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Enemy in the midst?

Horgan shows otherwise during keynote address at forum
Premier John Horgan gives the keynote address at a B.C. Natural Resources Forum luncheon at the Civic Centre on Wednesday. – Citizen photo by Brent Braaten

The matter-of-course standing ovations for B.C. Liberal Party premiers were replaced, Wednesday at the B.C. Natural Resources Forum, by a different sort of greeting now that the premier is John Horgan and the party banner is the NDP.

It was the first time in the history of the Prince George multi-industry conference that a non-Liberal was the keynote speaker in the premier's obligatory timeslot, and Horgan was not in a roomful of electoral friends. But the surprise of the forum so far was the realization within that crowd of mining executives, forestry captains, petroleum magnates and agriculture players that just maybe Horgan wasn't an enemy either.

The NDP-Green alliance that brought Horgan to the premier's office is only six months old today. It was not the electoral result these natural resources proponents wanted, and in conversations following Horgan's speech the consensus in casual conversation was that the BC Liberals were still their party of choice, but hostility was hard to find. These private sector leaders of industry were calm and comfortable, and frequently used phrases like "they'e saying the right things so far" and "we are encouraged by what we're hearing in the early going."

Horgan was not in a mood to try whipping up any frenzies of emotion. His speech was far from an election-style address. Instead it was a light ramble through a set of natural resources topics seemingly intended to assure each sector that they need not worry, the new government was still on their side.

The strongest signal of all, Horgan said, was their decision to carry on with the Site C Dam project. It needed independent scrutiny, he said, but that scrutiny provided the evidence required to continue it on to completion.

"It was a difficult decision for our new government to make, but it was an important one to demonstrate to you in this room and the people of British Columbia that although we are new to the halls of power, that we are new to running the government of British Columbia, we do understand and recognize that if we're going to be successful we have to be open and transparent about how we make decisions, we have to provide confidence not just to the investment community but to Indigenous communities, workers, and communities like Prince George that we are going to be thoughtful, we are going to be open, we're going to do our level best to make the best decision possible based on the best information we can find."

Another sign he hoped was noticed by industry was their reduction in provincial sales tax on electricity. That wasn't ever going to have much impact on a regular household, but when you run a fleet of sawmills or operate a couple of mines, the savings are substantial.

When asked by an audience member which sectors were shining brightest in his view, he answered "our agri-food sector is exploding, our LNG market potential is starting to be straightened out, I'm critically excited about forestry."

Admittedly, he said, forestry had gone through tough times of late, but also had plenty of success stories. China and Japan are open opportunities for our wood products, he stressed, as opposed to the trade emphasis on the United States, with its ongoing softwood lumber disputes and saber rattling over the NAFTA trade agreement south of the border.

"We should not be deterred by the man with the Twitter account in Washington, D.C.," Horgan said. "We are a dynamic industry, a dynamic sector that has been the foundation of this great province." He is already arranging a new trade mission to Asia, and other industries were part of the Pacific Rim plans, not just forest products.

"2018 is the year of China-Canada tourism," Horgan said, and in addition to the unprecedented profile that will mean to Barkerville, it also offers wider channels of communication on forestry and other business.

Although a few partisan swipes were taken by the new premier, they ranged from subtle to lighthearted. On more than one occasion he singled out former government members for collegial praise and personal respect.

He also tipped his cap to the industrialists in the room.

"The people who are making the economy go are in this room. You're the people making investment decisions and creating jobs."

He assured them that "Government can and should change, periodically," to keep everyone within the various sides of the Legislature realistic and in touch on the truths of the private sector and where the real economic energy comes from. It was the private sector, he said, that did the heavy lifting in the fortunes of the province. Changes in government foster best-practices in policy and regulation, but should not derail a robust natural resources segment of the B.C. way of life.

The speech received a loud round of applause - stronger than polite patter. It seemed to say that the players in the natural resources sector may not be embracing the new provincial government, but if Horgan wasn't going to gloat then they weren't going to pout, and just maybe that standing ovation would be waiting for him when his government was 12 months older.