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When no news is not good news: What the B.C. throne speech means for British Columbians

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Photo: BC Gov Photos/flickr

Last week's B.C. throne speech received little media coverage, partly because it fell in the middle of the Olympics and on the same day as the Canadian federal budget, but also because it was rather uneventful, repeating familiar themes and commitments.

The absence of significant new announcements in the throne speech is not good news for B.C. families. While nobody expected to see a drastic shift in the government's plans or rhetoric so soon after an election, a number of cracks in their economic strategy had opened up since May and needed addressing.

The election was won on the promise of jobs and growth, but neither has materialized. Instead of picking up speed, the economic recovery slowed to below 1.5 per cent in 2013 and is projected to be weaker than the Canadian average for a second consecutive year. B.C. actually lost jobs in 2013 and was one of only three provinces to do so. The only reason the unemployment rate fell is that many people gave up looking for work. The share of working-age British Columbians with jobs has barely improved since the low point of the recession. B.C. needs 94,000 more jobs just to return to the pre-recession employment rate, as I calculated in this recent report. Prolonged job market weakness is a serious problem, and not just for those who are struggling to find work and support their families. Fewer employed British Columbians means less income for families, which means less spending, and a slower economy.

But instead of putting forward a plan to tackle the weak job market and the slow economy, all the throne speech did was reaffirm the government's narrow focus on LNG and mining, pinning all hopes for economic development on resource extraction. This economic strategy was outlined in the BC Jobs Plan in September 2011. It has been in place for close to two and a half years and it seems clear that it is failing to deliver.

"Unwavering consistency" -- how Clark described the throne speech -- is not very useful when the strategy isn't working. We need a different approach to achieve a different result, and the throne speech did not provide it.

The narrow focus on resource extraction is both environmentally and economically risky. While the throne speech (like the BC Jobs Plan), names technology and skills training as economic development priorities, the bulk of government funding and activity is narrowly focused on LNG. The fact that the new Ministry of Natural Gas Development has been given double the budget of the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training ($372 million vs. $197 million for 2013/14) is but one example.

And while the throne speech spoke to the need to fight climate change, it didn't offer any climate action measures (Marc Lee explains why selling natural gas to China is not the same as fighting climate change here).

There were some good news nuggets in the throne speech.

First, the throne speech referred to public investments in the quality of life of British Columbians as "social infrastructure" and dedicated a separate section to them. It's about time we began to acknowledge that investments in health care, education and violence-prevention set a foundation for future prosperity for generations ahead, and are as important as investments in roads, bridges and other physical infrastructure.

Second, the focus on reducing violence against women in B.C. is a welcome step in the right direction, even if it comes more than a year after the BC Missing Women's Inquiry report recommended those actions. The devil, of course, is in the details. $5.5 million over three years has been promised, but we need to wait and see how the money will be distributed over the three years (is most of it in year 2 and 3?). For a bit of context, the Ministry of Justice annual funding for victim services has been cut by $2 million since 2009/10 resulting in cuts and budget freezes for many of the organizations providing counseling and other services to victims of domestic and sexual violence. So while a positive development, this new initiative will hardly make up for the chronic underfunding of services for women escaping violence in B.C.

Third, the 10-year skills training action plan announced in the throne speech could make a big difference to unemployed and underemployed youth, if adequately funded and promptly rolled out. I am concerned it has taken too long get the ball rolling on improving access to training, even though this was identified as a priority in the BC Jobs Plan two and a half years ago. Unless we see decisive action in the next three years, it's very likely that most of the jobs generated by the proposed LNG projects -- which come during their construction stage -- will be filled by temporary foreign workers or skilled workers from other provinces, not unemployed British Columbians.

On balance, these new announcements were small and didn't take the big steps necessary to address the chronic underfunding of social infrastructure in B.C.

Investing in more accessible and affordable quality child care is a great example of a public investment whose returns will have ripple effects across the economy -- it will provide a good start for all B.C. children, it will allow more mothers to participate in the workforce, increasing tax revenues almost immediately (as B.C. has low female labour force participation compared to the rest of the country), and it will create new jobs.

A number of groups have recommended more public investment in child care, including the CCPA (in our poverty reduction plan for B.C.), the Surrey and Burnaby Boards of Trade (here), the BC Business Council (here and here), and the government's own Select Standing Committee on Finance (recommendation #57 here).
Unfortunately, the no-news throne speech suggests the B.C. government isn't planning to follow their advice any time soon.

Photo: BC Gov Photos/flickr

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