BC in a debt spiral

By Kris Sims

The interest payments on British Columbia’s provincial debt this year could pay the salaries of 4,600 new paramedics for 10 years.

But instead of paying for first responders or providing tax relief to families, a whopping $2.8 billion is being sent to bondholders on Bay Street and Wall Street every year to pay for our province’s debt.

International players such as S&P Global Ratings have noticed our debt dive, knocking our province’s shiny AAA credit rating down a notch because of this red ink plunge.

That $2.8 billion in debt payments could cover the annual provincial income tax bill for every taxpayer in greater Victoria.

That’s real money, and Premier John Horgan really needs to get the debt under control.

If he doesn’t, this kind of spending will eat away at our province’s finances, we could see more downgrades, and we could wind up in a financial mess as we see in Ontario and Ottawa.

Politicians in Ontario’s legislature haven’t balanced their budgets for 15 years.

We can’t let that happen to B.C.

The Canada Day Debt Report released by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation shows that B.C.’s debt will be $102.9 billion by the end of 2021. That’s a 58% increase between 2017 to 2022.

That’s a big jump in debt and we should be alarmed.

The Horgan government plans to spend at emergency pandemic levels years from now, even when there is no emergency.

And that’s a problem because every British Columbian’s average share of the combined federal and provincial government debt now totals $52,000.

The key word here is: combined.

Before we entered the COVID Tunnel of Hell, we could compare B.C.’s fiscal management to a reasonably well-maintained minivan. The debt was going up, but the operating budgets were still balanced and things were rolling along.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s fiscal management, however, is like a ’71 Pinto that’s on fire.

The federal debt will be $1.2 trillion by the end of this year. That’s an 84 per cent increase in five years.

B.C. pays about $2.8 billion per year in interest charges on the provincial debt and we will pay more than $13 billion in interest over five years.

Instead of spending $13 billion on debt interest payments over five years, Horgan could have reduced the PST by two percentage points and saved families money on everything from used cars to new shoes.

The seven per cent PST is also tacked on to building supplies in B.C., typically adding about $26,000 to the cost of building a house. From the concrete foundation up to the shingles on the roof, it all gets nailed by a seven per cent government take. Reduce that PST to five per cent and people would save about $7,000 on the cost of building their home.

There are sensible ways to spend $2.8 billion per year – blowing it on debt payments isn’t one of them.

Federally, it’s even worse.

In Ottawa, interest payments on the national debt are more than $22 billion per year.

That’s the cost of 22,000 new homes in Kelowna.

It will take years of tough choices and prudent management to climb out of the federal debt chasm that Trudeau and previous governments have dug us all into.

Horgan can’t allow unbalanced budgets and deep debt diving to become the norm in B.C., where we have long been a beacon for a robust economy and comparatively sound money management.

British Columbians can’t afford a debt emergency.

Kris Sims is the B.C. Director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

History predicts election

By Pat Murphy

Should the mooted federal election materialize, it’ll be the third time in 50 years that a minority Liberal government took an early trip to the polls.

So will the result resemble Pierre Trudeau of 1972 and 1974 (a minority followed by a big victory) or Paul Martin of 2004 and 2006 (a minority followed by a loss)?

Trudeau’s Liberals were shaken by the 1972 election. They went into it assuming a comfortable win, only to wind up dropping almost 40 seats and forfeiting their hitherto majority.

The contest was nip-and-tuck at the end. The Liberals finished just two seats ahead of the Conservatives and trailed everywhere except Quebec.

In the election’s immediate aftermath, there was the odd suggestion that it was time for Trudeau to go. But he was having none of it. Instead, he pivoted left.

Ideologically, this was Trudeau’s most palatable option. Strategically, it allowed him to court parliamentary support from the NDP and mend fences with old allies – such as the Toronto Star – that had abandoned him during the campaign.

The political payoff came two years down the road.

After deliberately engineering his government’s defeat in the House of Commons, Trudeau was back on the campaign trail for a July 1974 election that returned the Liberals to majority status. And having supported the government during the minority period, the NDP were rewarded by losing almost half of their seats.

This transformation of Liberal fortunes was an expression of ruthless politics at its most efficient. The same can’t be said for Martin’s travails in 2004 and 2006. Hapless would be a better descriptor.

A former finance minister, Martin was initially seen as a political giant. He was credited as the driving force behind the 1990s taming of Canada’s chronic federal deficits and he was expected to extend Liberal dominance into a second decade. There was even talk of a juggernaut that would win north of 200 parliamentary seats.

It didn’t happen that way.

