COMMENTARY · 8th May 2013
Oh I’m bound to go
Where the rain don’t fall
The winds don’t blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
Harry McClintock first recorded the song “In the Big Rock Candy Mountains” back in 1928. It describes a kind of hobo’s paradise where the sun shines every day, where there is a lake filled with stew and “of whisky too,” and where even the hens “lay soft-boiled eggs.”
These days, BC Liberal leader Christy Clark has her own version of the “Big Rock Candy Mountains” that she is yodelling about. According to Clark, the liquid natural gas (LNG) industry will somehow create 100,000 brand new jobs and generate $1 trillion in revenue over the next 30 years. In addition, she claims a $100 billion Prosperity Fund will be accumulated from the proceeds. Indeed, even the Provincial Sales Tax (PST) will supposedly be eliminated in this make-believe world where “the lemonade springs and the bluebird sings.”
Any serious economist knows that such claims are a fantasy, given the highly volatile nature of the natural gas industry, the fact that countries in Asia and elsewhere are also in the process of constructing LNG facilities, and so on. Where the natural gas market will be in five years, let alone 30 years is anyone’s guess. Constructing a dream world on such a shaky foundation is irresponsible and misleading. Does it have anything to do with the fact that natural gas interests heavily funded her campaign to win the Liberal leadership back in 2011?
Clark is also claiming that, in her Big Rock Candy Mountain world, she will balance the budget and eliminate the debt. Even establishment economists question her balanced budget “plan”, given that the BC Liberals, under her leadership, have added $11 billion to the provincial debt. As Gary Mason of the Globe and Mail has pointed out (May 5, 2013), since Clark has taken office, she “has racked up financial obligations at a faster rate than any other premier in B.C. history.”
So why is Premier Clark singing about the Big Rock Candy Mountains at this time? Is it to avoid some harsh realities about her BC Liberal government’s record? But these realities cannot be avoided no matter how much her teeth flash or how loud she sings.
In its ten years of office, the BC Liberal government has shown an outright contempt for the people of the province on many occasions. One example is the sale of BC Rail, where, before the 2001 election, the BC Liberals promised not to sell off the publicly-owned railway, yet broke that promise afterwards. .
Another notorious example is the imposition of the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). Before the 2009 election, the BC Liberals vowed that they were not planning to bring in the HST. Yet, in a surprise attack just two months after winning the election, they reversed themselves and tried to jam the hated tax down the throat of British Columbians.
These two examples alone constitute a gross breach of trust by the government against the people of the province. They also raise the question - What other surprise attacks do Clark and the BC Liberals have in mind for us if they are re-elected?
And then there is the issue of those institutions, programs and sectors that have proven their value over many years and successive governments. Voters, quite rightly, have an expectation that a responsible government will look after these legacies. But, here again, the BC Liberals have failed. Let’s look at just three examples.
First of all, BC Hydro. W.A.C. Bennett would be rolling over in his grave looking at what the BC Liberals have done to this precious crown corporation. For many decades, BC had what was termed the”BC Hydro advantage” of low electricity rates and a well-run enterprise, all of which was beneficial to the people of the province and to industrial users in the mining, forestry and other sectors. But the BC Liberals decided to muck up this advantage big time.
They have done so through a combination of siphoning off BC Hydro dividends, instituting a billion dollar smart meter boondoggle, deferring billions of dollars of expenses, and locking BC Hydro into buying power from private operators at absurdly high rates.
Secondly, the forest industry. For 100 years, forestry has been the industrial backbone of the province. Many communities in the Interior and North owe their existence to the longstanding policy of of tying log harvesting to processing facilities in these communities. Instead of updating and adapting this policy to new conditions, the Liberals chose to eliminate it outright. At the same time, they have dramatically ramped up the export of raw logs to other countries, while neglecting re-planting, forestry inventory, and forestry oversight. Under the BC Liberals, over 70 mills and value-added plants have closed, and 35,000 direct industrial jobs lost. There are a number of factors contributing to this disaster, including the pine beetle infestation and the downturn in the American market. But it is also true that the neo-liberal policy of de-regulation and handing control over the forest resource to the big forest companies has severely aggravated the damage.
Thirdly, skills training. For many decades, the BC trades and apprenticeship program was recognized for its high quality with 60% to 80% of its apprentices qualifying for nationally recognized certifications. Coming into the new century, a skills shortage was widely predicted as baby boomers retired and new industry developed. But, once again, the BC Liberals mucked up a successful program, shutting down the Industry Trades and Apprenticeship Commission, which was a partnership between industry, labour, educators and government, and cutting funding. They replaced it with a privatized system governed by industry, which has proven to be such a spectacular failure that even the auditor-general and industry leaders now acknowledge is a huge mess. As a result, apprenticeship completion rates have plummeted right at a time when there is an acute need for skilled workers.
In addition, to compound the training program, the BC Liberals, over the last five years, have not stood up for British Columbian workers regarding the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program. This program has allowed mining companies, like HD Mining, to bring in temporary foreign workers instead of hiring qualified BC miners. It was only after widespread opposition developed in the province and a union court case that the Christy Clark government changed its tune.
Maintaining trust with voters and looking after legacies like BC Hydro, the forest resource, and trades training are not minor issues. The Christy Clark government is trying to evade its poor record on all of these accounts by conjuring up visions of the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
But there is one problem – the Big Rock Candy Mountains don’t exist.
Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia. He can be reached at: peter.ewart,,,shaw.ca