OPINION: Politicians out of touch with concerns of business community (Vancouver Sun)

October 11, 2019
Greg D'Avignon

As dark clouds gather over the economy, Canadians head to the polls Oct. 21. In choosing a government, they will help to set the course for the nation in 2020 and beyond. As the leading voice for large B.C. enterprises, the business council has a perspective on many of the economic challenges that will confront the next federal government.

In the lead-up to the election, we conducted a survey of senior executives from our member companies, including most of the largest businesses in B.C. as measured by employment and revenues. In the first question, we asked them to identify the Top 5 election issues impacting their company and business in general.

The top-ranked issue, by a sizable margin, is the need for a broad review and significant overhaul of Canada’s outdated and increasingly creaky tax system. There are several reasons why tax reform has become a priority: an aging population, shifts in technology and growing pressure to address Canada’s waning global appeal as a location to deploy new investment.

The second most-cited issue in our survey is developing a more innovative and productive economy, followed by boosting investment in trade enabling infrastructure to support Canada’s participation in international markets and supply chains. Business leaders would also like to see Ottawa pay greater attention to regulatory efficiency. Rounding out the Top 5 issues is ensuring that Canada has an effective and credible climate policy.

Except for climate policy, none of the top issues in our survey features prominently in the party platforms or the public statements of party leaders. Like many, we’re dismayed by the lack of focus on core economic issues in this campaign, particularly at a time when doubts exist over Canada’s growth prospects and ability to prosper in a fast-changing global economy.

The issues that preoccupy B.C.’s largest private sector employers aren’t new. Taxes, regulatory efficiency, infrastructure development, productivity and innovation have been top-of-mind concerns for B.C. business leaders for several years.

Our survey also asked respondents to indicate their level of optimism or pessimism about the future of the Canadian economy. The results aren’t comforting. Only four per cent are “very optimistic,” while 28 per cent are “somewhat optimistic” about how the economy will perform in the next three to five years. More than 40 per cent are pessimistic about Canada’s prospects. The remaining one-quarter are on the fence, being neither optimistic nor pessimistic.

The above results suggest that many of the biggest companies in the province are worried about the medium-term economic outlook. In part, this reflects the effects of high-profile trade conflicts, rising trade barriers, escalating geopolitical tension and accelerating technological disruption across multiple industries. The lack of clarity and certainty about the economic environment is weighing on business sentiment and investment plans.

Tackling the headwinds affecting business confidence in Canada and B.C. calls for smart public policies that encourage the kinds of investments that will drive productivity and lead more Canadian companies to scale up and compete globally. This is important to the prosperity of household kitchen tables as it is to boardroom tables. Unfortunately, the party election platforms are largely silent on these themes.

Innovating and diversifying the economy, improving the business environment for Canadian firms and entrepreneurs and applying new technologies to help traditional industries succeed in a carbon-constrained world should be at the heart of the economic agenda of the government that takes office after Oct. 21. As election day approaches, voters should pause to reflect on Canada’s place in an unforgiving world that neither owes us a living nor cares much about our internal preoccupations.

As a small, trade-oriented economy, Canada should strive to be a top-tier jurisdiction for capital, talent and innovation. Today our performance is mediocre at best. We can and must do better.

Greg D’Avignon is president and CEO of the Business Council of B.C.

As published in the Vancouver Sun.

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