Premier John Horgan courts business crowd at BC Chamber of Commerce luncheon

At the BC Chamber of Commerce's Premier and Cabinet Luncheon, John Horgan weighed in on minimum wage, ride-sharing and housing affordability

Credit: Paul Duchart

NDP leader weighs in on minimum wage, housing affordability and ride-sharing

Last Friday (December 8), Premier John Horgan took the opportunity to show that he’s a man of his word. At the BC Chamber of Commerce’s annual Premier and Cabinet Luncheon in Vancouver, Horgan said his government would make a decision on the Site C dam before Christmas—and sure enough, this Monday it gave the controversial project the go-ahead.

The premier also used the lunch—relaunched in 2002, it dates back to his fellow New Democrat Mike Harcourt’s government in the early 1990s—to reassure the business community. During his speech to an audience of some 250 at the Hyatt Regency hotel, he skillfully blended economic boosterism with blunt affirmations of the NDP’s values.   

It helped that the personable Horgan, who clearly loves being in front of a crowd, is something of a stand-up comedian. He began by introducing his cabinet ministers, including “the king of cannabis, the ganja guy,” Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth: “I can’t see you through the smoke, Mike.” Among the others present were Carole James, deputy premier and finance minister; Attorney General David Eby; Health Minister Adrian Dix; George Heyman, minister of environment and climate change strategy; and Melanie Mark, minister of advanced education, skills and training, the first Indigenous woman elected to the B.C. legislature and appointed to executive council.

“We have a diverse and dynamic group of people that have been working very, very hard since July 18 to try and make B.C. a better place, and take advantage of the abundance of natural resources and natural wealth and general homegrown talent we have here in this spectacular province that we all call home,” Horgan said.

“It takes tremendous energy to drive an economy and diverse and dynamic as British Columbia,” he added. “I want to tip my cap to the members of the Chamber who are here today, and also to your members back home, who work hard to make sure that their businesses are prosperous, to make sure that their employees are as good as they can possibly be.”

From there, Horgan stressed the importance of public services such as education, health care, transportation and child care in attracting and retaining talent. “Child care is not a women’s issue; it’s not a babysitting issue,” he said. “It’s about ensuring that our economy can continue to grow and prosper.”

The premier put a positive spin on his government’s minority status. “People have said, ‘Well, you must be disappointed you don’t have a majority,'” he related. “And I have to argue—and people often think that I’m just trying to advance and move on—I believe that the situation we have now means that I have to work harder, I have to work better, I have to be attentive to the needs of everyone in this room and everyone in the legislature.”

Horgan cited last summer’s forest fires, the softwood lumber dispute with the U.S. and President Donald Trump’s threats to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement as big challenges for his government. “I want to give you some sense of confidence that we take these issues very seriously, and when it comes to broadening and expanding our trade base, we’re working as hard as we possibly can to look at new markets.”

To help BC Chamber members expand their businesses, the premier touted $14.6 billion in infrastructure spending over the next three years. “We’re committed to growing British Columbia by providing the infrastructure that you will need, whether it be schools, hospitals, bridges, transit, other infrastructure so that your companies can grow,” he said.

Although Horgan expressed support for B.C.’s fledgling liquefied natural gas industry, he argued that reinvigorating traditional industries must be guided by some basic principles. “Firstly, I think we need to ensure that we’re getting a fair return for those resources that in fact belong to all of us,” he said. “If you’re from the high-tech sector down here, you have the same stake in natural gas, in copper and coal and forestry as the people that work in that sector, because those resources belong to all of us. So we all need to ensure that the rent on the land is appropriate for the production that comes off of that land.”

The other basics, according to Horgan: protecting air, water and land; ensuring that resource workers live in communities, not camps; and forging partnerships with First Nations. “We won’t achieve that by ignoring Supreme Court decisions,” he said. “We won’t achieve that by ignoring principles of reconciliation. We’ll only achieve that by opening our arms and opening our hearts to a genuine dialogue with Indigenous people that will lead to better outcomes for all of us.”

Pointing to the BC Oil and Gas Commission, an NDP creation, Horgan noted that public policy doesn’t happen overnight. “It took 20 years to manifest itself in the jobs and the employment and the revenue and the wealth of our natural gas reserves in the northeast, but it was started under a New Democrat government because that’s how public policy works,” he said. “I don’t have magic solutions to your problems. I apologize for that, but I’m going to work every day with you try to find the solutions you need for your sector.”

After Horgan’s speech, Val Litwin, president and CEO of BCBusiness partner the BC Chamber of Commerce, asked the premier questions from the audience.

How has the reception from the business community been for you in the early days?
Very positive, and I’m grateful for that. And I think it speaks to the desire of everyone in this room and the business community and those that are just struggling to get by, how they want a government that’s focused on the issues that will allow us all to prosper and benefit from the dynamism of our people and the diversity of our resources and our wealth.

