Pipelines and Donald Trump: British Columbia Goes to the Polls

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[There's been good coverage of BC in the New York Times over the past year. *RON*]

Dan Levin, New York Times, 9 May 2017

Workers sorted lumber at a mill in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, last month. President Trump’s recently announced tariffs would threaten the province’s booming forestry industry. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press
Soaring Vancouver real estate prices, health care, energy projects, pipelines, grizzly bears and — who else? — President Trump.

These are the issues voters are talking about as British Columbia holds its election for the provincial legislative assembly on Tuesday.

Bordered by the United States on two sides, British Columbia is home to Canada’s fastest-growing economy and has its lowest unemployment rate. But much of that is potentially threatened by Mr. Trump’s recently announced tariffs on lumber, which affect the province’s booming forestry industry. And the campaigning demonstrates how Canada’s trade dispute with the United States is seeping into domestic politics.

The tight race, which analysts say is too close to call, is fueled by political polarization that often falls along urban-rural lines. The divide makes British Columbia perhaps the most American of Canadian provinces, experts say. “It’s blue state-red state all in one,” said Hamish Telford, a political science professor at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford.

Here is a look at the contenders, and some of the issues they are fighting over.

Premier Christy Clark of British Columbia spoke with airline employees during a campaign stop at Vancouver International Airport on Monday. Ben Nelms/Reuters
The Parties

The election pits the governing BC Liberal Party, which despite its name is conservative, against the New Democratic Party and, to a lesser extent, the more progressive Green Party.

The Liberals have held power for 16 years and are dogged by a decade of surging Vancouver housing prices, political scandals and a continuing federal police investigation into political donations. Led by Premier Christy Clark, the Liberals have promised to push ahead with ambitious infrastructure projects and to increase the sale of natural resources to China, which they say will create jobs. Their base is mostly in the north and interior of the province, largely outside metropolitan Vancouver.

The leader of the New Democratic Party, John Horgan, addressed supporters at a hotel in Surrey, British Columbia, on Monday. Ben Nelms/Reuters
The New Democratic Party, which draws more strongly in urban and liberal areas, has promised to ban corporate and union donations, build more housing that is affordable for the middle class and raise taxes to pay for social programs in a province marked by rising economic inequality.

It may all come down to the performance of a potential kingmaker, the Green Party, which is promising to double the province’s tax on foreign buyers of Canadian property to 30 percent, cancel an oil pipeline to the coast that China desperately wants, and broaden environmental regulations.

A march in Vancouver, British Columbia, in November against a proposed pipeline expansion. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau later approved the plan. CreditChris Helgren/Reuters
Fighting Over Oil Pipelines

Much as in the United States, oil pipelines are a source of political conflict in British Columbia.

Last year, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved a controversial 715-mile expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline from the oil sands in Alberta to a tanker terminal on the coast near Vancouver. Aimed at increasing oil exports to Asia, the expansion would cross indigenous territory and has drawn the anger of aboriginal groups, environmentalists and even Vancouver’s mayor.

Ms. Clark’s government supported the pipeline after initially opposing it last year. The party received over $546,000 in political donations from Kinder Morgan, an oil company based in Houston; the province places no limits on political contributions.

Energy is a main election talking point for the Liberals, who previously championed a huge — and heavily subsidized — liquid natural gas project that has failed to produce the jobs that party leaders promised. Both the New Democratic Party and the Greens oppose the Kinder Morgan pipeline for environmental reasons, though it is unclear how they could stop the federally approved project from moving forward.

Central Vancouver. Residents say offshore buyers are pushing housing prices up. Jeremy Bittermann for The New York Times
Soaring Real Estate Prices

Housing prices in Vancouver have soared over the past decade to an average of $1.3 million for a single-family home (or about 1.8 million Canadian dollars at current exchange rates). Residents say offshore buyers are bidding prices up, prompting British Columbia’s Liberal government last year to impose a 15 percent tax on those buyers, even though the party received nearly $13 million in political donations from property developers, its top source of contributions.

While prices have come down a bit since then, homes still remain unaffordable for most middle-class residents, a problem worsened by a rental vacancy rate below 1 percent. The Liberals have no plans to build more affordable housing or to impose further taxes on overseas purchasers, while their opponents have promised to raise taxes on offshore and wealthy homeowners.

Who is not unhappy with the current situation? Here’s a hint: His name adorns the recently opened Trump International Hotel & Tower, a gleaming high-rise in Vancouver with condominiums popular among affluent buyers that has raised concerns about conflicts of interest for the American president and his family.
Conflicts of Interest

Conflicts of interest are also an issue in BC politics. The province has some of the most lax political finance rules in all of Canada, allowing unlimited donations from corporations, unions and foreigners, a practice banned pretty much everywhere else in the country.

Until earlier this year, Ms. Clark was accepting an annual stipend of around $40,000 — on top of her official $142,000 salary — that came from pooled political donations. While she agreed to forgo the controversial top-up, critics say she and her party remain too close to donors.

Despite controversies, including an investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police into whether there have been violations of rules barring lobbyists from making personal donations, the Liberals have been loath to clamp down on political contributions. Donor records suggest a reason for their hesitation: Since 2005, the party has received more than $86 million from contributors, more than double the amount taken in by the provincial New Democratic Party.

During the campaign, in seeking to change the subject back to jobs, Ms. Clark has found a convenient target in Mr. Trump, whose administration last month announced it would impose tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber, a major industry in the province. She then made a campaign promise to fight the tariffs with a ban on exporting American thermal coal through British Columbia’s ports, though Canada’s federal government would decide whether to institute such a ban.

“I am not going to be a sucker for Donald Trump and accept the bad deals the Americans have offered us so far,” she told wood pellet factory workers at a campaign stop late last month, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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