Disbelief, anger, concern dog planned sale of major assets of N.B. utility

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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First there was disbelief, then anger, then concern as New Brunswickers tried to wade through the terms of the NB Power deal and make up their minds about it.
People have taken issue with almost every aspect of the plan to sell major assets of the New Brunswick electric utility to Hydro-Quebec.
Ask 10 people what they think of the multibillion-dollar agreement and you'll likely get 10 different opinions.
But a few general themes have emerged.
People are worried about the long-term impact on power rates and on the province's energy sovereignty. They question why industrial users seem to be getting a better deal than residential ones.
Mostly they feel the way the whole deal has been done stinks - and that has left them angry and suspicious.
"I'd say the thing people are most upset about is this deal has been put together in a very secret fashion. There hasn't been a lot of public input," says Cocagne, N.B., resident Richard Lachance. "The idea of selling the province's assets without public input, it's not right."
The lack of transparency on the government's part, whether real or perceived, seems to come up time and again when New Brunswickers talk about the reasons they are leery of the deal.
"People have just lost trust and faith in government and it is like they aren't working for our benefit, they are working for their party's benefit," Lachance says.
Geoff Martin, a political science professor at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., says he is getting the same vibe, that people are wondering who they can trust to tell them about the deal.
"People are a bit suspicious and also worried about the fine print and how that can come back (on us)," he says. "Maybe people in general are a little bit jaded."
Political science professor Tom Bateman at St. Thomas University in Fredericton says there has been a combination of what he calls process concerns and substance concerns in the public debate.
"I thought earlier in the debate the concerns about substance were fairly clearly articulated," he says. "Questions of sovereignty, the loss of control this province will have over its energy.... Other concerns were whether the assets going to Hydro-Quebec were properly valued."
Bateman says the disparity between breaks for industrial and residential users also upset people.
But while those concerns remain, the focus has shifted somewhat to questioning the process - the way the deal was made and presented.
"It's become a bit of a staple of the debate that the government has not consulted enough," Bateman says. "The MOU (memorandum of understanding) of Oct. 29 seemed to come out of nowhere. It took everybody by surprise and one wonders how much on-the-back-of-a-napkin kind of deal this really is."
The complexity of the agreement may be part of the reason people are focusing on issues of process.
"When someone is unwilling or unable to master the substance, then that person is likely to switch to the process," Bateman says. "It has always been there and it may be more strongly the case now than it was before."
Lachance says if there is a good thing in all of the controversy swirling around the NB Power deal, it is that it has got people thinking about energy.
"It is a very important issue for our future. We can't rely on oil, but what are we moving towards?" he says.
While Lachance believes citizens should be part of the process, he doesn't support the idea of a referendum.
"To have a provincial referendum where everybody votes on the deal would be sort of a mistake too, because I don't feel people have the information to make a decision either way," he says.
Bateman says the government is finding itself with a very difficult communication job at this point.
"We are going to get some detail (on the deal) in the form of this massive piece of legislation. We will have the actual document, which will be hideously unreadable. It will be worse reading than the Income Tax Act and people aren't going to (read) that either," he says.
So can the government dig itself out of the hole it has dug itself into?
"I think what I have noticed of late is that other personalities in the province have spoken out in favour of the deal, the mayors of Saint John and Edmundston," Bateman says. "I think government will have to leverage some of the trust that people have in other personalities.
"The other thing the provincial government can do is stick Energy Minister Jack Keir out in front of this one. I think he has been persuasive when he has engaged critics."
Bateman says the Ganong panel report, which is due to be released Monday, could also have an impact on public opinion.

Organizations: NB Power, Hydro-Quebec, Mount Allison University St. Thomas University

Geographic location: New Brunswick, Sackville, Fredericton Saint John

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  • Old Salt
    July 02, 2010 - 13:35

    Name me a 'good deal' that some major entity ever got from Quebec. That gov. is like a blotter that absorbs only and is incapable of dispensing. If they could only turn people on the way they turn them off, they would deserve a # 1 rating as the friendliest province in Canada.

