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Vaughn Palmer: NDP’s diluted promises likely to test public’s patience

VICTORIA — Not until the last few paragraphs of the throne speech did the NDP government get around to mentioning its intentions regarding the increased transport of Alberta heavy oil through this province.

“The government is considering new protections that would improve our ability to prepare for, and respond to bitumen spills. Government will consult with industry, local government, the public and First Nations on the path forward.”

Considering. Consult with. No mention of the tacit threat at the end of the Jan. 30 news release where Environment Minister George Heyman set out his more detailed intentions on this file.

“The province will create an independent scientific advisory panel to help addressed the scientific uncertainties,” it read in part. “In order to protect B.C.’s environmental and economic interests while the advisory panel is proceeding, the province is proposing regulatory restrictions to be placed on the increase of diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) transportation.”

It was that passage, with its clear statement of B.C.’s intentions to regulate increased transport of Alberta oil while a scientific advisory panel does its work, that triggered the trade war with Alberta.

So what did it mean that B.C. was dropping the threat in outlining its legislative agenda for the year?

“It is our intention to lower the temperature so that we can have a more reasonable discussion,” explained Premier John Horgan during the media conference following the throne speech.

For the rest, he said it was still the government’s intention to consult British Columbians.

But in the interim, while the consultations proceed, would he be temporarily seeking to restrict the movement of bitumen through the province?

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“No,” he replied. “It’s never been my intention.” Meaning not during the consultations.

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But that still leaves the province with the option of regulating the increased movement of bitumen during the life of the scientific advisory panel — for which no specific start-and-finish timetable has yet been disclosed.

By not repeating those intentions in the throne speech, Horgan was perhaps hoping it would be enough to lower the temperature. Not likely would Alberta Premier Rachel Notley fall for such a dodge.

Nor was bitumen the only point in the throne speech where the Horgan government seemed to be watering down its earlier statements and commitments.

Central to the last NDP election platform was $10-a-day child care. The throne speech contained several pages of vague plans on child care, the main emphasis being on the expansion of licensed and regulated spaces without specific numbers or costing.

Missing in action was any reference to the $10-a-day target, which has been receding into the distance ever since the election.

The key measure of the government’s here-and-now commitment will be the funding set out in the budget and three-year fiscal plan that will be tabled in the legislature Tuesday next.

But there’s reason to suspect the New Democrats will fall short of the funding commitment in their election platform. They promised $855 million over three years, starting with the current year.

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Ottawa last week came through with $150 million over three years as its share of increased child care funding in B.C. But that leaves the province a choice between scaling back implementation or having to come up with $705 million on its own.

On housing, too, the throne speech fell short of the ambitious election platform that helped the New Democrats wrest 10 seats from the B.C. Liberals in Metro Vancouver.

Gone without a trace was the promised renters rebate of $400 per person per year, which has not been heard from since Andrew Weaver of the Greens began trashing it.

Not so much gone as shrunken was the commitment to build 114,000 new housing units over 10 years. The throne speech mentioned 2,000 modular homes for the homeless for three communities and 1,700 other units approved for construction, well short of the pace needed to meet the 10-year target.

Transit and transportation was another area where the throne speech fell a bit short of the enthusiasms in the election platform.

The government remains high on replacement of the Pattullo Bridge: “In less than five years, the bridge will no longer be in use because it will no longer be safe. That is why government is moving quickly to replace the Pattullo Bridge, to keep commuters safe and keep people moving.”

No mention of how they’ll finance a new crossing in a post-tolling era. All subject to negotiation, according to the premier, who pointed out that the Pattullo is owned by TransLink, not the province.

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On transit, the platform expressed unabashed support for “important projects like the Broadway SkyTrain and rapid transit in Surrey.”

The throne speech offered no timetable for getting on with either, saying only that “your government will work with the mayors’ council on regional transportation to realize its vision for expanded rapid transit in the Lower Mainland.”

Moreover, in exchange for financing 40 per cent of the capital cost, the province will be pressing local governments to “plan for and build housing near transit lines.”

Promises diluted here, things left unsaid there. Standard fare in making the transition from the say-anything days in opposition to the much tougher business of governing.

Still, given the role all those big promises played in helping the New Democrats to win office last year, the public may not be all that patient with this year’s calculated effort to lower expectations.

Vpalmer@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/VaughnPalmer

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