B.C.’s leaders peer at post-COVID business horizon

Q&A: In conversation with BIV, leaders of the province’s three main political parties answer questions about the most pressing challenges facing the B.C. economy

From left: BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau; BC NDP Leader John Horgan and BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson | BIV

In the lead-up to B.C.’s October 24 election, BIV sat down with BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau, BC NDP Leader John Horgan and BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson in a virtual Q&A to gather their thoughts on some of the most pressing economic issues facing the province and its business sector. 

 

Why do we need an election now? 

Sonia Furstenau, BC Green Party leader: We’ve shown that we’ve had stability for three and a half years. And in fact, some of the best governance that we’ve had because there have been more perspectives, more viewpoints at the table, more collaboration across party lines. And this is actually what serves British Columbians the best. It’s really unfortunate that that got thrown away during a global pandemic … instead of being in the legislature right now, ensuring that small businesses are getting the support they need, that the tourism sector, which is facing the most difficult winter ever in B.C., is getting the support they need. And we can see that the rollouts of support aren’t happening because of the election call. And we also hear from businesses, and particularly the tourism sector, that what’s been put on the table isn’t going to help in these dire situations.

John Horgan, BC NDP leader: Well, it’s been three and a half years since the last election. And you know the history full well: there was uncertainty at the beginning of our mandate with the agreement we had with the Green Party caucus. The Green Party caucus just changed materially since then. Mr. [Andrew] Weaver has stepped down as leader of the party and is now not seeking re-election. There was instability within the legislature from the beginning. But we all worked together – all parties – to get important work done for British Columbians. But as I looked forward at the challenges we face, not just on the public-health side, but on the economy and making sure that there was continuity dealing with other orders of government, whether they be municipal or federal, I felt that this was not a few-month problem. It was a few-year problem, and that needed a stable government to go forward. And I take full responsibility for calling the election.

Andrew Wilkinson, BC Liberal Party leader: There was a signed agreement between all of the NDP members and all of the Green members, plus [former Green Party of B.C. leader] Andrew Weaver, to govern until the next fixed election date. And the day before he called an election, John Horgan called the Green leader Sonia Furstenau into his office and tore up the agreement, and said he’s going to breach the law and the fixed election date that he passed, and off we go to an election. So the whole issue becomes: Can you trust John Horgan when he’s so completely ambitious that he’s prepared to act like that? 

 

More than a quarter of Metro Vancouver businesses do not believe they will survive the next year under current conditions, according to a recent survey. How do you intend to support small businesses?   

Furstenau: So we propose immediately putting $300 million on the table to support with rent right now, just covering 25% of rent for small businesses. I just heard from our local CFIB [Canadian Federation of Independent Business] representative, and I’ve been in touch with her and with CFIB throughout the entire pandemic, and kind of getting weekly updates hearing about the local experience as well as the national. And it’s devastating to hear this morning that a number of businesses in Cowichan have just been given their eviction notices, and this was why we focused on [helping] with those fixed costs, let’s get those rental costs covered – 25% covered for businesses. The federal program was too complicated. It required the landlord to be involved. And a lot of landlords just didn’t step up and didn’t pull their part in this.

Horgan: We put $6 billion to $7 billion – $6.5 billion – into the budget between budgets. Unprecedented in B.C. history because of the magnitude of the challenge. And it’s not, as you know, just here. It’s across Canada, it’s around the world. And as a small open economy, we need to count on other economies bouncing back so that we can continue to grow on the tourism side, which is critical to the Lower Mainland and of course B.C. 

Wilkinson: Yeah, I think we’re the only party talking seriously about small-business support, and it comes in three layers. First, eliminate provincial sales tax completely for a year and take it to 3%. After that, that will be a huge stimulus because things will go on sale, the average family will save $1,720. And it’s a regressive tax, so people at the lower end of the income spectrum do better under that plan. And it also provides small businesses with a boost.… We’ve also said let’s abolish the small-business income tax. That will give every small business up to $10,000 of new working capital to hire people to invest in the business to get themselves online, which is increasingly a mandatory thing in small business. And a third thing we’ve said is our tourism hospitality sector is in dire straits.… We’re the only party that says there’s going to need to be bridging financing to keep them in business over the winter. 

 

What will be the key to ensuring hospitality and tourism businesses survive as the pandemic puts a squeeze on everything from international travellers to British Columbians’ own desire or ability to go out? 

Furstenau: It’s essential that we find ways for these sectors to survive. I mean, it’s essential from an economic point of view, but also just from a community vibrancy point of view.… Think of all the times we’ve celebrated or enjoyed a night out or the things that restaurants bring us. And I started my career – well, [one of] my many careers as a server in the restaurant industry, as do so many young people. They play such pivotal roles across the spectrum of our society. And so one of the things that we put on the table is the $1 billion innovation fund, helping businesses that can pivot, recognizing that if you can be innovative and entrepreneurial right now, then government should be here to help you achieve that. And that innovation fund is also focused on the transitioning of the economy.… Crises often bring these kinds of moments of deep transformation. This is a moment when we can say, “OK, what a crisis we’re in. But if we invest in not only adapting to the moment we’re in, but actually preparing for the future, and ensuring that that future is a more stable and resilient one, then we’re actually really achieving outcomes that we want to be getting right now.” There’s no playbook or silver bullet here.

Horgan: Well, we need to have more people coming to British Columbia. Conferences have been cancelled. Our convention centres lay dormant, the casino sector is not yet in a position from public health orders to open up, and it just goes on and on.… But what we’re going to try to do with displaced workers, putting the businesses aside, is invest in more public health care. And that means 7,000 jobs in long-term care to fill the void that was created by previous government decisions. That’s something that all British Columbians endorse because of the horrific consequences. COVID-19 is presented to us when it comes to our long-term care facilities and how they’ve been operating over the past 20 years. So those are 7,000 jobs that hospitality workers may well be able to transition into. That was part of the plan. But we’re not going to see tourism turn around until we have more people coming to British Columbia, and those are federal decisions on the borders.