Ensconced as prime minister in December 2003, Martin was revealed as very different from the anticipated political superman. The nickname “Mr. Dithers” quickly stuck. He was perceived as indecisive, vacillating and politically inept.

And the unfolding taint of the sponsorship scandal didn’t help. While Martin may have had no personal involvement, the Liberal Party certainly did.

Still, a comfortable win was expected in June 2004. The Liberals would, it was believed, score their fourth consecutive majority government. Instead, they lost more than 30 seats and were reduced to a fragile minority.

Almost from the get-go, it was obvious that the parliamentary situation wasn’t sustainable. There’d need to be another round. It came in January 2006.

Again, the Liberals started the campaign comfortably ahead – by as much as 15 points a week after the writ was issued. However, on election night they were down by six and their long run in office was over.

So which is the most likely precedent for 2021?

The first consideration is that the Liberals are Canada’s natural governing party, having been in office for approximately 70 years over the past century. They’re the default government. Their coalition is resilient and, like the United Kingdom Conservatives, their ability to co-opt is remarkable.

When the Liberals lose, it’s usually because of the wear and tear associated with extended periods in power. Think of the 22-year William Lyon Mackenzie King/Louis St. Laurent period between 1935 and 1957. It eventually gave way to six years of governance by Conservative John Diefenbaker, only to be reinstated for another extended Liberal sojourn in 1963.

The 2006 fall also came after a long run that had begun with Jean Chretien’s 1993 victory. Justin Trudeau, in contrast, has only been in office for six years.

Leaders also matter.

The Conservative who beat Martin, Stephen Harper, had many faults. Emphatically non-charismatic, he could be characterized as a micromanaging introvert who was often visibly uncomfortable on camera.

But Harper was seriously smart, politically shrewd and an effective debater. He also had a steely presence that suggested a credible prime minister.

Current Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has yet to demonstrate the same qualities. Maybe he will after the writ’s dropped.

Bottom line: it’s hard to see a repeat of 2006.

The current Liberal iteration hasn’t been in power long enough for serious fatigue to set in; Justin Trudeau isn’t Martin; and O’Toole is a question mark.

Of the two precedents, 1974 is more likely.

Pat Murphy is a Troy Media columnist, who casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in the world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit.

Rise of the 'grow-cer'

By Sylvain Charlebois

Canadians have started to notice that grocers have begun to sell plants in miniature greenhouses.

We’ve seen gardens on rooftops, vertical farms close to stores and even some selling gardening equipment to gardeners who are shopping for food. The farm is essentially merging with the food retail spaces we roam as consumers. It’s quite interesting.

We’re slowly witnessing the rise of the ‘grow-cer.’

For years, customers accepted the myth that food just magically shows up at the grocery store. But COVID-19 got many of us to think differently about supply chains – how food is grown, produced, transported, packaged and retailed.

With the addition of new farmgate features for city dwellers, grocery stores are slowly becoming the gateway to an entire world most of us rarely see: farming.

Sobeys has provided one recent example of what’s going on. The second largest grocer in Canada recently signed a partnership agreement with German-based Infarm to get greenhouses into many outlets across the country. Infarm units were installed last year in British Columbia and can now be found in many other locations across the country.

Infarm units enable Sobeys to offer fresh herbs and produce grown hydroponically, which requires 95 per cent less water, 90 per cent less transportation and 75 per cent less fertilizer than industrial agriculture. And no pesticides are used.

Available produce grown inside the store includes leafy greens, lettuce, kale, and herbs such as basil, cilantro, mint and parsley. Expansion plans include chili peppers, mushrooms and tomatoes. The growing cycle for most of these averages five weeks.

While Sobeys doesn’t have to worry about infrastructure and extra capital to change a store’s allure, it can get rid of these miniature vertical farms if proven unpopular or unnecessary. That works well for Sobeys and the consumer.

But it’s not just Sobeys. Other grocers now have decent-sized vertical farms inside the store or close to them.

The gardening rate in Canada has gone up by more than 20 per cent since the start of the pandemic last year. For consumers, growing their own food was about pride and taking control of their supply chain in some way.

For many others, though, gardening remains a luxury due to the lack of space or time. Since a trip to the grocery store is inevitable for most of us, grocers are bringing the farm to the store so consumers can have both the farming and the retail experience at once.

Before COVID, farmers desperately tried to get closer to city dwellers so their work could be appreciated. Campaigns over the years brought mixed results. Farming is still largely misunderstood.

Debates on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the use of chemicals have also divided urban and rural communities. City dwellers have always respected farmers and the hard work they do. But many consumers who are/were looking for natural and organically-produced goods have grown leery of farming in general.

