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Corporate ideologues undermine local economy
Georgia Straight July 25–August 1, 2002
I couldn’t help laughing out loud - or was I crying? - when Bentall Capital Corporation was named winner of the Vancouver convention-centre competition last month.

It’s not that Bentall Capital is a dud company. What tickled my funny bone was the way the proposed project was described, as a glorious “public-private partnership,” with all of the ideological gusto the phrase carries with it. “Government bad, private enterprise good,” murmurs the phrase. “Don’t let the Crown underwrite and manage its own project, even if its sponsorship and federal public money make it possible! Give the project away, whatever you do!

But wait a minute. Who is Bentall Capital? The majority owner - 55 per cent - is SITQ Immobilier, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Caisse de dépôt in Quebec. (The other 45 per cent is held by senior management.) The Caisse is a Quebec Crown corporation. So the deal is more of a public-public partnership, with one of those publics, however, being Quebec.

SITQ Immobilier is a $13 billion commercial real-estate and development company, with holdings in Canada, the United States and Europe. Now, you might ask, why doesn’t British Columbia have its own Crown-owned SITQ? That, however, would be taboo. It violates Liberal dogma against Crown ownership and would give the Board of Trade apoplexy. Others would join in, like the CanWest newspapers and BCTV. (After all, in the conventional wisdom the Liberal Party and the Board of Trade represent business knowledge.)

What it comes down to, in the end, is that Quebecers collectively, through a Crown company, can make money and add to their head-office expertise and future prospects by participating in the British Columbia economy, but British Columbians cannot be allowed to do the same in their own province.

The same day the convention centre project was announced, the Vancouver Sun ran a feature about a cheering session at the Vancouver Board of Trade. Magazine publisher and inspirational speaker Peter Legge, newly installed as chair, made a rousing speech about a new business age dawning in B.C., and the crowd, according to reports, had a moment of ecstasy. The earth, however, didn’t move. It takes more than cheering around expense-paid meals on white-linen luncheon tables to do that.

The Board of Trade private-sector corporate crowd are like-minded, ideological backscratchers, feeding each other the same view of themselves and the world. Because they’re incestuous, and because business writers are all too willing to oblige them – because, also, our mass-media owners are their pals - they haven’t had to face a challenge to their own illusions about themselves. They could blame the Harcourt and Clark NDP governments for the relatively slow growth of the B.C. economy, and they could do so with impunity. Whining about taxes was always a good shtick. When a couple of KPMG studies showed that, for cost-effectiveness, Vancouver and other B.C. locations were actually highly competitive, the Board of Trade’s members wouldn’t make the natural inference. Nor would they when some commentators pointed out that the relatively slow growth in the B.C. economy began a decade earlier, in the Social Credit years, including the two spikes downward (in real GDP per capita) in 1982 and in 1990-1991.

Well, let’s make that logical inference, which is also consonant with ordinary observation: Collectively, our private-sector corporate cadres are second-class. That’s where the root problem of the B.C. economy lies: their mediocrity. They should stop blaming others and look in the mirror. They failed to adjust creatively to the inevitable changes in the forest industry. They allowed ownership of major B.C. companies like MacMillan Bloedel and Westcoast Energy to slip into the hands of outsiders. They’ve done no better with high-tech, allowing many start-ups to be picked off and, with that, diminishing - perhaps destroying for good - any possibility of a cluster effect.

They know this - that collectively they’ve not had the right stuff. They have a vague, unarticulated uneasiness about it as they wonder where all the B.C.-owned head offices have gone. They still, however, pretend.

Eating lunch together at the Board of Trade makes them all feel better. The one industry that has taken off in B.C., in part because of the low Canadian dollar - that is, the film industry - happened without them, like a rogue industry.

The root cause of their failure is their self-serving, coddled mindset - coddled because our right-wing mass media wouldn’t think of getting after them and articulating other, more muscular entrepreneurial possibilities. One of those possibilities is a regional Crown investment vehicle like the Caisse de dépôt, with roots in the province and a sharp eye for not letting our best and brightest companies - that is, the future economy - be lost to others.

The NDP should be fighting for this, but they, for their part, have been so traumatized by that same right-wing mass-media power, they don’t have the backbone for it.

Good for Quebec and its participation in the convention centre project, through the Caisse. Meanwhile, the lack of a Crown company in the field owned by the people of this province isn’t so good for British Columbians.
Copyright © Herschel Hardin 2005
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