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Bad habits in the court of King Gord

By Jim Stirling

ajority governments can drift into bad habits. It’s too easy for them to get carried away with their own agendas and importance. A consequence of that is the temptation to run roughshod over opposition parties and basic parliamentary and democratic principles and procedures. British Columbia’s majority Liberal government is demonstrating such worrying tendencies as it prepares to face the voters next May.

An example of such behaviour is the deliberate restriction of debate on legislation, including the government’s new bioenergy tenures which could have profound effects on the structure and operation of the forest industry in the BC Interior.

“This new tenure has huge implications for the existing forest industry, emerging industries, the management of our forest resources and the government’s overall climate change agenda, and it passed with only a half hour of debate,” complains Bob Simpson, MLA for Cariboo North, in a communication to his constituents. “Again, we’re not getting enough time to debate substantial changes to legislation this session.”

It was the Liberals that set the amount of debate time available for its proposed legislation. This particular piece of farreaching legislation says the Minister of Forests has the right to directly award wood waste and standing timber to any company that holds a bioenergy contract with BC Hydro.

“I have serious concerns about the lack of public consultation leading up to this new tenure,” continues Simpson. “There are also questions about the economic viability and environmental impacts of bioenergy. The government’s own research indicates it is not economically viable without significant government subsidies which will most likely be in the form of much higher costs to BC Hydro and therefore, more costs to ratepayers.”

Simpson is the NDP’s forestry critic and as such, it’s his job to be a thorn in the government’s side and question its policies. And Simpson does it well, possessing as he does a forest industry background. But whether one agrees or disagrees with Simpson’s viewpoint is nowhere near as important as the Liberal’s “we know best” attitude and the resultant curtailment of legislative debate time. It’s a dangerous form of arrogance.

There is little doubt the approach emanates from Premier Gordon Campbell’s office. Supporters say Campbell demonstrates a hands-on approach to his duties. Critics—including some within his own party—claim he’s a control freak and worse. Certainly, nothing of import moves fast forward in the BC Legislature without King Gord’s say so. But if Campbell possesses a master plan on how the Interior forest industry might be structured and his green imperatives furthered, he’s choosing not to divulge details to the rest of us just now.

There are some hints. A couple came from Rich Coleman, in one of his last official appearances as Minister of Forests and Range. Campbell shuffled him out the door in favour of the affable Pat Bell, MLA for Prince George North. Coleman has the reputation of shooting from the lip, which can make for colouful quotes. But that’s not Campbell’s style. It might help explain why Coleman now finds himself learning the ropes as Minister of Housing and Social Development.

But I digress. It was Coleman as forests minister who was a featured speaker at a bioenergy conference and exhibition held in conjunction with Forest and Resources Expo at Prince George in June. And he alluded to the new bioenergy forest tenures. He predicted BC Hydro will call for 1,000 gigawatt hours a year of bioenergy production.

The long-term tenures will allow companies to harvest standing dead trees (killed by the mountain pine beetle) as well as accessing slash piles and roadside waste. There are huge volumes of these types of fibre left in the forest as lumber producers extract what they need for their manufacturing purposes and leave the rest.

Coleman told the bioenergy conference audience these wood volumes will be affixed with minimum stumpage fees. The government wants to move it off the land to places where it needs to go, he said. “The legislation allows us to do it and we’re just going to do it,” he declared in vintage Coleman-esque style and reflective of a fine sentiment from a public servant. There’s an estimated 710 million cubic metres of biofuel grade wood sitting out in BC’s forests.

But, as indicated, there are many questions remaining about the operational mechanics of how these wood types can efficiently and economically end up where they need to be. Perhaps it’s naive to suggest some of those questions should be coupled with practical answers. Further, that the process should take place before enabling legislation so that some of the intangibles that will inevitably be encountered with the introduction of a new form of forest industry can be both addressed and accommodated. But we have to hope Mr Campbell knows best. At least he has no doubt of that.

But the last word to Simpson on what is the key point here: “I’ve said many times that British Columbians must pay more attention to what is going on with their political process. Democracy is a fragile form of government and must be guarded and protected if it is to be effective.” Amen, Mr Simpson, amen.