With a provincial election on the horizon, local governments typically can count on their provincial counterparts to arrive at the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities with the promise of spending.
But weeks after the Finance Ministry’s announcement of its latest restraint program, Premier Christy Clark has little space for dishing out goodies when she speaks to community leaders on Friday.
Opposition Leader Adrian Dix offered his own austerity message this week, pledging to restore greater autonomy to local governments. Municipal leaders would have more control over transit and infrastructure spending under a New Democratic Party government, he vowed. But as for more cash, he offered only an unspecified share of the higher business taxes that he has committed to impose.
In his 25-minute speech to the convention, Mr. Dix laid out a road map for what local governments can expect if his party forms the next government after the May, 2013, election.
That’s what mayors and councillors from across the province came to hear: With the NDP leading in the polls, the local officials packed a convention hall to get a taste of what a change in government would mean for their communities.
“There has been a pattern over the last number of years, when local government has got in the way of provincial government on key issues, for the provincial government to simply legislate away local governments’ authority,” Mr. Dix said.
In a speech similar to his recent address to Vancouver business leaders, Mr. Dix repeated his call to end personal attacks in politics, and sketched out the fiscal challenges ahead that prevent him from making big spending commitments to pay for the infrastructure programs that local governments want.
“It’s a difficult, difficult, difficult debate in hard times,” he said. “It’s wrong to suggest that there is some sort of secret fund of money out there to do that.”
Mr. Dix earned a mostly warm reception.
“He spoke from the heart, not from a prepared speech, and that certainly resonates,” Prince George Mayor Shari Green said. “What I appreciated was his comment, ‘don’t pick me just because you don’t like the other guy, I want to earn your vote.’ ”
She said the Premier doesn’t need to come in with a basket of spending promises, but urged Ms. Clark to present a clear vision for B.C. Ms. Green also criticized the Premier for cancelling a fall sitting of the legislature: “People want to see their government working and she’s not here.”
Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard said Mr. Dix hit the right notes for a UBCM gathering. “There were a lot of people there who probably will never vote NDP, but they wanted to hear from him. It was one of the largest crowds I’ve seen for the Opposition Leader’s speech. It was a safe speech and relevant and had good balance.”
Jack Mussallem, mayor of Prince Rupert, said Mr. Dix provided a clear overview of what to expect from a New Democrat government. That leaves the Premier, whose speech normally is the main event at the convention, with a high bar to get over. “The Premier needs to come out with some sort of renewal,” he said. “The current government needs to understand the issues at hand for local communities, that is, the need for infrastructure.”
Mr. Dix created more of a stir with remarks made outside the convention, when he was asked by reporters if he would adhere to the government’s balanced budget law. Mr. Dix said he would jettison the current legislation. “I think we should actually balance the budget and not do what the Liberal government does, which is have a law and not balance it.”