I called Jimmy Pattison shortly after it became apparent that the government was going to change, and I asked him for his counsel. I won’t share too much of what he said, but you can well imagine that he said you have to focus on making sure you do the right thing and you make the right choices, not just for the people who voted for you but for the people who want you to succeed….I’m very pleased with the reception I’ve been given, and I think it speaks to the charity and generosity of British Columbians broadly speaking, not just the business community but those working in labour, those in the not-for-profit sector and just regular folk—I’ve been smiling for six months, I have to say. And as I said, I’m grateful to not have to be that guy that waves his finger every day, because it’s really not good for the soul. It’s critically important to our democracy, and I’m hopeful that the Liberals will get comfortable with it.

Does your government still intend to make a decision on Site C before Christmas?

Will the province of B.C. move ICBC to a no-fault insurance model?
No. We inherited a number of challenges. I talked about the wildfires—unanticipated, and hundreds of millions of dollars that Carole will have to find, which means Adrian can’t have it, and Judy. There’s no shortage of calls on tax money to deliver critically important services to people. This isn’t frivolous fun money; this is money for core elements of what makes British Columbia so spectacular. So to have a whole pile of money disappear putting fires out is not productive, and people had to do it; no one begrudges it for a second. But that’s a big chunk of money to find….But that’s the way the fire season goes year after year. Not that magnitude, but it happens all the time.

The former government said that ICBC would have a deficit of $11 million with an M before the election. And after the election, we discovered that it’s closer to $1 billion with a B. So that’s a big problem, and ratepayers, policyholders cannot afford a 30, 40 per cent rate increase, and so we’re going to have to find creative ways to ensure that we continue to have the travelling public protected, not just behind the wheel but those that are coming at them behind other wheels. And that means that we’re going to have to take some innovative steps, and Minister Eby has been working very on that. But no-fault is not part of our plan.

What is the status of bringing ride-sharing services to British Columbia?
Three years ago, the government announced that they were going to proceed with ride-sharing. And I said, “OK, great, let’s strike a committee, let’s bring everybody together.” This isn’t a partisan question; it affects people whether they voted Liberal or Conservative or NDP or Green. This is a great opportunity to bring legislators together from every corner of the province to sit down and address the challenges of introducing disruptive technologies to an existing industry.

And the cab industry has been here for a long, long time. People have invested significant amounts of money to get up and going in a regulatory regime that has been, well, byzantine, I would suggest. And it’s not a simple matter to just say to those who have already invested over many years and decades in some cases, “We’re introducing a new disruptive technology that’s going to adversely affect the value of your business. And then we’re going to introduce what some have characterized as cream-skimmers that will come in at the high-volume periods and not be there for people with disabilities, not be there for those sunny afternoons when people choose to walk rather than to ride.”

And so we wanted to make sure that the government would engage everybody in the discussion. So I sent a letter off to [then–transportation] minister [Todd] Stone and never received a response. And nor did we see any policy change until just before the election. Two years later, the government announced that they had a plan, and it did not involve adequate consultation with the affected partners in our economy, the existing taxi industry. And so we called them out on it and said, “Well, what have you done?” And they said, “Oh, it’s an election campaign. You’re against it.” It became what’s called—and you all know this—a wedge issue. And so it wasn’t good public policy. It wasn’t “How do we introduce a change in how we do things in a way that will be understanding, at minimum, of the impact it’s going to have on existing providers?”

And so it became during the election campaign a wedge issue. The Liberals said, “We’re going to do it,” and said that we wouldn’t. So we said, “Well, no, we’re happy to do it, but let’s do it in a way that makes sense.” And so when we came to government, we looked at the work that had been done, the consultation, and found that it was inadequate, in my estimation. So I directed the minister responsible to start a new consultation, and then we heard from the Green Party, who said, “Well, why don’t you do what you said before? Let’s have an all-party committee.”

So we have two processes that are concurrent right now, one focused on getting an understanding of what this new disruptive technology will mean to the existing industry, as well as an all-party committee….So that’s where we’re at on ride-share. It’s coming, and we want to make sure it happens in a way that—it’s intended to be disruptive, and that’s fine. I’m not shy about that or frightened of that, but we have to be mindful of the impact on existing industry. And if there’s opportunities to put in a new regulatory regime that takes the burden off those that are stuck in not being able to go from one jurisdiction to another in the Lower Mainland, or if we can bring on more taxis at certain times, and if we can make sure—Uber is an example, there’s a whole host of different ride-share options, but Uber has had a bit of bad press lately.

If the province raises minimum wage to $15 an hour, small businesses must pay that wage. Will this government commit to a long phase-in process in order to minimize the impact?
One of the things I said to all of my colleagues when I asked them to be part of the cabinet was, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to go out and cut your legs off in the middle of the process and tell you what to do.” So it would be inappropriate for me to say, “Yeah, I’m going to tell [Minister of Jobs, Trade and Technology] Bruce [Ralston] what to do based on a question at a lunch,” which is a very good lunch, by the way, but not so good that I’m going to throw Bruce under the Hoover there. I’ve given him a task; he’s working on it.

