VICTORIA â€” A hefty American tariff on Canadian softwood could be devastating for British Columbia's economy, but it may also be advantageous for political leaders on the campaign trail who are looking to cement or build their images with voters, says a former premier.
The imposition of tariffs as high as 24 per cent on Canadian softwood exports shot the issue to the top of B.C.'s election campaign, with Liberal Leader Christy Clark and John Horgan, leader of the New Democrats, quickly portraying themselves as towers of strength ready to shoulder tough times ahead.
Forestry is B.C.'s dominant resource industry, directly employing more than 60,000 people in more than 140 communities. The United States is B.C.'s largest market for softwood lumber, accounting for $4.6 billion in sales last year.
Clark seized upon the tariff issue as pivotal to her jobs-focused re-election campaign. She told B.C. workers she had their backs and suggested Horgan did not have the temperament or strength to handle such a comprehensive issue with provincial, national and international implications.
Clark demanded Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ban the shipment of thermal coal through B.C.'s ports in retaliation to the tariffs. She said Friday if Trudeau did not take retaliatory action she was prepared to go it alone and impose a heavy tax on U.S. coal shipments through B.C. ports.
Horgan said the threats ring hollow because Clark has been silent on softwood even though the trade deal between Canada and the U.S. expired more than two years ago. He said now that B.C. is in the final days of an election campaign, Clark is suggesting it's her top-of-mind concern.
"She's obviously trying to present herself as a calm, experienced leader," said Ujjal Dosanjh, a former B.C. New Democrat premier and federal Liberal member of Parliament. "Whether she succeeds or not remains to be seen."
He said the hard negotiations on the softwood file will be conducted by officials linked to the Canadian and U.S. governments, but Clark's strategy to focus on her history as a determined politician, her experience and charisma are all factors weighing in her favour with voters.
"That may stand you in good stead," said Dosanjh.
David Black, an associate professor at the Royal Roads University school of communication and culture in Victoria, said Clark is offering voters symbolic reassurance on an issue she has little control over.
"It's fascinating to watch a provincial leader position herself as a peer of, and as a dialogue partner with, a national leader," he said. "Things don't usually work that way."
Black said Clark's suggestions about the threats B.C. faces from softwood tariffs and the possibility of further protectionist actions from the U.S. administration position her as "a resolute leader who is seasoned and tried and true. So, let's stay the course because it's a dangerous world."
He said Horgan is campaigning as an economic populist ready to fight to make life better for people, while Green leader Andrew Weaver presents himself as a new face of politics that is neither right nor left.
Dosanjh said Clark has a record of success in elections and a political style that draws people to her, but Horgan can achieve success despite being relatively untested politically.
"You have to reach back into your life," said Dosanjh. "Start talking about where you have been. What experience you have in dealing with people. You have to dig deep."
He said it means taking risks, like the one former prime minister Jean Chretien took in March 2003 when he refused to send Canadian troops to Iraq.
"Jean Chretien, when he turned down participating in the Iraq war, I thought that was gutsy," said Dosanjh. "It was brilliant and it was the right thing to do. You ran the risk of angering the president next door. But he was proven to be right."
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press