Graph from the B.C. Progress Board's final report shows B.C.'s performance relative to the rest of Canada through two decades and two economic slumps.

Graph from the B.C. Progress Board's final report shows B.C.'s performance relative to the rest of Canada through two decades and two economic slumps.

Progress Board served B.C. well

Provincial rankings were often misused, but core findings tell a valuable story.

How is B.C.’s economy doing?

This question occupies a great deal of time in our political debate. But since that debate is mostly an exercise in selecting facts and passing blame back and forth, it’s difficult to tell.

Former premier Gordon Campbell set out to change that in 2001 with the establishment of the B.C. Progress Board. Independent directors established six “core targets,” environmental, health and social indicators as well as economic measures, and tracked them annually with comparisons to other provinces.

This created a 10-year database that doesn’t exist anywhere else. But it hasn’t exactly been flattering, a sign that it has been kept free of political interference.

Premier Christy Clark’s recent decision to replace the Progress Board has sparked another round of political blame-storming. The NDP opposition was accustomed to jumping on the annual rankings and trumpeting the ones that cast the B.C. Liberals in a bad light. Predictably, they portrayed the remake of the board as an effort to sweep embarrassing results under the rug.

Media often focus on the political horse race rather than details of dull old policy. When the board’s annual reports came out, they typically covered the political fight and glossed over the findings.

The key flaw with the Progress Board turned out to be its emphasis on provincial rankings. B.C. ranked first for the entire 10 years in health and environmental conditions, and near the bottom in a complex measure of “social condition” that was often oversimplified as poverty.

In most measures, including economic ones, the rankings barely changed in a decade.

In his final report, board chair Gerry Martin noted that B.C.’s improvements in economic output and income were significant, but didn’t move them up the rankings because other provinces had similar success. Big recoveries in Saskatchewan and Newfoundland meant that B.C. sometimes slipped in the relative rankings despite major gains.

Martin noted that on crime, “initial performance was so poor that B.C.’s best-in-country improvements over several years were needed just to move B.C. to about average.” (There’s an example of how independent this board has been.)

Crime is part of the board’s “Social Condition Index,” along with low-birth-weight babies and long-term unemployment. This has been a favourite of opposition critics, because B.C. started low and slipped lower.

But they won’t tell you the whole story, through the NDP 1990s as well as the B.C. Liberal 2000s:

“B.C. ranked sixth in the Social Condition Index in 1990, improved to third in 1993, but deteriorated through the rest of the 1990s and into the next decade such that it sank to last place for 2001 and 2002,” the final report says.

“Improvements between 2002 and 2007 saw B.C. reach fifth place in 2006 and 2007, but rank changes on low birth weights and long-term unemployment brought B.C. to seventh in 2008 and ninth in 2009.”

Does this mean the NDP government of the 1990s did a bad job, or that the B.C. Liberals did better and then screwed up? It could be spun that way, but there are external factors involved.

The B.C. Progress Board didn’t just do rankings. Its policy suggestions were implemented in regulatory reform, energy self-sufficiency, creating community courts and UBC Okanagan, and proceeding with the Site C dam.

Martin notes that the successor organization, the Jobs and Investment Board, will carry on the performance monitoring and “hold government’s feet to the fire,” in particular on its ability to attract investment.

It’s time to stop arguing about the level of poverty and find new ways to alleviate it.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com

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