A clever new slogan, but where are the jobs?

September 22, 2011

Premier Clark's much anticipated BC Jobs Plan comes up short where it matters most: the jobs. For all the fuss of a four-day media launch, the "Canada Starts Here" plan contains very few measures that will lead to new employment, and the ones that are there come many years into the future, and at great environmental cost.

At best, the so-called jobs plan is a rehashing of old ideas that have been government policy going back to the last NDP government: cut small business taxes, simplify and reduce regulations, and expand exports to Asian markets.

Fundamentally, the so-called “jobs plan” does not address the key economic challenge facing BC: a lack of demand. It’s not the regulatory regime or the tax system that’s stopping businesses from investing and creating jobs in BC. The BC government already went through a process of simplifying permitting and regulation requirements in the early 2000s. BC already has one of the lowest tax rates on business.  

Rather, businesses are not investing because the outlook for sales and profits is weak. BC consumers are spending less due to record high household debt levels, a weakening housing market and relatively high unemployment.

In order to address the real problem – the weakness of family incomes – the BC government can and should do its part to stimulate the economy through public sector spending. That includes abandoning its commitment to fiscal austerity, which undermines demand.

But it’s also important to think strategically about what kind of jobs we want to create. BC continues to rely on a resource extraction mentality, digging up and shipping out raw materials, then importing finished products. Increasingly, we have been exporting more unprocessed materials like raw logs. Our exports must move up the value chain if we want to create good jobs and insulate our economy from the swings of commodity markets.

Instead of using the “jobs plan” as an opportunity to transition our economy away from fossil fuels, the Premier is proposing to move BC even deeper into the extraction of raw materials for export markets. In addition, the plan will deliver a $15 million subsidy to CN Rail for transportation infrastructure. If exporting BC's resources to Asia makes economic sense, there should be no need for such corporate welfare.

Where there are jobs in the plan, the climate costs are staggering. The proposed liquid natural gas terminals in Kitimat are the equivalent to tripling BC's greenhouse gas emissions. And yet only 120-140 permanent jobs (plus a few hundred in temporary construction) will be created.

There are some obvious candidates for a real jobs program that would boost the economy in the short run while improving BC's long-term productivity and setting us on a path to a more sustainable economy.

Building out public transit and retrofitting BC's housing stock for energy efficiency would not only create jobs but help meet BC's greenhouse gas targets. This would put some truth to the government's claims of being a climate action leader.

Investing in education could not be more relevant to a family-friendly agenda, and there is no shortage of challenges in the education system. Children in many areas of BC are crowded into classrooms with unacceptably large class sizes, and teachers do not have the resources to support children with special needs. The lack of an affordable, high quality early learning and childcare system stops many families with young children from fully participating in the workforce.

BC's post-secondary education system is stretched thin after a decade of mandated enrollment increases that were not accompanied by sufficient funding to properly educate these new students. Plans to increase the number of international students in post-secondary institutions by 50% do nothing to alleviate the eroding affordability and quality of education.

Premier Clark lost a golden opportunity to outline a vision for BC, instead showing an utter lack of imagination about developing an economic strategy for the 21st century. The BC government needs to abandon the limiting (and false) idea that all government can do is create conditions for foreign investors to come to BC and create our jobs for us.

British Columbians know that our province can be more than just a quarry for the rest of the world. To fulfill this potential, BC needs a new green jobs and industrial strategy for the transition to a low-carbon economy, not a new slogan.