Back on shaky ground


By Jason Clemens and Niels Veldhuis

During the spring election campaign, John Horgan convinced many British Columbians that his NDP government would be different than the previous New Democrat regime, particularly when it came to finances.

Unfortunately, the first few months of NDP reign don't augur well for the future. Consider just how markedly B.C.'s finances have changed in the few months since the election.

In the spring of 2017, the then-governing Liberals estimated revenues for 2017-18 at $50.8 billion against spending of $50.2 billion, resulting in a surplus of just over $600 million.

Then the NDP's September budget update estimated that revenues would be higher than originally budgeted by almost $1.6 billion. That should have meant an estimated 2017-18 surplus of $2.2 billion. Instead, between July and mid-September, Horgan's government introduced $1.7 billion in new spending for this year.

And the government has said it plans to increase spending by $4.5 billion over the next three years. 

Notably, this increase doesn't include many of the spending initiatives outlined in the NDP-Green Party coalition agreement or the NDP's campaign platform. That agreement included a number of initiatives largely absent from the budget update:

  • Invest in transit and transportation infrastructure.
  • Long-term funding for transit.
  • Build hospitals, schools and other infrastructure.
  • Increase funding for health care, particularly preventive initiatives and services.
  • Introduce an essential drugs program.
  • New health spending focused on seniors, including home care.
  • Additional funding for kindergarten to Grade 12 and post-secondary education.
  • New investments in childcare and early childhood education.
  • A new pilot program on basic minimum income.
  • New investments in affordable housing.

In addition, while there's a great deal of overlap between the NDP-Green agreement and the original NDP campaign platform, there are also several major commitments that seem either underestimated in the budget update or altogether absent. For instance, while the agreement calls for greater investment in childcare and early childhood learning, it doesn't specifically introduce the $10-a-day childcare program proposed in the NDP platform.

The combination of immediate and marked spending increases, zero fiscal room for additional spending, and a large number of unfulfilled and expensive campaign promises means there's a strong likelihood that B.C. will slip back into deficit spending and/or face additional tax increases, perhaps as early as next spring's budget.

The Horgan government has sent a troubling signal with its first budget that big spending, tax increases and (more likely than not) deficits are back as the governing fiscal policies of the province.

Jason Clemens and Niels Veldhuis are economists with the Fraser Institute.

– Troy Media

Rural bus service essential

By Amanda West

The quality of life of rural British Columbians is being thrown under the bus.

If we are not careful, it will be done without a plan for the future. We can only hope that our provincial and federal politicians are paying attention.

We have been asking for a national transit strategy that includes inter-city bus transportation for many years, but this plea has continued to fall on deaf ears. Inter-city bus transportation is the transit of the rural community. Without it, rural citizens have limited access to out-of-town services.

Years of provincial cuts mean that many have no choice but to travel for specialists appointments and other vital services. Governments have a duty to ensure affordable and reliable ways to carry out this essential travel.

Canada, as a whole, does not provide for an alternative to bus travel – either by air or by rail – that most people can afford on a regular basis. Many small communities such as Lytton, Dawson Creek or Princeton are due to be adversely affected by Greyhound’s service withdrawal.

The inter-city bus industry has been all but deregulated – thanks in part to the federal government downloading responsibility for regulation to the provinces. The provinces are no longer willing to face the challenge and expense of providing safe, clean and reliable transportation to their own rural constituents. At worst, this constitutes serious neglect of rural needs.

Greyhound readily admits in its most recent application to the B.C. Passenger Transportation Board that its proposed route reductions and eliminations will deprive remote communities of vital service. While bemoaning a lack of revenue, Greyhound has failed to mention that its own changes of the past few years (running scheduled coaches at inconvenient times, eliminating route stops/agencies in smaller communities) have contributed to the results we see today.

Any funding provided to a private company such as Greyhound, must come with some form of reciprocation to the province and the citizens of British Columbia, such as a dedicated fleet, daily runs and mandatory service.

Further isolation also makes a bad situation worse when it comes to rural health care, where services are fewer.

Added to this, the lack of inter-city bus service puts an unfair financial burden on ordinary people. This leaves rural British Columbians in an increasingly precarious position that cannot be ignored. Factor in safety and the situation becomes more alarming, especially given what has transpired along the Highway of Tears. 

Safe and regularly scheduled transportation is a necessity in the small communities dotting British Columbia and every other province in Canada. It is essential for the safety and well being of all our residents.

It should also be the government’s concern to ensure that the most dangerous roads in this province are not left to private operators motivated solely by profit in a piece-meal system. The guarantee of regulated provincial bus service upholds the government obligation to provide vital and essential links to all British Columbians.

These links allow for fair and affordable access to services which have already been wiped out locally, services which urban British Columbians may take for granted. Rural families should not have to expect less. 

Amanda West is a former coach operator and is financial secretary treasurer of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1374.

