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11 December 2008

David Emerson Featured in the Globe and Mail

The Return of the Minister of Everything By Patrick Brethour, The Globe and Mail, December 12, 2008 British Columbia’s Minister of Everything is at it again. David Emerson was supposed to be retired, but is nevertheless speedily racking up job titles: first, senior adviser to a Vancouver law firm; then, CEO of B.C. Transmission Corp.; and then, member of the board at Finning. Two days ago, he got yet another job, a return to the early days of his career – advising the British Columbia Premier. Mr. Emerson, the recently retired Conservative foreign affairs minister, will be the chairman of the province’s newly formed economic advisory council. The job description is simple enough: Give Premier Gordon Campbell a road map to steer the B.C. economy out of recession. And, by the way, do it by budget time in February. “I think it will be intense for the next couple of months or so,” Mr. Emerson says. That’s for certain. The council, and Mr. Emerson’s role in it, is one more sign of the rapidly deteriorating economic environment in B.C. Three months ago, when the province gave its first-quarter fiscal update, it pegged economic growth at 2.3 per cent in 2009 – down from the February estimate of 2.8 per cent, to be sure, but still a healthy rate of expansion. The province has yet to release any updated projections, but the dozen private sector economists it consults did so last week, coming up with an average of just 0.6 per cent in 2009, a number that implies at least a mild recession in the first half of the year. However, the average figure is misleadingly high, since some of those estimates are dependent on the province quickly kicking off its infrastructure spending spree. Without such stimulus, economists at TD Bank and Central 1 Credit Union are forecasting, respectively, a small contraction or no growth. Under those scenarios, the first half of the year will see a significant downturn. The timing could hardly be worse for Mr. Campbell, with the province heading to the polls in May. So, getting that infrastructure spending under way is crucial, for both the economy and the Premier’s electoral chances. That’s where Mr. Emerson comes in. According to him, the council’s first, and most important, job is figuring out how to get those infrastructure projects under way quickly. It’s not just a matter of coming up with a list of needed projects; the need for municipal and environmental approvals could become a bottleneck for any action. Somehow, Mr. Emerson will need to figure out a way to speed up the process so that projects can get under way within weeks, not months or years. Mr. Campbell is setting an aggressive schedule, saying yesterday that he wants new public works projects up and running within six months. Hitting that goal will mean that Mr. Emerson will need to determine how to galvanize city councils into snapping into action and compressing their approval processes for things such as social housing. And it will also mean pushing the federal government to abandon the time-honoured tradition of forcing companies to secure separate environmental approvals from B.C. and Ottawa. An additional complication is determining where spending on roads, bridges and other infrastructure will deliver a lasting boost to the economy, once the asphalt machines are parked. After that task is completed, all that remains is the small matter of presenting a plan to salvage the forestry sector, take better advantage of pan-Pacific trade, rationalize taxation policy and come up with a strategy for balancing exploitation of the province’s energy sector with environmental concerns. It is a broad sweep of policy questions that befits Mr. Emerson’s varied résumé: deputy minister of finance in the 1970s and 1980s; head of forestry firm Canfor; cabinet posts under Liberal and Conservative governments. Mr. Campbell is closing few doors, at least at the outset, saying only that he will not countenance deficits or tax increases. His newest adviser is, as always, ready to think big. That might mean eliminating the provincial sales tax in favour of a harmonized sales tax, scrutiny of the carbon tax, even a radical restructuring of the forestry industry. Perhaps, Mr. Emerson muses, there will need to be a major reduction in the allowable cut. Perhaps government will need to clear the way for a mega-merger to create a Canadian forestry company capable of global competition. “That will protect the industry and jobs better than anything.” The B.C. Premier has asked for big ideas. There’s no doubt that Mr. Emerson is getting ready to deliver. As for that retirement, it seems as distant as ever, as he enters public life yet again – if with one key concession to his long-suffering spouse: “At least I’m not flying back and forth to Ottawa.” Download the PDF file here.

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