Seeing eye to eye
by David Palmer
By the time this issue of AFR goes to print, the Brian Gallant government (with 21 seats) will have recalled the New Brunswick legislature; delivered a throne speech designed to lure the Green Party (with three seats) and “progressive” PCs to vote in his favour; failed to win the confidence of the House; and resigned. Blaine Higgs and the PCs (with 22 seats) will have been asked by the Lieutenant Governor to have a go at forming the government, which they will do with the precarious unofficial support of the People’s Alliance (with three seats), giving them a razor-thin majority.
Higgs will have to perform a delicate balancing act on the topic of language rights, to ensure that he does not lose the support of Robert Gauvin, the only PC MLA from a northern French-speaking region. Since the election, most of the oxygen in the room has been sucked up by the language debate, which has been stoked by the People’s Alliance position on duality and the Office of the Official Languages Commission, which party leader Kris Austin wants to abolish. Austin might as well park the language issue in the back 40, if he hopes to play a constructive role in a future government. Higgs is not going to play along.
LANGUAGE DIVIDES, FORESTRY UNITES
While language issues may divide, issues such as forestry may unite. The forestry platforms and statements of the PCs, the Greens, and the People’s Alliance bear a remarkable resemblance to one another. But before we explore those similarities, let’s reflect further on Blaine Higgs’ second challenge, after he constructs a throne speech that either the Alliance or the Greens will support. His second challenge will be to put together a cabinet.
In a utopian political world such as that which exists in the Northwest Territories, where government operates based on consensus, Higgs would select one minister each from the Greens and the Alliance, five or six from the Liberals, and the rest from among his own ranks, doing his best to achieve gender, linguistic, and regional balance. In doing so, he would have reached out to all New Brunswickers, and overnight achieved a new, unified political reality that could portend four years of stability.
However, considering that Higgs and Gallant are not even speaking to one another, that’s not likely to happen, so Higgs will have to look inward for his cabinet, and that’s a tall order. There are 18 portfolios and only 22 MLAs, so he will have to double up, as Gallant did, and create some super-ministers, like former Super-Minister of Energy, Resources and Development (ERD) Rick Doucet – who, tellingly, lost his seat to a political newcomer, Andrea Anderson Mason.
So, who might get the plum ERD spot? (Hopefully the department will be renamed, reverting to Natural Resources.) Well, former Minister of Natural Resources Bruce Northrup, re-elected by a wide margin, has recently come out of the woodwork. In February 2018, he openly speculated that he lost his job as minister because of a letter written by Jim Irving to Northrup’s boss, David Alward, complaining that Northrup’s statements and actions were jeopardizing timber supply certainty and therefore future investment by the company. It wasn’t long after that letter from JDI that Northrup was shunted aside, and Paul Robichaud was heralded as the new minister, promptly signing the much-maligned Forestry Deal into existence. Northrup may still be smarting from that experience, and wanting another crack at the portfolio. The risk for Higgs is that if he appoints Northrup, it will be perceived as a shot across Irving’s bow; Higgs cannot afford a major set-to with the powerful Saint John company as he tries to tiptoe through the political tulips.
Another possible contender for minister is Southwest Miramichi MLA Jake Stewart, who won a squeaker against a strong Alliance challenger. (This was the last seat to be decided on election night.) A cabinet post could help bolster PC fortunes in a region where Alliance support is high. Stewart, a maverick who made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the Alward-Robichaud Forestry Deal, may also come with too much baggage for Higgs. He traded barbs with Jim Irving in 2017 when he complained about JDI’s failure to build a new sawmill in Doaktown, an investment commitment that was part of the Forestry Deal but has not been delivered. After three years of postponements, the sawmill’s future seems up in the air. If the project fails to go ahead, that may provide the government a means to get out of the Forestry Deal. Stewart’s comments provoked another pointed letter from Jim Irving, who always had plenty of allies in the government, and things have been quiet ever since.
