Rob Shaw: BC Greens' continued COVID focus raises questions about party’s political well-being

Greens' COVID focus

The BC Greens are moving to shore up their credentials on the health care file, by naming a high-profile surgeon to be deputy leader of the party.

It’s not a bad idea, and it might help the Greens increase their relevance ahead of the next election – or, just as easily, it could devolve into a mess that pushes them further to the fringe.

Both potential outcomes were on display Monday when Furstenau announced she’d hired Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi, the former chief of paediatric cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at BC Children’s Hospital, to serve as the party’s second deputy leader.

On the one hand, Gandhi’s credentials immediately allowed the Greens to jump into the debate over an ER-doctor shortage in Port Hardy, with Gandhi calling on the government to hire physician assistants to help alleviate the crisis.

“Absolutely, 100 per cent, categorically, no doubt that we should have PAs (physician assistants) in British Columbia, not just for Port Hardy but everywhere for Metro Vancouver,” he said.

“I worked with PAs for 17 years in the United States. They are active in other parts of Canada. They’re a phenomenal resource.… Why we don’t have them in British Columbia is beyond me.”

It was a solid response and a well informed critique of government health policy.

“I’ll fight for the people of B.C. with the same energy I gave to sick kids and their families,” added Gandhi, in one of the best lines of the day.

But then, just as suddenly, the Greens veered sideways – during one of several tangents by Gandhi – into why the NDP government had bungled the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Despite what many would like to think, we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic,” he said.

“Partly, that’s the virus’s fault, but primarily it’s ours. We have not embraced the changing science. Though we’ve acquired knowledge about SARS-CoV-2, we haven’t used that knowledge appropriately.”

The government has failed to properly educate people, mitigate the risk, give people the right information and focus on clean-air policies like HEPA-filters in all school classrooms, he said.

Oh, and everyone should be forced to return to wearing masks indoors for the indefinite future, he added.

“I think in closed indoor public spaces we should have mandatory masking,” said Gandhi.

“And people are to say, ‘Well, are you going to mask forever?’ I don’t know. But I certainly think that during the winter season it’s something that we ought to consider from here on in.”

B.C.’s current policy is that masks indoors are encouraged, but not mandatory. The vast majority of people seem happy with that.

It’s not clear if forcing people to wear masks again is something the BC Greens intend to present to voters as a campaign issue. Furstenau stood behind Gandhi and nodded while he said it at an event she billed as a campaign-readiness press conference. She announced him as someone who helped her understand COVID-19, and someone who will help craft health policies for her platform.

“The important thing is we will be prepared whenever that election is called, and this leadership team is core to that preparation,” she said.

The two health issues in the press conference highlight the political choice in front of the BC Greens when it comes to relevance in the eyes of mainstream voters.

Polls continue to show that the larger issue of post-pandemic health care (including a family doctor shortage) is considered a top issue of concern for British Columbians, with 52 per cent of people surveyed by Angus Reid last month calling it the most important issue facing the province.

On that, the Greens can clearly use Gandhi’s expertise to backstop a serious policy agenda, which would offer practical solutions for the health-care crisis and grab the broader public’s attention, raising the Green party’s profile.

On the other end of the spectrum is COVID-19. Few voters appear to care about it anymore. The issue consistently ranks near the bottom, with only seven per cent identifying it as important in the same Angus Reid poll.

And yet, the Greens can’t seem to let it go.

The party has long been preoccupied with COVID-19. Furstenau was the first politician to publicly break with Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry in 2022, saying she’d failed to do her job and was wrong in her decisions.

Since then, her Greens have flirted dangerously with a toxic social media crowd that delivers venomous personal attacks against Dr. Henry and peddles in conspiracy theories.

A quick search of Gandhi’s background suggests he, too, remains fixated on COVID.

