Budget Estimates: Jobs, Economic Development & Competitiveness

Jul 21, 2020 | Blog, Governance, Technology | 1 comment

For Budget Estimates in Jobs, Economic Development and Competitiveness I canvassed a variety of issues in the 45 minutes I had with Minister Michelle Mungall.

We covered a number of areas of provincial concern such as resilient supply chains, local manufacturing, focus on stimulus investments, employing youth, economic transitions, general perspectives on our competitiveness, and the future of the Innovation Commissioner and Emerging Economy Task Force.

I wrapped up my session with a question about the current urban definition of the Southern Gulf Islands that is a result of their membership in the Capital Regional District. It is obvious that the Gulf Islands are rural communities and with their current status as part of an urban regional district they lose out on funding opportunities from the federal and provincial governments.

This issue has been a growing concern for about a decade and from Minister Mungall’s response it appears we will finally make some headway in getting the definition changed. However, it is not done yet and I and my constituency team will continue our advocacy on this issue!

Finally, I did not have time to ask Minister Mungall about digital connectivity on the Gulf Islands but she telegraphed it in her final response in our exchange as it is another issue that she and I discuss regularly. More to come on this issue as well!


[Transcript]

Friday July 17, 2020 [5:20pm]

A. Olsen:

Thank you to the member for West Vancouver–Sea to Sky country and hello to the minister. I think this is our first opportunity to engage in estimates. I appreciate the opportunity to ask some questions in your new role — Jobs, Economic Development and Competitiveness. I’ve got some, I hope, really great questions here for you.

Last week, the minister stated on the record that COVID-19 stimulus spending would focus on CleanBC as a driver for innovation and a greener economy. We are highly dependent on international supply chains as was noted and as we’ve seen, actually, and as has been exposed in the past number of months as we’ve been dealing with COVID-19. There are many opportunities, as we raised in question period last week, to foster a made-in-B.C. strategy for manufacturing goods.

I’m just wondering if the minister can explain how the supply hub for PPE operates. Who’s involved? Then maybe the other side of the question, which is: what is the minister doing to foster local production outside of PPE?

[5:25 p.m.]

Hon. M. Mungall:

Thank you for the question. I think a lot of people have the same question as the member.
In relation to the member’s question, the two bodies that currently are involved with the supply hub are EMBC and Citizens’ Services. That’s who my ministry worked with at the beginning, in terms of setting it up.

[5:30 p.m.]

I will note that the B.C. companies Thrive and Traction on Demand worked with us to set up the supply hub. It was initially set up to address shortages in PPE for health care. That was well disclosed and well discussed in news articles earlier in the spring. I won’t go into what was all happening there, but that was the initial purpose.

Since then, since more PPE has become available, what we’re using the supply hub more for now is to meet the needs of the health sector as well as our foundational public services and social service organizations so that they can all safely operate and continue to provide services to citizens.

The second question was about what we’re doing to foster local production outside of PPE. For the layperson, we often think of hand sanitizer as included in personal protective equipment, but technically, it’s considered outside of PPE.

We’ve been doing a lot of work to help distilleries retool their operations so that they can be creating hand sanitizer and distributing hand sanitizer around the province. I know that many members in the building will be familiar with the hand sanitizer from AG Hair. That’s what’s on my desk. I know it’s on many people’s desks.

We also have many other companies, like Parallel 49 Brewery, 18 Wheels, Westlab in Surrey, Breathe Medical, Packright Manufacturing and Frontline Medical Supply, just to name a few. The list goes on quite a ways. As the member can see, we’re working with many different organizations on a variety of things, including WestBond Industries with disinfectant wipes and Prototype Integrated Solutions for gloves, to make sure that we are making those products available to British Columbians at this time.

I’ll also point out that we’ve been working with Small Business B.C. on its PPE marketplace. This is a matching part of their website where businesses who are providing PPE can be listed on the PPE marketplace that Small Business B.C. provides, and small businesses can see who in British Columbia is providing those things — like hand sanitizers, gloves, industrial disinfectants and so on — and they can purchase directly from other British Columbian companies.

