Written by Danielle Dalzell, Senior Consultant, Earnscliffe Strategy Group.
COVID-19 abruptly sent most of us home in early March, including members of B.C. Legislative Assembly. Last week, the legislature resumed in a physically distant fashion, in a completely transformed world.
The pandemic is a crisis unlike any of us have seen before, and by all measures, Premier John Horgan and the BC NDP government are managing the response to COVID-19 incredibly well. From day one, the B.C. government took action while other governments lagged. When Premier Doug Ford told people in Ontario to go out and enjoy spring break, Premier John Horgan told people in B.C. to stay home, and stay safe.
Instead of centering themselves or politicizing decision-making, Premier Horgan, Minister of Health Adrian Dix, and the entire B.C. government have put public safety first, and followed the guidance of the Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, every step of the way. Support for this approach is strong and reflected in public opinion polls. This isn’t only good news for the government, it’s necessary for the public cooperation B.C. needs to manage COVID-19.
Early action also insulated B.C. from challenges faced in other parts of the country. Instead of implementing a full lockdown to control ballooning infection rates, large parts of the B.C. economy – including construction and manufacturing – continued to operate through the crisis under enhanced safety protocols. What other provinces struggled to re-open, B.C. never shut down. Now B.C. is in an enviable position, but government has been clear the success of our economic recovery will depend on successful containment of COVID-19 going forward.
Economists are saying the B.C. government’s approach has positioned the economy to rebound faster than the rest of Canada, and growth over the next year is expected to be solid. This relatively positive economic outlook should not be mistaken to mean an easy road lies ahead. A staggering 314,000 jobs have been lost in B.C. since February, and the service sector represents 90% of job losses. With infection rates skyrocketing in the U.S. for sectors like tourism, the near future does not offer hope in the form of international travellers to B.C.
It is in this economic recovery discussion that the BC Liberals hope to find relevance at a time when partisan jabs aren’t well received by the public. BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson kicked off the return to Question Period with the absurd claim that public health measures “don’t have anything to do with economic recovery.” Wilkinson’s comments divorce health considerations and people from the economy and makes him seem jarringly out of touch, particularly during a pandemic. And of course, we all know the opposite is true, public health and safety is a critically important driver of consumer confidence.
The next misstep was a B.C. Liberal Party video deliberately pulling 3 seconds of Premier Horgan’s words out of context in a clumsy attempt to manufacture election fears. The only point they managed to make clearly is the BC Liberals are unprepared for an election, and fearful of the electoral implications of public support for the government’s adept handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
If you did listen to the Premier’s quote in context, he was making a point he often makes. The B.C. government is a minority government, and although unlikely, an election could come at any time. It is a reality we sometimes forget. It is also true that Dr. Andrew Weaver’s impending departure and the BC Green Party’s ongoing leadership race both have the potential to be a destabilizing force. But for now, an election in the near future seems unlikely.
The BC Liberals had a perhaps a more salient issue when echoing asks from employers that the government further extend the temporary extended layoff measure that was implemented to keep people connected to their jobs through COVID-19. The Premier and Finance Minister Carole James had a meeting scheduled already with employer organizations, heard their concerns, and agreed to extend the measure.
The approach to this issue was in line with what we have seen from the B.C. government throughout the pandemic. Government is open, reaching out, listening to evidence, and working to provide immediate relief and solutions for businesses and people.
To no one’s surprise, government has introduced changes to balanced budget legislation to allow for deficits for the next three years, which provides some fiscal room for government to make more strategic investments to fuel economic recovery. Minister James is expected to give a fiscal update on July 14th to provide revenue estimates, job losses, and insight into the state of the B.C. economy that will inform the next steps.
As B.C. navigates the road to rebuilding the economy, we can expect the government’s decisions to be guided by evidence and priorities to focus on people, safety and building confidence. It is the same approach that won over the support of the public through the pandemic, and one they are betting on to build a better, stronger future for B.C.