Sunday, December 15, 2013

priorities trolling for dollars or sane speed limits?

Let me begin by stating that I am a Road Star, I receive the maximum safe driver discount from ICBC because of my accident free driving record.  I attribute my accident free record to the fact that I pay attention to the road and I go with the flow of traffic.  Because I do a lot of driving I find that this habit tends to also net me one or two tickets per year.  Thus I get the joy of receiving an obnoxious computer generated letter from ICBC threatening some mysterious punitive action because of my reckless behaviour.  Imagine how incredibly insulting and patronising such nanny state missives are, especially as someone who insures four vehicles with ICBC.

As someone who has driven extensively in the United States and to a lesser extent Germany let me state that I support speed limits.  I have driven on the autobahn where there are no speed limits and passing a truck while a split second later having some BMW six inches off your bumper, left blinker going, is unsettling to say the least.  I find it stressful, but I also find driving in British Columbia equally stressful because of our low speed limits and the number of poorly educated drivers we have particularly in the Victoria area.

On several occasions now I have watched in horror at drivers who are stopped on a merge lane because they do not understand the critical difference between a merge and a yield.  I have watched cars lazily go into the left lane without passing cars in the right which is the rule on most highways in North America.  I frequently drive on the Pat Bay Highway.  For most of its length the speed limit is only 80 km/h.  No one drives this speed limit, not even the police, except when the cops are out there trolling for dollars.  The inevitable result is bottle necks enhanced by the new slow down move over rule which pretty much ensures we now lose a lane and dangerous traffic congestion ensues.

I once talked to a retired RCMP officer about the Pat Bay Highway and he noted that in France the same road would have a speed limit of 130 km/h.  That may be a tad high but 80 km/h for most of its length is certainly far too low.  The law should reflect what speed most traffic is actually driving at and on the Pat Bay that would be 100 to 110 km/h

Let me contrast the anxiety I feel driving with the flow of traffic in BC, with that of driving in the United States where speed limits are on average 30 per cent higher.  First of all when I am going with the flow on a US Interstate, cars are generally at or below the posted speed limit and there is a focus on moving vehicles efficiently.  If people are not passing they stay in the right hand lane on a four lane highway.  Even under heavy traffic conditions it is often far easier to get around on a given stretch of highway in Washington State than in BC

The Sea to Sky Highway is a particularly amusing example of our province’s penchant for low speed limits.  I was driving up to Whistler to attend a UBCM conference shortly after the Sea to Sky Highway had received its billion dollar upgrade.  The speed limits were kept at 80 km/h.  It was a bright sunny September day with ideal driving conditions and as a result every vehicle was in the right hand lane driving at exactly 110 km/h.  We are talking everything from one tonne trucks to sports cars all doing 110 km/h while leaving the left passing lane completely empty.  No one wanted to do 120 km/h and risk getting their vehicle impounded but everyone was content to do 110 km/h and risk getting a speeding ticket.  That is because the speed limit was kept far too low.

A similar situation happened on the Nanaimo Parkway when it first opened; its speed limit was set at only 80 km/h.  So many tickets were issued (the Nanaimo RCMP are noted for their enthusiasm in handing out speeding tickets) that a public backlash ensued and the speed limit was raised to 90 km/h.  I was one of the people unfortunate enough to get a ticket back when it was still 80 km/h for going 90 km/h with the result that the state was able to milk me for a lot of money for having the temerity to go with the flow of traffic in the passing lane.

In general all highways that are posted at 80 km/h in BC should be raised to 100 km/h and all 90 km/h should be raised to 110 km/h.  There are going to be road situations like the infamous Malahat where speed limits will have to be lower but those signs should be in yellow to indicate that the government is not just being capricious but that this is a dangerously inadequate road and thus drive cautiously.

Now what about those all too rare sections of road where the current speed limit is 100 km/h or even 110 km/h?  Again bump them up by 20 km/h to 120 km/h and 130 km/h respectively.  There may be sections where you need to keep the speed limit lower than that but overall there should not be a highway in British Columbia with a general speed limit of less than 100 km/h.  If there is then you should not call it a highway and certainly not a freeway call it what it is a substandard roadway.

With speed limits that are set to maximise the flow of traffic rather than government revenue, I think we would have far less distracted drivers and fewer accidents.  In fact in those places in the United States where speed limits increased, traffic accidents and fatalities declined.  We might even start seeing the return of tourists who drive to B.C.

I thank you for your due consideration of this submission.  I would have presented it in person to your Nanaimo hearing except quite frankly I avoid driving up island because of the appalling condition of the Malahat and the aforementioned enthusiasm of the Nanaimo RCMP for ticketing drivers on the Island Highway.


