BC Premier John Horgan addresses Chamber of Commerce business crowd in Victoria May 15, 2018
Tuesday, May 15 ~ VICTORIA. It was a tough crowd for an NDP Premier — a room packed with about 400 chamber of commerce members and business leaders at the Crystal Garden in downtown Victoria — who at least in part would be expected to take some issue with the left-leaning policies of Premier John Horgan’s NDP government.
In less than one year in office, Horgan has rapidly rolled out numerous policy adjustments and new directions for British Columbia that are changing the socioeconomic landscape of the province in notable ways.
In a nutshell, that’s to make life more affordable for all British Columbians, he is oft heard to say. But that has come with almost seismic shifts in some areas of taxation — some that businesses consider punitive (such as the Employer Health Tax) but others that ‘help’ such as eliminating PST on electricity for businesses by 2019 and reducing the small business tax rate from 2.5% to 2.0%.
A seasoned, relaxed speaker, Horgan was comfortable at the podium but was careful to put a business or economic context around every potentially controversial portion of his 35-minute speech.
He covered the gamut from justifying the BC Speculation Tax and the shift from the Medical Services Program (MSP) to the Employer Health Tax (EHT), to defending his government’s stance spawned by the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project to protect the coastal environmental in the event of an oil spill.
At least twice he emphasized “not social policy but economic policy”, specifically with regard to providing more and better child care, and working to full reconciliation with indigenous peoples.“The economy, environment and people are inextricably bound together,” said Horgan, saying that “everybody benefits” from the economic success of addressing all of those socioeconomic components of governing a thriving province like BC. Underpinning that is public education.
“Given the opportunity and tools of education we can achieve anything – the greatest tool at our disposal is public education,” Premier Horgan suggested to the crowd, referencing both K-12 and post-secondary. He was proud to remind the room that one of the first things his government did after taking office in July 2017 was to eliminate tuition fees for adult basic education and English language learning.
In the audience today were several BC Cabinet ministers, including Finance Minister Carole James and Education Minister Rob Fleming. They sat with Premier Horgan at the same table as Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps who at the end of the event presented Horgan with a painting by an indigenous artist from the Cowichan area.
Also present from NDP ranks were Victoria MP Murray Rankin and Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke MP Randall Garrison. Various municipal mayors and councillors attended, including View Royal Mayor David Screech, Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen, Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins, Langford Councillors Lillian Szpak and Denise Blackwell, and Oak Bay Councillor Hazel Braithwaite.
This was a five-Chamber event with members from the Greater Victoria, Saanich Peninsula, WestShore, Sooke Region and Esquimalt Chambers.
Horgan outlined how there is now — thanks to NDP housing policy — the opportunity for post-secondary to build student housing “without coming cap in hand to the treasury board”, as a way to free up housing stock in the community. This also provides housing-supply opportunities for the development and construction communities.The overall thread of the speech was to demonstrate the potential for productive interface between the social directions unfolding from the NDP and what the business community can do to benefit and prosper through attention to the well-being of people and communities. People who can find affordable places to live are therefore available for employment in high-demand business regions. Families that can access reliable quality child care can then afford for a second parent to join or rejoin the workforce.
Overall the crowd’s mood was polite and attentive. But there likely weren’t many converts to the government’s position on two things of most concernation to vocal leaders in the business community — the BC Speculation Tax and the EHT that is set to replace the outgoing MSP.
Regarding transportation congestion issues in the Greater Victoria area, Horgan was asked if he would support a Regional Transportation Authority (RTA). Horgan’s first noted “seeing a failure of the previous government to invest” in transportation solutions, followed by saying that he’s observed with TransLink in Vancouver that large advisory bodies can become “disconnected from the needs of the community and lean to the loudest voice at the table”.
Horgan hopes that BC Transit will “provide public opportunities for people” in Greater Victoria. He favours a non-formal provincial government lead on transportation: “We kinda got it covered here,” he said today, referring to the connections that he and Ministers Fleming, James, Popham and MLA Mitzi Dean have in the community. “We work with the CRD and local mayors and councils to try and deliver services for people,” Horgan said.
One question from the room expressed concern about losing tourism due to the pipeline dispute with Alberta. With reference made to the lunch menu including Alberta short ribs, Horgan did take the opportunity to express positive support for NDP Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, acknowledging it’s her job to represent the economic interests of her province (vis-a-vis the pipeline issue).
“I am not convinced that we are prepared to deal with the consequences of a diluted bitumen spill in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Gulf Islands and Burrard Inlet,” said Horgan. “We need to find a balance — my responsibility is to the people in this room and the people who are coming here” who are “attracted by the pristine environment”. He reiterated his view that raw petroleum should go to refineries in Canada “to help people” instead of being shipped overseas. He said that the federal 10-year commitment of $1.5 billion on three coasts of the largest coastline on the planet is not a lot of funding should anything go wrong.
The big reveal of the lunchtime speech was Horgan’s commitment to making sure something is achieved with the E&N corridor, saying that trains (or an additional lane on Hwy 1) are probably not the solution to getting more commuters to and to the Victoria area core for employment. He said he is committed to “moving people”, and that he is “committed to doing that in the term of this government”.
Horgan was later asked a question from the floor… would he support formation of a Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) which has been proposed at the CRD level. He talked about getting people “out of cars” into public transit, saying it’s good for the economy to move people efficiently and effectively. Afterward, View Royal Mayor David Screech –- whose municipality is squarely in the one of the heaviest commuter traffic through-zones, said he is still in favour of reactivating trains for the E&N.
Randall Garrison, MP said that Horgan spoke directly to the business community about “issues that they care about”, adding that BC has “enviable economic success”. Indeed, Horgan knew what he was up against but he didn’t pander. Rather, he talked about his government’s plan, made arguments in support of stated policies, and answered questions in which he held his ground.
Horgan wrapped up saying he will back next year, as a way of declaring the stability of his government. The NDP (with Greens) is moving forward with many things that in a few years time will see BC and Canada looking back at a provincial socioeconomic canvas painted with new strokes that are intended to open up new opportunities for business, communities and individuals.
~ Article by Mary P Brooke, editor, West Shore Voice News