Christy Clark to focus on social reforms in B.C. throne speech

Rob Shaw

B.C. Premier Christy Clark's plans to announce a proposal to ban corporate and union donations. (Jenelle Schneider/Postmedia Network/Files)

B.C. Premier Christy Clark's plans to announce a proposal to ban corporate and union donations. (Jenelle Schneider/Postmedia Network/Files)

VICTORIA - 

Premier Christy Clark will use what could be her government’s final throne speech Thursday to offer a host of reforms, including a ban on corporate and union donations that may pick up enough Green support to actually pass into law before her government is toppled.

Green Leader Andrew Weaver said in an interview Monday that his three-member Green caucus would "absolutely" lend its votes to pass a Liberal bill that banned corporate and union donations to political parties, as well as set limits on personal donations.

"Absolutely, why would we not?" he said. "Absolutely we would. That would be very exciting."

The potential for Green support could set up a bizarre scenario in which Clark's Liberal government manages to pass a bill into law some time after Thursday's throne speech, before it is toppled by the Green-NDP alliance on a confidence vote in subsequent days. Parliamentary rules allow for governments to pass legislation before throne speeches.

"It would be weirder if we voted against everything we thought we stood for," said Weaver. "We cannot control when the confidence vote would occur. Only (the Liberal government) controls the timing of the confidence vote... we have always argued for good policy."

Weaver brushed aside concerns that supporting the Liberals would anger his NDP partners, which he's proposed to back on confidence issues for a four-year term.

"I don't think so," he said. "I would look and hope the B.C. NDP supported that as well. I think they would actually. I suspect they would. The beautiful thing is this is now an issue all three parties could support.

"I couldn't care less who brings it in, all three parties could support it."

The Liberal proposal to ban corporate and union donations will be part of Thursday's throne speech and marks an abrupt reversal from the party’s long-standing position that the public would prefer to see transparency on political donations and not necessarily a ban of big money.

“Before the election the Liberal party said we’d refer this matter to an expert arms length panel," said Attorney General Andrew Wilkinson.

"During this election we heard a lot from voters in all of the 87 ridings in British Columbia to suggest it was just time to move ahead with this, so that’s exactly what we’re proposing to do, is just get on with it and have a ban on corporate and union donations and a cap on individual donations which will dramatically change the funding of political parties in B.C."

Thursday's throne speech is also expected to include hikes to the welfare and disability rates.

The Liberal government is expected to announce a $100 increase to monthly social-assistance payments, bringing the rate to $710 a month.

It’s the first rate increase in 10 years, and marks a climbdown for the Clark administration, which has long rejected welfare increases and argued that government’s efforts would be better served trying to find those people jobs.

“I think what you’re really seeing here is what we heard during the election," said Michelle Stilwell, Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation. "Obviously we had the results of the election come back and heard from people that they wanted to see more changes in the social programs that we have in our government."

The government is also expected to index the disability rate to the rate of inflation. Disability rates were increased by $50 a month in the February provincial budget, up to $1,033 a month, in what was largely seen as a move to overcome controversy over a previous decision to claw back disability bus passes.

Advocate groups, who've spent years unsuccessfully trying to convince the Liberals to raise assistance rates, reacted with cautious suspicion Monday.

Faith Bodnar, executive director of the advocacy group Inclusion B.C., said her organization sent a list of questions to the three major parties before the election, which included queries about whether they supported boosting welfare and PWD (persons with disabilities) rates.

“The current government never gave any indication that they would increase welfare or PWD rates,” she said Monday. “This is politics.”

Bodnar said she has been meeting with minister Stilwell and Children's Minister Stephanie Cadieux for at least seven years, but has been unable to get buy-in on a “substantial increase” to disability rates or a long-term plan about addressing poverty in B.C.

“The timing is a little suspect now.”

Jane Dyson, executive director at Disability Alliance B.C, said it's frustrating to see the Liberals promise to raise disability rates in a throne speech that will likely not pass. “That is something we have been asking for for probably five years at least and we’ve never received a commitment from the province," said Dyson.

