Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for November 20th, 2007

Aiming to be the gateway to the Pacific Century

leave a comment »

Gordon Campbell, Special to the Sun
Published: Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Gordon has a split personality. Or he is stuck halfway into a time warp. On the one hand he recognises that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On the other he thinks the Seaway was a great idea.

That would be the waterway that brought the zebra mussel to the Great Lakes. The driving force behind the massive expansion of Toronto’s docks that I saw when I first got here in 1988 – and which were then empty. And where redevelopment on the massive piles of landfill dumped into the lake is still problematic. That would be the same waterway that private companies like Canada Steamship Lines made lots of money on but paid no taxes. I once had a contract with the Canadian Coast Guard to look at port expansion for the small Ontario town of Port Stanley. Since the main beneficiary was to have been the company known by the name of its owner J H Richardson, the feds had come up with a new wheeze. Instead of the Canadian taxpayer building new port facilities for them to use at low, low rates in the name of economic development, they would ask the shippers to pay for the facilities. JHR declined. It might have been attractive if somebody else paid for it, but it certainly wasn’t commercial. I seem to recall too going to a conference, not so long ago, in Canmore, organised by the feds about the impact of climate change on our ports which was solely concerned with the future of the St Lawrence – I don’t think they even mentioned Vancouver once. Something about water shortages, I think.

So now we look at the Gateway propaganda that Gordo is trotting out. All of it unsupported by anything other than wild assumptions about economic growth and “present trends continuing”. This is the same man who also talks out of the other side of his mouth about “thinking differently”. Which means being critical about these kind of assumptions.

Continued growth of trans-pacific trade requires the continuation of US led consumption funded by overseas investors willing to hold US debt. It cannot have escaped anyone’s notice that the US dollar is sinking fast, largely because the Chinese and Japanese are no longer wiling to hold so much US debt. And the more the nominal value of that debt falls in their hands the less they will want to hold. The US trade deficit, and national debt, is now unsupportable. The prospect of a recession there is very real. And since the only way out of that recession is major reconstruction of the US economy, it seems likely to be a long one. (Don’t believe me, I am not a super wealthy billionaire, so clearly I know nothing. Read Warren Buffet instead – and note that he wrote this in 2003! Thanks Nancy.)

The Gateway is supposed to allow us to capture more of their trade. I do not see that US ports will become any less competitive than they are today. Nor do I see that US reaction to hard economic times is to be more in favour of free trade. The instant knee jerk reaction of politicians of all stripes is to reach for protectionism. Especially against what will be painted as “unfair competition” because it is driven by government policies and government spending – just like the softwood lumber dispute, which was really about us not having the same government policies for our forests as they did.

And it also requires that the North West Passage does not open up or that the new wider deeper Panama Canal does not divert shipping to the east coast. And that the rapidly growing consumer economies of China and India do not prove to be more attractive markets than a broke and discredited United States.

But mostly it is about what Gordo says is an economic benefit

Each percentage point in container market share in 2020 will be worth approximately 4,000 jobs.

Really? I just love the confidence of that prediction. 2020 is thirteen years away. Who was predicting a Canadian dollar at $1.10US 13 years ago? Or oil at $100 a barrel? And right now we cannot find enough people to do the basic jobs that our resident population needs done. Tried finding someone to tile your kitchen recently? Have you got a family doctor? Did you wait long last time you went to the ER? Was there a line up at Starbucks? Do you need a hip replacement? Tried getting on a bus at Broadway and Commercial heading towards UBC recently?

I am all in favour of long range planning. But that requires what is called “joined up thinking”. It is one of those advanced skills that this government clearly lacks. Because all they can think of is sound bites and media opportunities. Another mega project (don’t worry that the ones we have on the go now are late and over budget due to labour shortages, let’s build some more so we can have more jobs! )

No wonder my recent, very polite email was simply forwarded to Kevin Falcon. I expect it was done by some auto-responder program.

For this government does not listen – even to itself. The Gordon Campbell who signed this piece (I somehow doubt he actually wrote it) has not talked to the Gordon Campbell who wrote last week’s piece on action on climate change.

I do think we will need port facilities to meet growing demands from Asia. But it won’t be containers: it will be raw materials, oil and coal, sulphur and copper. Potash and wheat too – although the latter might be a bit of a stretch if climate change heats up the prairies too much. It might have been lumber once, but the beetles will get most of that. So a one time short term burst of activity and then the mills close. Or, maybe you’ve noticed, they have already. Which, if I am right, we have in abundance right now (bulk loading facilties in our ports). I am just not sure that we will be able to keep going that way for very long – because just as we have seen with fish and trees, natural resources do not last forever. And I think we need to concentrate on a future which is sustainable, and much less dependent on fossil fuels (as long distance sea transportation now is) and minerals.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 20, 2007 at 1:34 pm

Posted in Gateway