Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson says the NDP government doesn’t have a plan for the economy and that is starting to have real-world implications.
“What’s the five-year plan in terms of where the economy is going to be,” he said during a roundtable session with local media Thursday. “We’re in the midst of a lot of change here.”
With several permanent and temporary shut downs at sawmills around the province this summer, Wilkinson said the provincial government should be trying to get a handle on what the industry will look like in the future.
“The industry, as a whole is going through a lot of changes, where is it going to flow through in terms of reduced fibre supply to the pulp mills and the changing world of the sawmills,” he said. “Is there any provincial plan, or anticipation, of the five- or seven-year profile for Prince George, we’d like to know.”
He said government should be trying to figure out whether future jobs in the area will be primarily in forestry, the liquefied natural gas industry, or petrochemicals.
Wilkinson, along with Prince-George Valemount MLA Shirley Bond and Prince George-Mackenzie MLA Mike Morris, toured Lakeland Mills this week and met with forest workers in the area … something they are critical of Premier John Horgan for not doing.
“It’s important to show up, to look people in the eye, to spend time understanding the industry, what the transition will look like,” said Bond.
“The Prince George Timber Supply Area is the largest in the province so it’s going to face the greatest transition,” added Morris. “There needs to be a plan in place, someone needs to have a vision of where we’re going in the next five or 10 years.”
Wilkinson said about 10,000 forest workers have been affected in the forest sector since the spring.
“What is the goal, from the provincial government’s point of view, in terms of training, re-training, possible transitional allowances?” said Wilkinson. “We’re hearing nothing, except the vaguest ideas that there’ll be some money available.”
In September, the government announced $69 million in funding to help forest workers affected by recent shut downs, which included $40 million to establish a new cost-shared, early-retirement bridging program for older forest workers; $15 million to establish a new short-term forest employment program, focused on fire prevention and community resiliency projects; $12 million for workers to access skills training, and for employer and community grants for training; $2 million to establish a new job placement co-ordination office that will track the transition and employment of impacted forest workers on an individual basis.
It temporarily cancelled the Rural Dividend Program to help fund the aid package.
The Liberals have suggested a five-point plan to help the forest industry, one of which is to lower the stumpage rates. That has been dismissed by Forest Minister Doug Donaldson who has said such a plan would likely trigger retaliation from the U.S. Wilkinson doesn’t accept that argument.
“Alberta changes its stumpage rates every month and doesn’t seem to have too much trouble with the United States government about it,” Wilkinson said. “Somehow the NDP have said we can’t possibly disturb Mr. Trump by reforming our stumpage system. We can’t just sit here and be scared of America and go broke. We have to have a plan to move forward so we can reduce our costs from being the highest in North America to where they used to be which is in the middle of the pack or the lower end.”
He said Bill 22, which gives the forest minister the final say on the sale of timber licences and rights in the province, amounts to tinkering rather than developing a comprehensive plan.
“They’re fussing around the edges and curtailing opportunity leading to uncertainty,” he said. “We need the kind of certainty that comes from having a big plan for employment that involves everybody.”
He called the recent Forest Enhancement Society of B.C. announcement of $27 million in projects to deal with slash burning a drop in the bucket.
“We need to have an honest engagement with the people of British Columbia about where the forest industry is going,” he said. “We need to reduce the cost of log production in this province.”
Wilkinson acknowledged at least some of the downturn in the forest industry is due to allowable annual cut levels, that we’re elevated because of the mountain pine beetle epidemic, are now coming down.
Bond said that when the Liberals were in government they had started putting together working groups and committees that would examine what would happen when the cuts were reduced.
“Yes, there were plans in place,” she said. “Most importantly, there was a jobs plan in place that looked at how exactly how we would transition workers, how we would support communities that would face some of those difficulties … What’s embarrassing about (the current situation) is that it took months to get this government’s attention. It took months for them to even pay attention to the fact workers were losing their jobs in this part of British Columbia … They’ve been missing in action. The premier has yet to set foot in this constituency and look workers in the eye and face up to the consequences of what’s happening here.”
Wilkinson, Bond and Morris said the forest industry is changing, and it will look different, and stressed government needs to plan for those changes.
“Forestry is not a sunset industry,” Wilkinson said. “It’s going to be alive and well in a different profile. Let’s figure out what that is and get there, and help out workers make that transition rather than just leave them adrift and having a starvation diet for Christmas.”