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Current Upturn Masks Incompetence of BC’s NDP Government

tractors.jpg (8686 bytes)By John Clarke


Even before the rebellion in the caucus and the NDP party, and long before the developments which saw the recent resignation of BC Premier Glen Clark, Clark had already become the lamest of lame duck premiers.

Forget the problems of the Nanaimo "Bingogate" scandal, a couple of surplus budgets that never were, a $250-million cost overrun on a fast ferry building project and an RCMP night raid on Clark’s home during a casino licence investigation. All of this took place on the New Democratic Party’s watch and added up to a litany of incompetence that taxed the public’s patience and drove opinion polls to historic lows.

For early proof of problems nobody needed look further than the forest industry. When Clark recently welcomed the Weyerhaeuser takeover of BC’s signature corporation, MacMillan Bloedel, as an "incredible vote of confidence in the province," he was in effect admitting he had run out of options.

The implicit notion that more concentration of corporate power, as reflected in the Weyerhaeuser-MB axis, fits into NDP philosophy is not being taken seriously. Fletcher Challenge Canada’s subsequent announcement of a planned takeover of its New Zealand parent’s forest assets, to become BC’s biggest company, confirms a trend toward concentration that Clark could not expect to do anything about.

BC has become such a pariah to investors that Clark must have been surprised by joy at this reversal of fortune. A trend is developing, further reinforced by Canfor’s announcement in August that it intends to take over Prince George-based Northwood, with its four sawmills and one pulp mill, for $635 million.

Other companies may see themselves as vulnerable in a new world of global com-petition among global-sized corporations and start thinking about getting together to protect themselves. In that event, smaller operators further down the line may look for protection to a government that simply won’t be able to deliver.

The Clark people painted themselves into a corner by creating an industrial climate that few investors had confidence in at all. The current upturn in lumber prices and company profits masks continuing under-lying difficulties with forest policies. Those profits really hang by a slender thread called the Canadian dollar.

If it were to move up to 72 cents US next year, as economists are predicting, the industry could go into the tank again. That’s why Victoria is receptive to any corporate initiative that might help fix the problem with-out risking offence to its political friends by doing something itself.

But that attitude significantly cramps its ability to make public policy for the forests. The industry can hardly have much confidence in a government like that or the will to co-operate with it.

None of this is surprising when the record of the last six years through two NDP administrations is considered. Their adventures in the lumber trade have been breath-taking, marked by a "we-know-better" air on the part of the government.

The mistakes may have been com-pounded by the collapse of the Asian markets. But it’s now acknowledged that NDP initiatives, many of them reflecting a new culture of public and environmental aware-ness, have added more than $1 billion to the industry’s costs.

There’s no argument with the need for the Forest Practices Code. A system of practice and regulations in a single document is accepted as unavoidable in a province with the best and largest timber base in the country. But nobody expected it to be so hugely bureaucratic.

It has created mountains of paperwork and long delays in the approval process, which weaken the options for flexible response to the ups and downs of economic conditions. The fact that Victoria is now switching from a prescriptive to a results oriented approach, leaving the industry to meet the Code’s objectives in its own ways, simply underlines the original flaws.

Forest Renewal BC, the Crown corporation set up by government and funded by a super stumpage charge on the industry, is reputedly on its last legs. It was slow get-ting off the mark in funding for intensive reforestation and general silviculture, logging road deactivation and other forms of cleanup, and in setting up retraining pro-grams for out-of-work loggers.

There have been fights with profession-al tree-planters, who think of union planters as amateur interlopers. There has been a disarming political controversy over an apparent plan to siphon some FRBC money into general government revenue.

A Jobs and Timber Accord was supposed to create 39,800 jobs over five years, 22,000 of them by 2001. Instead, the jobs have continued to disappear, although the return of overseas markets may reverse that trend.

These are all initiatives from a government determined to write its own agenda for the forests. Now come the Weyerhaeuser, Fletcher Challenge and Canfor moves that reveal an industry determined to take more control of its own destiny. And all Victoria can say is okay.

This has to be troubling for any present or future government. An administration losing control, even a little, over the political choices it has to make forfeits public trust.

For instance, some big decisions will have to be made about tenure reform. If BC moves significantly to open log markets, long-term tenures like Tree Farm Licences will have less meaning. If privatization — where the big companies expand private holdings in exchange for Crown timber — grows as expected, how will Crown tenure systems change? More power in fewer corporate hands will balkanize the industry further.

If the takeovers do inspire more confidence in BC, it will be because of the industry’s own trendsetting, not government policy.


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This page last modified on Tuesday, February 17, 2004