New West Vancouver MP talks LNG, arts and Ottawa

Appeared in the North Shore News – January 1, 2016

In snooty West Vancouver, where we think foreign relations begin at the North Vancouver border, it is novel to have a bona fide parliamentary secretary for the federal foreign affairs minister.

“I got to Ottawa on the Monday and found I was going to be the parliamentary secretary on the Wednesday,” Pam Goldsmith-Jones said, her laughter and 24-hour-a-day political animalism crackling over the phone.

The freshly-minted Liberal MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country got a kick out of going through the Lester B. Pearson Building, home of the Department of Global Affairs. She – and fellow new North Shore parliamentary secretaries, Jonathan Wilkinson for environment and climate change and Terry Beech for science, who will both be asked for interviews by the undersigned – were briefed on secretarial duties and given security checks.

The fun part of the job over, Goldsmith-Jones took the initiative in inviting this hard critic of her West Vancouver mayoral record for a bit of a talk and a forthcoming lunch.

Obvious topics: The proposed Squamish liquefied natural gas plant, the (long) proposed North Shore wastewater treatment plant, and the (equally long) proposed new West Vancouver art gallery, now named the Centre for Art, Architecture + Design (CAAD).

The LNG plant decision process is getting a fresh re-start in the next couple of months, making it the most immediate issue of the three. Would she take part on behalf of her constituents?

“I think I’ll be in the conversation – I’m not sure how formal,” Goldsmith-Jones said. “I would like to be involved in the process. I’ve always had a lot of faith in the design of the process.
“If we are serious about living in a carbon-constrained world, that’s a serious game-changer. … I think it’s fair to ask: Where is the Squamish Nation coming from? There seems to be a disconnect there.”

She didn’t signal a personal stand: “To be truly interested in hearing from everybody, without saying what you think – does that leave you wide open, or does it lead to a good conclusion?”

The proposed sewage treatment plant, cost $700 million or much higher, is at the other end of the controversy spectrum – it’s not stirring public interest. “People don’t call (politicians) because the treatment plant doesn’t need fixing,” argues Troy Vassos, a North Vancouver environmental engineer and wastewater treatment expert, as reported by North Shore News columnist Elizabeth James.

The municipal boundary-crossing nature of the proposed plant led Goldsmith-Jones to emphasize the new reality – solid Liberal red from North Burnaby to beyond Powell River on Vancouver Island. That embraces four MLAs and three MPs, or two and a half if you split hairs about Terry Beech’s constituency bestriding the inlet. The larger picture: a western Liberal caucus that zoomed from four to 32 in October’s election. I suspect Goldsmith-Jones sees personal opportunities there.

The CAAD project, which Constant Reader knows I deride largely because of its proposed location overlooking John Lawson playground – even more, as a reader pointed out, if it threatens the magnificent sequoia on the northeast corner of the site – isn’t an immediate issue for Goldsmith-Jones.

“Of course I support the arts. … I haven’t heard anything from (West Vancouver) council,” our former mayor said. “I don’t know if they’ve got a formal application requesting capital dollars. I would have to know what West Van wants in regard to federal government dollars in the first place. I don’t know exactly where it’s at.”

The art gallery/CAAD is needed, she declared, pausing to praise the Michael Audain gallery under construction in Whistler. “We will find a way forward. I’ve seen things go through iterations. It takes time” – she recalled that Maggie Pappas agitated for a new theatre in the early 1990s and it took another decade for the Kay Meek to be built. Location? “I won’t get involved in that.”

Rather, she’s interested in the broad arts issue.

You can soon talk to Pamela Goldsmith-Jones yourself: Her constituency office opens this month in the heart of Horseshoe Bay.

• • •

Goldsmith-Jones’s foreign affairs role reminds me that this crept into my small mind years ago: The West’s Syrian policy is wrong. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s is closer to right.

Putin backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad does what all leaders fighting civil war do: act ruthlessly, desperately. Not one of his antagonists looks “Western.” No viable alternative has emerged in Syria. We in the West are great at focussing on this boogeyman and then that. The bungling West is responsible for much of the Middle East’s chronic turmoil. Put aside our democratic airs: Sometimes – consider Libya, Iraq, maybe Egypt — it’s better to stick with the dictator you have.

If we want to choke off jihadist terrorism, and slow refugee flight from Syria too, look hard at Saudi Arabia. We won’t. That’s one non-expert’s opinion.

© Trevor Lautens, 2016

Process, the last refuge of politicians

Appeared in the North Shore News – August 29, 2014

It’s always good to know the people you’re dealing with, wouldn’t you say?

