One of the unfortunate things about the latest lumber trade attack from the U.S. is that it comes in the midst of the B.C. election campaign.
Provincial politicians blaming one another for federal and even international economic problems is nothing new. And it doesn’t help anyone other than them, assuming they get a superficial boost from people who fall for emotional pitches with little rational basis.
B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark wasted no time in last week’s TV debate. She claimed NDP leader John Horgan “turtled” in the fight over softwood lumber trade with the U.S., while casting herself as the only one tough and “calm” enough to defend the B.C. forest industry.
This has been her theme since the day the U.S. Commerce Department announced preliminary duties of about 20 per cent on Canadian lumber imports, half of which come from B.C. mills. She uses a selective quote from Horgan about the prospects of getting a new deal despite the harsh protectionist mood of U.S. President Donald Trump. “Good luck with that,” Horgan said, in an ill-advised reply to a reporter’s question about the prospects for success.
Horgan soon developed his own factually challenged response, noting that Clark didn’t personally go to Washington D.C. to engage with Trump administration officials about the benefits of Canadian lumber. This continued his theme since the last trade deal expired, that Clark had “dropped the ball” by failing to get the Obama administration to settle the dispute.
What a load of nonsense from both of them, and they know it. This fight goes back 30 years, and for most of that time it has been a truce via what is politely called “managed trade,” meaning either quotas or border taxes imposed by the U.S.
Duncan Davies, CEO of Interfor with big lumber production on both sides of the border, puts it in plainer terms: the repeated U.S. actions are a “simple shake-down” by American forest industry interests. He told a conference of lumber wholesalers in Vancouver last week that the trade actions are about “increasing the value of U.S. timberlands, which occurs every time trade litigation is launched, Canadian supply is restricted and lumber prices rise.”
Canada’s record is clear in the latest round. With the last “shake-down” deal already expired due to inaction on the U.S. side, it was the first topic Clark brought up with newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He in turn made it his top priority in his first meeting with Obama’s trade team.
This demonstrates the obvious, that ultimately it is a federal trade issue. It would be nice if the U.S. government was less corrupted by corporate lobbyists and would act in the interests of its own home builders and home buyers, but that is not the case, and Trump is simply a more bombastic version of previous lobbyist-ridden U.S. presidents.
Horgan turned up the rhetoric on a visit to Prince George, where many forest industry jobs are at stake. Trying to look tough, he suggested that B.C. could retaliate with its natural gas exports, or the Columbia River treaty, which regulates flood control and electricity production into Washington state.
Clark has threatened to choke off exports of U.S. thermal coal that moves by rail from Wyoming to the Westshore Terminals at Tsawwassen, and then to China. If Ottawa won’t do it, she says she’ll use provincial legislation to put “a levy so onerous on thermal coal through B.C. that no one will do it.”
Would that get Trump to back down, or make things worse?
Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @tomfletcherbc