All Elbows

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The goon approach served
us poorly on Lower Churchill

So Premier Danny Williams is lecturing New Brunswickers about giving away their hydro asset.

Theyve sold the farm, he says, using phrases like complete capitulation in accusing New Brunswick of selling away its future.

Our premier is blowing smoke on this one, however. Just over a year ago, Williams himself suggested that his government might sell Nalcor for the exact same reason New Brunswick is selling its asset. Heres what Danny Williams said to the House of Assembly, on April 30, 2008.

This particular government wants to strengthen Hydro, wants to make it a very valuable corporation: a corporation that will ultimately pay significant dividends back to the people of this province; a corporation that perhaps some day may have enough value in its assets where hopefully we might be able to sell it some day and pay off all the debt of this province, and that would be a good thing.

You can read the remarks in their full context at the provinces Hansard site.

Isnt that odd? Williams would hopefully sell our energy corporation to pay down the provinces debt, a key reason why New Brunswick is now selling its asset. Yet, Williams accuses New Brunswickers of complete capitulation. Which is rather hurtful, dont you think?

Actually, intemperate outbursts have been consistent throughout the premiers efforts to develop the Lower Churchill.

Lets start with Williamss decision, in May 2006, to go it alone on the Lower Churchill development, a decision that was something of a slap to Ontario, Quebec and other proponents who responded to the provinces request for proposals.

If you click the above link, you will note that the province doesnt acknowledge the respondents or thank them for their efforts. Nor does he explain why he is rejecting the proposals. There may have been good reason, but apparently they werent worth sharing with those who own the resource. (No, Danny doesnt own it. You own it.) Instead, we get this:

We know that we are capable of executing this project in a way that will ensure we maximize the returns while mitigating the risks, the premier said. We have the experience, knowledge and capacity to take on a project of this magnitude and we are recognized as world leaders in hydroelectric operations and development. This is about doing it by ourselves, for ourselves. We are on a path to be masters of our own destiny and the successful development of this project will be a significant step forward in reaching that ultimate objective for this province.

Of course, we couldnt literally go it alone. We still needed customers to buy the power, financial backers, loan guarantees from the federal government and a way to get the power to market through other jurisdictions. No matter how you cut it, a co-operative not combative approach was needed.

Unfortunately, Danny Williams was not the man for the job. From that day forward, the project development process was characterized by name-calling and back-biting.

In September 2006, Williams used his typical approach of putting down others in an attempt to put himself in a better light.

The more we can spread out our energy supply means that we won't be totally dependent on Quebec for energy which, given the volatility of the politics in Quebec, could be a very, very sensitive situation in the years to come, Williams said. He apologized for the comment three weeks later, then retracted in the same breath by saying he was stating reality.

In July 2007, in an interview with The Independent, Williams said he wanted to bypass the Hydro Quebec power transmission route for all the obvious reasons. The reporter didnt ask what those reasons were, but presumably they had to do with historical resentments. This was odd, given that the Quebec route was the most logical and cost-effective means of getting power to market. It was a pointless comment, and not exactly diplomatic.

Have I missed other instances where Williams picked a fight on this matter, rather than built relationships? If you can add some, please comment below. (But please limit comments to this specific issue; there isn't space to list all the premier's insults, attacks and outbursts.)

Then there are the attacks he made last month on New Brunswick, which were ill-considered and patronizing, given his own musings on selling Nalcor as recently as 2008.

Last week on VOCM Open Line, Williams described Quebec Premier Jean Charest as a friend, which might be a good relationship to maintain, given recent developments. Alas, he has burned that bridge too.

First, there was Williamss comment that, over my dead body am I going to hand this over to Jean Charest in Quebec, which was odd, given no one is asking him to do such a thing. The situation is far more complex than that.

And then, last Thursday, there was this report from CBC Radio-Canadas Telejournal program:

Dans une entrevue CBC News, hier soir, M. Williams a carrment trait Jean Charest de menteur aprs que ce dernier eut affirm que la tarte est assez grande pour tout le monde pour subvenir aux besoins des Amricains. Je ne l'ai pas vu dire cela, mais je prsume que son nez allongeait lorsqu'il parlait, a-t-il dit.

Heres a rough translation:

In a meeting with CBC News, yesterday evening, Mr. Williams bluntly stated Jean Charest was a liar when he asserted the pie is big enough for everybody to meet the needs of the Americans. I did not see him saying it, but I guess his nose was growing when he spoke, he (Williams) said.

So Charest is a lair too. Nice touch. Way to wreck those bridges, and come back for the footings.

And then, on top of all that, there was the revelation from Kathy Dunderdale, early in September, that the province has been trying for the last five years to sell an equity stake in the Lower Churchill to Quebec. She told VOCMs Randy Simms that the province got a path beaten to (Hydro Quebecs) door in its efforts to do a deal, but there was no take-up from Quebec.

This is not surprising, given the premiers habit of firing public broadsides, which could quite conceivably torpedo any private negotiations that may have been underway.

Meanwhile, what was Hydro Quebecs approach, after Williams rejected their proposal in 2006 and announced his go it alone decision?

One thing they didnt do was attack others and burn bridges. They went to work quietly, effectively, strategically and launched a plan to develop several hydro projects within Quebec borders, with a combined capacity of 4,500 megawatts (compared to the Lower Churchills 2,800 megawatts). They built relationships, and negotiated the purchase of New Brunswick Power.

While Danny Williams was talking tough for the benefit of the local crowd, Hydro Quebec quietly outflanked and outmaneuvered him.

We lost, and now the Lower Churchill is looking more and more like a dead horse.

To use a hockey analogy, I agree that there is a place for goons and enforcers in the game of politics. We have no shortage of that on our team, to be sure.

What we clearly lack is speed, skill and finesse.

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  • Winston
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    Geoff,

    The only thing I would add is that Williams' mishandling of the hydro issue is just one part of a much larger pattern. In an incisive column in September, Look before you leap, Russell Wangersky noted, the best word to describe our current provincial government is 'impulsive.'

    What you've laid out sounds virtually the same as the reckless ABC campaign, though Williams has still not matched his vitriolic speech to the Board of Trade on 10 September 2008, which should be required reading for anyone interested in what makes this government tic.

    Winston