Especially if there’s a dollar sign involved. Also if your personal well-being – basic air, water, protection from loud, hurtful explosions – are in the mix.

So, since we are unlikely to meet him face-to-face, here is an introduction to Sukanto Tanoto, the Indonesian billionaire whose Woodfibre LNG company proposes a liquefied natural gas plant and its transport through Howe Sound to China. Opponents of the plant, prominently Eoin Finn and Mona Helcermanas-Benge, provided important background – especially crediting Coun. Bill Soprovich.

John Vidal, environment editor of London’s Observer, reported in May that one of Tanoto’s many companies, world-class palm oil company Asian Agri, evaded taxes through shell companies in boltholes like the British Virgin Islands. Ironic name – the British Virgins are among top prostitutes for global tax evaders. A Jakarta court fined Asian Agri US$205 million. At these heights, just a small book entry in the costs of doing business.

International tax evasion of trillions of dollars, long condemned by finance columnist and editor-at-large of the National Post Diane Francis but rarely mentioned in most media, fits what British Prime Minister Edward Heath – a Conservative – called “the unacceptable face of capitalism.”

Back in little ol’ West Vancouver, council made an eye-blinking retreat from its unanimous motion in July that joined several other municipalities in urging a ban on LNG tanker traffic in beautiful Howe Sound. Council takes another swing at the issue next month.

This column speculated that the hasty reversal coincided with an unprecedented letter from riding MP John Weston, who disagreed with “the motion, the way it has been passed, and its timing.” Ordered, I suspect, straight from the prime minister’s office, which, like the money-scratching B.C. government, needs another environmental war like it needs a hole in the dam. (Coun. Craig Cameron, clearly rankled, later told me that he had initiated council’s reversal: “My concerns were … due process. … I never heard from Weston … until a few days later.”) Weston, evidently alarmed that media coverage didn’t lay out his objections fully, ran his whole letter in an advertisement in the News – preceded by: “I really wanted to clarify my Pro-Process position, not Pro-LNG.”

Ah, process. Sometimes I wonder if it’s a uniquely Canadian invention. Certainly the first refuge of politicians who sniff a no-clear-win issue, vote-wise.

Which may explain why Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, Weston’s Liberal opponent in West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky in the next federal election, took 21 days after the News story to weigh in – issuing a media-wide open letter days after I asked her view.

She wouldn’t be the canny politico West Van grew to know and, in some quarters, loved, if she didn’t pen a thoughtful, measured and predictable non-opinion on the core issue, while boldly backing “our communities (who) are asking for a voice in the process” – there’s that word! – “and I stand with them.” Goldsmith-Jones also caromed a shot at Weston for being, in her quotation marks, “unimpressed” with West Van council, a word he never used and a sentiment he specifically rejected.

Politics. And not to be personally smug. The undersigned doesn’t envy the pressured political class. Arbitrate between mankind’s insistent needs and nature’s deceptive largesse? I wouldn’t want to be king making those choices. Might abdicate.

On one hand: For such tycoons, and for such still-dangerous, still-Communist customers as imperialist China, we should bow down and put our green lands, air, water and safety at risk? On the other hand: My scorn approaches infinity for those – and they are many – who don’t connect welfare programs with the private wealth-spinning that pays for them.

The opponents’ environmental case: “If approved, Woodfibre LNG says it will discharge 17,000 tonnes … of chlorinated, desalinated water, 10 degrees hotter than at intake, into Howe Sound every hour of every day for the next 25-plus years. The effect of this on the marine food chain in the Sound, including herring, salmon, dolphins, orcas and whales, could be devastating.”

Which should trouble consciences. Can we in this favoured area cheerfully let those in distant places suffer scarred landscapes and the risk of terrible error – ducking our share of the burden? Erect “do not trespass” signs around this pristine ghetto for the welloff and the lucky?

I regret that my experience with our race cries out: Sure, we can.

Is West Van council secretly grateful that the LNG issue may distract opposition to its witless Ferry Building project, hoping for protester burnout?

*******

Unconfirmed: Trish Panz won’t run again for West Van council. Wild guess: She’ll join Goldsmith-Jones’s election team.

*******

Some oaf recently “keyed” 47 cars in two North Vancouver car lots, which police estimated caused damage of almost $100,000.

Why don’t courts make full restitution part of any sentence, and make it stick until paid? That could be sobering.

