Thursday, March 03, 2005

A U.S. wine boycott, weird answers and bashing Baucus

VICTORIA - Notes from the front: A U.S. wine boycott, weirdness in the house and that pesky Montana Senator Max Baucus.

Forest Minister Mike de Jong’s suggestion that B.C. liquor stores stop selling American wine as one way of fighting back in the softwood dispute makes sense.
De Jong sounded discouraged after a day of Washington meetings with U.S. politicians revealed that the softwood dispute isn’t on their radar screen.
It’s not that they’ve decided U.S. lumber producers are right. The whole thing is just a non-issue for them. it doesn’t matter politically, and there’s no reason for them to pay attention.
Maybe Canada has done a lousy job of pressing the issue. But so far American politicians have no reason to care whether Canadian lumber exports are being blocked. (Canada has funded a lobby group to push the idea that the duties are pushing up U.S. housing costs. It’s hasn’t worked.)
Canada is finally raising the threat of retaliation, asking the WTO for permission to impose $4 billion in retaliatory duties on U.S. imports. But that process is slow - Canadian companies get a chance to argue against any duties that will hurt their businesses - and could take a year. Given the U.S. perception that Ottawa has trouble actually making decisions, it’s a distant threat.
But telling the Liquor Distribution Branch to quit buying U.S. wine is a simple, quick response. American producers - mostly Californian, but some in Washington and Oregon, would lose about $60 million a year in sales.
That’s not much. But it would be enough to get their attention. And if B.C. effectively explained the reasons for the decision, U.S. producers would be on the phone to their lobbyists and politicians to get this fixed.
This dispute is ultimately about political pressure. The U.S. lumber industry has a big incentive to pressure politicians to keep the duties in place. There’s no pressure coming from Americans who want them lifted.
Replacing some of that Washington State chardonnay on liquor store shelves with a nice Chilean white would be a small step towards creating that pressure.

The legislature is a mysterious place. The NDP used Question Period to ask Sustainable Respurces Minister George Abbott about a report to cabinet from the BC Cattlemen’s Association. The report, dated Feb. 24, complained the cattle industry has lost ground in terms of acccess to Crown land. It blamed the government for putting the forest industry ahead of other users, said staff cuts and poor communication have meant issues aren’t addressed and complained that the government has shut down consultation with the industry on critical issues.
Abbott responded, sort of, slagging the NDP record and offering up some general lines about the importance of the catle industry, tossing in a puzzling reference to the pine beetle. Outside the legislature, his answers also seemed a little off the mark.
Finally, light shone. Have you seen the report to cabinet, the minister was asked? Well, no, he said.
Then why not say that in the house, and promise to get an answer?
“I think there’s a reason why it’s called Question Period, and I wanted to give a very good answer to the question that they provided,” Abbott said. With or without any idea of the ranchers’ concerns.

Things got a bit rude, but Montana Senator Max ‘Blame Canada’ Baucus earned his rough ride when he showed up in Fernie as part of his campaign against a potential coal mine near the U.S. border. MLA Bill Bennett led the charge; New Democrats quickly said they don’t like Baucus either.
Dialogue is always welcome. But Baucus has led the fight to close the border to softwood and Canadian cattle, and never found it necessary to come up here to get any information until it suited him to grandstand on the coal issue. He deserved to hear how angry many British Columbians are with his position.
Footnote: De Jong was enthusiastic about his meeting with new ambassador Frank McKenna, in the former New Brunswick premier’s first day on the job. McKenna understands the issue, and politics. He has already cleverly - though dubiously - linked Canada’s rejection of the U.S. missile defence plan to anger over the softwood dispute.

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