Vaughn Palmer: 'What happened to the B.C. Dream?' asks internal provincial document

Credit to Author: Hugh Dawson| Date: Tue, 14 Jan 2020 03:00:05 +0000

VICTORIA — The provincial New Democrats are quietly circulating copies of a plan to restore the “British Columbia Dream” by promoting “quality” economic growth and increasing standards of living for everyone.

The plan, titled “a framework for improving British Columbians’ standard of living,” runs to some 92 pages. It aims to pull together the NDP government’s myriad policies and programs into a comprehensive and understandable whole.

But it was not crafted for public consumption. Rather it was intended to communicate the government direction to the public service.

Copies were distributed only to deputy ministers and other senior public servants, as well as selected stakeholders.

Having obtained a copy through other means, I would note that it is mainly an aspirational document — heavy on generalities, lacking targets and timelines.

Still, it does not lack for ambition, witness the following passage in the covering letter from Don Wright, head of the public service and deputy minister to Premier John Horgan.

“For me, it is about building a good society based on quality economic growth that will allow all families to experience a rising standard of living over time, let us build things together which we could not build by ourselves, and give us the collective generosity to assist those among us who need help.”

Quality economic growth is defined as “growth that generates steady increases in real wages, healthy increases in per capita real government revenue without raising tax rates, shares the benefits broadly across the province and across the population and cares for our natural environment.”

Note the bit about generating “healthy increases in government revenue without raising taxes.”

The plan admits the New Democrats need “near-term sources of incremental revenues to address the historical inequalities in our society and meet the needs of people.”

Having ruled out tax increases as a way to get there, the plan leans on measures to increase productivity, add value to existing resources, and encourage investment. That, in turn, would entail a competitive tax regime and regulatory and permitting efficiency, never mind concerns that the province is headed in the opposite direction on taxes and regulation.

Beyond feeding the treasury to fund their promises, the New Democrats have something more ambitious in mind: “Our objective is to increase the standard of living for all British Columbians.”

The starting point for that goal is discussed in a section titled, “What happened to the B.C. Dream?”

Executive summary: From 1950 to 1980, average worker compensation, measured in constant dollars, was increasing at a rate sufficient to double incomes every 25 years or so.

Hence the “dream” that every generation would enjoy a higher standard of living than the one before it.

But over the past two decades, productivity slumped and wages stagnated, especially for middle-income folks. Between 1980 and 2016, “there was virtually no increase in average compensation in constant dollars.” At that barely measurable rate, the plan reckons it would take 1,400 years for standards of living to double.

“The British Columbia Dream seems to have evaporated for B.C.’s middle class over the past 40 years. Turning that around is at the core of this economic plan,” says the text.

“Will any initiative raise the standard of living of the overwhelming majority of British Columbians? Will it deliver higher real wages for working people, healthy net revenue for government to invest in people, infrastructure, cultural programming and protecting the environment? Will these benefits be broadly spread to all segments of the population, in all parts of the province?”

The New Democrats have begun to apply those tests to new programs and policies, according to the plan.

Starting in 2018, the government has required “identification of economic impacts when new government policy or programs come to cabinet for decision.” As well, the public service has to complete an analysis of the varying impacts of each policy, program and initiative on women, minorities, indigenous people and others.

“No previous B.C. administration has required this as part of their decision-making process,” according to the plan.

It would be more impressive in terms of innovation if the government were to share those analyses with the public when announcing a given program, policy or initiative.

Already some aspects of the plan have been bypassed by events.

There is much talk about new strategies for the forest sector, but those good intentions have been blighted by the government’s failure to act on the coastal forest strike, now in its seventh month.

The plan also trumpets the virtues of B.C.’s overseas trade offices, as a way of sussing out markets, gathering intelligence and attracting investment dollars to the province.

Presumably, those passages were written before the end-of-the-year news that the government would start closing those stand-alone offices, submerging their activities in Canada’s overseas consulates.

But as the text itself notes, this is “the first instalment of a living plan.” It is intended to apply to the outgoing fiscal year, the one ending March 31.

The next iteration, covering what is likely to be the pre-election fiscal year of 2020-21, will presumably be forthcoming in a few months.

Perhaps the New Democrats will share that version of their economic plan with members of the public, who might be no less interested than the public service in where things are headed.

Come election time, it might also help the voters judge how much progress the New Democrats have made in fulfilling their ambitious goals.