BC Jobs Minister Pat Bell is stickhandling the toughest challenge of his political career these days – creating thousands of new jobs at a time when his government is tightening its belt to eliminate the deficit, and the premier is down and out in the polls.
Financial constraints limit the amount of money he can put into infrastructure projects to reduce the province's 6.9% unemployment rate. And it's not easy to explain to critics what new jobs his government has created versus what the private sector would have generated anyway.
So how is it he's so confident the BC Jobs Plan is working?
The answer is in a number – 39,900 – the number of new jobs that have been created in the province during the last year.
And the MLA from Prince George-Mackenzie, a former logger and owner of two restaurants, isn't above taking credit for it.
"I actually think we can take lots of credit because I can point you to a whole bunch of projects that were under consideration during the NDP years that never came to fruition," Bell recently told Business in Vancouver. "So the notion government doesn't have an important role to play in terms of creating the right environment for investment is not accurate."
Canada Starts Here: The BC Jobs Plan was launched seven months ago to cash in on the wealth of economic opportunities to be had in B.C. during the next decade, many of them related to the natural resources sector.
The plan is a 19-page policy document that outlines how the government plans to access new markets and enable job creation at home in eight areas:
Six months after the plan was unveiled, Premier Christy Clark said it was working.
Four mines have begun construction, received key approvals or permits or had operations extended during the last six months, she noted.
The backlog of notice of work applications for mines had also been reduced by nearly two-thirds, the government said.
On top of that, the National Energy Board had approved a 20-year export licence for the proposed Kitimat liquid natural gas export terminal, and $50 million had been committed to road and rail upgrades at Deltaport.
The question is: how much of this would have happened anyway?
According to the National Energy Board, it made its decision based not on the province championing the project but instead on the environmental and socio-economic benefits the project would generate for the country as a whole, among other things.
As for mine expansions, the companies behind those projects had been planning them long before the jobs plan was born.
NDP finance critic Bruce Ralston also took aim at the government's attempt to take partial credit for the $8 billion federal shipbuilding contract awarded to North Vancouver's Seaspan Marine in October, just weeks after the jobs plan was unveiled.
"The so-called jobs plan is a political document that is only accidentally related to the real economy," said Ralston. "The biggest example of how out of synch the premier is with what's really going on is the shipyard announcement.
"The industry worked, the union worked. It was a federal government decision and the lead up to that was over many years, and yet she showed up at the shipyard and appeared to take credit for that decision."
"It was actually the beginning of the jobs strategy," said Bell. "About two weeks after I started working on the jobs strategy, the Seaspan file came to my attention. I said this is what the jobs strategy is all about, let's not wait."
The government has also taken heat for the $15 million of taxpayer money it spent on advertising its jobs plan.
"This is really just campaigning on the taxpayer's dime," said Ralston.
But B.C. business leaders say the jobs plan is a positive message to industry, even if it doesn't directly create jobs.
Jock Finlayson, executive vice-president of the BC Business Council, said the Liberal government has, over the years, created a broadly competitive fiscal and regulatory environment for the development of the natural gas industry, mine development and mineral exploration.
John Winter, president and CEO of the BC Chamber of Commerce, agreed the jobs plan was a good thing but also noted that in many ways it's a continuation of former premier Gordon Campbell's policies.
"The job plan is, I think, another iteration of the same old program, and I don't mean that in a negative way," said Winter. "It's taking what's working and advancing it further."
But much of the success of B.C.'s exports depends on global market conditions and prices for the commodities B.C. is best known for – lumber, logs, coal, copper and natural gas.
"Government doesn't directly 'create' jobs in most parts of our economy, businesses do," said Finlayson. "That said, supportive public policies do play a role in encouraging long-term investment."
Whether the government is generating new jobs or the private sector – or both – the numbers don't lie.
Although the unemployment rate remains above the pre-recession rate of 4.6%, full-time and part-time employment was up 0.5% and 1.7% last year compared with 2010.
Sector-specific data shows the construction sector led job growth in B.C. last year with a 7.4% increase compared with the year before.
Still, B.C.'s agriculture, utilities and manufacturing sectors all experienced job losses in 2011.
Helmut Pastrick, chief economist for Central 1 Credit Union, said the government has a tendency to lead in job creation shortly after a recession, but it doesn't take long before the private sector becomes the main driver.
Bell knows the job is far from over.
His government still plans to roll out job strategies for the tech sector, forestry, mining, transportation and international education.
But how will B.C.'s jobs minister measure success when all is said and done?
"The way I measure our success is are we attracting a higher percentage of capital, students and growth than our competitors [around the world]?" said Bell, adding the government will use more metrics in the future to show just how many jobs have been created. "At the end of the day, I like to know how I'm competing and I never like losing. I always like to be No. 1." •