Monday, February 02, 2004

Where's the money for promoting B.C.?
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - It's great the Liberals have killed the clunky competition, science and enterprise ministry, created in the heady days after the election.
But its replacement -small business and economic development - is going to need more money if new minister John Les is to do the job.
Premier Gordon Campbell denied the competition ministry was a failed experiment, pointing to good job growth. But it's tough to make that claim with a straight face after you've just shut the ministry down.
The old ministry name sounded like a slogan for a Soviet five-year plan. But it also revealed a big Liberal misjudgment.
The NDP government - like most provinces - had a ministry for employment and investment, and another for small business and tourism. (Both ineffective.)
But the Liberals wanted a smaller government role and a different approach to economic development, Mr. Campbell said then. "We're committed to creating a competitive environment that allows B.C. entrepreneurs, small business and B.C. industries to thrive and to prosper,'' he said. Government would cut red tape, reduce taxes and the investment would rush in.
It was a serious misjudgment. A competitive business environment is just the starting point today. Many jurisdictions have already got there, and are out aggressively promoting their advantages.
Not B.C. The competition ministry has budgeted $3 million for marketing and promoting the province this year, down 40 per cent from last year. Next door, much smaller Alberta is spending seven times as much. (B.C. has other promotional efforts, like the forest marketing funds. But so does Alberta.)
It's just not enough. Tourism BC looked at government tourism expenditures as a percentage of industry revenues in B.C. and Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. On average, the other provinces spent four times as much. Just to match Alberta's spending level the Liberals would have to double the tourism budget. The Premier's own Progress Board also called for more spending on tourism promotion.
It's not just tourism. One business leader recalls walking into a Toronto biotech conference in 2002. B.C. had a tiny booth, staffed with one person. Manitoba had a set-up five times as large, with a full staff courting companies. "When it come to business promotion and marketing, we are not in the game," he says.
Nor are we likely to get there fast given the way the ministry is being starved. The budget was $69 million when the Liberals took over; it's been chopped by almost one-third since then, with another 10-per-cent cut in the next budget.
The new ministry is still a positive change. It should have a much clearer focus on economic development, and be able cut across government. Mr. Les assumes big responsibilities - from the Olympics to tourism to economic strategy to international trade - and the chance to develop a co-ordinated strateey. But without the resources, B.C. won't going to be able to compete.
There was other economic good news in the shuffle.There was no mention of the Heartlands at the announcement, last year's buzzword apparently mocked out of existence.
But B.C.'s regions will benefit from the appointment two junior ministers - Skeena's Roger Harris for forests and Prince George's Pat Bell for mining. Energy Minister Richard Neufeld has rightly devoted a lot of his time to the booming gas industry; an added focus on mining is welcome. And significant progress on forest reform is desperately needed before the election.
The two Northern MLAs also add needed regional representation to cabinet, although 21 of the 27 ministers are still from the Lower Mainland, Victoria and the Okanagan. (Only six ministers are women; with only Christy Clark in a major role. It's not surprising that the Liberals trail the NDP among women voters.)
The Liberals' overall economic track record has been disappointing to voters, especially to the party's supporters.
With this shuffle Mr. Campbell has made some overdue changes to sharpen the government's focus and improve its execution.
But without the money needed to do the job, the effort will come up short.

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