Wilkinson: We all know the ski hills are going to have a very rough time this winter. So that bridge financing, reducing their income tax payable and taking PST off just about everything is the only way that we can look forward to some kind of economic plan. 

 

The argument has been made that the pandemic has disproportionately affected women. How would your party support the equal participation of women and other groups in the economy? 

Furstenau: It’s been interesting what economists have been saying from almost the very beginning of COVID-19, which is the most important investment right now is early childhood education…. It’s sometimes hard to kind of connect those dots. But one, it employs women. And we need to make sure that it employs women who are being paid and valued for the work they do, which is why our proposal is to bring early childhood education into our public education system. So there isn’t this disparity between teachers who are teaching five-year-olds, earning living wages, family-supporting wages, and teachers who are teaching four-year-olds who are earning sometimes less than $20 an hour.

Horgan: Yeah, very good question. It’s a fact women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. And one of the elements that has been glaringly apparent to all British Columbians is in order for full participation in the economy, pre-COVID, in COVID, and post-COVID is making sure we have robust childcare programs in place so that all members of families can fully participate in the economy. I’ve been advocating that for years.… And now I don’t think there’s a person in British Columbia that doesn’t understand the economic benefits of a robust, affordable, accessible childcare program. So one way we try to encourage full participation in the economy is to provide those services.

Wilkinson: One of the key things that came out was access to daycare. Because if you’re in the lower end of the income spectrum, your job is tenuous or has disappeared entirely. You want to make yourself available. What are you going to do with the kids? So we said it’s time for any family with household income of less than $65,000 to have guaranteed $10-a-day day care, not the NDP plan, which provided 2,000 spots out of 100,000. 

 

Is oil dead?  

Furstenau: I think we have to just speak in terms of what the transition needs to look like, and how to transition from a fossil-fuel economy. And, you know, look at the data and the statistics. What Statistics Canada tells us is we actually have a very diverse economy in B.C. – health education, service, tech, tourism, agriculture, fisheries – we have a very wide range of sectors that contribute enormously to our economy. The oil and gas sector has to be propped up with government support and subsidies from taxpayers. And I think we should be taking a very serious look at why in the world would governments continue to sustain this, this sector when it can’t sustain itself when it needs this level of support. And imagine what we could be achieving if we instead had said we’re going to invest $6 billion into supporting a diversified small and medium-sized manufacturing base, clean-energy economy in this province. We would actually be creating jobs in every region of the province that aren’t boom-and-bust jobs, that aren’t gone when pipelines have been built.

Horgan: Oil is not an important commodity to our resource sector. It is an important component of our international economy. To be sure, the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline is vital to Alberta’s needs. We are a natural gas-producing province and we were able as a government to land the largest private-sector investment in B.C. history by sharpening our pencils working with LNG Canada to bridge the last few dollars that were separating British Columbia from being competitive with other jurisdictions. So I believe that the industry is making a $41 billion investment in British Columbia for natural gas liquefying and sending it to other markets. That tells me that private-sector companies don’t make investments like that, to sunset industries. And I believe that we are well placed to continue to meet our climate objectives, which are the leading in the continent.

Wilkinson: Well, oil is not dead, because we have about three million motor vehicles on the roads of British Columbia still using oil. But I think we’ve all heard from organizations like Shell and BP [NYSE:BP] that they are expecting to phase out their oil production.… And so we have start thinking on a longer horizon for the phasing out of oil in our society. We have to start, obviously, with transportation because our electricity is all clean and green hydro. But transportation is a major goal for us. We talked about getting more electric vehicles out there. 

 

How will the province pay for the promises and the provisions? 

Furstenau: Across-the-board tax cuts or a one-time giveaway of cash doesn’t give us a clear sense of the outcomes. The NDP’s proposal of “everybody gets $1,000?” Well, that’s over $1 billion. If we invested that into public education, we could be moving away from this sense of scarcity, that teachers and parents and children feel in our public education system and move to a sense of abundance. That would be a good thing for our society. But you’re right, you know, we have to be looking at … what are the ways that we’re going to be generating revenue back to government in the future. We are going to be in deficit spending, we know this, for at least a couple of years to get through this very challenging time that we’re in. And again, we can’t wish that things were the way they were once we have to look at the world we’re in right now and identify the sectors that in five or 10 years are going to be generating the kind of revenues. And that has to be the innovation economy, the tech economy, the economy that exports – not raw resources, but exports – ideas and technology.

Horgan: We were in a privileged place in February. None of that matters now. And we are where we are. And we are adding additional mountains of debts and will be, I believe, for the foreseeable future. But we are in a good position and not unlike the Marshall Plan or any other historic investment in re-establishing equilibrium in the economy, whether it be domestically here in B.C, and Canada or internationally, it’s going to require an extraordinary effort. And I’m hopeful that the events in the United States will stabilize in the weeks ahead. And we can start to have a recovery and international recovery that focuses on addressing the public health crisis, then moving into the challenges that creates for our economic well-being in terms of businesses, workers and communities.

Wilkinson: It has to come from economic growth. I mean, we’ve had a $250 billion economy in British Columbia for a couple of years now. It continues to grow with population and with our prosperity – except now. So we have to say to ourselves, as we did in 2008-09, how do we get through this? We don’t just accept we’ve got a trajectory downward. We’ve got to say, ‘How do we build this economy to get it going upward?’ And at the granular level, things like tourism depend on the return of international travel for prosperity. But things like construction, we can do that in and of ourselves.