Michael Geoghegan

PS This article/submission has also been posted to the SENSEBC website click here

Friday, November 01, 2013

It's time we had an education system that is geared towards skilled trades

If there is one thing the recent provincial election made clear, it's that blue collar jobs still matter in British Columbia.  Premier Christy Clark, did many a photo op while sporting a hard hat, while NDP leader Adrian Dix suddenly announced that he was opposed to the twinning of the Kinder Morgan pipeline.
The "Kinder surprise" as it has come to be known in political circles took the BC NDP from a twenty point lead to a devastating upset electoral defeat.  It was a clear message from voters, especially middle class and blue collar workers that they wanted a government that was friendly to business investment and resource sector development.
This is because most people understand that the resource sector and construction trades are one of the few areas where a young person can hope to obtain the kind of job that allows them to live on and perhaps even start a family.  Those jobs used to be plentiful but now with low paying service sector jobs burgeoning and manufacturing jobs all but non-existent, it is the skilled trades person or contractor who now has the best chance at making a middle class income.
The time has come where a skilled trade is more valuable than a university degree at yet our education system continues to behave as if the exact opposite was true.  A study from CIBC World Markets, by Benjamin Tal and Emanuella Enenajor, says that Canada has the highest proportion of adults with post-secondary degrees in the developed world.
Yes there are still areas of study such as engineering and medicine where graduates can still expect to make high incomes, but for many other graduates all they are left with is a significant amount of debt and very little in the way of enhanced job prospects.
In fact if you are a fine arts graduate you can expect to earn less than if you are just a high school graduate and as the CIBC study states:
"Narrowing employment and earning premiums for higher education mean that, on average, Canada is experiencing an excess supply of post-secondary graduates."
At the same time we are experiencing a shortage of skilled trades persons.  Why has this happened?  For one reason over the past 50 years, there has been far more in the way of resources directed towards universities than institutions that teach skilled trades.

For another there was this erroneous assumption that in the 21st century automation would replace all the jobs where you might get your fingernails dirty.  Yes you can use a robot to weld a car on an assembly line, but it doesn't work so good in terms of running medical gas lines through a hospital.

On the other hand no one envisioned a world in which computer code writing, accounting and even legal services would start to be outsourced to low paid but well educated people in places like Bangalore India.

In recent years there has been a growing movement to bring in skilled workers from other countries and in other instances there has been a movement to undermine the red seal certification program.  These are short term fixes and in the long run damaging to Canada's economy and public safety.

What we instead need to do is have a public education system that encourages people to become skilled tradespersons.  That means having well equipped and well funded wood working, metal, electrical and mechanics programs in all high schools throughout British Columbia.  It means turning the focus of our colleges away from being wannabe universities and towards skilled trades and designing curriculum in conjunction with British Columbia's contractors, unions and the Industry Training Authority so that credits and courses are readily transferrable.

We need to have post secondary institutions that are more responsive to the market place so that funding priorities line up with where the job market is at.  High schools and post secondary institutions also need to be far more aware of what jobs are actually in demand and be far more forthcoming with providing that information to students.

Why is it that most students graduate from highschool and even university without a clue as to how to start a business, the power of compounding interest, or even what they should study in order to maximise their chances of being successfully employed?

As consumers of increasingly expensive post secondary education, students should have the right to make informed decisions including which course of study gives them the best chance of paying off their student loans without going bankrupt or ending up as part of the growing ranks of the working poor.

By fostering skilled trades and greater business acumen we will also increase the number of successful small business owners.  This is critical as this is the group that, outside of government, does most of the hiring nowadays.

I know that my own son who is still in high school, is far more interested in making money in the oil patch than he is in being another post secondary student with a crushing debt load and meagre job prospects.  He wants to develop skills and work experience that will make him valuable not just in Canada but around the world, more young Canadians need to follow his example.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

My response to Minister Yap's Post on Liquor Reform in British Columbia

Minister Yap recently posted here  regarding the sale of beer and wine in liquor stores.  I for one applaud this effort by the Christy Clark government to once again attempt to modernize British Columbia's antiquated liquor laws.  Province Newspaper columnist Jon Ferry also quoted from my posting here.  My response which I also posted on the Minister's blog is as follows:

First of all British Columbia has the highest mark up and taxes on alcohol in North America and the fifth highest in the world. That is quite an achievement when one considers that Quebec is usually noted for its heavy handed taxation.
But we have to live with the legacy of the Temperance movement and its influence with the Social Credit Government of WAC Bennett long after prohibition had ended in other jurisdictions. That is why until the 1970s beer halls were dingy dark places in B.C. But we have come a long way since then, but not without a lot of kicking and struggling. At one point it was a big deal that a famous restaurant chain wanted to have large TV screens in their bars.
At the time it was illegal and after a lot of ridicule in the media, and lobbying at the legislature, the government of the day made this modest change. So it is with this backdrop in mind that I answer the Minister’s question regarding the sale of alcohol in grocery stores.
Being able to buy wine in a grocery store is the mark of a civilized society. Having to pay 113% in taxes on a bottle of wine is the mark of a greedy government. Yes we should be able to buy wine in grocery stores but we should not have to be shelling out $20 or $30 for bottles of wine that would be considered utter swill in most other areas of the first world.
I think that any grocery store should be able to sell wine, and I think that any convenience store should be able to sell beer and wine. I think that hard liquor should be reserved for private liquor stores and I think that government liquor stores should be gradually phased out. But most of all the mark up on beer wine and spirits should be brought down to a level that is more reasonable than 113 per cent.
There are many fine scotches that are simply not brought to BC because once the taxes and mark ups are applied they become far too expensive to be sold in any quantity. Thus in an effort to nanny state consumers, all you end up doing is depriving consumers of choice.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Closing BC and Canada's Skilled Trades Gap

On March 21st Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivered a budget that while focused on deficit reduction, also emphasized infrastructure funding and reallocating funding to boost skills training.

The training initiative proposes a new Canada Job Grant that will provide up to $5,000 per person for job training – an amount that must be matched by provinces or territories and employers for a total of $15,000.  The goal is to match unemployed Canadians with more than 220,000 current job vacancies across Canada and provide more job opportunities for disabled people, youth and aboriginals.

The focus on skills training comes from the Conservative government’s consultations with employers and unions, who identified gaps in training as one of the biggest obstacles to economic growth.  However, this new job grant plan requires that the provinces and territories agree to it, there is also no new money involved.

On February 28, I had a breakfast meeting in Victoria with Ted Menzies who is the Minister of State for Finance and one of the issues he brought up was the disconnect between post secondary institutions and the needs of the job market.  One example he provided was where a company had expressed doubts about building an oil refinery in Alberta in part because of a lack of skilled trades people.

As I have been saying for some time now, my suggestion to him was that if money is allocated to individuals rather than given lump sum to colleges and universities it would force those institutions to be less ivory tower and much more attuned to the needs of the business community and the labour market.  The federal government appears to have listened, it will be interesting to see how the provinces respond.

The Industry Training and Apprenticeship Commission (ITAC) was created in November 1997 as a provincial government-sponsored, industry-driven, arms-length strategic policy board. After receiving some bad advice the Campbell government dismantled ITAC just as the skilled labour shortage was really beginning to hit the construction industry.

As it has done more recently with the Tourism BC, the BC Liberal government did an about face and recreated a similar organisation with a slightly different name, the Industry Training Authority or ITA.  The ITA works with employers, employees, industry, labour, training providers and government to issue credentials, manage apprenticeships, set program standards, and increase opportunities in the trades in B.C.

The ITA has struggled to close the gap between the need for skilled trades and the supply.  Some have blamed the lingering effects of dismantling ITAC, others that contractor associations like MCABC and trade unions don't have the same day to day input into ITA as they did ITAC while others blame demographics as the front wave of the baby boom are now becoming senior citizens.

All of these have been factors, but there has also been a disconnect with our public education system which has put far more value on encouraging English lit majors than encouraging future contractors, project managers, electricians, welders and the like.  School boards that must balance their budgets every year have found it expedient not just to cut funding for music classes but also for those kids who want to take woodworking, metal work and mechanics courses.

Also given the socialist dogma that passes for intelligent discourse within the upper echelons of the BCTF, is there little wonder that our kids learn almost nothing at school when it comes to starting a business or even the importance of compounding interest rates.  If our children were taught more in the way of business fundamentals and skilled trades in high school then we would likely have far fewer unemployed youth and I suspect fewer consumers being fleeced by payday lending companies.

Given the latest polls putting the BC NDP at 51% and the governing BC Liberals at 32% it seems extremely likely that the BC NDP will be elected as the next provincial government in May of this year.  That will make their leader Adrian Dix the next Premier of B.C.
Having met in February with both Adrian Dix and his finance critic Bruce Ralston I can tell you that education and skills training is a top priority for a Dix government.  The challenge will be to ensure that dollars just don't go to academia but to effective skills training that meets employers' needs.

The BC NDP plans to instigate a $100 million grant program to help students obtain post-secondary education.  They also plan to pay for this by reinstating a capital tax on banks.  But unless the dollars are allocated in a way that allows students to direct those dollars to those institutions and entities that are doing the most effective skills trade training then those millions of dollars can easily be wasted.

That is why I sincerely hope that British Columbia, even under a BC NDP government, will be willing to listen to the federal government and be part of a more market driven and market responsive skills training system.  Both employer and employee alike will greatly benefit from such an approach.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What is lobbying?

Today I had an interview via Skype with Sun News.  That necessitated going out and buying a new web cam; so in testing it out I decided to do up a quick blurb about lobbying.  That video is posted below and has also been posted on a friend's blog site here.