His social media feeds show evidence of someone with an axe to grind against Dr. Henry, Health Minister Adrian Dix, the hospital he used to work at and several other key players in the health care sector for, according to Gandhi, unfairly silencing him and forcing him out of the profession. He spends a great deal of time on Twitter, writing long threads about the issue.

All of this presents both a problem and an opportunity for the Greens.

The problem is that the party has a leader, and now a deputy leader, fixated on an issue that voters don’t particularly care about anymore, which has only served to push the party into fringe territory and won’t do anything to make Green candidates relevant in the next election outside the two ridings the party already holds.

The opportunity is to retool that energy and expertise into something more politically productive, in the form of bold, innovative ideas to tackle the broader issues of health-care wait times, nursing shortages, the family doctor crisis and more.

Furstenau opened the press conference Monday saying she wanted to challenge the notion that the BC Greens are only focused on climate and the environment.

“The BC Green Party is much broader,” she said. “But if we are fundamentally focused on one thing, it is health and well-being.”

The party’s health and well-being depends on it moving on from the pandemic and becoming more relevant on the issues voters are worried about. The longer the Greens wait to do that, the further the party falls behind.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

Rob Shaw: Eby selects Penny Ballem as his special adviser on health

Eby selects Penny Ballem

Premier David Eby has hired veteran health executive Penny Ballem as his new special adviser on health, adding yet another civilian expert into his office to tackle a complex issue on which he’s planning major reforms.

Ballem most recently oversaw the government's COVID-19 vaccine rollout. She’ll now serve as the “premier’s health systems specialist.”

“Every province is facing renewed challenges as a result of longstanding impacts of the pandemic on our health-care system,” Eby said in a statement.

“Penny Ballem will be part of B.C.’s team as the premier’s health advocate, putting her at the centre of government to help move priorities forward, and solve and address crises in our health-care system.”

Ballem is the second special adviser to the premier, after Eby in December hired lawyer and former First Nations Justice Council Doug White to serve as his “special counsel” on Indigenous issues.

In hiring Ballem, the new premier is getting a blunt, formidable and notoriously hard worker, whose experience in health and politics spans multiple political parties and levels. She is a medical doctor who, decades ago, worked in the Downtown Eastside. She’s been a staunch defender of harm-reduction and universal health care.

Ballem served as a deputy minister of health in the BC Liberal government from 2001 to 2006, before quitting in high-profile fashion after a dispute with then-premier Gordon Campbell.

Ballem publicly accused his government of making health “policy on the run” and spending much of her job trying to keep politically negative stories from influencing ministers and “decisions that get made two hours after question period when it’s been a bad hair day for the minister, or worse, the premier,” she said at the time in 2007.

“I learned that if you can see a little niggling story that's going to take off and realize the potential for it to create really ugly policy on the run, my job was to prevent that happening.”

From there, Ballem was hired on contract by the government of Ontario to help negotiate with doctors, before taking on an equally high-profile job as Vancouver’s city manager under Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson. She served in that pressure-cooker of a position from 2008 to 2015.

The NDP government hired her in 2021 to to head its COVID-19 vaccination campaign – one of the largest, most complex health projects ever performed by the province.

Ballem pulled it off, largely without issue, managing to oversee the creation of a registration system, mass clinics, mobile outreach efforts, specialized Indigenous vaccination campaigns and multiple vaccine brands being delivered in sometimes unreliable amounts by the federal government.

Her help did not come cheap – she was paid more than $400,000 for 10 months of work (the full amount was never released by government).

Eby is expected to draw upon Ballem’s wealth of experience – and occasional bluntness – as he seeks to try and stabalize a health-care system collapsing under the weight of staffing shortages and a post-pandemic surge of flu cases.

The problems are many.

The NDP is struggling to find enough doctors to run its urgent and primary-care centres, which are overwhelmed each morning when they open by people unable to find a family doctor.

Many hospitals are overflowing with patients, including rural and remote facilities where the ER is frequently closed due to lack of staff (Port Hardy’s hospital ER has been closed almost a month).