© Trevor Lautens, 2014

Behind council’s sober second thoughts

Appeared in the North Shore News – August 15, 2014

Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow was bloodier, but West Van council’s U-turn on its slamming of proposed liquefied natural gas tankers on Howe Sound was quicker.

Councillors at the Aug. 4 meeting volubly backed off their unanimous decision two weeks earlier when they had asked Ottawa to ban Asian-bound tankers from waters uncomfortably close to the western shores of West Vancouver.

I pause. Let’s be fair. This is what politicians should do more often, right? – have sober second thoughts, admitting mistakes first time around.

By this measure, Mayor Michael Smith deserves praise for the frankness that slick politicians avoid when they give a 3,000-word, non-answer to an unwanted interview question.

At the second-thoughts council meeting Aug. 4, Smith commendably took full responsibility for the July 21 decision.

“All blame lies at the feet of the chairman of the meeting,” Smith was quoted by News reporter Jeremy Shepherd. “My legendary impatience sometimes gets the better of me after over an hour of going around in circles on a debate. You get desperate to call a question, any question.” (If you can recall any time that former mayor Pamela Goldsmith-Jones publicly admitted to her blunders, jog my memory.)

On that point – what the hell did we agree to? – Coun. Craig Cameron was equally candid: “I didn’t know what we voted for.” His only vote he’s been embarrassed about in three years on council, he confessed.

Returning now to my usual sunny cynicism: Why council’s hasty retreat?

Wild guess: Largely because John Weston, MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country – the LNG tankers would sail through the population heart of his riding – wacked council’s motion, the way it was passed, and its timing. Otherwise he’s OK with it, one might drily say.

Strange. Does Weston carry such clout? Another wild guess: Yes, if he’s the messenger boy for the big guy, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and by proxy for an equally agitated Premier Christy Clark. (As indispensable Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer recently noted, Clark vowed in 2011 that the first LNG export venture would be “operational by 2015.” Not.)

If my take is correct, Harper, Clark and the oil and gas industry don’t need the distraction of yet another protest.

The Howe Sound LNG plant, a subsidiary of Pacific Oil and Gas, owned by a Singapore billionaire, would be small potatoes compared with the proposed Northern Noway Gateway project. But it’s our small potatoes. The issue hits close to home.

So was council’s first decision correct? Or its second? Or will it be its third, next month? Coun. Michael Lewis expects more information will uphold council’s original decision opposing the project.

Predictably, industry leaders say LNG is safe. Predictably, opponents, including chemistry doctorate Eoin Finn, cite the worst case: An LNG tank explosion destroyed a square mile of Cleveland and killed 130 in 1944.

Extraction industries are locally popular, generating prosperity and jobs. Unless something goes hugely wrong. Hello, Mount Polley.

Agent 7p2sd4g angrily writes: “Just as dear old Dal Richards was about to sign off on his delightful Harmony Arts concert at John Lawson Park (Aug. 7), who should enter, accompanied by 100 or so (mostly) female followers, right at the foot of the stage, but Justin Trudeau. Absolutely tasteless, and downright rude. Poor Dal looked shell-shocked.”

Or was Dal willingly cooperating? We may never know.

Also speculative: Lisa King’s front-page photo in the Aug. 7 News was a great shot – worthy of an award-winner – of Justin Trudeau dancing in a steamy, almost orgasmic clinch with Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, John Weston’s Liberal opponent in next May’s federal election. But was it winning politics? My guess is that it turned off as many voters as it turned on.

Agent C8tt0j4 reports “turmoil” at CKNW. Right, vertigo must be swirling in management/ownership heads – dropping its best and most loyally listened-to segment, Cutting Edge of the Ledge, with top Victoria-watchers Vaughn Palmer and Keith Baldrey, hosted by Bill Good. The Three Wise Men, I called them.

Except for sharp Mike Smyth, NW is wildly shuffling the deck, conscripting mostly affiliate Global TV staffers as temp fill-ins replacing

Good and Philip Till – it’s radio’s new Amateur Hour. Complete disclosure: I hold parent company Corus Entertainment stock. I sell my shares, you guys could be done like dinner!

Closing in Ambleside: Familiar, colourful and long-established Amadeo, and Redfish Kids Clothing, consolidating its business at its Hornby Street store after only two years in West Van.

One of my most respected Agents, Y8c5scu, conjectures what town hall will never admit about the delay in a joint police-fire department building: The police and firefighters don’t like each other (not a unique wariness). The plan for a “combined safety building” in fact showed two separate edifices joined only by an atrium.