Don't forget the TPP

By Carlo Dade

Other than a chance for a selfie with Prime Minister Trudeau, one thing folks in the Central Okanagan should be looking for out of this week’s federal Liberal caucus meeting in Kelowna is whether the government has any concern for the trade agreement that will determine the region’s economic future.

Not the North American Free Trade Agreement. Rather, it’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which is alive and well without the U.S. – and being ratified by other signatories that see a chance to get a leg up on the Americans in booming trade with Asia.

For a region like the Okanagan, in Pacific-facing British Columbia, a new agreement in Asia that lets us catch up with the Australians and surge past the Americans makes this agreement the most important trade development to date. Given that an agreement with China would likely take close to a decade to conclude, it’s also the only opportunity for the foreseeable future.

Japan, New Zealand and the Malaysian Congress have already ratified the TPP, with others planning to announce agreement to move ahead this November at the annual APEC summit. 

Rather than killing the TPP, President Trump’s withdrawal has strengthened the resolve of the remaining countries. It has also made the agreement better for Canada. Economic modeling in a Canada West Foundation report shows that Canada does better in a TPP without the U.S. in the agreement with huge tariff and other advantages over American exporters in timber, wine, seafood, fruits and vegetables and business services – all important to the Central Okanagan, B.C. and the West. 

Beyond agriculture and commodities, Canada will gain advantages in trade in services. In Singapore alone, demand for business services would increase C$200 million by 2035. The TPP will give companies in countries that are part of the agreement a huge competitive advantage for this business. U.S. companies that want in on these opportunities will have to either hope that Donald Trump changes his mind about the TPP, or move production and operations to a TPP11 country. For U.S. service and high-tech companies that want to take advantage of the agreement and remain close to home, B.C. and places with operating costs lower than Silicone Valley and good air connections like Kelowna, suddenly become more attractive.   

These advantages would continue for as long as it takes the Americans to catch up in signing trade agreements in Asia. Given the Trump administrations record so far, this is a window that is open but needs to be seized as soon as possible.

Even for companies worried only about North America, ratifying the TPP will give Canada new leverage in NAFTA. Since firms in Canada and Mexico would have TPP benefits but U.S. companies would not, pressure would be on American negotiators to make concessions to enable U.S. firms to catch up.

With so much on the table, ratifying the agreement would seem a slam dunk. Except that for some reason for this government it is not. Other than announcing 18 months of consultations, the government and western MPs including those from ridings that would benefit like Kelowna-Lake Country, Cloverdale-Langley City, South Surrey-White Rock and Langley-Aldergrove, have been silent. 

The government has done the bare minimum in attending TPP meetings. Its refusal to state clearly and publicly that it supports going ahead with the TPP is in stark contrast to other countries and should be worrying for business in B.C. and across the west. When the remaining TPP countries meet at the APEC summit in November, Canada needs to be ready to join them in moving ahead. Being ready means making the case to the Canadian public and stating clearly that doing so is in the national interest.

Hopefully this week in Kelowna, in a region and province that would benefit the most from opening Asia and getting a leg up on the Americans, we will see western MPs step up and get the government to commit to ratifying the TPP.

In the rest of the West, we are watching and hoping. 

Carlo Dade is the director of the Trade & Investment Centre at the Canada West Foundation


Money can't buy you love

By Dermod Travis

B.C.'s 2017 election will go down in the history books and in more ways than one.

The province’s closest election also turned out to be its most expensive.

While the final numbers will increase as a few stragglers report and additional candidate spending is tacked on, the B.C. Green party spent $905,000 on its campaign, the NDP ($7.9 million) and the B.C. Liberal party ($13.6 million), for a grand total of $20.3 million. 

With 3.15 million registered voters in B.C., the Greens spent 29 cents per voter, the NDP $2.50 and the Liberals $4.31. Quebec's limit is $1.37 per voter.

It's tough to do line-by-line spending comparisons between the parties, as each may report shared spending with local campaigns differently, however the Greens spent $47,040 on research and polling, the NDP ($209,300) and the Liberals ($277,460).

The NDP was the big spender on media advertising at $3 million, followed by the Liberals ($2.5 million) and the Greens ($143,000). 

In the “if you're going to spend it, you need to raise it department,” the Greens pulled in $869,000 between January 1 and May 9, the Liberals ($7.9 million) and the NDP ($9.4 million).

Not only did the NDP raise the most, they also won the award for single largest donor: the United Steelworkers at $749,622. 

The Liberals needed eight donors – four of them property developers – to hit $752,100. 

And the Greens needed every single one of their donations over $250 – all 2,068 of them – to reach $774,739.

Unions kicked in $3.3 million for the NDP and $40,050 for the Liberals. 

The top 160 corporate donors to the Liberals gave a total of $3.4 million.

At least eight corporate donors gave more than $25,000 to the NDP, including Concord Pacific ($25,000), Gateway Casinos ($26,490), Canadian Forest Products ($30,500), Teck Resources ($50,790) and Aquilini Investment Group ($101,000).