The ambulance system remains overwhelmed and unreliable, despite a new tentative contract with paramedics.

The province has been forced to delay some non-urgent surgeries due to the struggling system, adding to wait times for things like certain cancer screenings that have risen to alarming levels.

And B.C. is fighting an unexpected battle against private virtual health-care providers, like Telus Health, whose paid services are creeping into the system to take advantage of the growing frustration.

Meanwhile, the cost of health care continues to grow, and it eats up almost 40 per cent of all provincial government spending.

How much of this Ballem will be tasked with fixing is unclear. Eby already has a formidable health minister in Adrian Dix, and a highly competent deputy health minister in Stephen Brown.

But clearly she is expected to play a leadership role of some kind, with direct access to the premier for her proposals.

Throughout her career, Ballem has made a practice out of telling politicians what they don’t want to hear, when they need to hear it.

“They want all the good news, they don’t want any of the bad news,” Ballem said in 2007.

Eby doesn’t seem too worried about that. Her appointment signals major changes ahead.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

Do you know how risky you drink is?

Problem drinking

Sometimes it’s a couple of pints of beer after work with friends, sometimes it’s a margarita to go with your tacos. Sometimes it’s an actor’s cocktail of choice that goes viral the world over.

However you encounter it, alcohol is so commonplace few realize how harmful it can be, and most don’t know where the line crosses from moderate to excess. The recommendation from Canada’s updated low-risk drinking guidelines coming out this week is no more than two drinks a week, and avoid binge drinking which is four or more drinks in one setting.

According to the World Health Organization, alcohol consumption is “a causal factor in more than 200 diseases, injuries and other health conditions”. It is associated with the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and digestive issues, as well as several types of cancers including mouth and throat cancer, stomach cancer, and in women, breast cancer.

This information is cause for concern given recent increases in alcohol sales and consumption in B.C. Data from Statistics Canada showed 22% of British Columbians increased their drinking, an increase that came with pandemic restrictions and closures, as well as the loosening of some alcohol policies in the province, including pilot projects by some jurisdictions that allowed more off-sales and drinking in parks.

In 2020, it is estimated that alcohol was responsible for 173,531 hospitalizations and 2,672 deaths in BC. To put this into context, in the same year opioid overdoses were responsible for 1,767 deaths and COVID-19 led to 1,391 deaths. Researchers say these figures are expected to increase over the next few years, as we see the shift in drinking behaviour take effect.

Despite its links to chronic diseases and cancers, we don’t often see this information. Surveys show Canadians don’t know about the link with cancer.

So, what are some ways we can promote moderate drinking habits and support health? The first step is to give consumers useful information so they can make informed choices.

Alcohol warning labels should be like nutrition labels: providing details on the number of calories and how much ethanol is in each bottle or can, what a standard drink size is, and the risks associated with drinking over the recommended amount.

Consumers have a right to know what is in their drink and what the effects of alcohol are on their bodies, which is why the BC Alliance for Healthy Living (BCAHL) supports the use of alcohol warning labels.

The BCAHL also supports pricing based on ethanol content, rather than on the volume of liquid or the type of alcohol. This creates a disincentive for producers making high-strength “fortified” beers, hard ciders and coolers that are heavily marketed to young people and promote binge drinking.

Studies show that adjusting alcohol prices this way decreases excessive consumption among youth and heavy drinkers – and these are two populations for whom it is critical to reduce the harms associated with excessive alcohol use.

A third way we can decrease alcohol use is by reducing the density of liquor outlets so that there’s not a bar or liquor store everywhere we turn. One study found that an increase in the density of liquor stores was associated with increased alcohol-related deaths.

So rather than approving more outlets, private or otherwise, we urge the province to put a cap on how many there are per capita, to set prices according to ethanol content and to work with the federal government to put warning labels on containers so consumers know the risk in their drink.

