LOWERING EXPECTATIONS seems to be the strategy of the John Horgan government this week.
He chose the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Whistler to do it. About a thousand mayors, councillors and regional district directors attend the week-long conflab, attending workshops, voting on resolutions and listening to political speeches.
Health Minister Adrian Dix got the ball rolling with what was, by all reports, a low-key address to a session on health care and, by at least some reports, very disappointing.
Problem was, Dix offered no new plans or spending announcements on what he and the NDP intend to do about the healthcare crisis or the overdose crisis. Basically, he said they’re working on it.
Horgan put the icing on the Dix cake Friday by saying during his keynote address that he was not there to hand out “lolly,” but instead asked for everybody to work together to find solutions.
The “lolly” remark was telling. UBCM delegates have come to expect the government to make grand announcements about new funding programs at their annual get-together.
And the premier and government ministers have used the big audience, and the major media coverage the convention garners, to make those announcements and get significant mileage out of them.
But not this year. Horgan and his “lolly” remark sounded eerily similar to the first UBCM conference I ever attended 20-plus years ago. Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberals had come to power on a cut-taxes austerity platform and brought a major attitude shift with them to the convention.
Normally, the convention is all about money. Not only do delegates expected some big money announcements from government, but most of the 200-plus resolutions brought to the convention floor every year amount to requests for cash, for everything from water systems to environmental protection to policing.
And behind closed doors, they meet with various ministers to push their favourite projects. In a version of speed dating, delegates from various local governments get 15 minutes to make whatever case they want to make about their wish list. Usually, it includes a request for cash.
Municipal reps often exaggerate the results of these brief meetings to their home town media. It sounds good to the local audience when you can say, “I met with the minister and pushed our demands for such-and-such.”
Little do most folks know that these little meetings are stringently timed, no exceptions. When a government handler points at his or her watch and catches the eye of the cabinet minister, you know the meeting is over and it’s time to promptly leave.
In fact, though, these meetings sometimes do bear fruit. Promises are almost never made at them. But at least you get to talk face to face, and while each cabinet minister has to slog through 30 or so of these meetings every day of the conference, they pretty much always get back to the delegations with some sort of answer.
But the year the BC Liberals came to their first UBCM convention as the party in power, they basically shut down the lobbying. It was like a big wall went up in front of requests for assistance for local government. The cabinet ministers who were there seemed irritated and impatient with delegates who asked for anything that involved money.
I vividly remember one cabinet minister telling me, “The days of government writing big cheques for everything is over.” And when I raised the issue of elevating the University College of the Cariboo to full university status, another minister cut me off, telling me that I and the rest of Kamloops should feel lucky to have a university college.
In other words, we were going to get diddly-squat out of this BC Liberal government, and that was that. We were made to feel as though we should be embarrassed for asking. (At least one of those Liberal ministers, now in Opposition, was there this week, too, criticizing the NDP for not making spending announcements.)
Happily, as we all know, the Liberals had a change of heart on the university issue after much lobbying from the community but that year, at UBCM, we were basically told not to expect any more lolly.
That’s why Horgan’s “lolly” remark yesterday sounds a little as though the NDP government is weary of spending money despite its recently revealed $1.3 billion budget surplus.
But, if that’s the case, what does it plan to do about the multiple current crises that need injections of significant capital to fix them?
Is talk about “rolling up our sleeves together,” as Horgan put it, another way of saying, “We’re out of ideas”?
Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops and a retired newspaper editor. He is a regular contributor to CFJC Today, publishes the ArmchairMayor.ca opinion website, and is a director on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board. He is not running for another term and did not attend the UBCM convention. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.