I think that answers the member’s two questions. If not, he can clarify, and I’ll do my best to get him an answer.

A. Olsen:

I appreciate those responses, recognizing that there are many industries and many sectors that could be included in that. So I appreciate that we’re definitely not going to have the time to go into it.

Certainly, recognizing the on-demand ordering culture that has evolved in the most recent years where stockpiling of…. I think it was most exposed in the personal protection equipment, the PPE that we continue to refer to here. There’s on-demand ordering where stock levels get to a certain point. In some cases, it’s automated. Systems will order. And there’s not a culture of keeping a lot of protective equipment or other important products in storage.

So with that as the context, the government is doing extensive consultations on how to invest — and I’ll choose to use that word, “invest” — $1.5 billion into British Columbia to ensure that we are more resilient, coming out of it.

I recognize the answer here could very easily be, “We’re in the middle of the consultations, and spending that money before that’s done is not likely to happen,” especially here at budget estimates.

But I’m just wondering if maybe the minister can provide some highlights with respect to the sectors of the economy that she’s prioritizing to receive a stimulus, specifically around CleanBC but maybe more broadly as well.

[5:35 p.m.]

Hon. M. Mungall:

The member’s question is a great question. I feel like I could actually, probably, do a good designated speaker, two-hour speech just talking about the process that we have in place to develop our economic recovery plan.

It’s a very inclusive process, as the members all know and as I mentioned earlier. We have online engagement. We’ve also been doing a lot of different round tables with specific sectors, with economic sectors as well as advocacy sectors, like the environmental movement, which brings us to CleanBC.

I’ll say…. The two round tables that I participated in most recently were with youth. One was a group of 30 under 30. Another was a larger group of young people from all across the province. The concept of CleanBC came up repeatedly throughout those two round tables. So we know…. British Columbians are affirming the need to have CleanBC as a lens through which we understand economic recovery.

On that note…. Of course, nothing is solidified, and I’m certainly not going to spend any of that $1.5 billion here. What I’m going to highlight for the member are some of the key components of CleanBC that, of course, were informing our budget prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and will certainly continue to inform it going forward. The two I really want to highlight, of CleanBC, are reducing GHGs through our transportation sector as well as through our built environment.

We know that our Go Electric program for electric vehicles is very popular. It has been wildly successful, way more successful than we ever dreamed of just two years ago. One of the questions that we’re looking at is: how do we accelerate that even further, knowing that global transportation is looking to go more electrified using green electricity?

The other part is our built environment, thinking about how we can accelerate some of those retrofits that we know reduce GHGs in our homes as well as our workplaces, and so on. These also provide opportunities for economic stimulus.

That’s very, very high level, very broad. Some of the ideas that we saw in CleanBC are being reaffirmed even more in our sectoral round tables and, like I said, especially with young people, who have been impacted the most in terms of job loss around the economic impacts of COVID-19.

[5:40 p.m.]

A. Olsen:

Thank you to the minister for that response.

The trends impacting the labour force pre-COVID included issues in the gig economy in income inequality, immigration, the declining labour force. We see this in a number of different sectors and heard about the anecdotes from a number of different sectors.

COVID-19 has pushed these trends, I think, to the forefront in various aspects of our economy, and we’re starting to see some very hard hit areas. The minister just mentioned one that we’ve raised in question period around 150,000 youth who are currently unemployed, 29 percent of the demographic between 15 and 29. Those are very shocking numbers.

Just, I think, shifting gears here a little bit. How is the minister looking at stimulating jobs for the youth that she mentioned earlier, for the gig workers and for hospitality workers, recognizing that in some cases there’s going to require a transition here from where they were working to maybe where they’re going to be working? Just some thoughts from the minister on that.

[5:45 p.m.]