Beyond disease prevention, reducing alcohol can improve your sleep, energy levels and mood. Instead of a happy hour or new year, these measures will go a long way in ensuring that we all have healthier and happier years ahead.

Rita Koutsodimos is the executive director of the BC Alliance for Healthy Living.

Uncertainty lingers for buyers and sellers in Okanagan commercial market

Commercial real estate

The Okanagan, while one of Canada’s fastest-growing regions, is not immune to current real estate market fluctuations.

With inflation and rising interest rates, the real estate market is no longer labelled as “red hot.” Since June 2021, the Bank of Canada has slowly introduced interest rate hikes, with more severe rate hikes announced in Q3 and Q4 of 2022. Buyers, sellers, developers, and investors are now awaiting the next interest rate announcement.

Financing has become more difficult in the current climate, which determines what players in the market can acquire sites for development and proceed with existing projects. Others might be forced to cancel or pause projects as they can either no longer qualify for or arrange enough financing to keep the project going. This overall sense of uncertainty, which began almost three years ago due to the pandemic, has now become exacerbated by rising interest rate hikes. As the economic recovery continues and industrial, retail, and hotel sectors are impacted, buyers and sellers need to exercise caution in decision-making.

Watching and waiting in the hotel sector

During the summer of 2022, the hotel industry saw a pent-up demand due to a rebound in performance, especially in Kelowna, where the city saw high hotel occupancy. As travel restrictions lifted and travellers grew eager to explore, hotels saw prices soar due to high demand, with Canada’s average accommodation costs up from $2,794 in Q1 to $3,252 in Q2 of this year, seasonally adjusted at quarterly rates. The average hotel occupancy in Kelowna was 56.8% through the first six months of 2022, compared to 33.9% in 2021, indicating a positive uptick in the region’s tourism industry.

Hit by the pandemic, some independent or highly leveraged hotel owners preferred to exit the sector as they saw a deep turndown in their business, whereas investors saw the chance to jump into the market. Some investors are eyeing existing functionally obsolete hotel sites hoping to rezone and redevelop them, creating multi-family residential homes and condominiums. Additionally, the B.C. government has been buying aged hotels and motel sites for the creation of affordable and social community housing.

Supply shortages persist for the industrial sphere

Industrial space continues to remain in scarce supply, and Kelowna is no exception. National net absorption of the industrial market rose to 9.6 million sq. ft. in Q3 2022, and occupier opportunities for existing industrial space remained at all-time lows, with the national availability rate holding at 1.5%. Although the new supply of industrial developments reached 9.1 million sq. ft. in Q3 2022 per CBRE, 88.8% of the new builds were delivered pre-leased, providing limited relief to tight market conditions.

Industrial lands are an important component of Kelowna’s economic development and diversification. However, the use of these lands is often outcompeted for commercial and residential uses, especially in Kelowna, a city facing rapid population growth.

The City of Kelowna is taking action to provide more industrial land, marking the 106.5-acre Kelowna Springs Golf Course for conversion to industrial use. A diverse range of businesses in tech and manufacturing are moving from the Lower Mainland to the Okanagan as lack of supply continues to be a challenge for firms pursuing expansion.

High demand, coupled with businesses eyeing the Kelowna market for its lifestyle appeal, has caused industrial prices to soar. Developers are now starting to assess smaller markets near the city, including Vernon, Penticton and Peachland.

Retail realm sees increased vibrancy

One of the most significant changes coming out of the pandemic is the widespread community focus on shopping locally and supporting local businesses. While the pandemic impacted brick-and-mortar retailers, new businesses are now entering the market with renewed vigour. Downtown Kelowna has seen a revival in retail, with cafes, restaurants, and beauty retailers opening up; the retail industry is looking optimistic.

