Many B.C. business owners still worry about getting the economy back on track post-pandemic, but they also now worry about the consequences of all the government spending needed to sustain businesses and workers during the pandemic, including inflation and government debt.
They are also worried about labour shortages, affordability – which necessarily includes housing affordability – and taxation levels. And in a year that saw a record heat wave and wildfires, they are also increasingly concerned about climate change and policies to address it.
So when the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade (GVBOT) hosted a federal election candidates meeting today, it wasn’t just to hear what the candidates had to say, it was also to impress upon them what the top concerns and priorities are for B.C. businesses.
Four candidates were selected, one from each major party, from the Metro Vancouver region:
- Jonathan Wilkinson, Liberal incumbent for North Vancouver;
- Peter Julian, NDP incumbent for New Westminster-Burnaby;
- Katerina Anastasiadis, Conservative candidate for Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam; and
- Devyani Singh, Green Party candidate for Vancouver Quadra.
The meeting was prefaced with the findings of a survey conducted for GVBOT by the Mustel Group, which found some anxiety among business, some of whom are still struggling to recover and worry that government programs that have supported them through the pandemic are due to end soon.
Federal subsidies have been a “lifeline” for many businesses, said GVBOT president Bridgitte Anderson.
“Many businesses are wondering how they're going to be able to continue to be profitable, given the other pressures that they're seeing on their businesses,” she said.
Those pressures now include a severe labour crunch that has been exacerbated by travel restrictions that have prevented temporary foreign workers from coming or returning to Canada. Some businesses may still need support, even as the economy moves towards full reopening.
“We believe that the government is moving too quickly to try to remove those supports,” Julian said. “And our platform -- that is fully costed and actually has the smallest deficit of the three major parties -- indicates that we continue those supports into 2022.”
Singh said government subsidies in general disproportionately favour big business, whereas small business is the biggest employer.
“Even during the pandemic, where we saw a lot of subsidies going out, it was disproportionate towards the larger industries, rather than looking at small and medium businesses that had to close their doors,” she said.
Anastasiadis said the Conservatives would wind down subsidies and replace them with incentives that get people back to work, like a job search program.
“When the time came to start transitioning for the first six months… we would be incentivizing employees to go back to work with their employers,” she said.
Employee wages would be subsidized by the government up to 50%, if an employer hired someone who was unemployed for six months or more.
The Conservatives have promised to bring back 1 million jobs lost during the pandemic. But Wilkinson said most of those jobs have already been recovered.
“We've actually gotten back 95% of them, so there's not a lot more to do with respect to that particular metric,” Wilkinson said.
As for the Green Party, its plans for jobs and job creation is focused in part on a “just transition” in which fossil fuel sector jobs are phased out.
“In Canada, we have a heavily relied upon fossil fuel sector, but we need to transition, and as we transition to this green economy, there's going to be a lot of opportunities created for local businesses,” she said.
The NDP likewise see the fossil fuel industry as one in sunset mode.
“When we talk about just transition, we're talking about the energy workers, oil and gas workers,” he said.
One way of creating greener jobs would be through a the NDP's national home energy retrofit program, he said.
“You'll recall the former Harper government put in place a retrofit program that was so oversubscribed that they cancelled it,” he said.
Given that parts of Canada are now in the grips of a pandemic fourth wave, Wilkinson was asked if it was “appropriate” to wind down federal support programs in October.
“Many businesses have been in the fortunate position to have recovered -- at least substantially -- but of course we're going to continue to monitor that, and we will respond in the same way that we responded throughout the pandemic to address issues as they arise,” Wilkinson said.
Candidates were asked where their parties stand on mandatory vaccinations and vaccine passports. The Conservatives have nothing in their platform that supports vaccine passports. As for the Greens, Singh said she has no problem with proof of vaccination mandates.
“As an immigrant, I have had to have an immunization record my whole life,” she said. “So I don't see that as an infringement of my rights.”
As for the labour shortage that businesses currently face, it was generally agreed the federal government needs to try to restore and speed up the flow of temporary foreign workers to Canada.
Part of the problem with finding skilled labour in Canada is that some immigrants have qualifications – they just don’t have credentials that are recognized in Canada.
Julian said the NDP would address that problem with a credential recognition program.
Another barrier is the lack of affordable child care that keeps women out of the workforce. Both the Liberals and NDP are promising variations on $10 a day daycare.
“Getting everybody who wants to work into the labor force, or removing obstacles to work… is why accessible -- creating more spaces -- $10 a day child care is so important, and that is something that the Conservative Party is not prepared to proceed with, including the agreement that was signed here with the Government of British Columbia,” Wilkinson said.
On housing, the Liberals have pledged to build 1.4 million homes over three years, the Conservatives 1 million and the NDP 500,000. As for concerns about inflation and debt, the Conservatives have pledged to balance the federal budget within a decade.
“We will reduce the deficit without program cuts,” Anastasiadis said.
Wilkinson said the federal deficit is projected to be $160 billion for this fiscal year, but that the Liberal government plans to whittle it down over the next five years.
“Over the next five years, that will fall by about 80%,” he said. “The Conservative fiscal projection is about $5 billion, five years out. So we’re both heading back towards something that is more sustainable.
“We’re doing that in a manner that is thoughtful and is looking not to inhibit growth through significantly higher taxes, other than a few and specific targeted things – banks for example.”