George Bush of the North: Prime Minister's soup of right-wing politics wreaks havoc in the province

by Paul Koberstein

VICTORIA — Let’s play name that dictator: Since he came to power, he's undone tons of environmental laws meant to protect forests, wildlife and rivers. He is a classic cut, gut and clearcut politician: cut taxes for the wealthy, gut core programs for the environment, and clearcut the public's forests.

One more clue: he got himself arrested in a foreign country this year for drunk driving and spent a night in the slammer.

Who are we talking about? If you guessed George W. Bush, you're an apt student of American politics. Bush has slashed $1.6 billion from federal spending on the environment, cut taxes for the wealthy — not once, but twice — and his so-called Healthy Forests Initiative’s stated purpose is clearing unhealthy forests, but will clearcut some healthy ones as well. The catch is that Bush was arrested for drunk driving in Maine in 1976.

The correct answer to this trick question is Gordon Campbell, the premier of British Columbia. Cops in Maui pulled Campbell over on Jan. 9, 2003, for a passel of traffic offenses including driving under the influence (see “Don't Pull a Gordon, Page 13). Maui, of course, is in a foreign country if you’re Canadian.

Few places in the United States are further apart than Maine and Maui. Otherwise there's hardly an inch of ideological difference between the two politicians. As a practical matter, Campbell cuts, guts and clearcuts much faster than Bush, but that’s because he possesses “near-dictatorial power,” as Joel Connolly of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote last year, Campbell’s party, the so-called BC Liberals (despite the label, they are very conservative) holds 77 of the 79 seats in BC’s Legislative Assembly. Imagine what Bush would do the same if he controlled 97 percent of the seats in Congress.

Campbell, who at age 55 is 18 months younger than the US president, graduated like Bush from an Ivy League college, Bush from Yale, Campbell from Dartmouth. Campbell launched his political career as assistant to the Vancouver mayor, and later worked as a developer. He was elected mayor in 1986 and served three terms. In 1993, he became leader of the opposition Liberal Party in the Legislative Assembly, a parliamentary form of government.

In the 1996 campaign, his first run for premier, he ran on a platform of privatizing many government functions. But during the 2001 campaign, he cloaked his political views with words of moderation. “It's time for a New Era of environmental management, based on sound science, cleaner water and sustainable practices,” his platform said. He promised “to include every British Columbian in the opportunities to shape the future of this province.” In his inaugural address, he intoned, “BC intends to lead in the creation of sustainable environmental stewardship. The Minister of Water, Land and Air Protection will ensure environmental protection and prudence are of the highest standards.”

Voters threw out the moderately progressive New Democrats who'd been in power for a decade. The BC Liberals they voted in have rubber-stamped all of Campbell's policies.

Those policies have been far more anti-environment than advertised during the campaign. Polls in BC show that the public strongly supports environmental protection, but apparently voters had no idea how far to the right Campbell planned to govern. He pulled off the old bait-and-switch routine to perfection.

So far, Campbell has:

l Thrown out one-third of all rules to protect the environment, while boosting the amount of trees to be clearcut;

l Eliminated most of the new South Chilcotin Provincial Park so mining and logging companies can access the area;

l Ended temporary moratoria on grizzly bear hunting and on the development of new salmon farms in marine waters;

l Moved to open offshore waters to oil and gas development.

l Defied the British Columbia Supreme and Appeal Courts, the Federal government, and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation by approving to the Tulsequah Chief mine and road proposal in the Taku Wilderness.

l Campbell’s government closed Ministry of Forests offices in 20 communities around BC, and fired 2,000 workers in ministries that protect the environment. Further cuts are planned. These workers do everything from maintaining forest trails to enforcing logging plans.

“He simply lied about what his government would do,” says George Heyman, president of the BC Government Employees Union. “He believes the role of government is to get out of the way and let big corporations run the economy, without regard to social and environmental concerns.”

“What we are witnessing is probably the most hostile government in the history of British Columbia toward the environment,” says Chris Genovali, executive director of the Raincoast Conservation Society in Victoria. “We're in for a fight on this front that probably exceeds what the people in the United States are facing with George Bush.”

Opposition leader Joy MacPhail of the New Democratic Party said in a recent speech, “Gordon Campbell is the real McCoy: an honest to goodness right-wing ideologue of the most cold and calculating kind.”

Like Bush, Campbell's friends in the industry paid most of the bills for the campaign (see chart on Page 16), and have been getting quite a payback on their investment. The fourth largest donor to Campbell's campaign is the US timber company Weyerhaeuser, which paid $54,400 for regime change in BC. Another US timber company, the Portland-based Pope & Talbot, was the 24th-largest donor. These companies stand to benefit from the meltdown of wildlife protection rules on both sides of the US-Canada border.

It’s all a timber executive could ever want: no rules, just right.

