Editorial: The BC Liberals are playing with fire
Can the government afford to write off the concerns of Vancouverites about housing affordability? We're all about to find out
May 11, 2016
Josh Gordon knew this was coming.
In the preamble to his paper on the role of foreign capital in Vancouver’s housing market, the SFU political science professor disclosed the fact that his academic work was “far away from this area,” and that he wasn’t trying to claim any expertise in it. In its conclusion, he noted that “this report potentially steps on some big toes. If it gets widely read, it will undoubtedly invite criticism. There will be an effort to discredit it in a range of ways. That’s fine, that’s democracy.” Well, there are few bigger sets of toes in B.C.’s democratic universe than the ones belonging to Finance Minister Mike de Jong, and yesterday in the provincial legislature NDP MLA David Eby dropped Gordon’s report right on top of them. And while the back-and-forth between an opposition member and a government minister isn’t usually all that interesting (sorry, fellow political science nerds), this one revealed how the election campaign that’s to come will unfold around foreign capital and our real estate.
The B.C. Liberal strategy? Deflect, defer, delay—and, it seems, disdain. In describing Gordon’s work, de Jong loaded up the word “theory” with so much condescension that you could practically see the air quotes around it. “We’re taking steps, and the member knows what some of those steps are,” he said. “But we are resolved to base those decisions on sound data, and not theories or conjecture.” Instead of answering Eby’s question about whether the government would act on the flows of foreign capital that appear to be rushing into Vancouver’s housing market, de Jong steered the debate back to his talking points around the province’s economic record by noting that B.C. had the lowest jobless rate in the country for the first time since 1976 and was poised to lead the country in economic growth in two consecutive years for the first time since 1961. Cue the ritual applause from the backbench.
In Canadian politics, running against the NDP on a platform that seeks to highlight your strengths as a competent steward of the economy—and, by extension, their weakness in the same area—is about as failsafe as it can get. But that might not be the case in 2017 once all the votes are counted. As Insights West’s Mario Canseco wrote in a piece for the Vancouver Sun, British Columbians aren’t particularly worried about the economy right now. “With one year to go before the provincial election, the mindset of British Columbia’s electorate is clear. Many urban voters are concerned about housing and inequality, and there is a sizable number of residents who are dissatisfied with the government on the accountability file.” Concern might not be the right word here, either. It feels a lot more to me like anger, and anger is an incredibly potent political force—just look to the south, where it propelled a spray-tanned corporate buffoon into the Republican nomination for president and nearly did the same for a cranky septuagenarian socialist on the Democratic side.
But the BC Liberals would appear to prefer to risk the ire of renters and twenty- and thirtysomethings rather than stir up the silent majority of homeowners who have benefitted directly from the latest leg up in house prices. In the latest throne speech, the government declared that it would “protect the savings and equity that existing homeowners have painstakingly placed in their homes,” notwithstanding the fact that there was nothing particularly painstaking about watching the price of a home soar and that such language implies that the increase was the product of hard work rather than good fortune. The signal was clear: we’re not touching this.
And as UBC Sauder School of Business professor Tom Davidoff—another person whose name was dropped in the legislature yesterday during Eby and de Jong’s exchange—told me a few weeks ago, protecting the interests of homeowners is probably the safer bet. “I think politicians are craven and want to get re-elected, by and large. Some of them are fantastic. And I think a lot are well-intentioned. But pissing off homeowners is a great way to lose an election, and I think everybody in politics knows that.” Perhaps. But pissing off prospective homeowners and people who have been priced out of the very idea itself may yet prove to be a new way to lose an election in 2017.