Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Softwood Lumber Messiah

Vancouver Board of Trade Welcomes Emerson

The Board of Trade applauded the appointment of former Liberal minister of industry, David Emerson. “I believe he has put Canada and British Columbia ahead of partisan politics” declared Darcy Rezac, managing director, The Vancouver Board of Trade.

The argument goes that Emerson’s role as a former CEO of a British Columbia lumber company, and in the Vancouver Olympic bid committee make him by far the best qualified person in Canada to oversee the International Trade portfolio. The constituents of Vancouver Kingsway should be showering the path of the new Minster of International Trade with rose petals. Aside from the arrogance and distain for democracy, this argument demonstrates a shocking misunderstanding of the role of Cabinet in the Canadian Parliamentary system.

By tradition in Canada, cabinet is drawn from the ranks of elected members of the House of Commons in Parliament. There is no law that requires cabinet members to be elected, however this is a pretty strong tradition of Parliament. This makes a pool of 308 people to draw from to select the government’s executive committee, however if you exclude opposition members, this leaves (currently) 125 members. Not exactly a deep candidate pool from which to draw 27 men and women. What this means, is that in Canada, we generally don’t have an expert cabinet, we have an accountable cabinet. The selection of cabinets for the provincial legislatures is drawn from an even thinner pool. By comparison, in the United States, the cabinet is appointed by the President from a vast pool. Cabinet Secretaries in the US tend to be experts in their field - partisan hacks for sure, but experts none the less. However they lack direct voter accountability and are therefore less of a political influence on the President.

As a result of this fundamental difference, cabinet ministers in Canada often rely heavily on the expertise of their deputies, assistant deputies and senior ministerial staff both to do the work of the ministry and to provide counsel on policy issues. Cabinet secretaries in the US are far more hands on.

In the case of David Emerson, and his major duties, the Vancouver Gateway project, the Olympics and International Trade (in particular the softwood lumber dispute), he brings a lot of expertise to the table and is no doubt an asset to the government. However, even with his estimable abilities, it is unlikely that he will play a pivotal role in the running of his ministry.

In the case of the softwood lumber dispute, there is nothing of a technical, lumber industry oriented nature that is left to be discussed. The NAFTA panel has already heard form legions of experts on allowable cuts, stumpage rates, economics, taxes, etc. and made its determination. Canada has already prevailed in that case – without the input of the Softwood Lumber Messiah (SLM). The negotiations now are of a political nature. The United States need to find a way to largely comply with the NAFTA ruling, but still save face with the US Lumber lobby. This work will be done by professional negotiators. The Christ of Canfor will show up for the photo-op.

No comments: