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Rob Shaw: They came, they met, they brought no new ideas

Annual UBCM meeting featured a popular premier and plenty of ministers with ways to stall
B.C. Premier David Eby has plenty in the wings but didn't roll out any new ideas at the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities gathering.

There was no shortage of B.C. government ministers speaking on panels and roundtables at last week’s Union of BC Municipalities meeting. The only problem was: They didn’t really have anything new to say.

With major problems getting worse, from hospital closures to housing prices to open drug use, there was a notable lack of new initiatives on offer from the NDP government of Premier David Eby. Ministers confined themselves mostly to acknowledging how bad things were, promising to work together and pointing to nebulous new efforts on the horizon.

It’s not that the NDP government isn’t doing anything. It’s just that the things it is doing — mainly, various reviews, task forces and legislation — aren’t ready yet. And its reforms, beyond that, are vague. So, as local leaders prodded ministers for answers on a variety of topics, the ministers were left to tread water in public for the better part of a week.

Take wildfires, for example.

Communities across the province just suffered the worst wildfire season on record. At UBCM, many were calling on the province for more prevention funding, local training, and provincial firefighting resources.

Some of that may eventually come. But for now, the premier has appointed a task force to review wildfires. We aren’t really sure who is on, when it will start, or how long it will take to complete. Until then, though, the government isn’t changing anything about its wildfire response. So it spent UBCM largely sidestepping the entire issue by repeating the merits of its task force idea.

It was a similar story for decriminalization and open drug use.

Local governments led the charge to get the NDP to change course on decriminalization over the past few months. At UBCM, they passed three resolutions, demanding larger open drug bans around anywhere children congregate, as well as more provincial resources for addiction treatment and overdose prevention.

The Eby government has legislation to set “minimum standards” on open drug use planned for later this fall, though it’s not exactly clear what that means. It also has two reviews into decriminalization commissioned under Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

That left NDP ministers offering sympathetic nods to local officials on public safety, but no solid agreements to any of UBCM’s actual proposals.

“Setting a provincial minimum standard recognizes what they are seeing in communities, to reinforce our provincial belief that if we’re funding overdose prevention sites that people should be directed to use those sites, not in playgrounds, not in doorways of businesses, not at bus stops,” Eby told reporters on Friday.

Housing was more complicated.

Local officials are worried about a myriad of reforms the NDP has planned on municipal oversight of housing development, including still unknown penalties for municipalities that fail to meet targets, as well as regulatory powers for short-term vacation rentals.

Municipal leaders brought forward detailed proposals at various panels and breakout sessions. NDP ministers murmured sympathetic things but committed to nothing, because the government has its own legislation coming that includes some sort of changes to housing policies in areas like short-term rentals.

“We have important legislation that's coming in the fall around zoning in our province, allowing additional density that is going to require you and your councils and your staff to do extra work,” Eby told the convention during an on-stage Q&A on the final day.

The premier did offer some small-scale new spending promises in his UBCM speech for things like housing permitting, local fire departments and transportation for rural cancer patients. But on the big problems facing the province today, he deferred to his various task forces, reviews and future legislative agendas.

You might wonder why local officials mainly let the premier skate on this approach. There were few people criticizing Eby publicly.

It may have something to do with the fact Eby has visited 30 communities in 10 months as premier. When you talk to local politicians who’ve toured the premier around their communities they almost all remark about how attentive he seemed, how many questions he asked and how he looped back to try and follow-up on their problems.

In short, the premier has built up a reservoir of goodwill among many mayors and councillors. He cashed in on that a bit of that at UBCM, where his ministers spent days coming up with creative ways to stall.

The NDP insist more reforms are coming on the province’s biggest problems. It’s just, very few of them are actually ready now.


Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.