The planned 46-storey University of B.C. Okanagan tower and downtown campus will play a pivotal role in boosting Kelowna’s vibrancy as it’s set to bring at least 300 professional-level jobs to the region and 600 units of student rental housing in Kelowna’s tallest building, along with new retail opportunities.

Like the residential real estate market, interest rates will continue to be a key concern for Kelowna’s commercial market until inflation is controlled.

While cash-rich buyers may take advantage of deals that emerge as developers off-load burdensome projects, uncertainty will prevail while the market and economy try to strike a balance.

The Okanagan’s industrial, retail, and hotel sectors are in the midst of change, and while proceeding with caution is a safe choice for commercial real estate, there will be many opportunities created in 2023 by this fluctuating market for developers and investors alike.

Terese Cairns is a commercial and investment broker with the hotel division at faithwilson | Christie’s International Real Estate

Get ready for an economically challenging 2023

Economy grinding to a halt

For economic prognosticators, the year that just ended threw up some big surprises, including the first land war in Europe since 1945, spiralling inflation, and a series of rapid-fire interest rate increases as panicked central bankers rushed to tame soaring prices.

Few, if any, forecasters anticipated these developments – a stark reminder of how hard it can be to predict where the economy is headed.

The good news is that overall economic output (gross domestic product, or GDP) and employment in Canada have more than fully rebounded from the brief COVID-induced recession of 2020. Indeed, for at least the past year, Canada’s economy has been operating above potential, meaning demand has exceeded supply.

This has fed an alarming jump in inflation and aggravated widespread labour shortages. Spendthrift governments are part of the inflation story: both the Trudeau government and several provinces have continued to throw large dollops of money at an economy that no longer needs any “fiscal stimulus.”

Economic momentum recently has been flagging amid slower global growth, rising interest rates and tumbling housing markets. The weakness is set to intensify into 2023. Canada will struggle to crank out positive economic growth this year. While we may avoid a technical recession (defined as two consecutive quarters of declining GDP), mainly owing to a fast-growing population, at best Canada is set for a “slowcession” as economic activity basically grinds to a halt.

Higher interest rates and steeper borrowing costs are the main reasons for the economic downturn. Both the Bank of Canada and the U.S. Federal Reserve look to be close to finishing their policy tightening after a flurry of interest rate hikes starting last March. But because monetary policy works with a lag, the economic pain from last year’s soaring interest rates will be felt over the next year or more.

What about inflation?

On average, the all-items Consumer Price Index (CPI) was up by 6.8 per cent last year, more than triple the Bank of Canada’s official two per cent target. Most Canadian forecasters believe inflation will retreat, albeit gradually, toward an annualized rate of 2.5 to three per cent by the end of 2023. This reflects the impact of sagging housing markets, muted consumer spending, sluggish global growth, and further improvements in manufacturing supply chains that were disrupted by the pandemic.

As the economy cools and inflation diminishes, the Bank of Canada will ease its policy stance, with interest rates likely to decline toward the end of the year. But Canadians should not expect mortgage and other borrowing costs to drop all the way back to the record low levels seen in 2021.

As for the financial markets, investors will be relieved to see the back of 2022. Stocks sold off savagely last year, while fixed income markets (where bonds are traded) posted their worst performance in centuries, crushed by a toxic mix of high inflation and escalating interest rates. Globally, the combined value of publicly traded securities plunged by an estimated U.S.$30 trillion in 2022. The coming year should bring some recovery in North American stock and bond markets.

With a global recession at the doorstep and the domestic economy losing steam, Canadians should prepare for a challenging 2023. At this point, the most likely scenario is a brief and shallow recession over the first half of the year before economic activity picks up toward the end of 2023. Risks to the outlook are tilted to the downside: they include how the Russia-Ukraine war unfolds in the coming months, the extent and duration of the looming U.S. economic downturn, and the impact of higher interest rates on heavily indebted Canadian households.

Jock Finlayson is senior policy advisor with the Business Council of B.C. and a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute.

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