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Are the B.C. Liberals planning to boost Uber, Airbnb and the sharing economy?

The B.C. Liberals say they're gathering public input on 'the sharing economy,' but political watchers see recent ads as a sign of the long-governing party's next move.

The party calls the social ad campaign 'consultation,' but political watchers say it signals their next move

Uber, Airbnb, and other companies in the 'sharing economy' appear to have caught the eye of the B.C. Liberal party, led by Christy Clark, seen here Monday at the B.C. Tech Summit. (Graeme Roy and Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The B.C. Liberals want to know what you think about the so-called sharing economy — companies like Uber, Airbnb and Lyft whose apps are disrupting traditional taxi and hotel business models.

Or perhaps, the party wants you to think they want to know what you think.

For the past few weeks, sponsored posts from the BC Liberals have been popping up on Facebook and Instagram, asking "Should B.C. welcome the sharing economy?" with a prompt to click "Yes" or "Not sure."

The available answers do not include no.

The B.C. Liberals say they are 'consulting' with the people of B.C. on the sharing economy, using a social ad campaign that points to a page harvesting email addresses and postal codes. (B.C. Liberal Party/Facebook)

Click through, and you're taken to a page pitching the benefits of Uber and Airbnb for consumers and entrepreneurs, with a form to enter your name, email address and postal code — if you agree.

The party says it's gathering public input, but those who watch both B.C. politics and the sharing economy see the campaign as less about consultation than shoring up support, and a mailing list, for the long-governing party's next move.

Liberals have 'made up their mind'

The B.C. Liberals declined to discuss the campaign in an interview, offering a statement instead.

"We're hearing a lot of feedback on the sharing economy, and we're committed to consulting with the people of the province on new opportunities," wrote a party communications officer.

But that consultation has left little room to hear from those who disagree, beyond comments on the party's social media posts.

"There was no option to say no, so it's definitely a 'push poll,' in terms of driving people towards learning more about it, which would suggest they're going to be moving in that direction."" said Marc-David Seidel, an associate professor at UBC's Sauder School of Business.

Even adopting the term "the sharing economy" — critiqued by some as a faux-friendly face on a multi-billion dollar industry — signals what the B.C. Liberals think about Uber and Airbnb, says University of Victoria political scientist Michael Prince.

"It's pretty clear from reading the message about 'the sharing economy' that the B.C. Liberals have pretty much made up their mind about it."

Filling out the form, as Prince did, delivers no more information about the party's plans — and it's important to note, this is the party, not the provincial government.

That leads the political scientist to wonder how the B.C. Liberals will use the data on possible supporters.

"I think it's a great chance for them to build up a mailing list ... to reach out to, I have a hunch, younger British Columbians."

Toronto Taxi drivers block the intersection of Bay and Queen Streets during their anti-Uber protest last month. (David Donnelly/CBC News)

Tech sector shift?

On one hand, that could seen as an about-face for the BC Liberals. Transportation Minister Todd Stone has previously warned Uber away, promising fines, legal action, and even dozens of undercover officers to bust anyone operating a "taxi-like service" without a license.

Even Christy Clark's recent tech sector promotion is a shift for a party that won the last B.C. election pitching LNG exports as economic salvation, said Prince.

But, the sharing economy ad's messages about creating jobs and government getting out of the way are also classic B.C. Liberal mantra, he said.

"There's a debate to be had here, and it's something that will clearly raise the concerns of the NDP and organized labour in this province," said Prince, referring to anti-Uber protests by taxi drivers in Toronto and around the world.

"But perhaps the Liberals are quite happy to have this seen as something they're for and the other side is against."

What exactly the Liberals would do is unclear, but it could include regulation changes around licensing or insurance, said Seidel.

Sharing economy 'inevitable'

For those who consider B.C. and Uber-eschewing Vancouver woefully behind in the adoption of a major trend in business and technology, it's a welcome signal from the party in power.

"It would help British Columbia and Vancouver in particular catch up with the rest of the tech-enabled world, instead of living in the old-fashioned economy," said Seidel.

Seidel considers growth of the sharing economy "inevitable" in B.C., due to both industry lobbying efforts and demands from average consumers.

"It's very difficult to be considered a legitimate place for tech innovation if you shut down every type of tech innovation that exists," said Seidel.

And you never know what Uber and the others moving in might do to spark some made-in-Vancouver start-up, he said, sharing something to do with skiing or hiking or another sector we haven't imagined.

"It's a stimulation to give ideas to people here, the young entrepreneurs here, who might then come up with the next big idea. And maybe that will be a B.C. company."

But before all that can happen, the B.C. Liberals will have to do a little sharing of their own: what they plan to do, so British Columbians can decide for themselves whether it's time to "welcome" these companies.

This cob house on B.C.'s Mayne Island house was named the fourth-most 'Wish-Listed' rental property in the world by to Airbnb. (Airbnb)

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