ANYONE FOR LACROSSE? Premier Horgan speaks to the BC Chamber of Commerce via Zoom from Victoria

The premier’s annual speech to the business group stressed getting the economy back on track while protecting public health

The lacrosse stick propped against the wall of John Horgan’s Victoria office spoke loudly: the premier casts himself as a man of the people, but he also knows how to play hardball.

In his keynote speech at this year’s Premier and Cabinet Connect, hosted virtually by the BC Chamber of Commerce, Horgan justified the BC NDP’s recent early election gamble, which saw his party win a commanding majority. The premier also pitched an optimistic vision of economic recovery with Indigenous Peoples as partners, warned food delivery app services that he might get tough on fees and sparred with an opponent of union membership rules for public infrastructure projects.

“I had no expectation that the victory would be as large as it was, but I did know in my bones that we needed to put politics behind us,” Horgan told the audience of cabinet and BC Chamber members via Zoom. “I didn’t think that the business community, regular people or, in fact, members of the legislature could withstand 12 months of politicking. It seemed to be the best time to go was before the second wave.”

Of course, Horgan was talking about COVID-19, which had claimed 587 lives in B.C. as of his speech last Friday. Acknowledging that the province is in a tough spot as coronavirus cases surge, he praised public health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and WorkSafeBC for collaborating with employees and employers to find relatively safe ways to keep the economy going.

Acknowledging that restaurants face big challenges this holiday season, the premier said he’s worked with industry representatives to speed up regulatory changes covering everything from liquor laws to patio rules. “A whole range of initiatives that normally…government would have taken months to contemplate were often happening in days,” Horgan explained. “We, I believe, now are in a better place coming out of the pandemic.”

Horgan also pointed out that B.C. just started giving front-line health-care workers Pfizer’s COVID vaccine—and that the feds would soon approve Moderna’s. “The scarcity that we’re talking about today hopefully will be replaced by abundance in January, February and March, as we start to put in place a vaccination program that can get our economy back on track.”

The province’s life sciences and tech sectors are thriving during the pandemic, Horgan observed. He highlighted his government’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA), too: “Indigenous Peoples now have confidence that they have a partner in the provincial government.” Horgan said he’s been helping the federal government bring forward legislation that will complement B.C.’s. “That will allow investment to understand, Who do I talk to, where do I go, how we all benefit from the bounty in British Columbia?”

“But the first order of business is to keep people safe,” he added. “The first order of business is to make sure that as we come out the back end of this pandemic, we look to a future that involves all of us collaborating in the interests of a stronger, more vital economy.”

The old cabinet shuffle

Horgan introduced several ministers who have changed cabinet posts, among them Finance Minister Selina Robinson, previously responsible for housing, municipal affairs and TransLink. Having overseen advanced education, Melanie Mark is now minister of tourism, arts, culture and sport. Mark is working with Robinson and Ravi Kahlon, the new minister of jobs, economic recovery and innovation, to deliver on the Stronger BC plan, which “includes billions of dollars of incentives in the form of grants, tax breaks and credits for businesses, as well as investing in communities and people,” Horgan said.

Katrine Conroy, MLA for Kootenay West, has been named the province’s first female minister of forests after heading the Ministry of Children and Family Development. Taking on that tough new file means confronting our reduced fibre supply and challenges with U.S. markets, the premier said. “But the forest industry, the mining industry, natural gas development—these industrial activities are fundamental to businesses right around British Columbia, not just in rural B.C. but in urban B.C. as well.”

Moving from education, Rob Fleming is now minister of transportation and infrastructure. “I know he’s very excited to work with many of the people on this call as we build out our economy and take an additional $9 billion that we committed during the election campaign into our infrastructure investment portfolio,” Horgan said. “We’ll be creating jobs and building out our infrastructure, whether it’s roads or bridges in rural British Columbia or our new SkyTrain and rapid transit technologies in the Lower Mainland, as well as hospitals, schools and all of the other initiatives that are vital to building communities as well as keeping people working.”

Delivering a warning

BC Chamber interim CEO Baxter kicked off the Q&A that followed Horgan’s speech, asking how his government plans to help restaurants reduce the fees they’re paying to food delivery app providers like DoorDash and Uber Eats. BC Liberal MLA Trevor Halford recently launched a private member’s bill calling for a 15-percent cap.

Horgan, who noted that he’s directed Attorney General David Eby to keep an eye on things and bring forward legislation if necessary, said he doesn’t want to interfere with a popular service that makes money. “The market will decide where we go with that,” he added. “But it should not be a market that evolves at the expense of the producer of the original product. The people who make the hamburgers should get the lion’s share of the benefit from that, it seems to me. So we have asked the industry, if they can, to find a way to regulate themselves. If they can’t, then we’ll do that.”

A sliding scale is one potential solution, Horgan suggested. “A large order from a high-end restaurant might get a greater return to the driver or the company than going to McDonald’s and picking up a couple of Big Macs. So we want to try and find the balance there.”

Equal partners and worker choice

With audience members submitting questions that were voted by their fellow attendees, one that rose to the top of the pile asked how the NDP will support First Nations to invest in and take ownership stakes in major infrastructure projects across the province.

Horgan said that his party brought in DRIPA for social-justice and economic reasons, but also because the courts have determined that Indigenous rights and title exist in B.C. Newly elected MLA Murray Rankin, a lawyer and former MP who won in former BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver’s old riding of Oak Bay–Gordon Head, is now minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation. Because Rankin has a strong background in Constitutional law, the government won’t need to revisit those court cases as it gets up to speed, Horgan said. “He will hit the ground running and will be working with Indigenous communities so that they can be full participants in economic activity. And a key part of that is raising capital.”

The province had hoped that the Canada Infrastructure Bank would be the best place for that to happen, but the federal agency hasn’t provided much money, Horgan admitted. “So we’re reaching out to potential partners in the private sector to say, How about working on some way to access capital for Indigenous communities so that they can go forward?” he said. “But ultimately, they need the investment community and those who lend money to look at Indigenous Peoples with a new eye as equal partners in the economy rather than questioning rights and title.”

One attendee grilled Horgan on the NDP’s Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) for infrastructure projects, which has seen a group of industry associations take the government to court over the requirement that employees on sites covered by the CBA belong to a union. What’s his position on allowing more worker choice?

“I think that this is largely a communications and a partisan exercise when it comes to CBAs,” Horgan replied, casting the agreement as a way to ensure that public infrastructure dollars provide jobs and apprenticeship opportunities to people in communities where the projects take place. “I think if you lay that out for the public, they respond with head nods: Yeah, I want to make sure the guy down the street who’s been out of work has access to that job, not someone from another jurisdiction,” he said.

“That also means making sure that workers who have toiled in B.C. and raised families and pay their taxes and coach the hockey team or make sure the kids get to the dance recital, that they’re also benefiting from these public investments,” Horgan added. “And I’m unapologetic about that.”