This has attracted the attention of environmental groups opposed to many farming practices.

Grocers are starting to realize that bridging two worlds under one roof can help elevate their roles as ambassadors to an entire supply chain. Farmers can’t be replaced, of course, and they can’t be in stores.

For years, we saw pictures of farmers on packages and posters. It was nice, but it wasn’t real. The hard work, and everything else that comes with farming, can only be properly conveyed when visiting a farm or working on one for a while.

The pictures likely won’t disappear from grocery stores but they don’t really tell the whole story.

The new grow-cer brings the imagery of farming in retail to a new level. Grabbing a living plant or produce off a living plant is certainly real and increasingly valuable for Canadians longing for local and freshness. It just can’t get more local than growing it in the grocery store.

COVID-19 eliminated many rules for grocers. Every business played a part. Grocers sold food, processors manufactured it, and restaurants provided ready-to-eat solutions. Lines between sectors were already becoming blurred before COVID, given the crossing of concepts and elimination of lines between sectors.

For example, some of us have heard of the ‘grocerant’ concept, which has embedded food service into grocery stores. Consumers can relax, enjoy food before, during or after their grocery shopping.

But COVID blew up the blurred lines.

Grocers are becoming brokers, connecting various functions of the supply chain. Farming connects with retail by way of new initiatives that we’re now seeing everywhere.

For example, restaurants are selling meal kits through grocers’ apps. Few saw that coming.

Food brokering for grocers is no doubt the next frontier of growth.

Whether it will last is unknown. But grocers are embracing the fact they have the privilege of interacting with consumers every day. That privilege, more than ever, comes with a responsibility to show consumers the true value of food by being knowledge brokers.

If that means growing more food in stores, so be it.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Stressed about reopening

By Sheila Malcolmson and Jonny Morris

If you’re feeling anxious about B.C. reopening, you’re not alone.

We have spent the last 14 months staying apart to help protect our loved ones and communities. During these difficult times, we’ve dealt with the pandemic and the increasingly toxic drug supply. Through these challenges, we’ve felt increased anxiety, stress and depression, and grief and loss.

And now, we are taking slow, careful steps to come back together. Most importantly, more than 78% of British Columbians have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, so we can reconnect more safely.

Although many people are looking forward to resuming activities paused during the pandemic, some may feel anxiety during B.C.’s restart, including people who were living with mental health and addictions challenges before the pandemic began. In fact, a recent survey by Leger shows about half of Canadians are anxious about going back to how things were before. These feelings are normal and understandable given the past 14 months. And just like we were in the pandemic together, we’re also in the recovery and restart together.

That’s why the Province and other community partners are increasing options for mental health and addictions supports. This work started before the pandemic and has expanded quickly during the past year. Together, we will continue to support British Columbians’ mental health and well-being during B.C.’s restart and beyond.

The Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division (CMHA BC) has expanded its BounceBack program – a free skill-building program designed to help people manage low mood, mild to moderate depression, anxiety, stress or worry, and is available over the phone or online. The Province and CMHA BC also partnered with SafeCare BC to launch Care for Caregivers and Care to Speak – free programs for health-care workers. The CMHA BC and Here to Help websites are great places to start to look for resources and support.

Additional support for people experiencing anxiety includes the MindShift CBT app and other resources available through Anxiety Canada, and in the fall will include a health literacy campaign for children and teens to help manage anxiety experienced during the pandemic.

The Province also launched a new Foundry B.C. app for youth ages 12 to 24 and their caregivers. The app provides virtual access to integrated health and wellness services, such as drop-in and scheduled counselling, primary care, peer support and group sessions.

Low- and no-cost community counselling is available virtually and in every part of B.C., with support for many languages. If you or a loved one is experiencing anxiety, or other mental health or substance use challenges, you can find virtual low- and no-cost mental health supports online.

Our working lives were turned upside down during the pandemic. Some people working on the front lines haven’t had a break in more than a year, while others experienced inconsistent hours or job loss. Workplaces can have a significant impact on mental health, and we want to support staff and managers to rebuild organizations that are psychologically safe and healthy. B.C.’s new Workplace Mental Health Hub provides targeted training to people working in long-term and continuing care, tourism and hospitality, and social services. The hub provides information, webinars and workshops to help manage stress and build resilience.

The mental health and substance use effects of the pandemic will be felt in B.C. for months and years to come. We are committed to working together now and through these next critical phases of recovery to make lasting changes to services and supports that protect people today and create brighter futures for all people throughout this province.

Sheila Malcolmson is B.C.'s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Jonny Morris is CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division.

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