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Politics cloud Aboriginal housing plan

Increasingly, political parties and leaders are realizing that spending money and running up deficits isn't a bad thing in the eyes of voters. If the B.C.
Premier John Horgan adresses the crowd on Monday at Prince George Native Frienship Centre where it was announced that through the new Building BC: Indigenous Housing Fund, the B.C. government will be investing $550 million over the next 10 years to build and operate 1,750 new units of social housing, both on- and off-reserve. Citizen Photo by James Doyle June 18, 2018

Increasingly, political parties and leaders are realizing that spending money and running up deficits isn't a bad thing in the eyes of voters.

If the B.C. Liberals could have last spring's provincial election back, they would have opened up the coffers, promised new money in a variety of areas and fully rolled back the Port Mann bridge toll.

During the recent Ontario election, Conservative leader Doug Ford refused to provide details on how much his promises would cost and how he would pay for them. That was the only fiscal difference between him, the Liberals and the NDP because they all vowed to spend lots of money on popular goodies.

In Ottawa, Justin Trudeau has been criticized for many things during the first two-thirds of his mandate but not getting a handle on the deficit hasn't been anywhere near the top of the list. Both he and U.S. President Donald Trump are spending like drunken sailors and driving their respective countries deeper into debt but aren't paying a political price. If anything, voters are applauding and nobody cares about the frowns coming from the bean counters.

So it should come as no surprise that the B.C. NDP, after 16 years in the political wilderness, throwing money around. On Monday, Premier John Horgan was in Prince George offering cash to fix a problem that isn't even his to fix.

Horgan pledged $550 million over the next 10 years towards improved Aboriginal housing, both on and off reserves.

It's actually the right thing to do.

Indigenous people make up an inordinate amount of B.C.'s homeless population. While some think government shouldn't be in the housing business, it's still cheaper than the alternative. When vulnerable individuals have safe housing, their interactions with police officers, courts and hospital emergency rooms decreases, which also benefits the community at large. Those individuals are then able to easier access mental health, substance abuse and life skills programs that can help them become more self-sufficient.

Both Selina Robinson, the Minister of Municipal Affairs, and Scott Fraser, the Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, stressed those points as part of Monday's announcement.

But the devil is always in the details and there are two demons plaguing this effort.

First, Aboriginal housing, particularly on reserves, is not this provincial government's - or any provincial government's - problem. That falls to the federal government and the Department of Indigenous Services.

The NDP plan lets Trudeau off the hook. His government is now free to spend more on Indigenous housing programs in other provinces and give less to B.C. Worse, Trudeau might have been willing to boost spending on Aboriginal housing in B.C. on his own, to soften First Nations opposition to the TransMountain pipeline.

And when all is said and done, Horgan may actually spend little or none of that $550 million he promised.

The other demon quietly at work behind Tuesday's announcement is this is not a plan to spend $55 million each year for the next decade. First, the provincial government wants to hear from B.C. First Nations about their housing issues and then will likely roll out the money years from now, after a lengthy engagement process followed by a careful application and adjudication procedure.

In other words, the bureaucrats will get their hands on it.

Horgan and the NDP might not even be in office by then.

If they aren't, they'll be able to harass Andrew Wilkinson or whoever else is premier about not caring for First Nations people and the homeless.

If they are, well, that's tomorrow's problem and, if history is any indication, it won't be Horgan's, either.

He is the fifth NDP premier in B.C. history and not one of them lasted five years. If voters didn't boot them out of office, internal revolts led to their demise. Only Mike Harcourt made it past four years before he was forced to resign.

Harcourt was the leader of the NDP for nine years and Dave Barrett led his party for 15 years, despite only serving three years as premier. Since Harcourt got the boot in 1996, the NDP has gone through six leaders, with Horgan as their seventh. Only Carole James lasted more than four years.

With those kind of time frames in mind, it's no wonder Horgan and elected officials of all political stripes are throwing both caution and money to the wind. Voters aren't punishing tax-and-spend politicians to the curb anymore and everybody seems to like the politician who comes to town with a smile and a cheque.

Except there was no cheque Monday (or Tuesday in Takla or Wednesday in Nak'azdli), just the promise of one real soon.

That's a slight detail nobody was supposed to notice.