But now the Irvings might be squirming a bit. This election outcome isn’t their worst nightmare – that would be a government where David Coon holds the balance of power, or “balance of responsibility,” as he prefers to call it – but it doesn’t look good for the company, with some of its strongest supporters (i.e., Rick Doucet) gone, and some of its toughest critics (Stewart, Northrup, and Coon) emerging as power brokers.
A closer look at three of the four parties’ forestry platforms reveals striking similarities, particularly between the Greens and the People’s Alliance. The Green Party platform is unequivocal and crystal-clear. Here’s a sample: “Immediately cancel the 25-year forestry contracts signed by the Alward government in 2014, and return softwood from private woodlots as the primary source of supply.”
The Greens’ platform doesn’t beat around the bush. Other measures include increasing royalty rates; issuing annual reports on the state of the forest; tripling the area of protected forest; ending glyphosate spraying; and setting up a publicly accountable Forest Stewardship Commission to manage the public forest – a role currently played by licensees, who vacuum up about $25 million of public funds annually to carry out that function.
For their part, the People’s Alliance would restore woodlot owners’ status as the primary source of supply; ban glyphosate; increase timber royalties; ensure forest planning respects indigenous rights; safeguard conservation areas and buffers strips; reduce the size and number of clearcuts; and put an end to corporate meddling in departmental planning and policies. In addition, the Alliance pledged to eliminate corporate handouts (which they say cost the province about $200 million a year), and promised to task the auditor general’s office with a review of allocations, royalties, stumpage fees, and forest management.
Even Blaine Higgs has opened the door to changing the 2014 Forestry Deal, particularly if it appears that it created problems for woodlot owners and prompted the U.S. to introduce punishing lumber tariffs. He posed the question: “Did we achieve the best value for the citizens of the province?” And answered: “The woodlot owners would say no, and I would say we need to analyze this deal, and if we have not got the right deal for woodlot owners, we need to explore that and we need to find a way to get it.”
On top of that, the PC platform contained a commitment to update the Crown Lands and Forest Act; conduct a full assessment of the government’s role in the effective management of the province’s natural resources; review and validate the Auditor General’s 2015 recommendations; and conduct a study of the health implications for wildlife and humans exposed to glyphosate. All these issues could keep a healthy conversation going for months, even if no other government business was dealt with.
MORE WOOD, MORE PROTECTED FOREST
Thrown into the middle of the political muddle just a week before the election was called, the Liberals released the long-awaited review of the Alward-Robichaud Forestry Deal. This review had been simmering on the back burner like a tasty stew, but for months it kept getting sidelined by other issues. With the election looming, it couldn’t be held any longer.
The Liberals promptly acted on the review – and on the face of it, their response looked like a win-win. The three beneficiaries of the hyper-allocations granted in 2014 (J.D. Irving, Chaleur Sawmill, and Twin Rivers) will get to keep their extra wood, while the amount of conservation forest will be restored to 28 percent, which is where it stood before the Forestry Deal clipped it back to 23 percent. During the next five years, 150,000 hectares – comparable to the combined area of Fundy, Kouchibouguac, Cape Breton Highlands, and P.E.I. National Parks – will be added to New Brunswick’s Protected Natural Areas.
The understanding back in 2014 was that the extra wood being handed out would come from the conservation forest, so how is it now possible to have both extra wood and extra conservation forest? Inexplicably, Minister Rick Doucet did not supply answers to this critical question, leaving it to a departmental official, on condition of not being attributed, to explain that trees (particularly plantations) are growing faster than anyone expected.
Great news, for sure – but since the department refuses to share actual plot growth information with the public, the credibility of the report remains dubious, and this will likely send more people to the fringes of political discourse. We all learned from our elders that if something seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.
However, very credible anonymous sources have indicated that a detailed study of plots in northern Maine, Quebec, and New Brunswick shows growth rates much greater than anticipated, thanks to better management practices and technology. Are higher carbon-dioxide levels possibly contributing to enhanced tree growth in New Brunswick, as researchers have recently discovered to be happening in B.C.?
On the other hand, another credible source reports the opposite – that tree growth in New Brunswick plantations has fallen short of projections. Without the actual data from those plots, it is impossible to corroborate the departmental claims, thus making it difficult to join in the celebration.