B.C.’s newly appointed envoy to the softwood lumber wars lost no time Thursday setting out what the long-running dispute with the United States is — and is not — all about.
“It has never been an issue driven out of the president’s office, “ David Emerson told reporters after a morning briefing with the B.C. Liberal cabinet in Victoria. “It’s never really been about the validity of B.C.’s timber pricing system or timber management system.”
Rather, “it has always been an issue driven by the U.S. lumber coalition … a protectionist group that has accumulated tremendous power over the years, particularly in Congress, using devices that are illegal under NAFTA, illegal in the United States, to basically shake down Canadian industry and try to get Canadian governments to give them a more profitable business and to increase the price of timber holdings in the U.S.”
A shakedown. Thank you for that executive summary, Mr. Envoy.
Emerson, a former deputy minister of finance and forest executive here in B.C. and the trade minister who signed off for Canada on the last agreement to manage the lumber trade, knows whereof he speaks.
But he says Canada should not assume that it would be a simple matter to “re-darn the old socks and we’ll be fine,” because a lot has changed since that last deal was done in 2006.
“We really have to make a whole new assessment of the political landscape in the U.S., of the ownership landscape in terms of who’s in the lumber coalition and what are some of the regional sensitivities, and so on.”
The envoy declined to be drawn into a discussion of strategies: “I don’t think we want to be talking about it through the media if you don’t mind.”
He did offer his theory for why the country got nowhere trying to renew the previous agreement with the administration of President Barack Obama.
“The reason, frankly, I think, that the U.S. protectionist lobby didn’t want to renew the previous softwood lumber agreement was we actually had in that agreement an expedited dispute settlement process that got us through disputes in a very timely way.”
Premier Christy Clark expanded on the lack of progress with the Obama administration to reporters, saying U.S. priorities on the trade file were focused on the Trans Pacific Partnership.
“We worked hard in trying to negotiate an agreement with the Obama administration, but frankly, they just weren’t interested,” said Clark. “We were going to the table making offers, but how often do you make offers against yourself when there isn’t a genuine counter-offer from the other people at the table?”
Hence her indirect reply to the Opposition NDP’s complaint that Emerson or someone like him should have been appointed a year ago: It wouldn’t have made any difference.
On the theory that the closing of one door can open another, Clark tried to look on the bright side of the change of administration south of the border. “It could signal we have an opportunity to have a change in attitude about how important getting a softwood lumber agreement is for both sides.”
She rightly paid tribute to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his handling of this week’s first meeting with President Donald Trump: “He really got it off on the right foot.”
Thursday’s briefing for the provincial cabinet was also attended by David MacNaughton, Canadian ambassador to the U.S.
The ambassador talked to reporters as well and emphasized his reasons for being here: “To make sure that B.C. is very much part of developing the overall strategy” for dealing with the U.S.
He noted the progress made in staff exchanges leading up to the recent meeting between Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland and U.S. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson, both newcomers to their postings.
“We brought up the softwood lumber issue consistently,” said the ambassador. “They see it as being a small, regional issue. The most important thing that we did was to impress on them how important it was to Canada; that this isn’t simply a small, regional issue from our perspective; it’s a national issue that affects hundreds of communities right across the country; and I think they got the message.”
While agreeing with Emerson that there is tough slogging ahead, he insisted that the senior cabinet members in the new U.S. administration are “very positive about Canada” and “I’m pretty optimistic about what’s going to happen.”
Still, when a reporter asked about the apparent chaos at the staffing level in the Trump administration, he didn’t argue: “You could say that. … It isn’t a well-oiled machine quite yet.”
As I listened to the softwood press conference on a telephone hookup, my attention was diverted by the live television broadcast of the press conference with President Donald Trump.
So on one hand, the measured, sensible, constructive comments of the ambassador, the envoy and the premier. And on the other what was aptly described in the Washington Post report as “a sprawling, stream-of-consciousness” event that was “at times rambling and combative,” at others fuelled by “the sorts of red meat talking points that helped propel him to victory.”
It had me thinking that for all the good sense our representatives bring to this exercise, they (and we) may be in for the wild ride of a lifetime.