Hon. M. Mungall:

We have some very specific programs that we’ve done. Now, I know the member is aware — I just want to make sure that we have it on the record, however — that our government responded very quickly with the announcement of the emergency benefit for workers. That was the one-time payment of $1,000. We’ve had a lot of other programs to help make sure that workers were supported as they had to see their jobs be laid off, or they had to stay home to make sure that we were reducing the spread of COVID-19.

On top of that, we need to make sure that we’re offering good training opportunities that bring people into strong family-supporting jobs. I want to let the member know about one particular program that my ministry has taken the lead on in partnership with Advanced Education. That’s what we’re calling digital bootcamps. We ran two pilots. The first one had ten people. The second one had 42 people. So far, both cohorts have graduated with an 85 percent success rate of moving right into the digital economy, right into jobs that were very well paying.

We’re looking to expand those bootcamps and to provide further opportunities for people to get into this growing sector. The member will know that the tech sector is really important, especially the clean tech sector, in terms of reducing GHGs in a lot of our traditional industries. Being able to participate in these types of bootcamps gets people into the tech sector and into opportunities that are really important to delivering on CleanBC as well.

I also want to mention, as the member noted, that youth were especially affected by unemployment in the service industry. We have been engaging with young people to develop strategies for work and career through programming. That includes the $5 million youth community partnership program. This is in support of relevant skills and work experience.

We have a few programs. Of course, the bulk of those types of training programs would be delivered by Advanced Education. These programs are all targeted to making sure people get into good-paying jobs in sectors that we know are going to be very important going forward.

A. Olsen:

Thank you to the minister for the response to that question.

Following up in the COVID-19 vein here and talking about the competitiveness aspect of the minister’s ministry, a question with respect to how COVID-19 has impacted the competitiveness of B.C.’s economy, I guess, in very general terms, obviously. Then maybe some more specifics around who our biggest competitors are, what sectors those are in and, I guess, an initial view of how this might have changed due to COVID-19.

[5:50 p.m.]

Hon. M. Mungall:

First what I’ll do is, for the member, I’ll just start off by pointing out some of the hardest-hit sectors. But I want to come back to his question around the larger issue of British Columbia’s competitiveness on a global scale and how we’re faring in that.

I just want to acknowledge, though, that we’ve had some very hard-hit sectors as a result of COVID-19 — especially in the services, including retail, food services, accommodations and tourism, in particular. This isn’t unlike any other jurisdiction. This is something that other jurisdictions around the world are facing as well. Of course, the closure of borders have hit various sectors quite hard.

We also have other issues around commodity pricing and so on and how COVID-19 has affected commodity prices and other major industries.

That all being said, it is difficult to assess competitiveness implications at this time, because it’s still…. COVID-19 is shifting continuously day by day still, and we see increasing cases all throughout the United States. Of course, that is our largest trading partner. So how that impacts trade — it’s hard yet to fully measure out everything that is going on and the overall impact that it’s having, especially when trade levels remain this low all throughout the world.

Having said that, though, I will say that B.C.’s underlying competitiveness…. We were on a good footing going into the pandemic. We had a very strong economy. We had high employment. And that all was in our favour. We still have a very strong, skilled workforce. We are a desirable place to invest. We are a safe place to invest. There is a lot of investment confidence when we look at it from a global perspective. We are a desirable place to visit and live in terms of being a tourism destination. And we are blessed with an abundance of natural resources, clean energy and a growing and, in fact, thriving tech industry.

We have a very good foundation, and we work very hard to maintain a good foundation during this pandemic. So going forward, we feel that we have a good footing heading into what is going to be some changes in the global economy. We feel that we’re poised to capitalize on that.

We also offer a lot of investors around the world things that they’re looking for, which is a strong labour force, a safe environment and an abundance of natural resources, as well as something that I know the member will be very interested to hear. There is a greater desire to ensure that the energy being used in manufacturing, transportation and so on is coming from a source with less GHGs, and we know that because of B.C. Hydro, we have quite an advantage on that front as well.

