In B.C., nature is reminding us why ‘build back better’ is a priority – Toronto Star

A traffic sign is seen along the side of a flooded dead end road leading to a farm in Abbotsford, B.C. on Nov. 19, 2021. The B.C. catastrophe reminds us that the churn of a destabilized world will slam us again and again, Heather Scoffield writes.

By Heather ScoffieldEconomics Columnist

Sun., Nov. 21, 20214 min. read

Floods, droughts, fires, pandemic — disaster has become commonplace for Canada, and it makes “build back better” an urgent requirement.

It could cost up to a billion dollars just to repair and rebuild one town in the flood-soaked province of British Columbia, and that’s something the federal Liberals need to keep in mind as they set out to frame their new mandate in Tuesday’s speech from the throne.

The stoic mayor of Abbotsford, Henry Braun, says fixing the breached dikes and the damaged infrastructure could reach 10 digits, and he has already put in a word to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the bill.

And of course the country as a whole should do whatever it takes to build back from the flooding that has displaced thousands and destroyed so much.

But this is not a one-time cost. We are already trying to build back from the pandemic. Climate change is now raging upon us, and it means we have to build back from that, too — not just in British Columbia but in the Arctic, where the melting permafrost is undermining the structural integrity of houses, and on shifting shorelines everywhere.

Last year’s speech from the throne hinted at the Liberal commitment to “build back better,” but back then, the pandemic was too wild to contemplate the future in a holistic way. We’re in a better spot now, COVID-19 considered. But the B.C. catastrophe reminds us that the churn of a destabilized world will slam us, again and again.

We are not ready, and it’s time to get on with it.

The throne speech is the perfect opportunity to turn the build-back-better dream of a more prosperous, inclusive and sustainable economy into an implementation plan. But the government will have to hit the ground running, confronting both the urgent short-term demands of the catastrophes at hand as well as the longer-term demands to conquer the forces working against us.

The cost — not just to rebuild British Columbia but also to dig ourselves out of the pandemic recession, prepare ourselves for a protectionist world, compete in a digital economy, all while confronting the disaster that is climate change — will be persistent and large.

It’s not unaffordable if we handle it rationally and with zeal.

Moody’s Investors Services just gave Canada a triple-A credit rating once again, and said we’re in fine shape to handle pretty much any crisis that comes our way, even though our debt is monstrous in the wake of the pandemic.

“Canada’s sovereign credit profile is supported by its very high economic and institutional strength, which underpins its resilience to economic shocks,” the credit ratings agency stated.

“While the coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for the Canadian economy and resulted in a near-term deterioration in the fiscal position, we expect the sovereign’s credit profile to be resilient over the medium term.”

But we need to make it so, and that requires dynamic economic growth and sharp attention to ensuring the money and initiatives the government devotes to building back are focused on the “better” part of that bumper-sticker slogan that gets tossed around so easily these days.

When the throne speech is said and done, Parliament will be consumed with the immediacy of passing legislation that restructures and targets pandemic benefits, and then move right into a fiscal update before the House of Commons rises for Christmas. The government will have to cut deals with the opposition to get legislation through quickly, and prioritize its election promises to get the fiscal update sent to the printers in time to publish before the end of the session.

But the immediate demands of a minority government are no reason to water down the hard, long-term thinking that needs to be done on implementing the “better” part of building back, say Anne McLellan and Lisa Raitt.

The former cabinet ministers — one Liberal (McLellan), one Conservative (Raitt)— are spearheading a pro-growth initiative backed by the Business Council of Canada, which now has 114 different national associations supporting its efforts. They make the argument that pre-pandemic growth was subpar and not strong enough to sustain us if Canada also wants to be inclusive and green.

They say last spring’s budget — which formed the basis of the Liberal election platform and will inform Tuesday’s throne speech — was a 700-page hodgepodge of old and new measures that purported to be a growth strategy but was actually a ramshackle collection of one-offs with no vision.

“The problem is, they lost the narrative,” McLellan said in an interview.

Managing the short-term crises and putting Canada on a stronger long-term footing require a growth-oriented vision from the federal Liberals, the two former ministers argue, as well as a vigorous conversation with regular Canadians and plenty of initiative from the private sector.

That sounds about right.


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