“It’s almost like this government’s ashamed of the natural resource sector.”Kevin Falcon
B.C.’s New Democrat government spent the past week gingerly tiptoeing its way through the forestry file, trying to say and do as little as possible to avoid being dragged into an issue the divides the governing party internally and which it has largely tried to ignore for the better part of half a decade in power.
Premier David Eby spent four full days focused on forestry — an extraordinary time commitment to a single issue for a brand new premier still in the middle of his 100-day action plan. But he didn’t actually say much that was new.
‘Crisis precipitates change’
“The industry is clearly in crisis, but crisis precipitates change and we have to find new ways of doing business,” he said, during a speech to loggers on Thursday. “We‘ll find that by working together. For every tree harvested, we have to maximize the number of jobs from it.”
The intent was clearly for the NDP to reset the dialogue with forestry players. To his credit, the new premier impressed many with his willingness to listen. He promised to consider what he heard, and stay in touch.
But not many think he’ll actually follow through — in part because the natural resource sector in general is not very high on the priority list of the current government.
Almost no one within the NDP is advocating for more pulp and paper mills, or logging, in British Columbia. At best, the NDP would support a gentle but steady decline. Several Metro Vancouver-based ministers would likely prefer all the pesky hunting, fishing, digging, mining, drilling, logging and processing that occurs in rural towns outside the Lower Mainland disappear entirely, because then it would be easier to hit targets on climate change, old growth protection, habitat conservation and land conservancy.
Split personality syndrome
That push and pull within the NDP between the environmentally-focused urbanites that comprise its power base, and the rest of the province where things involving trees and dirt are still dominant economic drivers, contributes to a kind of split-personality syndrome that New Democrats face when they venture out of Victoria and Vancouver.
The clearest example this past week was a request from B.C.’s Pulp and Paper Coalition – which represents major companies – for $40 million to help fibre-starved pulp mills access hard-to-reach wood waste and fire-damaged trees.
The coalition has been asking for aid for months, warning mills would close without help accessing more fibre. The NDP was uninterested, because it didn’t want to be seen to be helping the big multinational companies that own the mills, or bailing out what some environmentalists in caucus consider to be a heavily polluting sector.
Then, earlier this month, Canfor announced it was permanently closing pulp operations at its Prince George mill, throwing 300 people out of work. Shortly after, Mercer Celgar in Castlegar announced a three-week curtailment of its pulp mill, leaving more than 400 people temporarily unemployed in a town of only 8,000. Both cited a lack of access to wood fibre.
The premier suddenly found his previously-scheduled trip to the Natural Resources Forum in Prince George on Tuesday overtaken by bad news in forestry. His government scrambled. By Wednesday night, the deputy minister of forests was calling around to the major companies informing them that the previously-moribund aid package for pulp and paper mills was now suddenly accelerated for approval and would be announced by the premier the following morning.
“This new funding will help us get fire-damaged wood out of areas where it may be uneconomic to recover the wood, to the pulp mills that need it,” said Eby.
“It means more work for forestry contractors hauling fibre that would otherwise be too costly or remote to access. Our focus is on keeping our mills running and your members working.”
It was the right outcome, and will probably save thousands of jobs in more than a dozen mills across the province in the short-term.
Differentiating policy from politics
But it underscores the difficulty the current NDP government sometimes has in differentiating between policy and politics. Good policy would have been to listen to the forest sector when it asked for help on fibre supply months ago, to prevent major mill closures and job losses. Politics is showing up with cash after a crisis explodes, and then taking credit for solving a problem that was made worse through inaction.
“The NDP’s approach to this forest industry is to manage the decline of this industry,” said Opposition BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon.
“This is not a declining industry, it’s a renewable resource that if properly looked after, with proper leadership from government, can be an industry that our grandchildren can proudly be part of.”
The forestry sector’s feelings were best summarized by Tracey Russell, the owner of Burnaby-based Inland Truck & Equipment, who introduced Eby on stage at the BC Truck Loggers Association annual convention Thursday in Vancouver, and took advantage of the situation to give the premier a piece of his mind.
“One thing I can tell you about this group, these men and women who own these and operate these logging businesses, they like direct talk, they just want to know what’s happening,” he said to Eby, in front of a packed ballroom.
“Just tell them how it is. Even if it’s bad. They would rather have direct information, good or bad. And then they can operate their business accordingly.”
In other words, be honest about what the future of forestry looks like under this government.
New Democrats have a hard time doing that — perhaps, to be fair, because they don’t know. Natural resources aren’t aren’t part of the new premier’s 100-day action plan, and occupy almost no discussion time amongst political strategists acutely aware that there are more ridings up for grabs playing to environmentalists in Surrey than in the entire northern half of the province.
Falcon put an even finer point on how the NDP can profess support for natural resource projects during very infrequent tours outside of urban centres, but then do little to follow through.
“It’s almost like this government’s ashamed of the natural resource sector,” he said.
It’s hard to disagree.