A. Olsen:

Thank you the minister for that response. I would love to spend a lot more time talking about competitiveness and just the word “competitiveness” and the desire to compete with the jurisdictions around — and both, obviously — the benefits of being in competition, then as well, maybe some of the less desirable outcomes of racing to the bottom perhaps in some cases.

There are the gives and takes there that over the coming months, I’ll be engaging the minister on. But I’m going to move on here to a couple of areas.

[5:55 p.m.]

I’d just like to raise my hands up in gratitude for the appointment of the second innovation commissioner, Dr. Sinclair, and the work that’s been done in the innovation commissioner role, as well as for the emerging economy task force, the EETF. The report was released not too long ago. I just was wondering. There were recommendations that were made with respect to issues in our current labour force and long-term planning.

Just a last question before I focus a couple of questions on some riding-related issues that are not in the questions that we’ve provided to the minister. Perhaps the minister can respond to the recommendations of the EETF report and how the ministry is going to implement them across policy, industry, public service practices, etc.

Hon. M. Mungall:

I’m just trying to organize my thoughts here for the member, in terms of where to begin in answering all of the things we’re doing. Maybe just let me start with saying a big thank-you to everybody who is on the emerging economy task force and to Kathy Kinloch, who is the chair.

[6:00 p.m.]

It was a lot of work, and it wasn’t easy work. Try to look 25 years into the future and identify emerging economies that are just nascent now and where they might end up being in that time and how we as a government can support that. That’s not easy, right? Then you have wild cards come out of nowhere. One came a lot sooner than we thought, which was COVID-19.

Before releasing the task force report, we kind of had to take a bit of a step back and say: “Oh, my goodness. Is this still relevant as a result of COVID-19?” What we saw was that it absolutely was. That’s why we wanted to get it out to the public, even though it was at the height of the pandemic. We wanted to get it out to the public because a lot of businesses were starting to think: “What’s in store for me? What’s in store for our future? How do I adapt my business to that?” It was really clear that that task force report was going to be very helpful for a lot of businesses. So we had that released to the public.

The same can be said for the innovation commissioner report. That’s why we released them at the same time. We wanted to be able to make sure that we had some ideas for where the future was going so businesses could start to think about their own futures, business owners as well as their employees. In terms of actually meeting the recommendations, though, there is one that I really want to pull out.

Now, we looked at several of their recommendations and have already gotten underway in what we need to do to implement those recommendations, including supporting technology and innovation through cluster development and regional accelerators; bringing in new talent through the provincial nominee program, regional pilot program; supporting exports through the export navigator program, which I highlighted earlier in my opening remarks; supporting capital through the small business venture capital tax credit program — sometimes we just love long names for a program, and there it is; supporting research infrastructure through the knowledge development fund and so much more.

But I really want to highlight this one, because it really shows our dedication to the recommendations that came forward. One of the recommendations is: “Enhance the financing options available in the emerging economy. Create a provincial investment vehicle to support local investment.” We have recently appointed a new associate deputy minister to do exactly this. We have an ADM who’s responsible for one of these key recommendations.

It’s a recommendation that in my experience in the short time I’ve had this ministry, I’ve heard multiple times from the innovation and tech sector that we really need to look at, in terms of supporting investment vehicles. So we have somebody who is raring to go and is getting started on what exactly we can be doing to implement that recommendation.

Also, we’ll let the member know that the emerging economy task force report doesn’t just rest with us, in this ministry, but it will be used to guide the work of our new innovation commissioner. I’m so pleased. We just put out the press release today. Dr. Sinclair comes to us with a wealth of tremendous experience in the tech sector, but also in finance, as well, and how to ensure that we’re really able to grow the sector.

She is going to be able to take what Dr. Alan Winter gave us and really run with it and make sure that we’re implementing it. So I’m really excited to see her get up and running and get moving on the work that’s ahead of her with these two reports and, no doubt, the many people who are in these sectors all throughout B.C.

A. Olsen:

Thank you to the minister for that response.

