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Russell Wangersky: The kind of attention you can do without

Trump Effect
Trump Effect

The news is good for a paper mill in Port Hawkesbury, N.S., but the timing? Well, the timing may turn out to be bad indeed. And it’s not just paper, either.

Russell Wangersky

First, though, something about “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

In the books, as hobbit Bilbo Baggins makes his way through Middle Earth, a great enemy, Sauron, has the power to see what others are doing. The Eye of Sauron, a sleepless disembodied eye, watches for enemies.

Like a U.S. National Security Agency mainframe gobbling up every single email it can its hands on, the problem isn’t whether you’re in range. You are. It’s whether you draw enough attention to yourself to be worth the trouble of bothering with.

What you don’t want is for a great power to direct all of its attention at you, no matter how noble your cause or honest your intentions.

I know — this is a strange way to get to a point about paper mills.

The thing is, with the decline of printed newspapers and magazine, paper mills are struggling for customers. Provinces, cities, towns and states — depending on large-scale employers like mills — do what they can to improve the chances of their own mills having success.

That takes a lot of forms: governments loan money with few strings attached for upgrades, strike deals on power rates, take over reforestation responsibilities, relax pension rules — the list is almost endless, and everyone is doing it, whether they admit it or not. The trick is to find a way to give invisible assistance without it ever being identified as a subsidy — if your help turns out to be judged a subsidy, you run the risk of facing tariffs.

Port Hawkesbury Paper just won a battle in that forum. A North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) panel has ruled that 20 per cent subsidies that have been added to shipments of glossy paper headed for the U.S. should be reconsidered by the U.S. Trade Department. The tariff had been levied because the mill gets a lower rate for electricity; there have also been concerns about the way the provincial government spent $36.8 million to keep the mill up and ready to run for a new buyer after a mill closure in 2012.

As Marc Dube with Port Hawkesbury Paper told the CBC, “We feel validated … We feel that the work that we’ve done and certainly the work we’ve done restructuring the mill was done in a way that certainly was not a subsidy.”

Other Nova Scotia government assistance was deemed a subsidy, as was support to a New Brunswick mill.

The point is, whether something is subsidy or it isn’t, there’s some crucial attention you don’t want to get right now.

And that’s the eye of Trump.

Just ask Canadian dairy farmers, including those in the Atlantic region. U.S. President Donald Trump has been railing against what he calls the unfairness of NAFTA since he was on the campaign trail. After a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, that invective trailed off for a bit — only to resurface with a vengeance last week in a pointed attack on dairy framers in this country, with Trump saying, “some very unfair things have happened to our dairy farmers and others and we’re going to start working on that.”

No one knows just what caused Trump to focus on trade issues in the dairy industry — he marches to the beat of his own drummer, taking on causes based on information as scanty as something he sees on television.

Let’s hope he doesn’t focus on paper next. Or fish. Or anything else. Firmly under the radar is the safest place to be.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 29 Atlantic Canadian newspapers and websites. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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