If the B.C. legislature were in session this fall, the revelation last week that the RCMP are investigating Premier Christy Clark’s government over a Liberal multicultural outreach plan would have supplied plenty of Question Period fodder for the opposition New Democrats. For variety, legislature reporters would be lurking in the hallways, waiting to spring questions about executive pay hikes at B.C. Ferries or the threat of 26-per-cent rate hikes for B.C. Hydro’s ratepayers.
But Ms. Clark is avoiding the toxic environment of the provincial capital this fall. There is no fall session – the Premier has opted to put on the air miles to pursue an agenda that is outward-looking.
The Premier will be promoting liquefied natural gas in Asia and defending B.C.’s Columbia River Treaty rights in the U.S. On the national front, she is stickhandling a campaign on behalf of the provinces to oppose Ottawa’s new skills-training program. In an interview, she said the different subjects all fall under the same theme of jobs and the economy. If that sounds familiar, it’s a line from her well-tested election campaign mantra.
This week, Ms. Clark’s road trip starts in Kelowna, where she aims to enlist the support of chambers of commerce in her fight with Ottawa over the proposed Canada Job Grants program. Ms. Clark is warning that small-business operators will see skills-training support dry up if the federal government diverts existing funds to a new program that will be more expensive to access.
Her next stop is in Toronto for similar meetings, this time co-chaired with New Brunswick Premier David Alward. The two premiers are representing the Council of the Federation on this issue, and she is trying a more diplomatic approach than some premiers would like. But she says her approach is working: “Our strategy is to bring together all the folks who are concerned about this and make sure the federal government understands that we need it to work differently if we want to grow the economy,” she said. “My sense is the federal government is prepared to be flexible, because they want it to work.”
Then it’s on to Washington, D.C., where Ms. Clark will be promoting investment in her LNG ambitions. While TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline is straining Canada-U.S. relations, Ms. Clark is promoting something different than products from Alberta’s oil sands. She is hoping B.C.’s leadership around the carbon tax will help open doors at a time that the Obama administration is pushing a climate-change agenda. “I want to get them interested in what we are doing from a climate-change perspective, and also to make sure they understand the scope of this. We have, arguably, the biggest natural gas fields in the world – we have this huge investment opportunity.”
There is a second front in Washington: Ms. Clark will be staking out a position on the future of the Columbia River Treaty. There are powerful adversaries lining up on the U.S. side, looking to drastically trim the downstream benefits that B.C. collects through the 50-year-old pact. The Premier argues that her province has a strong bargaining position – a failure to renew the treaty wouldn’t be good for B.C., but it “would be terrible for the United States.”
In November, the Premier is heading out on a 13-day trade mission to China, South Korea and Japan to promote the her hoped-for LNG industry. Here too, she’ll face some strong headwinds. The Japanese are leading efforts to reduce the price of natural gas that make their markets so lucrative right now. If Japan succeeds in decoupling the price of gas from the price of oil, the incentive to sink billions into new LNG plants in B.C. will be diminished.
There are also some key questions that Ms. Clark can’t answer while she is in Asia promoting what she promises will be the cleanest LNG in the world. Her government is still working out the details of the tax regime for LNG. And to do that, it has has to decide whether B.C. LNG will be produced by burning natural gas to feed the energy-intensive cooling process. And before the government can determine that, it needs to figure out whether a community like Kitimat – one of the prime locations – can sustain that much industry without creating dangerous levels of air pollution.
Over all, it is a fall agenda that is centred on affairs beyond B.C.’s borders. “We have to be looking outward to bring those opportunities to B.C.,” Ms. Clark said. “It means, yeah, putting a lot of air miles on.” It’s also an agenda that will see her playing offence rather than defence – a role she much prefers.