Skip to main content

John Horgan spoke on Thursday to hundreds of local politicians gathered at the Union of B.C. Municipalities conference.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's Opposition NDP Leader is vowing to be a "genuine partner" with cities on transit, housing and mental health, taking aim at the government's "inventory of failures" on those issues.

John Horgan spoke on Thursday to hundreds of local politicians gathered at the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) conference, where he riffed on an earlier speech by a Liberal cabinet minister.

Mr. Horgan said he agreed with Community, Sport and Cultural Development Minister Peter Fassbender on the importance of partnership between the province and municipalities.

"Where I believe we differ is on how we establish that," Mr. Horgan said before launching into the government's "failures."

He said the New Democrats would not have handed the problem of transportation off to cities, like the Liberals did in the "misinformed and ill-advised" Metro Vancouver transit plebiscite.

In July, 62 per cent of Metro Vancouverites rejected a mayors' proposal to raise $7.5-billion for transit projects through a half-per-cent tax hike.

"If we're going to ask the public for their consent to proceed with infrastructure development, we would do that together in unison on stages like this, hand in hand, rather than, 'Over to you, mayors, best of luck.'"

Mr. Horgan said affordable housing and homelessness are becoming major problems in B.C. and vowed to support initiatives such as the City of Victoria's plan to borrow $50-million from several sources to build supportive housing.

He also criticized the government for selling off public land in Coquitlam on Burke Mountain for more than $40-million under the appraised value, in the "hottest real estate market in North America."

"How do you do that when you're not allowing that land to be available to communities to build affordable housing for citizens that are crying out for it?" he said.

The NDP leader promised to work with communities on mental health, touting a program in Prince George that has reduced the number of police calls by people in emotional crisis.

Mr. Horgan also said he'd eliminate the office of the auditor-general for local government, which has faced complaints about inefficiency and wasted money since it was created in 2012.

On Thursday, UBCM delegates voted in favour of a resolution to call on the province to axe the position.

Despite taking several digs at the Liberals during his speech, Mr. Horgan promised to "reach across the aisle" and put away partisan divides if elected premier in May, 2017.

"We can do better if we work together," he said. "We will do better."

In response, Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett told reporters that his government isn't perfect but is the best fiscal manager in the country, with plans for a liquefied natural gas industry and the $8.8-billion Site C dam.

Mr. Bennett defended the concept of an auditor-general for local government but acknowledged the province's poor execution of the office.

On Wednesday, the government announced that accountant and former public servant Gordon Ruth would take on the role after Basia Ruta was fired earlier this year.

"The whole idea was to help local governments get better at managing the tax dollars that people send them, and for the life of me, I don't know why anybody would be opposed to that," Mr. Bennett said.

"Have we done a great job of getting it off the ground? Absolutely not."