Building economy requires planning

While many in B.C. are vocal about what they’re against, being in favour of something is even more vital

By Wayne Cox, Gavin Dirom and Tom Sigurdson And John Winter, Vancouver Sun

October 29, 2012

From our rugged environment, generations of British Columbians built a province where prosperity is widely shared. And from our efforts – over many years and with governments of different political stripes – B.C. built a strong middle class and a vibrant entrepreneurial culture that to this day remains the backbone of our economy and our society.

B.C.’s economic and natural advantages have helped us weather many storms. Even as the global economy struggles through a period of turmoil and uncertainty, in B.C. we are still creating new jobs.

And while other jurisdictions have had to slash important public services to balance budgets, here at home health care and education remain strong even as the government tightens its belt.

But as resilient as B.C. is, we are not immune to global economic forces. As a small economy that is dependent on open trade, those forces will eventually overtake us unless steps are taken today to secure our prosperity for tomorrow. And that means we have to ask ourselves some tough questions and have an informed discussion about what that future looks like – a serious debate about what it takes to make sure we continue to grow and provide new opportunities for workers, families and young people.

But quite frankly, we are avoiding the debate. And in so doing, we believe we are putting at risk all those things that make B.C. strong and give us hope for a prosperous future.

Just open a newspaper or turn on the evening news and you can see the problem.

Yes, there is a tremendous amount to say about all those things we are against – be it a new dam, a pipeline, a mine, or even a highway upgrade. Without exception, the voices raised against economic development dominate the headlines.

But there is precious little conversation about just what exactly we are for. It’s as though the billions of dollars of investment, the countless new jobs, and the money flowing into communities across B.C. that new projects can provide just doesn’t matter. Opponents of new economic developments seem to believe we can maintain our standard of living without building anything new and without investing in the infrastructure that is the lifeblood of any sustainable and growing economy.

Well, we say it’s time to change the conversation. We say it’s time to have an honest and realistic debate about what it’s going to take to grow British Columbia’s economy, create new economic opportunities, and give our young people hope for the future.

Such a debate about our future starts with the recognition that we can’t distribute or share wealth we don’t create. It’s folly to think otherwise. After all, the hospitals, schools and public services we value don’t come free. They are built with the revenues produced by skilled workers and businesses in this province.

That’s the way B.C. was built over many generations and that’s how B.C. will grow for the next generation. It’s that simple. And those of us who believe B.C.’s future requires us to harness the potential of our people and resources have to have the courage to say so.

Of course, every new economic development project has to be judged on its merits. They have to be planned thoughtfully with a view to their overall strategic impact on the economy.

The era of top-down, one size fits all decision-making is over. The public needs be included in decisions, important environmental values must be adhered to and First Nations must be included in the decisions that affect their lives and their future. The world has changed and we have to change with it.

But that does not mean we give up on the idea that we derive our quality of life from our natural wealth. That would be to give up on the very potential we have as a province and on what makes us strong. If we do that, we will consign future generations to a rapidly declining standard of living in an economy that can’t support the services we depend on. And that’s a future no one wants.

So let’s not only talk about what we are against. That’s the easy part. Let’s get serious and start talking about what we are for.

Wayne Cox is executive secretary-treasurer of the British Columbia Regional Council of Carpenters; Gavin C. Dirom is president and CEO of the Association for Mineral Exploration BC; Tom Sigurdson is executive director of BC Building Trades; and John Winter is president and CEO of the BC Chamber of Commerce.