"We’re glad to see they’ve finally understood how important it is to have a secure system of at least incremental increases, but we are disappointed that it has taken this quite unusual political situation for this to come about.”

Trish Garner, with the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, said the Liberals gave her organization a blunt “no” when asked before the election if they would support an increase to welfare.

"They’ve had 16 years to make these kind of changes — it's too little too late really. It seems like a last ditch attempt. They had the budget during the election season when they could have made these promises if they really cared, and they didn’t,” she said.

Garner said the Liberals must be feeling pressure on the issue of welfare and disability rates, which the Greens and NDP campaigned on raising even more significantly.

"I think what we need to realize is this is a political discussion but it is also people’s lives, and people have been struggling to survive on that $610 for a decade now, so people will have hope (about this Liberal promise). But we have more generous offers potentially that could come forward from the other parties.”

Thursday’s throne speech will also outline the expansion of the government’s Single Family Employment Initiative, to including underemployed single parents who work fewer than 20 hours a week. Previously, the program was just for single parents on social assistance or disability. A new, two-year pilot project will accept the first 2,000 single parents who sign up, according to government officials.

The employment program was launched in 2015, and offers free tuition, child care and transportation for single parents who want to go back to school and train in an in-demand trade or job. While at school, the single parent can also stay on disability or social assistance, and the program includes another year of funded training or paid work experience on the job.

Stilwell was unable to say how much the proposed changes would cost, nor when they would take effect. However, she said she believes they could be accommodated within the Liberals' existing balanced-budget plans.

The government later said its proposal to increase welfare rates would cost $31.3 million during this partial 2017-18 fiscal year, and $53 million during the full 2018-19 fiscal year. Expanding the single-family employment program would cost $31.8 million for a two-year pilot, according to government.

Clark’s Liberals were sharply criticized during the spring election campaign for not offering more support for social programs to help the province’s most vulnerable, compared with an NDP platform that promised rate increases, a $15-minimum wage and a poverty-reduction plan. The Liberals lost their majority on May 9, and have only a tenuous and temporary hold on power.

The NDP promised during the election to immediately raise all welfare and disability rates by $100 per month, with an additional $200 monthly increase to income exemptions. That was expected to cost $150 million in the first year, and $210 million in following years, according to the party's election platform.

"This is a government that’s been in power for 16 years and ... what this demonstrates is Christy Clark will do or say anything to hold on to power," said NDP MLA Selina Robinson. "But I don’t believe we can trust her to fix the problems she’s created."

The NDP won't support the proposed Liberal changes, and it wants to see the government's transition books before deciding whether to continue programs like the single-family employment initiative, said Robinson.

"We’ve just come through a campaign, this isn’t what they campaigned on and now as their government is about to fall it looks like they are prepared to take really important things that other people have been talking about for a long time," she said.

Promises made in Thursday's throne speech would require Clark’s government to have the confidence of the House to enact the changes through legislation or regulation.

However, an alliance of NDP and Green MLAs has a one-vote advantage over Clark’s Liberals, and has signalled it will vote down the throne speech the following week, forcing Clark to resign as premier and toppling her government.

The last-minute conversion of the Liberals on social issues was defended by Stilwell in a conference call with reporters Monday.

"We’re not changing who we are or what we stand for or what our core values are," she said. "We will continue to push towards to always ensuring that there's a strong growing economy so we can provide those programs and services to the people of British Columbia.

“We know and its been demonstrated that the best from of support is a good-paying job."

But the looming defeat of the Liberal government obviously plays a role, admitted Stilwell.

"I think what you're seeing is what exactly you'd expect from a government in the situation we're in," she said. "We won the election, in having the most seats and most votes, however, not receiving a majority from that result. We need to ensure that people know what our core values are and know and realize we are listening to what their concerns are, what they want to see happen for British Columbia and put forward a message to them in our throne speech, so they understand we’ve heard them and are going to make those changes."

rshaw@postmedia.com