Our objective when we started with this—other jurisdictions are moving quickly: Ontario particularly, recently; Alberta; Seattle just to the south of us. I recognize the importance of predictability and certainty within the business community, and I understand that if we’re going to be making changes, they should be over a longer period of time so people can adjust. So that was the task I gave to Bruce, and I’m very confident that he’s going to do it in a way that’s mindful of the presentation that the Chamber made and also mindful of the presentation from the Federation of Labour.

Somewhere between those points is probably where we’re going to lie, and I think that’s what the public expects. We live in the highest-priced jurisdiction in Canada, without any doubt, and certainly we need to be mindful that we need to pay people a wage that will allow them to circulate that money within the economy. I don’t need to lecture anyone on the mountains of research that’s been had that very few low-wage earners take their extra dollars and ship them to tax havens. They usually spend that money in their communities, and so that circulates to other businesses and provides opportunity for people.

Housing affordability is a huge issue for local businesses. Lets talk about affordability and what the governments working on.
This is a critical issue, and it was the defining issue here in the Lower Mainland particularly. But in the South Island, we’ve seen as people in the Lower Mainland have cashed in on this extraordinary explosion in prices that moved to Victoria and to Kelowna and other parts of the province, that’s put a spike in costs in those jurisdictions as well.

The speculation issue is one that we uncovered in Opposition….[Attorney General] David [Eby] was responsible for housing in Opposition, and he was relentless in bringing this issue forward in the media, and we put forward a couple of ideas for the government. They responded over a weekend in the summer with a foreign buyer’s tax that had cavernous loopholes in it that were easy to get around if one had malice of intent and wanted to move money through and speculate on housing stock here in the Lower Mainland.

So we’ve taken steps. [Finance] Minister [Carole] James is working on the demand side for the February budget, and we’ll have things to say there. Can I announce some tax policy today? No? You sure? All right. Permission denied by Carole.

So we’ll both have more to say on the demand side and how we address speculation and the increasing costs, but we also need to do something about supply, and you can’t do one without the other. I appointed [Minister] Selina Robinson to be responsible for municipal affairs, for TransLink and for housing because all three of those areas are codependent, and she has an outstanding relationship with mayors and councils….There will be new elections coming next fall for municipalities around the region, so we’ll see what that brings forward. But currently, Selina has a very positive working relationship with the mayors and councils in the Metro area. We understand that we need to make sure that density goes with our investments in transit, so that means that Selina’s got that file as well. And so we need to work with municipal councils, not point fingers at them, so they can accelerate decision-making, they can get approvals in place more readily. But we also need to make sure that when we create transit opportunities that there’s not windfall profits for developers, that we capture some of that and drive it back into affordability.

Those are some of the things we’re working on. I think we had a few hundred million dollars—it sounds like you’re throwing them around like paper plates rather than the manhole covers you would want them to be, but the millions start to add up. And so we’ve got moneys invested in not-for-profit housing, moneys invested in modular housing, which will help us on the homelessness side to provide permanent structures, not SROs but permanent structures for people that can be moved around as needed.

But on that middle-class question, or getting into the market-driven housing sector, we need to make sure we’re not just building one-bedroom units in 60-storey towers. We need to make sure we’re building appropriate housing for appropriate locations. And also, if we’re improving our transit networks outside of the Metro area so that we can start having more housing built closer to transit lines so people can get back and forth—high-speed rail is another we’d want to look at.

Has there been any change in the governments position on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion?
The answer is no. We haven’t changed our view….We’re in court right now with the federal government. The National Energy Board, we believe, did not adequately look at the risk to British Columbia, to our marine environment, to our marine economy. They look at only the reward to one part of the country, which has a benefit to the entire country; I won’t dispute that. But you need to look at the risk as well as the reward, and we believe profoundly that the risk to British Columbia was not factored into the decision.

And just yesterday, the NEB decided that the conditions that they put on the application were going to be waived as well. So there was a condition that Trans Mountain was required to receive municipal permits to proceed with their construction project, and now that’s been waived. And I think that’s outrageous, and I’m not comfortable with the decision that was made, and we’re looking at appeal opportunities there.

When will the government confirm funding for the much-needed transit improvements in Metro Vancouver?
We committed during the election campaign to increase the provincial contribution from 33 per cent to 40 per cent. The federal government—and I’ve had a number of face-to-face meetings as well as several telephone conversations with Prime Minister Trudeau. I like to think—I called him my bestie at the [Urban Development Institute] lunch I was at, and we got $100 million in the afternoon, so… I don’t know how far we’re broadcasting this Q&A, but we need to work with all levels of government, TransLink and the Mayors’ Council as well as the federal government. They have bundles of money that they want to invest in transit. They have some caveats and some conditions, and we’re working out those details now, but we’re committed to making sure that we’re investing in transportation.

As I said in my remarks, it’s critical to your businesses, whatever they may be, that people can move around freely, goods and services can move around freely….The more transit we have, the more space we have; the more trucks we have, the more activity we have in our ports; the more activity we have in our ports, the more jobs there are across the region, across the province and across the country.