-- COLUMN --
Clarks No-Show a Snub to the Industry
By Jim Sterling
People were disappointed and angry. They failed to understand the premiers cavalier attitude toward the forest industry.
Glen Clark blew it big time. British Columbias premier recently sidestepped a unique opportunity to rebuild some level of confidence and communication with the leaders of the provinces forest industry. He chose not to honour a commitment to deliver his vision of the BC economy to the Northern Forest Products Associations (NFPA) annual meeting in Prince George.
The premiers decision demonstrated a lack of political judgement and plain bad manners. This is the second straight year hes accepted an invitation to address the NFPA convention, only to change his mind at the last minute. The snubbing of the industry that drives his provinces economic engine generated a range of emotions among the approximately 1,000 delegates, all of whom wanted to listen to Glen Clark. None of that emotion was positive; people were disappointed and angry. They failed to understand the premiers cavalier attitude toward the forest industry. "Does the man not give a damn about the industry at all?" was a version of an oft-repeated question. Some observers suggested he was scared of the reaction hed receive from a roomful of industry leaders. Surely not. Clark wouldnt win any popularity contests in Prince George. His governments policies are major contributors to the industrys loss of competitive edge.
But he would not, even metaphorically, have been strung up by his bootstraps to the citys giant grinning Mr. PG mascot. Besides, dealing with non-partisan or even hostile crowds is part of the politicians lot. Right or wrong, pleasant or distasteful, it comes with the democratic process.
But Clark s sense of timing must be shot. In recent months, his government has made moves to reduce some of the costs it imposed on the industry. These included stumpage reductions and efforts to streamline the bureaucracy surrounding the provinces Forest Practices Code without reducing its effectiveness. These initiatives came terribly late in the day for the industrys financial well-being, but they are helping. Clark can be a clever and persuasive speaker and the NFPA forum offered an ideal chance for him to develop and enhance a more conciliatory and co-operative approach to the industrys and provinces economic plight.
But he opted to be elsewhere. Bill Clinton wasnt urgently seeking Clarks counsel on Kosovo or anything else. The Lions Gate Bridge hadnt collapsed. Clark said "No" to the NFPA to attend to other unspecified business in Vancouver.
Perhaps Clark has yet to grasp that the forest industry s poor health does not just affect dusty little Interior towns. Or maybe he thought dispatching Deputy Premier Dan Miller in his stead and having Forests Minister Dave Zirnhelt participating on another NFPA panel represented ample government presence. Loyal lieutenants are fine, but Clarks government is a one-man show and thats Glen Clark.
The affable Miller, in yet another awkward situation not of his making, said he could appreciate the delegates sense of disappointment at his bosss non-appearance. And, understandably, made no further reference to the subject. One really has to feel for Greg Jadrzyk, the NFPA president, and his staff. They understand the premier of a province is a very busy person whom everyone wants a piece of. But the NFPA had lengthy discussions with the premiers office and built the convention around Clarks schedule. Then, with characteristic diligence, went about assembling the highest-profile forest industry leaders and observers in the associations history. Some of BCs largest corporate taxpayers were there. Paul Martin, Canadas finance minister and some say Prime Minister-in-waiting, figured the NFPA convention was worth the trip from Ottawa. A group of Japanese journalists were among the many anticipating Clarks address. But Clark stayed home.
His absence leads to inevitable conclusions when placed in perspective. Clarks personal agenda is even more circuitous than imagined or the man wont recognize the forest industrys role in the economy and his responsibilities toward it.
Jake Kerr, chairman and CEO of Lignum Ltd., did show up and updated delegates on trade policy issues, which included the arbitration process with the US government under the softwood lumber agreement on whether the stumpage relief granted last summer constitutes a breach of the agreement. BC never gave away the right to manage its own affairs, asserted Kerr. But he said the arbitration process is a crapshoot and the issue would be better settled before a decision is handed down.
Kerr also cautioned against embracing a simplistic solution toward any new version of a softwood lumber agreement between BC and the US. The much-loved agreement, which Kerr helped negotiate, involves a ponderous quota system but has stalled further US countervail action. He emphasized that the issue is complex. It requires "big-picture thinking" and "thoughtful analysis" to reach a consensus.
Alberta, Ontario and Quebec are signatories to the agreement but dont share BCs cost burden problems. "We have to get our costs fixed big time," urged Kerr. He also noted the structural differences between the BC Coast and Interior forest industries.
The agreement expires in a US election year, meaning politics will be even more rampant. Kerr said the US continues to be concerned about market share, and reminded delegates the country is Canadas largest customer.But Kerr remains positive. He feels the wealth of experience in BCs forest industry will transcend finger-pointing and whining, and an acceptable consensus will be reached in dealing with the Americans on softwood lumber exports.
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