Vaughn Palmer: Clark wants fast action on softwood lumber deal after federal election

October 20, 2015

By: Vancouver Sun

Premier Christy Clark got the word out early that once the Canadian election was over, she’d be making a big push to renew the softwood lumber deal with the U.S.

“We have one year to reach a new agreement,” the premier told local government leaders at their annual convention in late September. “When a newly elected prime minister takes office, that’s my first call.”

Later, she made the urging more explicit. “I want that prime minister as a first order of business to pick up the phone and call the president of the U.S. and say let’s get this settled,” Clark told Rob Shaw of The Vancouver Sun.

“If I were in control of it, I would do that. But trade issues are a national issue and it’s only been through prime ministerial intervention that we’ve got these deals done in the past, in every single case.”

Clark made the comment at the Oct. 12 expiry of the existing deal to manage the lumber trade. But as she went on to note, when the agreement was concluded back in 2006, it included a one-year extension before the U.S producers could file any complaint about alleged subsidies of Canadian lumber.

“So we need the prime minister, whoever it is, to pick up the phone, make the call, get the deal done before this extension expires because it’s going to be bad for Canada, it will be bad for Americans, it will be bad for workers and bad for jobs. We’ve got to get it fixed pretty quickly.”

Joining Clark in a bipartisan show of support for a renewed agreement was New Democrat John Horgan. “I’m looking very much forward to sharing information and ideas about how we can work together in unison for all British Columbians,” the Opposition leader told the house. “It is critical that we stick together on these trade agreements.”

Doubtless, once the inevitable congratulatory call to the winner of Monday’s vote is out of the way — I am writing before the polls closed across the country — the premier will buttonhole the PM about renewing the softwood agreement.

Just as surely, the prime minister will add softwood lumber to the list of talking points for the next substantive conversation with the U.S. president. Other provinces have put that item on the agenda as well, cabinet ministers from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick having last echoed the B.C. call for Canada to get to the bargaining table on a renewed agreement.

But for all the interest on this side of the border on ending the uncertainty well before the expiry of the one-year grace period in mid-October 2016, not likely will the two national governments manage to, as Premier Clark hopes, “get it fixed pretty quickly.”

President Barack Barack Obama has more pressing issues on his agenda, including on international trade. He put a major effort into negotiating the just-concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership with a dozen Pacific Rim nations, Canada included.

The deal is already looming large as a major controversy in what promises to be a contentious election year in the U.S. Republican front-runner Donald Trump called it “a disaster.” Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton said “it did not meet my standards.”

Congressional approval is far from certain, even if (as some observers expect) the president holds off submitting the terms for a vote until after the presidential election is decided in November 2016.

Some hopes have been expressed that with the TPP dominating the high-stakes debate on trade matters and the Canadian share of the U.S. market in decline, the two countries might quietly roll over the softwood agreement on roughly the current limitations (taxes, quotas) on Canadian access to the U.S. market.

But that’s not the impression one would draw from the latest statement from that perennial opponent of the Canadian industry, the U.S. Lumber Coalition.

“World timber and lumber markets have evolved and (the) 2006 agreement is now outdated,” declared Coalition Chair Charlie Thomas in a press release keyed to the Oct. 12 expiry date. The Coalition position is that any return to the bargaining table would have to be on the basis of negotiating a new agreement, not simply rolling over the terms of the old one.

“We hope Canada will make use of this next year to work constructively with the U.S. government to secure a stable and effective agreement that all stakeholders can support,” said Thomas, who is the executive of a Mississippi-based sawmilling company.

If not, then “the U.S. industry will eventually have no choice but to use our rights under U.S. trade laws to offset the unfair advantages provided to Canadian industry.”

That sounds nothing like a recipe for the quick fix the premier is hoping to achieve via that first conversation with the winner of the national election. But if softwood is the first item on the Clark wish list, it is far from the only one.

Early next year, the federal cabinet is expected to receive a recommendation from a Canadian environmental review and make the final call on whether to go ahead with a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal on the northwest coast. B.C. will be looking to sort out the order of priorities for federal-provincial cost sharing on transportation and other infrastructure. The province needs federal assistance to restart the stalled treaty process with First Nations in B.C. And depending on which party platform is in play as a result of Monday’s voting, the province could also take another run at lining up more funding for health care and other social programs.

By: Vancouver Sun

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