BURNS LAKE, B.C. – The steel trusses of a new multimillion-dollar sawmill formed the backdrop for Liberal Leader Christy Clark as she touted her government’s forests strategy during a campaign whistlestop Thursday in Burns Lake, where little more than a year ago an explosion and fire at the previous mill devastated the community.
Clark offered her condolences to the families of two men killed in the January 2012 explosion, and commended the distance the community has come since then.
“The explosion at the Babine sawmill was a terrible, terrible tragedy,” she said, flanked by hardhat-wearing construction workers who paused for a brief visit from the premier.
“Burns Lake also lost the economic backbone of its community.”
Clark said she remembers the emotion of visiting the burned-out mill in the days after the fire.
“I also, though, am incredibly proud of the courage, the strength and perseverance that this community, the people in this community, have shown to make this historic day possible.”
After signing her name in freshly poured concrete, Clark announced the official start of construction on the new mill.
In December, the Liberal government announced that the mill owner Hampton Affiliates Ltd., had committed to rebuilding the mill after after the province signed deals to guarantee timber supply.
The new mill is expected to be up and running again early next year.
Clark cited the new mill in Burns Lake as proof the forestry strategy that forms part of her Liberal government’s jobs plan is working.
“Our forest industry has been through many blows in the past two decades and yet today it stands tall,” she said.
Clark has spent much of her campaign touting her government’s plan for economic growth, with heavy machinery of one type or another forming the backdrop.
But despite the Liberals’ accompanying and persistent warning — that an NDP government would put all that in jeopardy — a newly published study from the University of British Columbia’s business school concludes neither party is significantly better than the other when it comes to managing the province’s debt or spending.
The study looked at the performance of the B.C. economy and fiscal management under the NDP from 1991 to 2001, as well as under the Liberals between 2001 and 2013.
The report found that the NDP actually controlled spending and debt better than the Liberals, relative to other provinces over the same time period.
However, that depended on who was premier, said associate professor Tsur Sommerville, who conducted the study.
“Mike Harcourt did a much better job on the fiscal management side than did Glen Clark,” he said. “So then the Liberals end up doing better after the (Glen) Clark years, but not as well as under the Harcourt years.”
Income growth, however, increased more under the Liberals, but Sommerville noted the Liberals presided over much more favourable economic conditions, such as lower interest rates and rising commodity prices, than was the case with the NDP.
When it came to job creation, neither party actually outdid the other.
“The difference was that the NDP significantly grew employment that depends on the government, while under the Liberals, they had more relative growth in private sector employment,” said Sommerville.
Throughout her campaign, Clark has been telling voters that an NDP government would increase government spending and throw the province into debt. Such was the case in the 1990s, when the NDP were last in government, she says. She also maintains that the NDP would also kill jobs because it is anti-economic development.
New Democrat leader Adrian Dix has fired back, saying that under Clark’s government, more than 30,000 private sector jobs have been lost. Dix has also said that contrary to Clark’s claims that the Liberals have balanced the books, they are in fact running a $800-million budget deficit.
Still, Clark continued with her theme Thursday as the polls show a tightening in the leadup to election day Tuesday, though the NDP remains out front.
From 2003 to 2011, B.C.’s softwood lumber exports to China grew by 1,500 per cent, Clark said.
“That might be investment and opportunity from far away but that means jobs right her at home, right here in Burns Lake.”
The forest industry in B.C. has been hit hard by the mountain pine beetle epidemic and Clark promised the Council of Forest Industries in April that the Liberals would spend $8.4 million to help identify new markets for wood products, and work with the forest industry to find more skilled workers.
But the deal that assured Oregon-based Babine Forest Products that it would be worthwhile to rebuild is, so far, a one-off. In March, the Liberal government withdrew controversial legislation that would have changed the forest licence system to give private companies more control over Crown land.
Clark said in Burns Lake those changes are not off the table, but there will be further consultation if her Liberals are re-elected.
“We did bring in legislation that would allow area-based tenures, which is something the people have asked for for years,” Clark said.
The New Democrats supported the changes in committee and then opposed the legislation, she said.
“We are going to, our aim absolutely remains to make sure we bring in legislation that’s going to allow area-based harvesting.”
Clark said people will be able to air concerns, and there are some, she acknowledged. But there are also benefits.
It encourages more active silviculture investment by private companies, who will reap the rewards of healthier forests.
“We won’t go down that path with every inch of forest in the province by any stretch but I think it’s time we start to think about new ways to govern tenure in the province.”
Dix announced earlier in the campaign a five-point forestry plan that would see $310 million invested by a New Democrat government over five years in areas such as skills training, forest health, and expansion of global markets, while cutting raw log exports.
Dix was not available to respond to Clark’s visit to Babine Lake, but the party said in a news release the Liberals’ response to the forest industry has been weak.
“The BC NDP’s change for the better means making significant investments in skills training and apprenticeships, a plan to address raw log exports to create B.C. jobs with B.C. logs, and taking stock of the state of our forests by updating our forest inventory.
“More of the same means mismanaged Crown lands, a declining timber supply, accelerating raw log shipments, and a lack of skilled workers to meet industry demand,” said Dix in the release.
For the Greens, the way forward for economic development in the province lies with development of alternative energy sources and the Liberal government has
Green Party Leader Jane Sterk told a news conference in Vancouver sectors such as wind energy would create jobs faster than the far-off liquefied natural gas industry that Clark has been promoting.
Sterk says investors hankering to fund renewable energy projects are being shut out because of the province’s regulatory barriers.
“We need to address some of these regulatory issues that have made it very difficult to do business in British Columbia,” she said.
“We have this massive investment that people want in wind, we have companies who have talked to us who want to do geothermal projects. They encounter the same kind of regulatory barriers.”
Both the Liberal party and the NDP favour extraction of liquefied natural gas and shipping it to Asia.
Clark has said the development of three LNG plants in northern B.C. by 2020 could potentially wipe out the provincial debt, eliminate the need to pay sales taxes and create thousands of jobs.
Sterk is against pipelines altogether. She said current regulations for other projects are so onerous, they’re hampering investment even though the Liberals claim to be a free-enterprise party.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Clark was in Burns Lake on Wednesday