Business leaders from B.C.’s downtown centres had high hopes when they met with Premier David Eby in Victoria this week.
They’d spent eight months lobbying his government for financial aid to help their businesses stay afloat amidst rising vandalism costs caused by ongoing public safety concerns. Where better for the government to follow through on a promised aid package than during the premier’s keynote address to a ballroom full of business leaders eagerly awaiting his help?
But, oddly, they got nothing.
Eby gave a paint-by-numbers speech of his government’s priorities to an impatient crowd. When it came time for a question and answer session, Business Improvement Areas of BC president Teri Smith was friendly, but her first question was clear:
“I’m just wondering, taking some messages back to our communities and to our businesses, when can we expect further details?”
There was polite laughter from the audience and the premier at the elephant in the room.
“Well, we know the situation is quite urgent for many BIAs (business improvement associations) across the province,” replied Eby.
“And so we definitely, I definitely, have that sense of urgency.”
All evidence to the contrary, though, for a premier whose economic development minister has been saying for months she’s working on the issue.
Businesses have made a good case that they are taking the brunt of a worsening prolific offender crisis playing out on downtown streets.
Nanaimo’s Vault Cafe reported seven acts of vandalism in seven weeks, leaving a trail of thousands of dollars of damage in broken windows. Others are wrestling with security costs, break-ins, thefts, smashed property and general disorder due to worsening drug use, homelessness, untreated mental health concerns, random assaults and violence.
While small business owners sink under costs — which also include inflationary pressures, plus rescue loans from the federal government during COVID-19 that are now coming due — the government fiddles with policy work.
“What we want to do is make sure whatever we put in place will be successful for you will actually respond to the needs that you have in communities,” said Eby.
The premier offered a glimpse into what might be going on, a bit later in his answer.
“One aspect, certainly that we're focused on, is the response to issues of vandalism,” he said.
“So that's the work that's happening, the policy work that's happening. We're moving as quickly as possible at the speed of government. And we will be delivering for you and our partnership.”
More polite laughter from the audience at the “speed of government” line. But it has a ring of truth around it, which you occasionally pick up from the premier in his answers on issues.
Eby is moving at a blistering pace, bouncing around the province promising to fix issues in areas of forestry, mining, climate change, bail reform, policing, addictions, health care, affordability, post-secondary training, Indigenous reconciliation and more.
He has no shortage of ideas on how to improve things. But getting them actually turned into policy, legislation and announceables? That unsexy part of the problem-solving equation can lag.
In an interview after Eby’s address, Smith cut the premier a great deal of slack — which is a good strategy when you are actively trying to convince a government to help you.
“What we were really hoping for is to have some type of program that businesses could have access to that could provide them with relief, with respect to the financial toll that they're facing from rampant vandalism and crime,” she said. “So there are discussions happening.”
The provincial government is looking “from a regional perspective” in helping businesses, said Smith.
“We had hoped that we may have understood more details in terms of what that funding or program would look like,” she said. “But we did get a commitment that they are working on it and we are going to be hearing about it very soon.”
Very soon can mean very different things, though.
There’s the speed of the real world, with daily broken glass and disorder, and then there’s the speed of the provincial government, tucked safely away in its cocoon in Victoria.
Even this premier, who is moving at an extraordinary pace, can’t seem to drag the bureaucracy along fast enough to keep up.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. firstname.lastname@example.org