Mar 13, 2009

Beggar-thy-neighbour politics in Metro Vancouver


Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts made the news this week calling for property-tax-free zones in Surrey to attract new business to her city. Of course, in a climate where businesses are not making new investments, this will at best lure businesses from other parts of Metro Vancouver. Economists call these beggar-thy-neighbour policies because you can only get ahead at someone else’s expense, and on a grand international scale they were part of what made the Great Depression so great.

Yet, on the front page of the Vancouver Sun, Miro Cernetig opines that this is wonderful, and makes a sneering comparison to Gregor Robertson, arguing that the economic policies of the new Vancouver mayor amount to chicken coops in the backyard and organic veggies on the city hall lawn. Cernetig goes on to quote an anonymous provincial bureaucrat saying that “Vancouver has no economic plan”, which is ridiculous given the source – the provincial government is still officially in denial about the deepening economic crisis, and its strategy amounts to building a $5 billion super-bridge across the Fraser (officially, $3.3 million but no one believes that target will be met) and waiting for the Olympics.

Besides, the City of Vancouver has been preoccupied getting the house ready for those very Olympics, and athletes’ rooms are in a shambles. And what about eliminating homelessness? That is good for business, is it not? Cernetig’s comments are more than a cheap shot – he endorses a race to the bottom that will have the impact of further reducing municipal services so that businesses can get more tax cuts.

Cernetig points to a Microsoft office that ended up in Richmond not Vancouver (this was in 2007) as further evidence for his thesis. But does this really matter? From Microsoft’s perspective they see Vancouver as Metro not the City. And why shouldn’t Richmond get more corporate offices, as it needs greater economic diversity?

This us-versus-them frame is unfortunate. With an election coming in just two months, the real topic of discussion should be about the future of Metro Vancouver and what can be done to create greater harmony among cities, not more division. For example, most cities in Metro have “economic development” offices, such as the Vancouver Economic Development Commission, specifically tasked with finding locations for businesses that want to set up shop here (this is a very narrow conception of “economic development” but that is another blog post). What we need is a Metro-wide organization that does this function, so that individual cities are not spending our tax dollars competing against each other.

Moreover, citizens of Metro Vancouver need more say over what happens in their individual cities and in the region. The trend has been in the opposite direction, with the somewhat-democratic Translink turned into a totally undemocratic board of directors by the provincial government. Cities, and perhaps the region as a whole, need more powers of taxation so that they can address pressing issues without being reliant on property taxes. And they are very limited in terms of how they act to fight the recession.

We need some public debate, even if just among the Liberals and NDP, about a vision for the region. If we are left with beggar-thy-neighbour politics, our reputation as one of the world’s most liveable cities will be tarnished before long.

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