  • P. F.
    July 02, 2010 - 13:19

    Whatever they eventually conclude, they should have a reconsideration every 5-10 years so that any massive profitability for HQ in the future would have to be shared through renegotiation. Such a clause could be a gold mine for NB like it would have been for us on the Upper Churchill. HQ is not going into any deal just to benefit NB and its people! I notice that this give away is from a Liberal govt. I guess they don't figure they have the energy or intelligence to run it themselves.

  • David
    July 02, 2010 - 13:18

    Can't take it away from the ordinary New Brunwicker. v wise and perceptive turning the glasses over:

    the end justifies the means, or is it
    the means bespeak the end ?

  • Gerry
    July 02, 2010 - 13:15

    I am greatly surprised that a small province like New Brunswick-which got hardly any clout with the big old crooked federal government would make a deal with Quebec--which controls the feds anyway--They should know that it is their future they are givein away to Quebec.--Are these people that stupid ? Just look at how they have treated little NL--

  • Robert
    July 02, 2010 - 13:15

    I find the overall tone of this article most interesting; those attempting to enter into a contract with PQ/HQ do so with a very high level of mistrust. The reason being the obvious inbalance of the Upper Churchill deal.

    I have no doubt that PQ has done very well with this infamous deal but perhaps just perhaps public knowledge of this contract is starting to cost PQ real money.
    Already the NB deal has been revamped at PQ's expense because the public outcry demanded change. Premier Williams did well to simply make the NB public cautious regarding any deal with PQ/HQ.

    I would suggest this 'tension' continue until PQ is forced to renegotiate the Upper Churchill deal or see other deals/contracts delayed because there is a general mistrust of any dealings with PQ.

  • don
    July 02, 2010 - 13:12

    The proposed sale of NB Power to Hydro-Quebec is a stupid idea and should be stopped.

  • Old Salt
    July 01, 2010 - 20:25

    Name me a 'good deal' that some major entity ever got from Quebec. That gov. is like a blotter that absorbs only and is incapable of dispensing. If they could only turn people on the way they turn them off, they would deserve a # 1 rating as the friendliest province in Canada.

  • P. F.
    July 01, 2010 - 20:01

    Whatever they eventually conclude, they should have a reconsideration every 5-10 years so that any massive profitability for HQ in the future would have to be shared through renegotiation. Such a clause could be a gold mine for NB like it would have been for us on the Upper Churchill. HQ is not going into any deal just to benefit NB and its people! I notice that this give away is from a Liberal govt. I guess they don't figure they have the energy or intelligence to run it themselves.

  • David
    July 01, 2010 - 20:00

    Can't take it away from the ordinary New Brunwicker. v wise and perceptive turning the glasses over:

    the end justifies the means, or is it
    the means bespeak the end ?

  • Gerry
    July 01, 2010 - 19:55

    I am greatly surprised that a small province like New Brunswick-which got hardly any clout with the big old crooked federal government would make a deal with Quebec--which controls the feds anyway--They should know that it is their future they are givein away to Quebec.--Are these people that stupid ? Just look at how they have treated little NL--

  • Robert
    July 01, 2010 - 19:55

    I find the overall tone of this article most interesting; those attempting to enter into a contract with PQ/HQ do so with a very high level of mistrust. The reason being the obvious inbalance of the Upper Churchill deal.

    I have no doubt that PQ has done very well with this infamous deal but perhaps just perhaps public knowledge of this contract is starting to cost PQ real money.
    Already the NB deal has been revamped at PQ's expense because the public outcry demanded change. Premier Williams did well to simply make the NB public cautious regarding any deal with PQ/HQ.

    I would suggest this 'tension' continue until PQ is forced to renegotiate the Upper Churchill deal or see other deals/contracts delayed because there is a general mistrust of any dealings with PQ.

  • don
    July 01, 2010 - 19:49

    The proposed sale of NB Power to Hydro-Quebec is a stupid idea and should be stopped.