B.C. Liberals' Borderless World

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It would have been no surprise to anyone that the new Campbell Liberal government in British Columbia would be pro-business. But even in these neo-liberal times, is it too much to expect that there would still be a difference between free-market governments and the corporations they serve and represent? Not so with Mr. Campbell and his corporate buddies - it's as if the boundary separating them has been erased. This was demonstrated in spades at the recent conference of the Pacific North West Economic Region (PNWER) held in Whistler, B.C. PNWER is an annual gathering of capitalist high rollers and elected officials from B.C., Alberta, the Yukon and the states of the Pacific Northwest. It is a place where big business can get together with free-market politicians and talk openly about privatization, deregulation and the virtual elimination of the borders that define nations. Non-partisanship among big-business types was abandoned in the giddy, post-B.C. election atmosphere, according to one dissenting politician who attended. The new B.C. Liberal government was the centre of attention, said Lisa Barrett, mayor of Bowen Island. Michael Phelps, the CEO of Westcoast Energy - a powerful player in the Canadian energy field - introduced Premier Gordon Campbell. He established the government-as-corporation tone of the four-day event. Says Mayor Barrett: "I got the feeling that the veil was being lifted on just how blatantly business viewed the new government as its own. Before the election, at least there was some winking and nodding. It was the sheer audacity of Michael Phelps in embracing the Liberals as the government of and for corporations that got me."According to Ms. Barrett, Mr. Phelps told the audience that the timing of the recent announcement of his company's fuel-cell project was based on "investor psychology." He declared: "One year ago, I wouldn't have established it in B.C. I look forward to many good years under Gordon's leadership." This, in spite of the fact that the NDP government was a major promoter and financial supporter of private-sector fuel cell development. Mr. Phelps, while claiming to be a "hard-headed businessman," deliberately retarded his company's entry into the field for reasons of pure ideology and political partisanship. Were shareholders in Westcoast Energy thus denied a timely entry into this energy market of the future? As for the new Premier himself, Mayor Barrett reports his remarks were mainly a series of free-market platitudes, highlighted by several references to the fact that he "believed" in free enterprise - as if the gathering were a revival meeting of some religious sect. Energy dominated the substance of the conference, and it was clear from the remarks of Mr. Campbell and other government spokespeople that the Liberals will do what they can to help corporations sell off the province's energy resources to the United States. According to Mr. Barrett, "after hearing the American ambassador, Paul Cellucci, speak about continental energy policy, it seemed like the Liberal government was taking its marching orders from him." American and B.C. officials alike waxed on about how "artificial" the border is. It's interesting how the border is very real when U.S. softwood lumber interests are at stake. While Mr. Campbell, in his speech, mentioned that there were lessons to be learned from the California deregulation experience, he apparently is preparing to go down the same road. It was the energy industry that effectively designed the California and Alberta deregulation catastrophes. "Gordon" - as CEOs like to call him - has appointed Larry Bell, his friend, economic advisor and, until the appointment, a director with Alberta-based TransAlta Energy, as chairman of BC Hydro. TransAlta gave Gordon's Liberals $10,000 in 1999. Of course, if you "believe" in free enterprise, there is no conflict of interest in appointing as head of your public utility an aggressive free-enterpriser whose former company is itching to crack open B.C.'s energy market. Bell has already said that BC Hydro should separate its transmission and generation operations, as was done in California. Under this model, British Columbians could soon have the privilege of paying the highest prices for energy that can be charged anywhere transmission lines can reach. For his part, B.C.'s new Minister of Energy and Mines, Richard Neufeld, waxed on about new opportunities for the private sector, particularly "clean coal," and offshore gas and oil. No matter that BC Hydro has an overabundance of electrical capacity. He paid lip service to British Columbians' desire for environmental sustainability, but then proceeded to outline the government's ferocious deregulation agenda, as though regulation had no role in protecting the environment. B.C. has established a Minister of State for Deregulation, who intends to arbitrarily eliminate one-third of all regulations in B.C. Mr. Neufeld told his business / politician audience that wonderful things could be achieved when the centre and right got together to defeat the NDP. And so, there we have it. There need be no distinction between government and corporations in B.C. - a seamless border, just like the seamless border advocated between the states and provinces of PNWER.

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