B.C. government promises to tackle cellphone costs, poverty and money laundering

VICTORIA — The British Columbia government is promising to tackle cellphone costs, ticket scalpers, money laundering loopholes and poverty in a throne speech that also addresses an unfolding scandal at the legislature.

The province's minority NDP government said Tuesday that making life more affordable will be the hallmark of its initiatives and legislation in the coming months.

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"Affordability remains the biggest challenge facing B.C. families," said Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin, who read the throne speech. "Many people are working two or three jobs, commuting further for work, and spending less time with their families, just to make ends meet."

Premier John Horgan said the government's elimination of Medical Services Premiums by January 2020 amounts to the largest middle-class tax cut in a generation, saving families about $1,800.

Opposition Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson said he has grave concerns about the government's direction, especially when its throne speech barely mentions the economy or creating good jobs.

"The government says people are working two and three jobs and still can't get ahead," he said.

Green Leader Andrew Weaver, whose three elected members of the legislature have an agreement to support the NDP minority, said the government offered a laundry list of populist issues, but no real future focus.

"What was really missing was a vision," he said. "A vision for a prosperous future grounded in innovation."

The government will continue its freeze on ferry fares on major routes and keep discounts on secondary and northern ferry routes for a second consecutive year, Horgan said at a news conference.

"We're going to focus on a whole host of other economic activities," he said. "When we invest in schools, in hospitals, in our kids, we're making investments in our economy."

The details of the government's long-awaited poverty reduction strategy will be contained in next week's budget, Horgan said.

The government passed legislation last year to cut B.C.'s overall poverty rate by 25 per cent and the child poverty rate by 50 per cent over the first five years of the plan.

Other items in the government's political agenda include rules to prevent the unfair resale of concert tickets and tabling legislation that makes B.C. the first province in Canada to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"For too long the social justice elements of reconciliation have been ignored and the economic benefits to everyone have long been forgotten," said Horgan.

Horgan said the government believes there is a need to provide greater transparency in cellphone billing and it is promising to advocate for more affordable mobile phone options.

"For us it's a consumer protection issue," said the premier, who acknowledged B.C. will have to work with the federal government on cellphone cost issues.

The throne speech stated reforms will be implemented as well to restore trust in the legislature after two top officials in the legislature were suspended over allegations of spending abuse.

NDP house leader Mike Farnworth said earlier the government will work to develop tighter checks on all officials at the legislature to ensure strict spending and reporting rules.

Clerk of the house Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz have denied any wrongdoing in response to a report detailing allegations against them by Speaker Darryl Plecas.

The government said it also plans dig into the structural causes of money laundering, closing legal and regulatory loopholes that allow for the illegal operation.

Two separate investigations are underway into the issue and Horgan said he would wait to read those reports before deciding if a public inquiry is necessary.

"I'm committed to making sure we get to the bottom of this," he said.

A snow storm that disrupted travel on Vancouver Island also wiped out traditional ceremonies at the B.C. legislature Tuesday associated with the throne speech.

The usual military honour guard, ceremonial cannon salutes and a performance by the band from nearby Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt didn't take place because of the weather.

But Austin still received a red carpet welcome to the legislature.

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