By Geoff Plant and Dylan Jones
In the Vancouver Sun

Jan. 26, 2015


One thing we can predict with confidence as we look at the year ahead is another federal election. This one will be the most interesting political contest we have had federally for some time.

It will be about the personalities and values of the party leaders and candidates. If it is like recent elections, it will also be about how to save struggling Ontario from economic decline.

Unless we act decisively, what it will not be about is the need for Canada to seize its place as an economic player on the Pacific front and what the west — particularly British Columbia — needs from Ottawa to be the vanguard of the Canadian effort.

The most critical public-sector elements to our success on the Pacific will be our diplomatic effort, trade treaties and support for trade, the quality and supply of our labour pool, our logistics system — i.e. our practical ability to bring goods to market — and cultural and language competencies. Almost all these areas require a federal government that is deeply engaged.

Ottawa has the treaty-making power and levies taxes to support trade promotion and export development efforts. The government has in recent years started taking Pacific trade treaties seriously with a breakthrough treaty in Korea and efforts in most important Asian markets. Much more needs to be done to support deal-flow after the treaties are signed and politicians go home.

Canada tends to be slower than other countries to create jobs and supply-chain relationships after we sign trade treaties. This is primarily the responsibility of the private sector, but there are ways Ottawa needs to help more, particularly for our small and medium-sized companies, which risk everything if they move into an unfamiliar market and get it wrong.

Canada’s continued protection of supply management has been a major impediment to negotiating good market access across virtually every area of our export economy.

Another vital area is Aboriginal people fully contributing to, and benefiting from, economic opportunity. This is not just about the need to integrate the recognition of aboriginal rights and title more fully into land and resource development. It’s also about reforming models of service delivery that, too often, perpetuate poverty without creating the ladders of opportunity — education, community health, housing — that are needed to break the welfare cycle.

On both counts, the absence of federal leadership has impacts felt acutely throughout the west.

The federal government is also responsible for immigration and employment insurance, which are critical labour-force policies. The recent years have been a mixed story, with employment insurance changes being largely beneficial to B.C. while changes to temporary worker policies will very likely hurt the B.C. economy.

We could go on; navigation, banking, intellectual property are some other areas the federal government wields economic levers essential to our success.

What is clearly not happening is the development of an economic strategy in any kind of partnership with the provinces and with a clear focus on Pacific opportunity.

It is striking how much British Columbia shares interests with the other western provinces — Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — in seeking an Ottawa that is focused on Pacific economic strategy. All western provinces are essentially export-driven economies. All have deep interests in access to markets, good people with the right skills and world-class logistics infrastructure. Westerners generally have a visceral understanding that the good life for yourself comes from what you contribute, what value you create for others.

These provinces are also deeply economically integrated. More B.C. jobs and wealth are created by what it trades with its western neighbours than with any foreign country, including China and the United States. So, working together just makes sense because the success of any western province is good for them all.

Before partisanship, politics and theatre take over, now would be a great time for the western premiers to articulate policy expectations prior to the next election. Ideally, this would not be file-by-file but an integrated statement of expectation from the west, supported by all its leaders and connected to an ambitious vision for Canada as a Pacific country.

No province is better positioned to take the lead on that than British Columbia.

Geoff Plant was attorney general in British Columbia from 2001-05, and is chair of the Canada West Foundation, a think-tank devoted to the prosperity of Western Canada. Dylan Jones is president & CEO of the foundation.