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Westcott has questions about Lower Churchill

With a provincial government riding at more than 70 per cent popularity in the polls and a Liberal party in tatters, the most effective opposition is the news media.

It falls to our reporters, editors and broadcasters to ask tough questions of government and second-guess the tactics of the Premier. By and large, the media are doing a pretty good job, asking pointed questions in news conference, interview and scrum situations. However, politicians are quick to bridge away from tough questions without really answering, and it is up to reporters to pull it back to the question every time this happens. I don't think this is happening often enough, frankly (or if it is, that part has been edited out).

This leaves us with occasional commentaries from journalists which, outside of the editorial pages of our newspapers, are pretty rare. We've got the Thursday Political Panel on Here & Now, with David Cochrane and Randy Simms, which is always good and often excellent.

And then there's Craig Westcott (above), with his Monday commentary on the CBC Radio Morning Show. A veteran journalist, Westcott is always outspoken, fearless and well-researched. In fact, according to an April 16 article in Maclean's magazine, the premier's spokesperson dismissed Westcott as "a serial exaggerator who has been incredibly, incredibly critical' of the premier in the past."

At a time when the premier faces so little dissent, critical voices are essential to raise difficult questions and keep things in perspective.

Westcott's commentary this week (which actually aired Tuesday) was as hard-hitting as ever, and his point regarding unanswered questions around the Lower Churchill development is critically important. Since such commentary is rare in this current political environment, I am reprinting the full text here with Westcott's permission, of course.

Craig Westcott commentary

CBC Radio Morning Show, June 7, 2007

I was at a press conference the other day about the new super Hydro Corporation.

The one that's going to enter the oil and gas business and be our version of Hydro Quebec.

It wasn't long before the questions turned to the Lower Churchill, which the new company will oversee.

I asked Natural Resources Minister Kathy Dunderdale if the project can go ahead without financial backing from Ottawa.?After all, I've never seen the so-called promise the government claims Stephen Harper made about loan guarantees.

I don't think it exists.

There was that vague sentence or two he issued last election about supporting development of the river "in principle."

But that was hardly a promise to put federal money behind it.?And besides, given his handling of equalization, who can trust the Prime Minister's word anyway?

When faced with the question, Dunderdale looked bewildered and shrugged.

The answer, it seems, isn't even clear to the minister.

Then she started sputtering something about the Lower Churchill being a national project and something that would be good for all of Canada.

I don't doubt it.

But there are lots of questions that need to be answered.

?Especially since the deadline for deciding to proceed is just over one year away.

For instance, I'm still not really sure what "going it alone" means.

Does is mean taking on the financial cost of the project by ourselves?

If that's the case, developing the Lower Churchill will double the province's long term debt.

Under that scenario, you can see why a federal loan guarantee is so important.

? But how are we going to get such backing when the Prime Minister and the Premier are not even talking to each other?

There's also the question of customers.

Those who know their history of the Upper Churchill can attest that one of the reasons Brinco made such a disastrous deal with Hydro Quebec was that it was desperate to get a customer for the power.?Brinco needed a contract in hand so that it could take it to the banks and financial houses to borrow money.

It's just like you or me buying a house. The banks won't touch us unless we've got some income to show them.

With just over a year to go until project sanction, who are our customers?

Yes, we've all heard talk that Ontario and the United States is starving for clean energy.

But where's the power purchase agreements? Who has signed on the dotted line?

So far, nobody.

Finally, there's the problem of transmission.

The current regime insists the so-called Anglo-Saxon route, which would see us avoiding Quebec and running undersea cables down the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Maritimes, is a feasible alternative.

If that's really so feasible, why are we bothering to talk with Hydro Quebec at all?

I think we all know the answer to that.

Even the marble bust of Rene Levesque outside Hydro Quebec's headquarters in Montreal can see through that bluff.

I'm not poo-poohing the Lower Churchill project just for the sake of being negative.

I think we need more information.

We're heading towards the biggest project in our province's history since the Upper Churchill and we don't know anything about it.

But we all know what happened with the first one, or at least we think we do.

Back then, one of the most important deals in the province's history was left to a handful of people who reported only to their board of directors and to Joey Smallwood.

Not even the province's MHAs were given a regular or full look at what was happening.

Sound familiar?

This time around we have a newly-constituted Newfoundland Hydro taking the place of Brinco.

But as it moves toward a decision on the Lower Churchill, the only people privy to the details are the premier and Hydro's board of directors.

When the time comes to vote on this deal, can we trust the MHA's on all sides to dig in and ask the hard questions, maybe even second-guess the premier in the name of protecting this province's interests?

Given our history on the first deal and looking at the crowd that's in there now, I have my doubts.

For The Morning Show, I'm Craig Westcott.

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