September 17, 2020

In a heavily anticipated news conference Thursday – following months of consultation with industry, stakeholders, members of the public, and the BC Green Party – B.C. Premier John Horgan and Finance Minister Carole James laid out the province’s plan for the $1.5 billion fund earmarked for COVID-19 pandemic economic recovery.

A Stronger BC”, styled as a way to get people back to work, support businesses, and help communities, focuses mainly on people rather than industry sectors, and is centered around four key priorities:

  • Better health care – previous announcements include the launch of the “Hospital at Home” program, hiring of new contact tracers, and the creation of thousands of new health care worker jobs.
  • Getting people back to work – with targeted skills training, a tax incentive to hire new employees, and the creation of new affordable child-care spaces. Government says these efforts will protect approximately 200,000 jobs.
  • Supporting businesses – with a new 15% refundable payroll tax credit, a $470 million new PST rebate on business investments in machinery and equipment, a $100 million investment in the tourism sector and $50 million in funding for a new tourism task force (a far cry from the $680 million the sector requested), and $300 million in recovery grants to approximately 15,000 hard-hit small- and medium-sized businesses.
  • Strengthening communities – with $400 million to revitalize community infrastructure, and a previously-announced $1.5 billion in combined provincial and federal investments in public transit and communities.

Political considerations
While government was hoping for a smooth roll-out, media were quick to point out that the 32-page document released today included what the Vancouver Sun called, a confusing mix of new and old spending, federal and provincial funds, and errors in layout and mathematics that made it difficult for reporters and provincial officials to explain what was being announced and how new programs would operate.

The plan had been hyped by media and pundits as a preview of what to expect from the NDP during a fall election, but funding for newly-announced programs was already approved by the legislature and Treasury Board, meaning funds can go out the door as soon as the bureaucracy is able to ramp up new programs.

Opposition cries foul
After Horgan and James’ announcement, Andrew Wilkinson’s BC Liberals criticized government for not doing enough to increase consumer confidence or to support businesses. In recent weeks, the BC Liberals have been calling on government to create more opportunities for K-12 students to participate in distance learning, major supports for the tourism industry, relief from rising strata insurance costs, and a regional approach to public health restrictions, which were not included in today’s announcement.

The province’s news release noted that the BC Green Party caucus was consulted on the development of the plan and references the shared priorities in the two parties’ Confidence and Supply Agreement.

Today’s announcement is the latest in a string of high-dollar value announcements by BC’s NDP government. In September, the province has announced a $1.6 billion investment in the health care system to prepare for COVID-19 in the fall and winter, a $110 million investment to establish 22 new primary care networks in the health system, the completion of a technical feasibility study for high-capacity rapid transit in Vancouver, and framed an understandably record-high deficit as a sign that the economic challenges of COVID-19 were being matched by the province’s strong supports for people.

When could an election take place?
The NDP’s provincial council has scheduled an emergency meeting this afternoon to review the economic recovery announcement. Assuming this is when a decision about holding an early election will be made, we could see Premier Horgan visiting the Lt. Governor to request a dissolution of the legislature in the days to come. Once the writs of election are issued, MLAs will need to be sworn in again after the final return of the writs, but ministers will retain their portfolios.

According to Elections BC:

  • An election called between today and September 22 would be held on Saturday, October 24.
  • An election called between September 24 and September 29 would be held on Saturday, October 31, when many celebrate Halloween.
  • An election called between September 30 and October 6 would be held on Saturday, November 7.

NDP candidate announcements contribute to election speculation
The wave of announcements from NDP MLAs about their intentions to run or not run in the next election, combined with the number of high-profile British Columbians stating their intention to run for the BC NDP suggests that an election is on the horizon.

A number of Cabinet Ministers have said they will not be running in the next election, which suggests that regardless of whether or not B.C. has an election, we can expect to see a number of experienced legislatures in new roles if the NDP remains in power.

Sitting NDP MLAs not running again include:

  • Carole James – Deputy Premier and Minister of Finance and MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill
  • Scott Fraser – Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation and MLA for Mid Island-Pacific Rim
  • Doug Donaldson – Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development and MLA for Stikine
  • Michelle Mungall – Minister of Jobs, Economic Development, and Competitiveness and MLA for Nelson-Creston
  • Shane Simpson – Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction and MLA for Vancouver-Hastings
  • Judy Darcy – Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and MLA for New Westminster

Several high-profile current and former elected officials have stated their intention to join John Horgan’s BC NDP team, including:

  • Murray Rankin – former Victoria MP and current chair of Canada’s National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, seeking the nomination in Oak Bay-Gordon Head. Former two-term Oak Bay councillor Michelle Kirby has also announced her intention to run for the nomination in this riding
  • Fin Donnelly – former MP for Port Moody—Coquitlam was acclaimed as the BC NDP candidate in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain
  • Nathan Cullen – former MP for Skeena, seeking the nomination in Stikine. Anita McPhee, three-term past president of Tahltan Nation is also seeking the nomination in this riding.
  • Josie Osborne – Mayor of Tofino, seeking the nomination in Mid Island-Pacific Rim
  • Toni Boot – Mayor of Summerland, acclaimed as the candidate in Penticton
  • Nicole Cherlet – Revelstoke city councilor, seeking the nomination in Columbia River-Revelstoke

What about COVID?
The argument against early elections during COVID-19 was dealt a blow on Monday with the re-election of New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative government, who were given a historic majority despite calling an early election. While Premier Horgan’s personal favourability remains high in recent polling, calling an early election does give opposition parties an easy opportunity to criticize the governing party for taking advantage of a crisis.

While there has been a recent surge in criticism over the idea of calling an early election given rising COVID-19 case counts, the CBC’s Justin McElroy notes that British Columbia has the fewest COVID-19 deaths adjusted for populationout of every jurisdiction in the United States, Canada, and western Europe with more than five million people.

The province also confirmed on Wednesday that a new website will be launched soon to inform parents of COVID-19 cases and exposures in B.C. schools.