Apr 20, 2009

The NDP Platform and BC’s Economic Challenges


Below is an oped of mine that was done at the request of the Vancouver Sun and that ran in today’s paper. Unfortunately, for reasons that are not entirely clear, the last two paragraphs were cut off, leaving the oped hanging. I put them back in below, and have requested that the online version be changed.

UPDATE: The online version has now been fixed.

Can the NDP deal with B.C.’s economic challenges?

By Marc Lee

In BC’s 2009 election, parties must respond to two fundamental challenges: first, a crashing provincial economy with rapidly rising unemployment; and second, the global climate crisis, which demands that BC dramatically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Rather than pit these objectives against each other, good policy choices should instead link them together: our efforts to boost employment through stimulus packages should be strategic investments that put BC on a sustainable path, not just a return to old patterns of development.

While the NDP platform takes some important steps on both fronts, it does not offer the bold new direction and vision many might expect with global capitalism on its knees. The NDP attacks head-on some of the most egregious and controversial policies of the Liberals, like run-of-the-river power projects and the flawed P3 infrastructure model. But ultimately, the platform is cautious and lands very much in the middle of the road.

This is problematic in that the NDP platform accepts both the culture of fiscal conservatism that has come to dominate Canadian politics (manifested in an over-emphasis on tax cuts and balancing the budget), and an overly rosy view of the state of the economy. It takes as given the Liberals’ February budget, which describes an alternative universe in which unemployment averages 6.2% for 2009, and BC weathers a small storm just in time for the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.

But the provincial unemployment rate hit 7.4% in March, up from 4.3% a year before. Since last summer, 83,000 jobs have been lost. With new housing starts down 70% compared to last year, construction employment will plummet even further as current projects are completed, meaning an unemployment rate that could hit double digits by year-end.

This inevitably means the half-billion dollar budget deficit tabled by the Liberals is a work of fiction. Both parties need to come clean about how they would amend their plans given higher-than-budgeted deficits in the $1-2 billion range.

Moreover, falling consumer spending and business investment mean government must lean even harder against these adverse economic winds. In terms of stimulus, the 2009 budget package will do little to curb rapidly rising unemployment. BC is in an excellent fiscal position, and should err on the side of doing too much, not too little.

The NDP platform adds more stimulus, with a modestly larger deficit and higher capital spending. Together, these provide additional stimulus of 1 to 1.5% of GDP if we count the multiplier effects. How the stimulus is spent is also important, and the NDP’s plan is focused on green infrastructure and social investments.

The NDP platform also takes aim at the climate change file. Its program would cap emissions from large industrial sources starting in 2010, and will harmonize those efforts with a North American cap-and-trade system. They also propose major public transit investments, low-interest loans for building retrofits for energy efficiency, and a royalty on “flaring” in the oil and gas sector (the source of 13% of BC’s GHG emissions).

Unfortunately, most of the attention of climate policy has been on the BC carbon tax, which is neither as horrible as the NDP paints it, nor as potent as advocates make it out to be. Given BC’s fiscal challenges, the NDP would do better by fixing some of the problems with the tax (like ensuring it covers all GHG emissions), using the revenues to fund climate action (rather than borrowing), and shoring up a low-income credit that fails to protect low-income households as of 2010.

The incrementalist approach of the NDP platform also shows on social policy. Even during the recent boom, many British Columbians were left out. The Liberals have overseen the shredding of social assistance, the gutting of social housing construction, and the dubious distinction of BC having the lowest minimum wage in Canada.

The NDP platform would reverse some of this damage. It would raise the minimum wage to $10. It aspires to create 2,400 new social housing units this year, and 1,200 per year after that – a move aimed at a major reduction in homelessness. The NDP have said they would bring in a poverty reduction plan with targets and timelines, but do not say what those targets should be. And the new money for social assistance in their platform is inadequate given this goal and the economic situation.

Now that BC’s housing and commodity booms are over, and the recession is getting worse each week, structural weaknesses in BC’s economy have been revealed that were not cured with a tax cut. BC needs a bold new vision that combines social justice principles with a sustainable economy. By this yardstick, the NDP makes some progress, but by pandering to tax cuts falls short in its ambition.

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