OPINION: Time is ticking for a softwood lumber deal

It’s hard to see how U.S. President Donald Trump – a belligerent and fact-challenged supporter of American interests over anything else – will improve B.C.’s chances for reaching a new deal on softwood lumber.

Then again, he may not be any worse on this file than was the Obama administration that preceded his ascension to power.

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That strange take partly explains the fingers-crossed, glass-half-full pronouncements from Premier Christy Clark on this issue in recent days. She says the Obama administration essentially refused to discuss a new softwood deal for the past year, preferring to spend 100 per cent of its attention on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

By contrast, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his officials managed to get the softwood issue onto the agenda during his recent (and apparently successful) meeting with Trump.

David MacNaughton, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., briefed the B.C. cabinet on the softwood situation last week, and later told reporters Canadian officials had been pushing the softwood issue on the Trump administration.

“We brought up the softwood-lumber issue consistently. For them it’s minor, they see it as a small, regional issue. And I think the most important thing that we did was to impress on them how important it is to Canada, that this isn’t a small regional issue. It’s a national issue that affects hundreds of communities right across the country,” he said.

Indeed, the issue is of particularly crucial importance to this province. The end of the softwood agreement and the prospect of punishing duties slapped on our exports of softwood lumber to the United States potentially impacts about 60,000 direct and indirect forestry jobs in B.C., located in 140 communities.

We could be looking at a large number of layoffs, with a crippling effect on the economies of many small towns in the Interior and the North.

MacNaughton was accompanied to the cabinet briefing by David Emerson, recently appointed B.C.’s envoy to Washington to reach a new softwood deal. Emerson, a former federal trade minister and ex-B.C. finance minister, didn’t mince words on how tough it will be to get a deal that satisfies B.C.

Emerson accused U.S. lumber industry interests of essentially trying to perform a “shakedown” of the B.C. softwood industry, with their inaccurate and self-serving claims of government subsidies for B.C. forest companies (claims that have been routinely rejected by various international tribunals over the years).

 “It has always been an issue driven by the U.S. protectionist lumber coalition,” Emerson told reporters. “It’s never been about the validity of the British Columbia’s timber pricing system or timber management system. It’s always been about a protectionist group that has accumulated tremendous power over the years, particularly in Congress.”

For all of MacNaughton’s cautious optimism (shared, apparently, by the premier), Emerson made it clear a tough road lies ahead. He should know: he negotiated the last deal in 2006.

The chaotic nature of the first few weeks of the Trump administration makes it hard for anyone to draw too many conclusions about how things are going to go on a number of issues, least of all softwood lumber.

Certainly, Trump’s aggressive protectionist attitudes seem aimed mostly at Mexico, rather than Canada (although, given his penchant for literally making things up it’s hard to gain a clear, firm read).

 And while Emerson noted that in past disputes the U.S. industry (and its supporters in Congress and the Senate) was the main player and not the White House occupant, Trump’s unpredictable leadership style suggests he may become more involved in this issue than any of his predecessors.

In any event, the clock is now ticking. The first duties (likely exceeding 20 per cent and perhaps reaching as high as 30 per cent) may start taking effect next month, which will quickly affect the cash flow for smaller forestry operators and likely lead to significant layoffs.

So here we are, essentially hoping that a man who is unpopular in this country, and who is out of step with so many Canadian values, comes through in the clutch and helps British Columbia.

Glass half full? Hmm. I’ll go with almost empty. But I’ll still keep my fingers crossed.

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

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