Tuesday, May 16, 2006

U.S. gets say on B.C. forest policy; public doesn't get say in softwood deal

VICTORIA - The New Democrats took their best shot at digging into the softwood lumber agreement this week, pressing for an emergency debate on the deal.
It didn’t work. And that’s too bad.
The agreement, like any treaty or trade pact, is ultimately between governments. It’s unrealistic to expect MLAs to be able to pick through the softwood deal clause by clause and send government back to the table on any issues they find troubling.
But the legislature - and the public - should get a chance to have an informed say on the broad principles.
That’s what the NDP proposed this week, calling for an emergency debate under the arcane rules of the legislature.
Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson raised the need for an urgent debate. He cited Trade Minister David Emerson's weekend comments that provinces would be expected to check with Washington before making any forest policy changes during the agreement’s seven-year life.
A "surrender of sovereignty," said Simpson, one that would take away the right of future governments to set forest policy for the province.
Forest Minister Rich Coleman didn't disagree. Any agreement would have to include provisions to satisfy the Americans that provinces weren't going to introduce unfair subsidies for the forest industry, he said.
"So we will be going through that with our legal people, and we're at the table as British Columbia making sure that British Columbian interests are taken care of," he said.
Coleman is right. Any agreement has to include some mechanism to make sure that neither side finds ways to cheat.
But there are a range of solutions. The agreement could provide for independent arbitration, for example, which would protect B.C.'s right to set policy.
All we have now is Emerson's comment that Washington will be able to vet any changes in provincial forest policy.
Coleman wasn't reassuring.
"There's nothing to worry about," he said. B.C. won't need to worry about U.S. approval for policy changes between now and 2013 because it won’t make any.
"We won't because we've done ours," he said. The government has advanced the introduction of market-based stumpage in the Interior. It will now be complete before the softwood deal is signed
It’s an alarming answer. Coleman is acknowledging that the U.S. has a say on B.C. forest policy.
And his claim that forest policy is fixed for the next seven years is implausible.
Maybe everything has been done and the province has got policy to the point of perfection. But perhaps markets will change or the pine beetle disaster will have unforeseen consequences. Maybe future governments will overhaul aspects of forest management to increase safety. The notion that our forest policy is now locked in place is unrealistic.
The NDP wanted the softwood deal discussed under a legislature rule that allows for emergency debate on a "definite matter of urgent public importance."
There were only three days left in this session of the legislature, the deal could be signed by June 15 and MLAs don't sit again until the fall.
This is the only chance to get answers about the sovereignty issue before B.C. is committed, Simpson said.
Speaker Bill Barisoff said no. The softwood discussions have been going on for some time and MLAs have had a chance to ask questions, he said. It's not enough that new details about the deal have emerged, and anyway the NDP can raise the issue in the three remaining Question Periods.
The decision fits with precedent. But it’s a loss for the public.
There are important questions about the tentative deal that haven’t been answered. It’s been treated so far as an issue for government and forest companies.
But it also affects individuals and communities. A draft released by the NDP Tuesday said, for example, that export quotas will be based on a region’s average share of U.S. imports from 2001 and 2005. Those were tough years for the coastal industry and boom times for the Interior, rushing to process beetle-damaged wood. Vancouver Island and Coastal forest communities deserve to know if they’re being locked into seven years of limited access to the U.S. market.
A fuller debate now would ensure that the public supports the agreement, and that issues are raised and addressed before we are locked into a long-term deal.
Footnote: The NDP asked Premier Gordon Campbell if he would guarantee a public debate on the deal before it is signed. No, he said. It’s a good deal, B.C.’s policies will govern forest practices and - apparently - there’s no need for a public discussion of the impact of the seven-year agreement.


Anonymous said...

Public debate only if you agree as the big 98 says "it holds the Government's feet to the fire" and asks how cosy. As for the sun or province why question. The gov is always right.It looks like small town BC is toast. This will give forest companies the right to ship as much as possible south to be milled. Wher is the major wedia in this debate. I should say Vancouver Media . Separate from BC ? Yes Vancouver Island Should.

Anonymous said...

Watching Coleman in the house when questioned about this weird deal would be laughable if it wasn't going to hurt so many people. If the US wants anything the Harper minority with Emerson at the table, wants to show us how they can handle things and of course this province goes right along with any deal, No worry says Coleman, all the restructuring is done. Meanwhile he was being watched by folks from the Alberni area trying to get changes. They should have left that gooffus in his old job driving a cop car. Want land from a TFL, give money and look what happens. Might ask Mike Dejong about that one but of course Mike doesn't have to answer as he is no longer the minister. Simpson, the critic is all over Coleman who wishes it was back a few years ago when the opposition was two overworked people, so the NEW Era gang got away with quite a lot.