QUESNEL, B.C. As New Democratic Party Leader Carole James was telling laid-off forestry workers this week she would help them reclaim their jobs, the industry's top executives were preparing an unusual frontal assault on her ambitions to be premier.
The forest industry has never hidden its preference to see Gordon Campbell's Liberal government re-elected on May 12, but the bold direct attacks unleashed yesterday were outside the norm.
“If the government was to change, heaven help us,” said Jim Shepard, president and CEO of Canfor Corp. Usually, Mr. Shepard prefers to send cheques to his party of choice and leave the politics to industry associations.
And given the latest polls that suggest the Liberals have a comfortable lead heading into the final week of the campaign, why would he stick his neck out now?
“This is so critically important we felt we had to step out front, we are not going to stand behind the associations,” he said in an interview yesterday. “I see an industry on its knees being taken advantage of by a party that is playing politics.”
The forest companies are worried about what the NDP would do to reform the system of awarding harvesting rights, and their talk of reviewing the Canada-U.S. Softwood Lumber Agreement.
“The biggest threat to any worker is if the investment community decides forestry is not the place to put their money,” he said.
Duncan Davies, CEO and president of Interfor, said the New Democrats could have avoided an election-eve confrontation had they spent more time talking to business.
“If Carole had talked to any of us, we could have put her on the right track,” he said. Ms. James is raising false hope among the province's 20,000 laid-off forest workers, he added. “It's great to say we'd like to get people back to work. But we are facing a biological disaster with the pine beetle in the Interior that is unprecedented and an economic crisis that we haven't seen the likes of in 80 years.”
The shots from the forest industry came at the same time that a broad coalition of small- and medium-sized business interests gathered in Vancouver yesterday to warn voters that an NDP government would trigger massive job losses.
Ms. James, aboard her campaign bus in the Cariboo yesterday, said the high-profile attacks – sharper than those mounted in the last two election campaigns – are a sign of old-style partisan politics that she'd like to end.
As for the forest executives, she said: “I understand they feel the direction of policy now benefits them, I believe there is a balanced approach. We need to make sure they are strong as companies but we also need to ensure that workers and families and communities are supported.”
On Monday night, Ms. James visited Mackenzie where every mill in the forestry-dependent town has been idled in the past couple of years.
“I'm with all of you,” she told the crowd of former mill workers. “We are going to make sure there is a link between the resources and the community once again so we can provide you with the jobs you should have.”
Bob Simpson, the NDP's forestry critic who is seeking re-election in Cariboo North, met Ms. James at his Quesnel campaign office yesterday. He said in an interview that forest workers have not done well while the Liberals have been in power, but the big companies are happier with the status quo. “They have what they want in a premier that's willing to give them the public's resources to do with as they please.”
Between the harsh words, it is hard to picture a constructive relationship if Ms. James becomes B.C.'s next premier. Mr. Shepard said: “We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
For her part, Ms. James said she can set her ego aside and work in the province's best interests. “My door will be open,” she said. “They'll have the opportunity to come and talk to me – they might be a little uncomfortable about what they said.”