Of course, in welcoming Dr. Sinclair, it would be appropriate…. I think in between last estimates and this estimates, Dr. Winter left the position, so I should raise my hands up and thank Dr. Winter for the incredible work that he did since 2018 in establishing that office. Of course, there’s lots of work to do when you’re establishing an office and you’re the first commissioner. So thank you to Dr. Winter for his incredible work as well.

[6:05 p.m.]

I would love two hours to ask questions in any one of these areas. I’m just trying to do my best to honour the space that we have here as well as get some high-level questions, as they are, on the record, and use the time that we have as best as possible.

I’m going to switch gears here. We’ve provided these questions that I’ve asked up to this point and others to the minister in writing. There are a couple of riding-related issues that I’d like to take the last remaining few minutes that I have to just put on the record and then, as well, ask the minister. Perhaps we’re going to have to follow up, but at least, start the questions here.

There’s one challenge that’s been faced by Gulf Island communities. Both of these issues are related to the Gulf Island communities. The first one I’m going to talk about is the rural definition and the definition of rural and urban communities. Basically, if you are a community within the regional districts of Metro Vancouver or capital regional district, you are deemed to be urban communities.

I have very rural communities that are part of the capital regional district, and the community leaders have been working for years on this. I know that the minister has received the cc’s from my community members to the ministry. The previous minister was dealing with this issue as well. It has to do with the Island Coastal Economic Trust and how that was worked out. The Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing has sent a letter to her counterpart in the federal government with respect to the federal view of the rural-urban definition for the Gulf Island communities.

I’m wondering if maybe the minister can respond to…. If adding the Gulf Island communities to ICET, as it’s known, is something that’s going to continue to take a long time and may be not desirable, is there a way that we can achieve the desired outcome, which is to have those Gulf Island communities be reflected for what they are? If not isolated, they’re rural, and there’s nothing about them that’s not rural. I think the frustration is growing, and I think that we could probably find another mechanism to change that definition to ensure that they have access to funding that other communities that are much, much larger and much, much more urban do have access to.

[6:10 p.m.]

Hon. M. Mungall:

Yes, this is an issue that I am actually quite familiar with. Thank you to the member for bringing this up and revisiting it. We were in the process of making some decisions back in early March, and then our direction and our focus as a government totally switched. I’m sorry that was the case. Going forward, though, we’re pulling this back up right now.

I just want to say to the member that I totally get it that the Gulf Islands are rural. I’ve travelled around there, and, yeah, I never thought anything different, that they were rural. Of course they are. And so wanting to now come to a decision…. Because he’s absolutely right: this consultation has been going on for a very long time. I don’t think we need to be continuing on with that consultation. We need to have a decision, one way or another, so communities can move forward.

I want to let the member know that in the time frame of COVID coming and causing such a massive shift in focus, we haven’t lost sight, though, of the Gulf Island communities, especially when it comes to connectivity and making sure that they have digital access. We have been in conversation with those communities in making sure that even though they’re not a part of ICE-T right now, they are able to access some funding so that they can improve connectivity.

You being a representative of rural people and myself being a representative of rural people, I know how important this is for your constituents. So I want to make sure that they’re going to be able to get that online connection, especially right now with all of us doing life like this, over Zoom.

A. Olsen:

My time is up, and so I really appreciate the minister folding…. You read my mind for my last question. I don’t need to ask it. I think our offices are connected to continue the conversation about interconnectivity and the importance of it. It was power lines, and then it was telephone lines, and now I think it’s fibre optics. So we will get connected and have a conversation about that.

Thank you to my friends and colleagues in the official opposition for making this time and keeping it a single block. I’ll cede the floor now to my friend from West Vancouver–Sea to Sky.


Image by Goumbik from Pixabay


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1 Comment

  1. George Harris

    We are hopeful that you will do the almost impossible task of getting our islands designated “rural”. Islanders strongly support this Herculean mission. Thank you George Harris

    Reply

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