Not surprisingly – having sworn off corporate and unions donations altogether – the Greens saw nothing from either, but did see $20,000, its largest single cheque, from Elizabeth Beedie, wife of Vancouver property developer Ryan Beedie.

Airbnb checked in with the Liberals for $1,500, Super Save Shredding gave $300 to Rich Coleman's re-election effort and the B.C. Lions Football Club was in for $5,000.

Hockey Canada and the Telus Cup – Canada's annual national midget 'AAA' hockey championship – donated $300 to the Liberal campaign. Telus topped that up by another $13,580, but saved its biggest cheque for the NDP this time out ($20,000).

Four golf clubs and two golfing associations contributed $3,226 to Liberal coffers and, well, nothing to the NDP. Since 2005, assorted golf clubs have donated $324,439 to the Liberals and $3,775 to the NDP.

And the New Car Dealers Association didn't disappoint with $48,050 for the Liberal team, bringing its running total to more than $1.3 million.

The association doesn't appear on the 2017 NDP list, but it has given $82,790 to the party.

And to think, the most interesting numbers for 2017 are still to come. The donations between May 10 and the date that corporate and union donations are finally banned in the province, that is if Premier John Horgan would stop fundraising long enough to honour his “first order of business” commitment. 

– Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.

Fires a wake-up call

By David Suzuki

Wildfires are sweeping B.C. Close to 900 have burned through 600,000 hectares so far this year, blanketing western North America with smoke. Fighting them has cost more than $230 million — and the season is far from over.

It’s not just B.C. Thousands of people from B.C. to California have fled homes as fires rage. Greenland is experiencing the largest blaze ever recorded, one that Prof. Stef Lhermitte of Delft University in the Netherlands called “a rare and unusual event.” Fires have spread throughout Europe, North America and elsewhere. In June, dozens of people died in what’s being called Portugal’s worst fire ever. Meanwhile, from Saskatchewan to Vietnam to New Zealand, floods have brought landslides, death and destruction.

What will it take to wake us up to the need to address climate change? Fires and floods have always been here, and are often nature’s way of renewing ecosystems — but as the world warms, they’re increasing in frequency, size and severity. Experts warn wildfires could double in number in the near future, with the Pacific Northwest seeing five or six times as many.

In the western U.S., annual average temperatures have increased by 2 C and the fire season has grown by three months since the 1970s, leading to “new era of western wildfires,” according to a recent study led by University of Colorado Boulder wildfire experts, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Climate change doesn’t necessarily start the fires — lightning, unattended campfires, carelessly tossed cigarette butts and sparks from machinery are major causes — but it creates conditions for more and larger fires. Lightning, which causes up to 35 per cent of Canada’s wildfires and is responsible for 85 per cent of the area burned annually, increases as temperatures rise, with studies showing 12 per cent more lightning strikes for each degree Celsius of warming.

Drier, shorter winters and earlier snowmelt extend fire seasons. As the atmosphere warms, it holds more moisture, some of which it draws from forests and wetlands, and increasing precipitation is not enough to offset the drying. This means fuel sources ignite more easily and fires spread faster over greater areas. Outbreaks of pests such as mountain pine beetles — previously kept in check by longer, colder winters — have also killed and dried forests, adding fuel to the fires. Because trees and soils hold moisture on slopes, fires can also increase the risk of flash floods when rains finally arrive.

The human and economic impacts are staggering — from property destruction to firefighting and prevention to loss of valuable resources and ecosystems. As human populations expand further into wild areas, damages and costs are increasing. 

Health impacts from smoke put people — especially children and the elderly — at risk and drive health care costs up. Wildfires now kill more than 340,000 people a year, mainly from smoke inhalation.

Fires also emit CO2, creating feedback loops and exacerbating climate change. Boreal forests in Canada and Russia store large amounts of carbon and help regulate the climate, but they’re especially vulnerable to wildfires.

Suggested solutions are wide-ranging. The authors of the PNAS study recommend letting some wildfires burn in areas uninhabited by people, setting more “controlled” fires to reduce undergrowth fuels and create barriers, thinning dense forests, discouraging development in fire-prone areas and strengthening building codes. 

These adaptive measures are important, as are methods to prevent people from sparking fires, but our primary focus should be on doing all we can to slow global warming.

According to NASA, Earth’s average surface temperature has risen by 1.1 C since the late 19th century, with most warming occurring over the past 35 years, and 16 of the 17 warmest years occurring since 2001. Eight months of 2016 were the warmest on record. Oceans have also been warming and acidifying quickly, Arctic ice has rapidly decreased in extent and thickness, glaciers are retreating worldwide, and sea levels have been rising at an accelerating pace. Record high temperature events have been increasing while low temperature events have decreased, and extreme weather events are becoming more common in many areas.

Today’s wildfires are a wake-up call. If we are serious about our Paris Agreement commitments, we can’t build more pipelines, expand oil sands, continue fracking or exploit extreme Arctic and deep-sea oil.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. 

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