B.C. business needs to get organized

After fumbling the ball during the HST debacle and remaining virtually silent during the Enbridge pipeline debate, the B.C. business community is showing signs it intends to be more organized and vocal when it comes to other controversial economic developments.

Last week, the B.C. Chamber of Commerce organized an event aimed at sending Ottawa the message that the proposed New Prosperity Mine near Williams Lake has considerable support in the province, despite the fact it has failed two federal environmental assessment processes.

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And now various business groups are gearing up to make their presence known in the hearings for the Site C dam project on the Peace River. The B.C. Chamber of Commerce, the B.C. Business Council and even the New Car Dealers of B.C. all intend to send representatives to Fort. St. John to make submissions in favor of building the dam.

This kind of effort from a constituency that is well funded but not necessarily well organized may prove pivotal in determining whether some of these megaprojects go ahead. In some ways, the business community has stolen a page out of the environmental movement's playbook.

One business leader told me that the environmentalists essentially took over any public debate about the Enbridge pipeline right from the start and were so effective in their anti-pipeline messaging that there was little the pro-pipeline interests could do to counter things.

Lately, Enbridge has done a better job of articulating its position, and a couple of recent polls indicate opposition to the project has diminished considerably. But it's also fair to say the company has a long ways to go in winning over a majority of the population on this sensitive issue.

However, the pro-development lobby appears determined not to make the same mistake twice, whether it concerns Site C, the New Prosperity Mine or, presumably, the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal.

Adopting a more proactive approach may make the public debate over those projects more even and therefore may make them more politically palatable for both the provincial and federal governments.

The B.C. government has already signalled it is in favor of the Site C dam and the New Prosperity mine, and a more aggressive and organized campaign by business interests may nudge it closer to favouring the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

In the last provincial election campaign, B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark was cautioned by her advisers not to wade into the Kinder Morgan issue after NDP leader Adrian Dix made his now infamous gaffe of opposing the projects.

But her political instincts told her the issue was a good one for her and her party, because it exposed a neat fault line between the B.C. Liberals and the NDP. The rest, of course, is history.

Clark has clearly aligned her government with megaprojects that produce jobs, no matter how controversial they may be. She realizes her base of supporters agree with her, and an organized campaign by the business community will only strengthen her resolve in these matters.

I've gotten a fair amount of pushback (actually, more like "Why don't you jump off a cliff?") from some folks who live on little islands for my suggestion that B.C. Ferries are not an extension of the highway system.

Their reaction is based on emotion rather than logic, however. Let us examine the differences between a highway and a ferry system:

Highways are open and accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week (barring weather or traffic abnormalities). Even those who are outraged by the slightest change to their ferry service implicitly agree that there limits to how many times a ferry sails, limits that do not exist on highways.

Although highways incur capital and maintenance costs (as do B.C. Ferries' fleet) motorists travel them for free. I have yet to hear anyone suggest, with any justification, that B.C. Ferries should all be free.

When you drive a B.C. highway, you are not required to have a bunch of other people in your vehicle. When you travel on a B.C. ferry, however, the law dictates there must be anywhere from six to 48 people on board with you (these are crew members, all earning roughly $25 an hour).

No, B.C. Ferries are not a highway. They are a service, and one that is costing more and more to provide. Boosting the government subsidy to pay for those rising costs is a valid argument, but trying to pretend this is still the 1960s and that W.A.C. Bennett is still the premier (the one who first equated the major B.C. Ferries route between the mainland and Vancouver Island a "highway") is delusional.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C.

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