Governing is too Important to be Left to Chance
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, May 1, 2004

Another spectacle of tawdry nomination battles, this time in British Columbia, was punctuated by a rare display of co-operation between the grassroots and the party brass in which three Liberal candidate acclamations in winnable ridings promise strong western voices in a future Paul Martin cabinet.

Ujjal Dosanjh, Shirley Chan, and David Emerson got this far in spite of, not because of, the system.

Take David Emerson, the Liberal candidate for Vancouver-Kingsway. Hot on the heels of closing one of the largest acquisition deals in Canadian forestry history, he offers a resume seldom seen in an arena increasingly defined by block membership sales and career politicians.

The child of dirt poor immigrants who struggled to ensure he would benefit from all Canada’s opportunities, Emerson grew up in Grand Prairie, Alberta, and attended the University of Alberta before completing his PhD in Economics at Queens. By 1986, he was a senior public servant for the Province of British Columbia serving as Deputy Minister to the Premier, Deputy Minister of Finance and President of the BC Trade Development Corporation.

From government, Emerson moved into the private sector as head of the Vancouver International Airport Authority in 1992. By 1997, he had transformed it into one of the world’s cutting edge airports. This set the stage for the improvements he would help bring to BC’s most important economic sector.

In 1998, Emerson was appointed president and CEO of Canfor Corporation, a leading integrated forest products company and Canada’s largest producer of softwood lumber. With 8,100 workers and annual revenues of $3.2 billion servicing 10% of the U.S. market, Canfor operates pulp and paper mills as well as 19 sawmills across British Columbia, two in Alberta and one in Quebec.

Its sawmill at Houston, 300 kms west of Prince George, is the largest in the world. In February, this year, Canfor cut the ribbon on a facility with $26.4 million in upgrades that increased capacity by 30% and reduced production costs by 24 per cent.

CEO David Emerson explained how: “It’s all part of our strategy to manage the supply chain from the customer to the sapling. To do that we’ve got to be able to produce a continuous flow of lumber and forge partnerships with the transportation providers and get our costs down to the point where under potential adversity, we’re not going to be knocked out of the market or be pushed into the red.”

In softwood lumber, adversity has been the name of the game for almost two hundred years.

While the Canadian government attempted legal and negotiated remedies to fight US trade challenges and duties – the most recent costing the industry $2 billion over two years - Canfor decided to get lean and mean.

“The duties have motivated Canadian producers to find any and all savings they can,” says Craig Campbell, a PricewaterhouseCoopers partner based in Vancouver. New technology and equipment have placed lumber producers in the BC interior among the world’s most efficient.

This means that despite the duties, despite a higher dollar, Emerson’s efficiency upgrades and recent acquisition has increased profits, raised share prices and humbled a less efficient U.S. forestry sector.

Playing a strong defence, Emerson also went on the offence to launch a challenge under NAFTA’s Chapter 11 clause that could see Canfor investors reimbursed for losses resulting from U.S. actions – the only CEO in Canada to attempt this.

Is it any wonder Paul Martin wants this man on his team? “It’s a coup,” says Craig Campbell, “to get someone who knows what they are doing.”

Vancouver-Kingsway is the Liberals’ third-strongest seat in British Columbia: 20 per cent Caucasian, 48 per cent Chinese and the rest a mix of Filipino, Vietnamese and East Indian. This, plus a Conservative vote that isn’t gelling, means Emerson’s prospects for winning are good. But with the Canfor responsibilities hovering, organizing a nomination campaign was impossible.

In a system of carefully arranged checks and balances, the U.S. president can hand pick articulate individuals with management and policy depth to form his cabinet. Canada’s all powerful prime minister, on the other hand, is expected to wait, cap in hand, while our candidate selection processes miraculously produce cabinet material.

Canadians increasingly look to ethics commissioners, overhauling the electoral system, and institutional reform to raise governance standards. First, however, let’s give some thought to how we can attract more competent people into public life.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

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