Swings and misses in finance minister’s optimistic economic appetizer

Monday’s provincial economic update proclaimed the sky was not falling, but depending on your perspective, you’ll need special glasses to look for the sun.

The government news release headline gave it the college try: “Building a Better BC for Everyone.” But to be fair and clear, not exactly everyone.

Earning more than $150,000? Your personal tax rate on those earnings will grow to 16.8%, up from 14.7%.

Running a big business? Your corporate tax rate grows to 12% from 11%.

Thinking that what we’re putting into a carbon tax provincially is what we’re going to get out? Uh, uh, the days of revenue neutrality are done as the tax grows by $5 a tonne next April so that, yes, some families can be helped, but yes, some green initiatives can be bolstered, too.

A serene – at least for now – Finance Minister Carole James presented her economic update, fielded media questions and acted the part as if she’d been in the saddle for quite a few rodeos.

She even rolled out a small-business tax break – to 2% from 2.5% – something her predecessor pro-business Liberals promised. Similarly, the detested Medical Service Plan premiums are cut in half – on January 1, not November 1, as the Liberals proposed. Like the Liberals, the NDP has no real idea of when the other half will be handled.

Along the way she had to concede that the economy the Liberals had administered was “strong,” and that employment, retail sales, housing starts and exports “have all exceeded expectations so far this year.” That must have been a tough thing to acknowledge, so close to the critique of the recent campaign.

Still, the prosperous times have not worked for enough people, she said, so Monday was a taste of the NDP medicine that, groan, “puts people first” – as if somehow there was an animals-first approach earlier.

Even with its commitments to education, health, housing, transportation and projects big and small, the NDP predicts a surplus of surpluses ahead: $246 million in 2017-18, $228 million in 2018-19, and $257 million in 2019-20.

Of course, as anyone watching the suddenly calamitous Weather Network can attest, the winds can change. The external fears James outlined are not insubstantial: NAFTA, Trump, Brexit, China, the Bank of Canada and world commodity markets.

But the party also has itself to fear. In her briefing, she alluded to the pent-up frustration of 16 years in the political wilderness and the task of managing expectations that there will be a chicken in every pot – or more modernly, pot for every chicken.

Freewheeled financing would be a tactic, she knows, that would only revive the age-old stereotype of a tax-and-spend NDP welded to a revolution of the 1960s and not the one taking place a half-century later. Thus, movement on a big-ticket item like affordable childcare is bound to bear fruit around the time today’s toddlers are flashing ID at the bar. Funds are not going to sweep the streets of the under-housed.

To be fair to the critics, too, Monday’s update sent only a hint that the party acknowledges the internet is here to stay and that technology might be a key to the diversified economy we and they so need. The government promised to appoint an Innovation Commissioner and create an Emerging Economy Task Force. Which is to say there is no plan.

This being said, Monday was pre-season hockey, an optimistic appetizer for the hard season ahead. The true test for the cup comes next February with a real budget, when the dollars are more clearly attached to the duties and when there is some clarity on things like anticipated cannabis revenue, on a trade deal, on the impact of slightly higher interest rates on real estate tidings.

Until then, the minister says, keep calm and carry on.

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