BC Budget 2021

By Aaron Ekman

Composed April 2021

You'd be forgiven for having missed the annual speech from the throne earlier this week, there were few real highlights, and contrary to what the BCNDP government had dearly hoped, every possible good news story is buried under the new daily records being set for Covid-19 cases, and the demoralising lag in vaccinations comparative to virtually every other surrounding jurisdiction.

For those who've never bothered to watch a throne speech, it's a bizarre annual tradition in which an unelected representative of the Queen is compelled to read an overly long press release she didn't write, which espouses all the virtues and good deeds the government of the day would like us to know about. And in theory, the speech should aim to be forward looking, communicating to voters as much about what a government plans to do as what it HAS done.

Of course governments of all sorts are generally good at listing off a litany of aspirational assertions, catch phrases, if you will, like:

"record investments" and
"making life more affordable for British Columbians" and
"build back better"

and when it comes to such empty platitudes, this throne speech is no exception, however what generally insulates a government from charges of insubstantial rhetoric is that the it is generally backed up by a budget which aims to spell out precisely how the government plans to allocate taxpayer funds in order to accomplish their aspirational targets. In this way, the opposition, political observers, and the public at large can tune out the vacuous words of politicians and cut directly to the chase. Governments can say whatever the hell they like, but if the budget doesn't allocate money towards their targets, there's no better way to call bullshit on their whole communications exercise.

British Columbians have no such opportunity this year of course, since as we've previously reported on this show, the BCNDP Finance Minister simply failed to produce a provincial budget prior to the throne speech. This is highly irregular despite the vast effort spent by many a backbencher to describe it as nothing out of the ordinary. On the contrary, and as we've said here before, asking the legislature to approve your massive multi-billion dollar expenditures with absolutely no plan on how that money will be spent is either the height of incompetence, or an unprecedented effort to roll back government accountability.

The other consequence, of course, is that without a budget to provide the foundation of your plan, the Throne Speech becomes a complete waste of time. Now some would argue that the Modern Throne speech has long been a bit of antiquated theatre... a forced communications exercise required by the Lt. Gov. as small payment for the perk of being allowed to live in that old government house mansion in Victoria.

At the time of this recording, I haven't bothered to read any of what the regular political punditry have said about this year's throne speech, but despite all the predictable noise... one little throwaway phrase three quarters of the way through the speech should cause a nit of a furvour, and yet I doubt anyone has picked up on it:

"...to support coastal communities," read Lt. Gov. Janet Austin, "your government will also launch a made-in B.C. shipbuilding strategy and fight to bring construction of Canada’s next polar icebreaker back to B.C. shipyards."

It's hard to describe exactly how significant this statement is, at least if we're to take it at face value. For the BCNDP government, or any government for that matter, to genuinely attempt to reinvigorate and develop BC's ship-building industry could prove an absolute game-changer for our province. We've certainly been critical on this show of the degree to which BC governments of all stripes have allowed the manufacturing capacity of our province to bleed away to other jurisdictions, mainly China, the consequence of which has been massive job loss and the near decimation of numerous northern and interior communities. Small beans to a Victoria/Vancouver-centric political class almost universally beholden to the type of Neoliberal trade policy that has landed us in the muck we currently find ourselves.

The spinoff employment benefits of a reinvigorated ship-building industry in BC are undeniable. Despite the higher overall cost of domestic production, the money spent, rather than leaving the country, stays here at home, funding hundreds, perhaps thousands of family supporting jobs, and is circulated back through the local economy, supporting small businesses, and feeding important public programs like healthcare upon which we all rely.

The opposition may indeed jump on this statement invoking the spectre of fast ferry cost overruns, and perhaps that's why this statement received such poor billing in overall government agenda, but it's high time in my estimation, that British Columbians take some responsibility for allowing our ship industry to wane. Canada is home to the longest combined coast-line on the planet, a reality to which our federal government appears oblivious. Despite this, our Naval and coast guard capacity is a disgrace. We struggle to keep foreign fishing boats out of our water, and we still have to go running to that tiny island nation across the Atlantic to build our warships for us... pushing to the UK, all the economic benefits contained therein.

In particular, Canada is in dire need of new polar icebreakers. The Arctic is increasingly and hotly contested space internationally, with China having recently produced the largest and most advanced icebreakers on the planet in order to press its claims on the resource-rich area. Canada is lagging far behind already, and it's the kind of complacency which will hold significant impact over the future world order, and our place within it. If you're an environmentalist, it's not a matter of simply leaving resources in the ground anymore. Others are making agressive plays on what's up there, and whether you agree with fossil fuel extraction or not, it's impossible to take the position that Canada should sit back and watch other nations plant flags all over our back-yard.

The unfortunate reality, of course, is that if you're to parse government's words on this closely, there's no tangible commitment here other than to "fight for domestic production of icebreakers in BC" which is to say, Horgan's only plan here is to plead with Trudeau not to ship the contract overseas, so that he can blame him when he hires some Ukranian firm to do the job.

Can we have any more confidence than that in Horgan's ability or willingness to develop BC's ship-building industry without federal support? Well, perhaps we need look nor farther than his December 2018 promise to initiate a universal dental program. A bold plan and a great idea with absolutely nothing done to date to move us in that direction.

So Horgan's playing a rather dangerous game here. A reinvigorated ship-building industry, a universal dental plan for British Columbians, a new deal for forest communities, once again tying the value of wood to the communities surrounding it... bold promises. This time on this term will expire for the NDP much sooner than they realise given the magnitude of challenges we currently face. It's not at all clear that Horgan will seek a third term, and if I were a betting man, I'd look for his departure announcement sometime in 2023, triggering a new leadership race after the BC Liberals have undergone theirs. This of course will trigger all sorts of discussion regarding Horgan's legacy as premier. Surely he'll be remembered as the Covid-premier, whether or not you agree with the direction he's taken on that file. But when it comes to delivering on the many sizeable promises he's made to British Columbians, he'll either be regarded as the most effective premier since WAC Bennett, or the guy who sparked the largest government fall since Glen Clark / Ujjal Dosanhj.

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