Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Two columns, on forest changes and B.C.'s position on the war.
Optional cut at bottom of each. Main column is about 650 words; footnotes take it to 710.
Remember, let me know if you think there are topics I should be covering, and don't hesitate to call if I can do anything for you down here. When the leg is sitting it's usually easy to grab cabinet ministers or MLAs. I'm at 250-727-8592.

Liberals' forest changes risky, but needed
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - The Liberals hit a new high in political weirdness with their forest policy announcement, trying to keep the press conference location a secret and herding reporters on to a chartered bus for a magical mystery tour.
They eventually revealed the buses would be taking everyone out to Lester Pearson College, about 45 minutes from the legislature.
Why the awkward location? The college is pretty, said Forest Minister Mike de Jong, and has lots of trees.
But then our bus rolled on to the college grounds, past Green Party leader Adriane Carr and others kept at bay by government-hired security guards. The location seemed to have more to do with suppressing opposition than scenery.
The mysterious start was appropriate. Based on de Jong's answers at the press conference, the government is taking a leap into the unknown with its massive changes to the way forests are managed.
The changes makes sense. But they will also be painful, especially for Vancouver Island communities, and de Jong couldn't or wouldn't provide answers when asked about the government's best estimates for job losses, mill closures or lost government revenue. He couldn't even say how he knew that a $75-million fund to help workers and contractors hurt by the change would be enough.
Critics have jumped all over plans to end job protection clauses in forest tenure agreements with the big companies. (About three-quarters of B.C.'s forests have been awarded to companies on long-term contracts.) Companies used to be required to send harvested logs to local sawmills; now they will be able to send them anywhere. They used to have to cut a certain number of trees every year, even when markets were poor. Now they don't.
But painful as the adjustments may be, they are necessary. B.C. isn't a dominant lumber producer anymore. And to compete with suppliers around the world, companies need to be able to operate efficiently. Forcing them to send wood to an outmoded mill to protect jobs risks their future - and more jobs.
The other big change is a plan to claw back 20 per cent of the tenure held by big companies. Half the wood will go to First Nations and community forest and woodlot programs. (That's another welcome sign of the Liberals' keenness to get some resolution around land claim issues.)
The rest will be added to the pool of wood sold by auction, bringing the total to about 20 per cent initially. If First Nations, communities and companies decide to auction off some of their timber, that could eventually rise to 45 per cent.
The province will then use the prices paid at those auctions to set stumpage rates - the amount companies pay for timber cut on Crown land - across B.C. The end goal is a stumpage system based on the real value of timber, which would address American concerns in the softwood dispute and makes sense for B.C.
(Americans claim the current stumpage rates, set by government, are too low, creating a subsidy for Canadian companies.)
It's not likely de Jong's plan will satisfy the Americans. The government still plans to adjust stumpage to reflect companies' costs in building roads and replanting, and U.S. producers will find plenty to attack there. And the dispute really isn't about forest practices. American producers see the chance to benefit by making Canadian wood more expensive, and they'll keep pushing as long as they can.
There are other risks and problems ahead. The $200 million in compensation for companies may be inadequate. The auction system may be vulnerable to manipulation, given the few big companies involved. The timber available for auction may not reflect the real value of the tenures held by companies.
It is, at this point, a leap of faith.
But it's a leap in the right direction. The changes may be painful. But if the details are right they will create a brighter future for B.C.'s forest industry.
Footnote: The public is being ill-served by the Liberals timetable. Because they wanted to include some of the costs in this fiscal year, changes were rushed through the legislature in hours, leaving no time for real debate. They would have trashed the NDP - rightly - for such a move. It showed contempt for the public and MLAs.

War rhetoric - from all sides - an embarrassment
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Politicians can do everyone a considerable service when they just say nothing.
Take Gordon Campbell. U.S. Ambassador Paul Celluci is slagging Canada over the war, and Ralph Klein and - bizarrely - the Vancouver Board of Trade are sniping at Ottawa and sending messages of support to George Bush. Federal MPs are cranking up the rhetoric on all sides.
And Campbell is staying prudently out of the fray.
That's appropriate and smart. British Columbians didn't elect the Liberals for their foreign policy platform. If citizens want to express an opinion on the war, they can demonstrate or write their MPs. They don't need a city council or provincial government or chamber of commerce to do it for them.
Campbell's entrance into the debate wouldn't make a whit of difference. The war would continue. The U.S. wouldn't think better of Canada.
It's time to tone things down, as Celluci apparently recognizes. He made headlines early last week by slagging Canada, warning that the U.S. government is "upset" that Canada hasn't backed the war and Liberal MPs and cabinet ministers have been abusive.
Celluci's argument had some weak points. He claimed the U.S. would always stand with Canada if it was threatened, and expects the same from us. But the U.S. isn't imminently threatened. And in two world wars it took the U.S. quite a long time to decide to stand with Canada.
But the reaction to his speech was over the top, on both sides. Some Liberal MPs talked about booting him out of the country; others warned of economic disaster once the U.S. quits trading with us.
How about simply saying to Celluci, 'sorry you feel that way,' while pointing out the role Canada has taken in reducing terror and instability in the world and the mutual benefits of our relationship?
It's also worth reminding Celluci that on matter as serious as war, it's not good enough to join in simply because a neighbouring country wants you to.
Canada needs the U.S. market. But the U.S. needs trade with Canada. We buy about $8,000 worth of goods per person from the U.S. each year. More than 35 states list Canada as their major trading partner. And without Canadian energy, Americans would be paying much more or sitting in the dark.
Abusive rhetoric can still be damaging. Ontario Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish called Americans "bastards" and said she hated them. That's rude and stupid at the best of times, and damaging when their soldiers are dying. If even a small percentage of Americans decide to boycott Canadian goods, or skip a holiday on Vancouver Island, it would hurt.
That doesn't mean we should rush to join the war, or stop expressing our views. It simply means that for people on all sides these discussions need to focus on principle.
People who believe the war was launched prematurely, without proper international sanction and before peaceful efforts had been exhausted, have every right to speak out. (I am among them.)
But it's time to tone the rhetoric down, and keep Canadian political infighting out of the equation.
Celluci was in B.C. at the end of last week and did his bit to tone things down. The U.S. understands many Canadians oppose the war, he told the Fort St. John Chamber of Commerce. "Our ties are too deep for anything to hurt this relationship," he added.
Canadians have no reason to remain silent on the war, or their frustration with Ottawa's wavering and wobbly position. And they don't have to pay any particular attention to U.S. lectures or dire warnings from commentators who apparently think it's worth sending young men and women off to war so U.S. tourists will keep coming to Canada.
But it wouldn't be a bad idea for more politicians - and others - to follow Campbell's lead.
A meaningful debate among Canadians is useful. Political squabbling isn't.
Footnote: Canada faces more economic risk from SARS than its position on the war. The fact is Americans pay almost no attention to Canada's position on anything. If hockey fans in Montreal hadn't booed their national anthem, they might not even know if we were in or out of the war. But Australia has already recommended against travel to Canada because of the SARS risk.