It has been a depressing election campaign.
Consider some of the big issues that our leaders and the media have positioned as major differences between the parties. On deficits, two parties promise to balance the budget and the third says it will run a deficit of less than 0.5 percent of gross domestic product (to put that in perspective, Europe’s Maastricht criteria set 3 per cent as a limit and many countries ignored it).
The niqab has rocked the campaign, despite CBC reporting that only two people have not proceeded with their citizenship ceremony since 2011 because of the ban. One party is in favour of having six fighter-bombers attacking ISIS, while the others favour zero. On trade, the difference is between opening 3.25 per cent of our dairy market to foreigners while the other side prefers zero.
We are lucky that the country is in such good shape that we can afford political leaders who play small ball.
I tried to think of a big issue I hadn’t seen mentioned once during the campaign.
How about innovation and Canada’s high tech sector? One of the thousand people running for Parliament probably mentioned it at some point during the 77-day campaign, but I missed it.
Why do we care about high tech? After all, California and South Korea seem quite happy to keep selling us all the smartphones, social media websites and GPS-enabled fitness wristbands we could ever need.
The answer comes from a report put out in June, just before the election campaign began in earnest, by the B.C. statistical agency.
It turns out that high tech jobs in B.C. paid an average of $1,390 per week in 2013 versus the provincial average of $870. The sector employed 4.4 per cent of B.C.‘s workers, more than the mining, oil and gas, and forestry sectors combined. Over the previous five years, the sector grew at over double the rate shown by the economy overall.
So far, so good. A growing industry with high-paid jobs and a low environmental footprint sounds pretty good. It’s what we need to generate the tax revenues to pay for our health, education and retirement systems over the coming decades.
There is a growing list of successful Vancouver technology companies. Investors in eyewear e-tailer Coastal Contacts and dating site Plentyoffish.com successfully exited in multi-hundred-million dollar deals recently. Their newly-rich investors now have money to invest in the next generation of start-ups. Meanwhile, another wave of companies such as Hootsuite are ready to be the next big thing.
It sounds very promising. And it is.
But the rub comes when you flip to the page of the report that compares B.C. and Canada to other places.
The high tech industry is about seven per cent of the Canadian economy, and slightly less in B.C.
That turns out to be lower than places like Minnesota and Pennsylvania. And it is nowhere near the Western states like Colorado, Washington, Oregon or California. All of these are double the Canadian average or more.
In fact, 28 states had high tech sectors that were a bigger part of their economy than B.C.‘s.
And as for that 4.4 per cent of B.C.‘s workforce earning high wages in the high tech sector, in neighbouring Washington State the figure is over 10 per cent.
Even Oregon is above six per cent. Yukonomist sources in Portland say that clean water is part of the story. Chip fabs, as Portlandians call semiconductor fabrication plants, require large amounts of super-clean water, and it is cheaper to start with clean water than filter the dirty stuff. B.C. has as much water as Oregon, of course.
That might be why the industry got started in Oregon, but now there is a cluster of highly skilled workers. The job boards in Oregon are less about lumber and flannel shirts, and more about user-interface engineers and chip prototyping.
The Globe and Mail reported a few years ago that around 350,000 Canadians live and work in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. That’s more than the population of several provincial capital cities. U.S. tech companies are crawling with Canadian talent. A Canadian networking organization in Silicon Valley, the C100, organizes events and even training courses like “Valley 101” for new arrivals from up north. C100 claims that companies that have gone through its programs have raised over $1 billion in capital since 2009.
Canada has great universities, a superb quality of life and even things like government-owned Business Development Bank’s venture capital fund to support early stage ventures. In the Internet age, it’s not geography that’s keeping Vancouver from having as vibrant a tech scene as Seattle.
So why is Canada lagging behind? People have lots of theories. But I’d like to hear our leaders share their thoughts and – even more importantly – what they would do about it.
Anyway, back to our national debate about keeping foreign milk off our grocery store shelves.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won this year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show.