Skip to content

With an opponent like the BC NDP, holding the line isn’t enough

Sebastian Zein: The next BC Liberal program needs to be truly ambitious.
BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson

From 2013 to 2017, British Columbia had a lot going for it. .

The province was home to one of the highest-growth economies in the developed world, health and education outcomes were both ranked in the global top 5, and finances were kept in great shape. Full employment was achieved and sustained. Peace was maintained with the province’s famously ill-tempered labour movement. And poverty continued falling at a faster rate than during the NDP’s decade of governance, which sacrificed all other measures of prosperity at the altar of ill-defined equitability.

The BC that delivered some of my earliest memories as a kid in the Metro Vancouver suburbs - streets filled with 12 year-old Chevy Cavaliers and Dodge Caravans with missing hubcaps, trips to Zellers where solidly middle class families bathed in the fluorescent light while searching for a deal - has become a distant memory for most in the region.

In its place, a rapidly growing economy with broad-based prosperity and boundless optimism among entrepreneurs, investors, and immigrants from every continent. Blue-chip technology firms finally entered the province in a serious way, creating thousands of well-paid jobs and the foundation for economic relevance and leadership over the coming decades. Sectors such as film, construction, and retail reached new heights.

Most political parties can only dream of a record like that.

But in some respects, the latter half of the BC Liberals’ tenure was also a failure. It epitomized the tendency of centre-right governments to content themselves with holding the line until the next time a left wing party wins and aggressively enacts their agenda.

Holding the line and avoiding ambitious reform works only if A) the status quo is free of strategic bottlenecks threatening long-term prosperity, and B) your political opponents similarly prioritize good management instead of shaping state and society in accordance with their ideology.

In BC, neither is the case.

The BC NDP is intensely ideological, consistently voting to maintain its self-declared status as a socialist party and putting actual ex-Communists in leadership positions.

Meanwhile the policy status quo, untouched by the BC Liberals throughout the 2010s, contains too manymassive and unjustified state monopolies which funnel economic resources into public sector unions. It’s illegal to enjoy a glass of wine in BC from a store or restaurant without the BC Government Employees’ Union taking a cut; if a parent wants their kid to have an education delivered by someone other than the BCTF, they get punished with a 50 - 65% funding disparity (or in the case of homeschooling, no funding at all.)

Where private British Columbians and firms are allowed to operate, bad-faith regulations are designed to prevent the production of enough high-demand natural resources, urban housing, industry, and even rides. It is a scandal that much of British Columbia’s interior and north struggles with population retention and social/economic health despite being surrounded by immense resource wealth.In Metro Vancouver, the artificial shortage of urban housing and industrial land means  a hard, fast-approaching ceiling on recent economic dynamism.

This kind of  governance best described as “left-progressivism doing the speed limit.” Over the long term, BC will drift farther away from the centre-right vision of empowered families, firms generating prosperity, and individuals living life on their own terms. If this is a vision we are serious about achieving and maintaining, it’s not good enough to simply slow down the rate at which the NDP imposes new regulations and rent-seeking schemes.

Can you name the last consequential BC Liberal reform? In the last three elections,  and every year in between, the BC Liberals were hammered by opponents as if the party was undertaking an ambitious reform program. It wasn’t.

I have even been told that during the last term in office, civil service bureaucrats actually convinced cabinet ministers to undo some modest service delivery reforms undertaken in the early 2000s.

By comparison, let’s take a look at the timeline of the NDP government:

September 2017: The BC NDP are given a one-seat majority when former BC Liberal Darryl Plecas is acclaimed speaker of the house.

July 2017: The NDP come hot out of the gate with an attempt to scrap the secret ballot for union formation - an attempt to give their acolytes free reign in intimidating workers to join politically-allied unions. Thankfully, Andrew Weaver blocks it, though the idea is very likely to return if the NDP wins a majority.

September 2017: A ban on corporate and union political donations is imposed, which sounds fair to anyone who doesn’t know how NDP campaigns work:mostly public sector unions campaign directly for their client party, and undertake the full range of operational and communications functions typically associated with political parties. No donations required. It’s a powerful attack on parties without the benefit of the 4-5 biggest unions and their in-house political machines.

December 2017: Under the guise of marijuana legalization, the NDP hand a wholesale monopoly in the multi-billion dollar industry to the BC GEU, which will have the effect of swelling its largely NDP-voting membership and concentrating more economic power in the highly political organization. Amazingly, this administration managed to actually lose money selling weed in BC.

July 2018: In a stunning attack on free association, construction workers on government projects are forced to join a union. And not just any union - the NDP spared workers the burden of choice by specifying a list of politically-approved unions that qualify. This is an industry where 85% of workers choose to be non-unionized.

September 2018: An extreme version of rent control is enacted - applying to buildings of any age and under construction. Even cities under permanent left wing control like New York and San Francisco have less coercive versions of the scheme. Rent control is near-universally panned by economists for increasing the overall price of housing, lowering the quality of the housing stock, and particularly punishing newcomers and people who need to move apartments.

In material terms, it is an anti-renter, anti-housing policy. In political terms, it has theeffect of scaring renters into thinking their livelihoods depend on it, instead of ensuring enough rentals can be built to stabilize prices

March 2019: The NDP announces the biggest employment transfer to the public sector since ICBC - Health Minister Adrian Dix unilaterally nationalizes home care services, moving 4,000 workers from the private sector to the public sector. Costs are expected to be 25% higher, and the workers are expected to eventually be consolidated under one politically-friendly public sector union (either the BCGEU or Hospital Employees Union).

Not bad for a 1-seat majority made possible by a former Green party leader known to ideologically favour real liberalism to such an extent that he campaigned for the BC Liberals in 2009. And these are just the new structural advantages the NDP has built for itself.

The negative consequences are twofold. First, they raise the cost structure of all people and firms who don’t directly get a cut. When a special interest group is handed a monopoly on something (ie. cannabis distribution, construction contracts), costs go up for everyone else. If you’re not in on the scam, you’re getting scammed.

Secondly, the NDP’s policies are designed to expend state resources to grow left wing political constituencies, swelling the membership and financial/organizational firepower of groups who then redeploy some of their gains to reward the NDP with re-election. Or in the case of rent control, scares segments of the electorate into thinking their livelihood is dependent on continued left wing governance.

The calculation made is that the economic costs inflicted by each giveaway are thinly dispersed across the electorate, minimizing the chances of backlash - but the chosen winners get a big boost in resources - an unearned privilege they will ferociously protect forever..

Canadian politicians are masters at exploiting this central insight of public choice theory;none better than the BC NDP.

The next agenda of the BC Liberals can’t be more of the same. It must cast a critical eye over all government functions and delivery models - examining if they demonstrably necessary, or because they sustain an entrenched political constituency. It must also identify and sweep aside dysfunctional regulatory regimes inhibiting industry and productive economic activity.

Finally, it must identify where public funding and resources are being used to advance an ideological agenda. It is intolerable that British Columbian families spend nearly half the year working exclusively to finance the state, only for some of those funds to be appropriated for political causes they did not consent to. This happens regardless of which party is in power.

Governments that fail to value productive activity and enterprise have a strong record of ending golden eras before they can flourish. Nothing is more dangerous than the complacency of taking BC’s recent success for granted.

Sebastian Zein is a Vancouver-based political observer and former BC Liberal party staffer and BC Young Liberal President.