For further information about lobbying, which in Canada is known as Government Relations, Public Affairs and the Harlem Shuffle, oh wait we're not using that last term, yet, click on my government relations page on my consulting website.

Friday, January 11, 2013

B.C.'s Pipeline Politics

Ever since China's economy started booming British Columbia has been billing itself as Canada's gateway to the Pacific.  Billions of dollars of investment has been made by China into western Canada, especially with regards to resource extraction.  Canada with the odd exception has by and large welcomed this investment in order to make our nation's economy less dependent on that of The United States of America.

Some of this investment has included access to Alberta's oil sands.  Having purchased a portion of this resource, China is anxious to get the oil that is produced to its country by the shortest route possible.  That means transporting it from Alberta across northern B.C. to a terminal in Kitimat and from there by supertanker to China.

In 2010 Enbridge submitted a proposal to build a twin pipeline to the National Energy Board.  The proposed project consists of two parallel pipelines running between Bruderheim, Alberta, and a marine terminal near Kitimat.  The two pipelines would be 1,177 kilometers (731 miles) in length.  One pipeline would pump Crude oil from Alberta to BC while natural gas condensate would move in the opposite direction. Condensate would be used to dilute the heavy crude oil and make it easier to transport by pipeline.

The crude oil pipeline would have a diameter of 36 inches (910 mm) and a capacity of 525 thousand barrels per day. The condensate pipeline would have a diameter of 20 inches (510 mm) with a capacity of 193 thousand barrels per day. The project, including a marine terminal in Kitimat, is projected to cost $5.5 billion and would be up and running by 2015 at the earliest if it is approved.  Given the political climate in B.C. that is a very big if.

The first problem the project faces is competition.  Kinder Morgan Energy operates the 1,150-kilometre (710 mile) long Trans Mountain pipeline system from Edmonton, Alberta to terminals and refineries in central British Columbia, Vancouver and the Puget Sound region in Washington State.  Kinder Morgan would like to increase their pipeline's capacity by twelve times, up to 600,000 barrels per day.   They believe their project is more cost efficient and by building along an existing pipeline route they hope to avoid the controversy that the Enbridge Project has suffered from.
Another competing project is TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline which US President Barack Obama is expected to soon give approval to.  This project would  transport synthetic crude oil from Alberta's oil sands to refineries in Illinois, the Cushing oil distribution hub in Oklahoma and then finally connect to refineries along the Gulf Coast of Texas.
The problem for China is for both strategic and practical reasons, they don't want the oil they have purchased from Alberta flowing through the US and they don't want the extra cost and expense of shipping it by tanker from the Gulf of Mexico through the Panama Canal and then diagonally across the Pacific to China.

That brings us back to the Enbridge proposal.  BC NDP leader Adrian Dix has promised to pull B.C. out of the federal review process if he’s elected Premier in the upcoming May election.  Prior to recently being elected a federal MP for Victoria, B.C., Dix had hired constitutional lawyer Murray Rankin to consider a legal challenge on who has jurisdiction over pipeline approvals in B.C.

Rankin has argued that B.C. should withdraw from the federal government’s Pipelines review process and set up a made-in-B.C. environmental assessment process.  Adrian Dix meanwhile has stated that within a week of forming government he will withdraw B.C. from the 2010 agreement that left the environmental review of the project under federal government control.
Meanwhile the current Premier of B.C. Christy Clark has squabbled with Alberta Premier Alison Redford over concerns that BC will receive only a $6.1 billion share of the pipeline project that is expected to earn $81 billion in government revenues over 30 years, while having a majority of the environmental risk.

Last but not least many First Nations and Aboriginal Groups located along the proposed pipeline route have expressed their opposition to the Enbridge Project while there have been public opinion polls showing significant concern about increased tanker traffic along B.C.'s northern coastal waters.

All this has made getting Enbridge's Northern Gateway Pipeline Project approved all the more unlikely.  It is worth keeping in mind that this $5 billion to $6 billion project would be the largest private sector investment in British Columbia's history.  In addition to over $200 million per year in tax revenues for B.C., Enbridge's pipeline project would create 3000 jobs during the construction phase and 560 long term jobs.

There is one final point that few in the media have commented on.  Although pipelines are the most efficient ways to transport oil they are not the only means.  A more expensive option in terms of shipping costs, would be transport the oil by tanker cars on both the CN and CP rail tracks that go from Alberta to Kitimat.  From there the oil could still be loaded onto supertankers for shipment to China.

One thing is certain, having purchased a sizeable stake in Alberta's oil sands, China will get its oil shipped home.  The only question is whether or not the supertankers carrying that oil will be docking in Kitimat, Vancouver or the Gulf of Mexico.

Michael Geoghegan is a government relations consultant based in Victoria, BC