The Chamber has high hopes for the First Nations Major Projects Coalition

The organization’s wide-ranging plan to help smaller businesses bounce back from COVID-19 blends short-term help with big ideas

No one can accuse the BC Chamber of Commerce of thinking small.

The BC Chamber recently went public with its Economic Recovery Submission, a three-part plan it shared with the provincial government in July. Covering everything from taxes and renewable energy to affordable housing and Indigenous economic reconciliation, this detailed proposal aims to help small and medium-sized businesses survive and thrive in the wake of COVID-19.

Helping those companies get back up and running calls for a mix of short-term help and longer-term thinking, says Dan Baxter, the BC Chamber’s director of policy development and government and stakeholder relations. As Baxter points out, polling shows that 65 percent of his group’s members are on some kind of government support. “When those supports do end at some point, only three out of 10 feel they’ll get back to normal operation,” he says. “So it’s recognizing that slow and fragile recovery stage we’re in right now.”

To that end, the provincewide plan, which includes 54 recommendations, focuses on competitiveness, innovation and inclusivity. “This is about making sure that the economy we create going forward is even more competitive, resilient and prosperous that it was before,” Baxter says.

A shot in the arm for business

To help the small provincial economy compete with its rivals at home and abroad, the BC Chamber hasn’t been shy about pushing for tax changes. Although B.C. has a fairly competitive tax structure, Baxter says, “it’s been challenged over the last couple of years with things like the employer health tax being layered onto small business.” Because much of the government support that businesses have received during the pandemic has been loans that will eventually come due, his organization pitches tax relief as a way to reduce costs.

Looking ahead, the BC Chamber would like to see the province follow many other jurisdictions in Canada and around the world by replacing the provincial sales tax with a value-added tax. In the short term, it’s calling for “a full rebate on PST to any business that invests in machinery, equipment and technology today that can make their business more productive,” Baxter says. “That’s about a $600-million ask, and it can really put a good shot into the arm of businesses.” The PST rebate could help companies grow faster, pay higher wages and bring employees back full-time, Baxter maintains.

Getting ready for the rebound

The B.C. tech sector has been a rare bright spot throughout the pandemic, with many companies still hiring. On the innovation side, Baxter cites opportunities to invest in cleantech businesses, especially those specializing in renewable energy. “We will need to have access to energy to maintain that prosperous economy going forward,” he says. “We need to make sure that we’re ready for that rebound.”

Tech companies also support a more sustainable resource economy in B.C., Baxter observes. “We don’t want to lose sight of the fact that our resource economy is still the foundation that we’re going to build that innovative economy on,” he says. “Making sure that our tech innovation is actually supporting their recovery is key as well.”

Making Indigenous communities part of the opportunity

For the BC Chamber, building a more inclusive economy means spending the money to make buildings and workplaces accessible to people with disabilities, Baxter says. It also means pursuing economic reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. Acknowledging that many First Nations and other groups are working to make this a reality, Baxter highlights the First Nations Major Projects Coalition’s proposal for a revolving loan facility that would see government invest in Indigenous communities to help develop their natural resources.

“We think that’s a good idea because it ties back into what our economy generally is—a resource economy—and it also allows Indigenous communities to be part of that opportunity,” he says. “So I think it supports their ability to grow their economy as well as strengthens the foundation that is the B.C. economy.”

To be inclusive, the province also needs affordable housing, Baxter argues. After a brief dip early in the pandemic, B.C. home prices have climbed 8.3 percent this year through July. “Our businesses have focused on the fact that their employees need affordable places to live that are close to where they work for that quality of life,” Baxter says.

In his view, bringing housing prices down means boosting supply. “Some of our recommendations are definitely more geared toward making sure that there isn’t a cost layered on, whether it’s community amenity contributions or delayed timelines in terms of permitting and zoning,” Baxter says. “We need to sharpen the pencil a little bit more on those supply-side issues and make sure we’re getting more stock onto the market.”

OK, but can we afford it?

Asked if the provincial government has the means to bankroll some of the BC Chamber’s proposals, Baxter says it’s a matter of “making the right decisions to support businesses and their employees.” So far, Victoria, which is projecting a $321-million deficit for 2020-21, has committed $1.5 billion for economic recovery.

“What we’re saying is, that’s a good starting point, but it’s about making the right choices today to further a more resilient, prosperous economy tomorrow,” Baxter says. “So let’s not necessarily get hung up on $1.5 billion.”

Now that the Economic Recovery Submission is public, Baxter explains, members of the 120 local chambers of commerce throughout the province can talk to their MLAs about it. When the MLAs meet as a caucus, he hopes they’ll share ideas that “will help balance that need to inject some short-term stimulus in various parts of the province, as well as some long-term ideas to advance growth that supports businesses in every region.”

The submission is just the first step, says Baxter, who expects that the BC Chamber will engage with the government on a case-by-case basis. For example, as schools reopen, it will focus on child-care spaces to support workers. “Later on in the year, we might want to start talking about some of the construction projects that can be built, whether it’s the Massey Tunnel or the Pattullo Bridge [replacements].”