Newfoundlanders are a bunch of whiners. But we’re certainly not the only ones — or even the worst ones.
Quebec’s Pauline Marois truly excels in the art of the whine. As a narrowly elected separatist premier, she has to tread carefully when it comes to internal politics.
But like many premiers — especially Newfoundland ones — she never wastes an opportunity to lash out at Ottawa. And her government’s recent outrage over the non-guaranteed federal loan guarantee for Muskrat Falls was a masterpiece.
This is the province, after all, that has taken billions in subsidies and federal transfers over the decades. One of the biggest winners has been transportation giant Bombardier.
“You have to understand — Bombardier is not really in the aerospace business. It’s in the subsidy business,” Andrew Coyne wrote in a 2008 Maclean’s column.
At that time, Bombardier was being challenged by the World Trade Organization for hundreds of millions in cash infusions from Ottawa, Quebec and even Great Britain.
Of course, Coyne abhors subsidy of any type, including loan guarantees, supply management and equalization.
Ah, yes. Equalization.
Newfoundland fought tooth and nail to hang onto equalization payments even when it no longer qualified. The rationale was that a chronically poor province deserved a chance to catch up even as oil money started to flow. (With an explosion in civil service jobs and lingering debt, it appears that chance has been somewhat squandered over the past decade.)
In total funds, however, Quebec has been the biggest beneficiary of equalization.
As the Toronto Sun reported in August, Canadians have given Quebec about $250 billion in equalization payments since 1957, half of all the money the program has handed out.
“Over that span of more than 50 years, Quebec has always been the biggest beneficiary, and has never been a net contributor to equalization,” the Sun reported.
Meanwhile, the Quebec government did not waste time condemning Friday’s announcement of a federal loan guarantee for Muskrat.
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“Quebecers have always paid for their own electricity,” roared Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Alexandre Cloutier. “This creates unfair competition.”
The minister called the move an “encroachment” on Quebec’s jurisdiction, and warned the province may pursue legal avenues to stop it.
Quebec’s opposition to a potential guarantee was known long before Friday’s tirade. And at least one member of the Quebec press seems to think it’s little more than harmless sabre-rattling.
André Pratte of La Presse says the notion that Quebec taxpayers’ dollars are going to the project is misleading, as the agreement only gives Newfoundland lower interest rates on loans.
Pratte understands the situation perfectly.
“There is no ‘unfair competition,’” he writes (loosely translated). “Certainly, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia could deal with Hydro-Québec. However, over the years, negotiations between the two provinces and Quebec have always failed, for one reason or another.
“Through this project, Newfoundlanders want to loosen the grip of Quebec and ensure energy independence; the Marois government is misguided to blame them.”
Pratte also notes Muskrat power will be too costly to compete with Quebec in U.S. markets.
Perhaps the most ironic element in the whole affair is that the loan guarantee involves little to no risk to Canadian taxpayers. Ottawa has imposed so many conditions that its back is fully covered. In the end, it’s only Newfoundland taxpayers who will be saddled with cost overruns or sagging demand.
For Marois, at least, mouthing off about another province’s affairs must be a reprieve from the wave of political scandals and resignations sweeping her own.
This is a corrected version
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s
commentary editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org