ability to control, be it from global circumstances, or from any nasty fiscal “surprises” that the Liberals may have already mined for a potential NDP government.

      If anything, the NDP’s fiscal plan doesn’t go far enough in raising taxes on corporations and on B.C.’s highest-income earners.

      I predict a Horgan government will need to go much further than the NDP’s platform envisions in redistributing tax wealth and in advancing progressivity in taxation.

      A one percent increase to the general corporation income tax rate is anything but radical. Ditto for the minor personal income tax hike that would only be applicable to the top two percent of taxpayers, with annual incomes over $150,000.

      Both measures were anticipated. That sound you hear is the collective sigh of relief from B.C.’s largest corporations and wealthiest individuals.

      I was not enamoured by the NDP platform’s silence on the 15 percent foreign buyers’ tax. Getting rid of that tax, as John Horgan hints his government might do, would not work for me. On the contrary, I would extend it immediately, to apply to Greater Victoria and perhaps other price-pressured communities.

      Then again, I wholly support the NDP’s plan to impose a two percent tax on the value of speculators’ property. It would apply to speculators who buy property in BC, but who don’t live or work here and leave their property empty. Should have happened over a year ago.

      John Horgan’s plan to redirect the Clark government’s ludicrous $500-million LNG “prosperity fund” to other funding priorities also makes sense.

      Using that money to eliminate tolls for three years on the Port Mann bridge and Golden Ears bridge would not have been my first draw on that funding.

      But hey, if it succeeds in electing New Democrats in seats south of the Fraser that they need to form the government, I gotta say, that works for me.

      If a change in the government and in British Columbia’s political leadership is Job One, the NDP’s platform should help to achieve that mission.

      It is all about balance.

      Balanced spending priorities versus balanced new measures to raise more revenue. Balanced investments across the board, for legitimate public needs, government services, and socioeconomic infrastructure that are all competing for finite public resources.

      Balanced budgets, are a worthy value. Horgan’s commitment to that end was perhaps unexpected, but should be widely commended.

      I still say, Tom Mulcair was right to fight for that value in the NDP’s losing federal election battle.

      It was not the pursuit of balanced budgets that did Mulcair and the federal New Democrats in. Rather, it was their lack of bold policies and visions, which are certainly not lacking in Horgan’s platform.

      It was also Mulcair’s principled stance on the Niqab controversy—a “wildcard issue” that emerged without warning, as can happen in any election. He should have been rewarded, not punished for that courageous position, which was so widely unpopular in Quebec especially.

      To win, Horgan’s New Democrats need to retain the vast majority of the voters who supported them in 2013.

      They need to motivate more potential supporters to get out and vote. (See this.)

      And they need to convince a whole passel of past Liberal swing voters to overcome their apprehensions—fuelled by years of NDP fearmongering by hacks like me—and vote for the NDP.

      Or failing that, for ABC—anybody but Clark.

      As someone who has authored four election platforms, including three for the Liberals, Horgan’s platform also works for me as a political document. It is artfully crafted, with just the right balance to appeal to a winning coalition of voters on the left and right.

      I do not like every commitment in it, but who ever does, of any party platform?

      It is what platforms communicate on balance to each of us as voters that matters most. And Horgan’s platform says to me, “we will work better for you than the alternative will.”

      Andrew Weaver (left, seen with Green candidate Joe Keithley) still hasn't released the B.C. Green party's full platform.

      I am still awaiting the release of the Greens’ full platform, so I have not quite made up my mind whether it might work for me as well, depending largely on its imagined budgetary plans.

      At this point, it is fair to say I am conflicted.

      I really like the Greens’ announced commitments to climate action and lifelong learning. But I am not so keen on their prescription for much higher property-related taxes.

      And I am very skeptical about the cost and practicality of their bold prescriptions for affordable housing, income assistance, childcare, and early preschool.

      In any case, they will not form the government, so have zero chance of implementing them. The real weight of those initiatives likely depends on whether or not the Greens hold the balance of power in a minority government.

      That will be a huge and growing consideration or concern, depending on your perspective, especially if Weaver does as well as he is hoping in the televised leaders’ debate, on April 26.

      The Greens’ platform will tell us much about the risks and benefits of perhaps giving them such power. My sense is, much of it will resonate with a relatively select minority of voters and most of it will not at all work for the vast majority of B.C. voters.

      Ultimately, my decision will hinge on this one cascading question: who can win, to usher in a change of government and leadership, and who will also be best positioned to fight for a plan that works for me?

      Horgan’s platform and leadership has made that choice a whole lot more palatable for someone who fought so long to defeat the NDP.

      I mostly like his plan for needed change and I urge all British Columbians, disaffected Liberals especially, to give it the due consideration it deserves.

      If nothing else, I am here to say, unequivocally and with only minor reservations, it works for me.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2005, in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, and he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact Brown at  towardsanewgovernment@gmail.com.

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