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BC NDP economic plan is long on goals, short on specifics

It is the job, guided by DNA, of an NDP government to enhance the public sector’s involvement in the economy.

It is the job, guided by DNA, of an NDP government to enhance the public sector’s involvement in the economy.

It is presumably elected on that basis, too, even if the private sector has to be positioned in any economic recovery or initiative behind the redress of inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity.

Thursday’s release of the StrongerBC initiative is the largest reach yet of the John Horgan government into the province’s economic and social order. It is a predictable continuum of earlier pledges with only slightly more meat on the bone.

It promises over its 40 pages, although rather vaguely, to furnish an array of strategies and tactics to broaden its impact while trying to turn the page on an era of private-sector-driven growth.

It preaches, with much more clarity, the twin goals of “inclusive growth” and “clean growth,” and appears to have one lesson and one lesson only learned from the pandemic on why this and why now. Says Ravi Kahlon, the minister of jobs, economic recovery and innovation: “Because we can’t go back to the way things were before. That’s why we developed this plan.” It makes a nation-leading economy for a decade sound so insignificant or ill-gotten that you almost want the pandemic to endure.

The shorthand on the plan:

Increased tax competitiveness coming? Don’t bet on it.

Increased tax demands coming? Don’t bet against it.

The province’s enlistment of Mariana Mazzucato, the prominent London-based economist at University College, to build the plan should have been a clue some time back on what the government wanted. Mazzucato’s more recent work focuses on how governments can create and shape new markets, rather than merely help fix them or take the risks if the private sector is going to claim the rewards.

Her tough-on-business influence is evident in the language and structure of the StrongerBC document, with its emphasis on sharing benefits “more equally” and its characterization of economic growth as “not enough” if it isn’t housed in metrics seen in New Zealand and through the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations.

To that end, the plan will be tracked not simply through how many jobs are created or how the needle moves on gross domestic product (GDP), but on a more suggestive collection of well-being indicators like poverty reduction, affordable housing inventory and post-secondary training. We are promised an online dashboard to see how this tracks.

The most immediate beneficiary, and the main news Thursday, was about the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), which will construct a Trades and Technology Complex at its Burnaby campus with $136.6 million of its $162.6 million coming from provincial coffers. BCIT has found itself over the years in the right place at the right time, producing graduates in palpable demand, and in an ideal world the new complex would be up and running in 2023 instead of putting shovels in the ground then.

Other announcements, likely a dozen, will follow in days, weeks and months in such fields as life sciences, agritech, manufacturing and the movement of goods.

It will almost seem like an election is looming.

StrongerBC is not exactly a “plan for today,” as it advertises; rather, it is about sketching out several years of spending on ambitions for a full generation of its government and a repositioning of the public sector. The BC Liberals have other ideas about that, but Horgan remains a trusted figure and it’s evident the aspirations Thursday are predicated on his credibility to navigate the path.

Still, business confidence in the government has stayed soft under this premier. His assertion Thursday that the largest economic concern of business is housing affordability is, more accurately, the largest concern that the province chooses to engage.

The larger questions of tax treatment and investment climate – and how the disruption of the pandemic to certain sectors might be reversed – can’t be found in the government’s document or talking points, likely because reworking the fiscal and regulatory regime would sap revenue or because the challenge exceeds the government’s bandwidth.

As a result, there is no evidence on how the plan will improve living standards, attract capital or furnish growth. These principles appear to be articles of considerable faith.

Instead, the government says, “the plan is built with the belief that an economy can grow and thrive, while addressing two core issues: inequality and climate change.” As noble as those objectives are, that gives rise to questions about how not to discourage investment and innovation along the way, how the government might specifically engineer the ample shift, and about which pockets will be packed and which ones will be picked.

Save for the tangible BCIT investment, the plan has more of a “here is where we want to arrive” than a “here is how we will go” feel to it – at least for now.

“What’s new is that we’re under way,” the premier said in responding to a question about how little news there was in his news. On that, some might be happy it’s taken five years for his government to barely leave the starting blocks or to make a sustained mark on an economy envied elsewhere but not good enough for them.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.