In a changing world, there will be more government

In 2005 Premier Gordon Campbell challenged the tourism industry to double in size by 2015; to go from a $9 billion industry in B.C. to an $18 billion industry.

While there were efforts made to increase access to B.C., to expand tourism education and to increase marketing, the primary means of growing the tourism industry turned out to be encouraging investment in real estate, at new or existing resorts (as well as in Vancouver, Victoria and Kelowna). From fishing lodges to ski areas to golf resorts to wineries, the model for growing tourism in B.C. has been to build more of them and finance them through the sale of condominiums. And up until recently it’s helped the economy, put people to work and created a lifestyle expectation associated with British Columbia.

But today there aren’t as many people who can afford to borrow (or lend) money for recreational real estate. So the development boom has ended, at least for now.

And if tourism in B.C. is going to be sustainable in the long term, building more resorts and lodges alone isn’t going to do it. The province has to attract greater numbers of visitors, in a world where transportation costs are going to increase. We may get a boost from the 2010 Olympics, as B.C.’s international profile increases, and if the economy starts to turn around. But at the moment every tourist area in the world is reining in its expectations, Whistler included.

So the model for growing tourism in British Columbia needs to be rethought.

A lot of things need to be rethought in 2009.

For the last quarter of a century in Canada, and much of the Western world, more and more responsibility has been given to individuals and corporations, as governments scrambled to get out of the way and let market forces work. There were, indeed, many successes. There were also the excesses that have led to the current recession and to governments bailing out banks and carmakers to try and stimulate the economy.

“Government,” for the last decade and a half in many Western democracies, has had less to do with governing or leading citizens and more to do with maintaining or gaining power. On the national level, most issues have divided cleanly along partisan and ideological lines. There has been little in the way of co-operation as politicians staked out their ideological turf and clung to it.

And many of the people who take the time to vote feel the same way as the politicians they have elected: politics is about winning and holding power, rather than about leading a nation or identifying common purpose.

But that too will begin to change in 2009. The problems that provinces and countries and the world face have become too great to continue as we have. Energy, the environment, the gulf between the wealthy few and the many poor, the population boom in developing countries… these are unsustainable conditions facing the world. It’s not a matter of us deciding when to deal with these matters; we won’t have a choice.

The instability the world faces is reflected in the wild swings we’ve seen just in 2008. Food prices rose so quickly in the first half of the year there were, briefly, fears of shortages of basic items in Canada. Housing prices, stock markets and the value of some enormous public companies have plunged dramatically in a short period of time.

In the last six months the price of oil has gone from $147 a barrel to less than $40 a barrel. It will go back up again, driving up gasoline prices, the cost of air travel, the cost of moving goods and the availability of some goods.

Get ready for more government. The world needs to change course, and governments are the only bodies that can make substantive change.

We’ve seen examples this fall with the bailout of banks, insurance companies and carmakers. There will be more.

Barack Obama and his government in waiting have dropped hints about a carbon tax and/or cap and trade system. Indeed, a New York Times editorial on Dec. 27 urged him to consider a gas tax. “While oil prices are all but sure to rise again as the world emerges from recession, further tempering consumption with a gas tax would both slow the rise in the price of crude and steer more revenue from energy consumption to the United States budget, rather than that of oil-exporting countries.”

This is not an issue Canadians can avoid. When President Obama decides to tackle greenhouse gas emissions and America’s dependence on foreign oil, Canada will have to fall in line with a comparable system.

Governments will play a bigger role in our future. That statement may elicit groans from some, but at least governments eventually have to face voters, unlike some leaders in the corporate world.

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