On his first day in office, Campbell announced a massive tax cut that gave sudden new wealth to the richest 5 percent of BC taxpayers, many of whom are stockholders in the same industries that funded his campaign. Later he cut business taxes by half. This left BC with a gaping budget deficit, which he plugged by dismantling a wide range of social, education, health and environmental services. In the first few months he chopped thousands of employees from public payrolls while closing schools, courthouses and hospitals.

By the end of March 2003, 29 forest service offices were closed and 35 percent of the ministry's staff had been laid off. The cuts have crippled the government's ability to monitor logging operations and enforce compliance with environmental laws.

By 2004, Campbell plans to have overturned one-third of all environmental rules designed to protect BC's forests, parks, wildlife and rivers. He has appointed a “minister of deregulation” and has already discarded the BC Forest Practices Code enacted in 1995 to protect wildlife and ecosystems from logging. Last November, he replaced it with a much more industry-friendly version, known as the “results-based code.” (See story, Page 16.)

In a speech last year to a timber industry group, Campbell promised that the new forest code would set “the highest” environmental standards. “But we have confidence that our industry wants to meet those standards, that they will meet those standards, and that they have practices that are based on sustainable resource management and sound scientific principles.”

But Candace Batycki of the environmental group ForestEthics, says the damaging effects of Campbell's forest policies are obvious in every corner of the province, particularly in the rare and biological rich inland rainforests in BC. “Endangered species are crashing, and logging companies are increasingly unable to find enough wood to fill their own allowable cuts in some areas,” she says. “They are moving into steeper areas. They are moving into domestic watersheds provoking confrontation with rural people who are worried about the impact of logging on their water supplies. Yet in BC we are cutting more than ever, in a time when wood prices at all time lows and supplies are at all time highs, in a tragic race to the bottom that will leave current and future generations with a lot less than we have traditionally enjoyed in this province.”

At the same time, Campbell has been slashing budgets to monitor and enforce violations of the new code. BC's budget for the environment will sink to a historical low by 2004, according to a recent study by the Raincoast Conservation Society. “Coastal BC's enforcement budget today is essentially the same as in 1983,” Raincoast’s Genovali says. “Premier Campbell is literally turning back the clock with his Draconian budget cuts and disdain for environmental regulation. The Liberal government is essentially abdicating its responsibility to manage the province's wildlife.”

The Campbell government is also planning to increase the corporate control of public forests through its new “Working Forest” legislation. Under this law, companies will be able to work with government to set timber targets almost regardless of impacts on wildlife. The government will also designate almost half the province as a “working forest” in order to guarantee a sizeable land base for timber companies to clearcut. This law will also yield another kind of certainty: a range of endangered species will be driven to extinction in the foreseeable future, unless things change, environmentalists charge.

Ken Wu of the Western Canada Wilderness Society calls the law “perhaps the most sweeping anti-environmental forestry legislation in B.C.'s history.” Jim Fulton of the David Suzuki Foundation says the government has given the timber companies far more than they had wanted. “No company ever asked for half the province to cut, No company ever asked for no forest practice code to be imposed on them. This will lead to such bad results that another government will have to come in and clean it up,” Fulton says.

Last year, as British Columbian environmental groups were protesting these changes, Campbell cut off their access to information and government officials. The government refuses to locate logging operations for environmental groups who want to monitor for damage to the environment.

The impacts on wildlife will be enormous, says Dr. Brian Horejsi, a grizzly bear expert at the University of Alberta in Calgary. He predicts several key grizzly populations will be lost unless the government drastically changes its ways — which it is not likely to do. “This government is betraying the people of the province,” he says. “They have such a narrow and aggressive agenda on behalf of corporate development. Virtually nothing is immune.”

Campbell’s controversial initiatives also extend to energy development. He wants to open offshore areas to oil and gas drilling for the first time since a moratorium against drilling was imposed in 1972.

“We will take that energy and ship it down to our friends in the United States,” Campbell says. “If you were an American and you were thinking about your energy future and your country's security, would you rather depend on Canadian energy or Saudi Arabian energy? I'd pick Canada every single time.”

The Canadian government estimates oil reserves of 9.8 billion barrels in Hecate Strait southeast of Haida Gwaii, as well as 40 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in waters close to Vancouver Island. These are also salmon migratory routes, and any significant spill could have catastrophic effects.

Conservationists say the government’s estimates of fossil fuel reserves are wildly exaggerated, and any proposal to drill will face stiff opposition. Instead, they say offshore waters should be protected through the creation of a network of marine reserves.

Campbell’s plan to open new South Chilcotin Mountains to logging and mining has stirred broad public outrage. “We are dead set against allowing any logging or mining in our provincial parks,” says Gwen Barlee of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, “and the overwhelming majority of British Columbians feel the same way.”

Paul Koberstein