© Trevor Lautens, 2014

LNG plan prompts genteel concern

Appeared in the North Shore News – August 1, 2014

So how do you like the idea of tankers carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG) past Lions Bay, Bowen Island and – take note – not far off Horseshoe Bay and the western flank of West Vancouver?

Clapping hands? Possibly distracted by distant oil transport disputes, most West Vancouverites seem unaware of a RITOBY (right in their own backyard) plan for the old pulp mill site at Woodfibre – even though Jeremy Shepherd reported in the Feb. 16 News that about 40 double-hulled ships a year would transport the LNG down Howe Sound to the parent company’s facility in China, and tireless West Van Matters editor Carolanne Reynolds flagged the item a couple of weeks ago.

The small plant is sought by Pacific Oil Gas subsidiary Woodfibre Natural Gas Ltd., owned by Indonesian billionaire Sukanto Tanoto. He aims to have it up and running in 2017. A government photo shows Tanoto and a smiley Premier Christy Clark meeting on her Asian tour in May.

Somehow, I doubt if the Liberals would have been hot to trot with Tanoto if this had been proposed before or during Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics.

A group called the Future of Howe Sound Society, noting that the company could be the first LNG export facility on the west coast, stated: “There are inherent dangers in liquefying and storing some 100,000 tonnes of liquefied gas, let alone the shipping of it down Howe Sound.”

The Council of Canadians says the plant’s capacity would be two million tonnes a year, 290 million cubic feet a day, partly transported by Eagle Mountain-Woodfibre pipeline.

West Van seems to be last stop for the predictable controversy (an even hotter one swirls around a logging permit for Gambier Island, Agent 6J9Sqk reports from a meeting). About 100 quite unruly protesters gathered outside Squamish chambers a couple of weeks ago.

Prominent opponents of the LNG proposal include a North Vancouverite, Laurie Parkinson, and Eoin (pronounced Owen) Finn, a sometime resident of Bowyer Island. Both attended a meeting with Woodfibre executives at Gleneagles in February, where Byng Giraud, vicepresident of corporate affairs, said assuringly: “The LNG industry is safe. From 1964 to 2012, there were more than 140,000 LNG carrier sea journeys without one incident of loss of LNG containment.”

Finn, with a PhD in chemistry and a master of business administration degree, and a retired partner of KPMG, one of the world’s biggest audit and management advisory services, is a self-styled “unlikely LNG opponent.” He’s written a carefully detailed critique of the proposal. There are huge safety risks in permitting tankers – 80 a year, Finn estimated – to navigate Howe Sound’s narrow channel. He called it “a class-A hazard.”

West Van councillors unanimously voted July 21 to write the BC Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) expressing their “concerns” (that weakest word in contemporary usage), asking for a seat on the current EAO working group, which has ignored Bowen Island too. They also wrote to the federal ministers of transport and the environment.

Politely, no doubt. The toughest talk came from Coun. Bill Soprovich: “We should pull all stops out to prevent this (LNG plant) being placed at Woodfibre.” If this were the Downtown Eastside a rent-a-crowd would have been angrily massing in the streets by nightfall, shouting slogans. Not the West Vancouver way, my dears.

A more genteel protest would have been for “concerned” West Vancouverites to post a comment on the EAO website. Ah, too late. The deadline was last Sunday.

When a council hastily takes an issue off the agenda – like West Van’s Ferry Building item scheduled for July 21 – there are two classic reasons. One, the politicians genuinely want more time to think it over. Two, they hope the opponents of this needless, costly and stupid plan (I know, I should get off the fence) will have cooled off by the time the rescheduled meeting is held. I favour the second explanation.

The downtown press may also have influenced the postponement. The Vancouver Sun fell upon the issue and ran a timely story that perhaps alarmed town hall. It had a gap or two, such as stating that a “coffee bar” was planned, omitting “and wine bar.” The story demeaningly described the nearby beachfront older houses as “shacks”. One is owned by West Van’s very own world-class billionaire, Jimmy Pattison. I doubt if Jimmy would enjoy the implication of being a slum landlord.

Now some deserved good news about the Kay Meek Centre, from new executive director Jeanne LeSage: You might be able to catch today’s (2 p.m.) Youth Conservatory Music Theatre performance of Aladdin, staged by the youngest thespians. The program’s teens perform A Chorus Line, Broadway’s second-longest production ever, tonight at 7 p.m. and tomorrow at 2 p.m. Future theatre careers begin here.

Right, the government properly regulates beer. But – set bar price minimums for it? Getoutahere.

© Trevor Lautens, 2014