Chamber of Commerce finds its voice

After fumbling the ball during the HST debacle and remaining virtually silent during the Enbridge pipeline debate, the B.C. business community is showing signs it intends to be more organized and vocal when it comes to other controversial economic developments.

Last week, the B.C. Chamber of Commerce organized an event aimed at sending Ottawa the message that the proposed New Prosperity Mine near Williams Lake has considerable support in the province, despite the fact it has failed two federal environmental assessment processes.

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And now various business groups are gearing up to make their presence known in the hearings for the Site C dam project on the Peace River.

The B.C. Chamber of Commerce, the B.C. Business Council and even the New Car Dealers of B.C. all intend to send representatives to Fort. St. John to make submissions in favour of building the dam.

This kind of effort from a constituency that is well funded, but not necessarily well organized may prove pivotal in determining whether some of these megaprojects go ahead.

In some ways, the business community has stolen a page out of the environmental movement's playbook. One business leader told me the environmentalists essentially took over any public debate about the Enbridge pipeline right from the start, and were so effective in their anti-pipeline messaging that there was little the pro-pipeline interests could do to counter things.

Lately, Enbridge has done a better job of articulating its position and a couple of recent polls indicate opposition to the project has diminished considerably.

But it's also fair to say the company has a long ways to go in winning over a majority of the population on this sensitive issue.

However, the prodevelopment lobby appears determined not to make the same mistake twice, whether it concerns Site C, the New Prosperity Mine or presumably the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal.

Adopting a more proactive approach may make the public debate over those projects more even, and therefore may make them more politically palatable for both the provincial and federal governments.

The B.C. government has already signaled it is in favour of the Site C dam and the New Prosperity mine, and a more aggressive and organized campaign by business interests may nudge it closer to favouring the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

In the last provincial election campaign, B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark was cautioned by her advisers not to wade into the Kinder Morgan issue after NDP leader Adrian Dix made his now infamous gaffe of opposing the projects.

But her political instincts told her the issue was a good one for her and her party, because it exposed a neat fault line between the B.C. Liberals and the NDP.

The rest, of course, is history.

Clark has clearly aligned her government with megaprojects that produce jobs, no matter how controversial they may be.

She realizes her base of supporters agree with her, and an organized campaign by the business community will only strengthen her resolve in these matters.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

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