As we all spend whatever free time we have parsing every word of the memorandum of understanding between the province of New Brunswick and the province of Quebec there are a few very important things to consider.
First and foremost is the fact that this is a memorandum of understanding, not a final signed contract of purchase and sale.
Now is the time to highlight problems, seek clarification, and make adjustments. The people of New Brunswick are to be commended for getting engaged in this process and the Government of New Brunswick is to be commended for engaging them in it.
That said, it is almost equally important to recognize that New Brunswick Power is a mess.
The problems at the nuclear plant at Point Lepreau, the Orimulsion experience and a myriad of other challenges and adventures have left NB Power with a massive debt that seriously undermines its capacity to take advantage of New Brunswick’s prime geographic location. If New Brunswick wants to be an energy hub, something has to be done.
It is also important to recognize that rate-payers in New Brunswick either need to pay more or the taxpayers in New Brunswick (who are not necessarily 100 per cent exactly the same people) will need to continue to subsidize rates through higher taxes. The question is simply one of timing and ability to pay.
You can either pay higher bills this year, next year and the year after. Or you can, as this deal would, find a creative way to put off the pain for a few more years.
The idea is that, in those intervening years, you grow your economy, attract more people, reduce your electricity consumption and thereby reduce the total amount of pain when the bills start rising again. All of those things are doable, but they are also highly speculative. On this front, New Brunswickers really are faced with a question of confidence – do you think you can achieve those things or not in the time this deal, if signed, would buy for you?
As for the issue of sovereignty and whether New Brunswick will become a fiefdom of Quebec, we have both serious exaggeration and a serious question at play. The sale or privatization of power utilities in Newfoundland and Labrador and in Nova Scotia, and the success of those companies after the sale, should be proof enough that patriotic chest-beating about the pros and cons of selling “our power utility” are beside the point.
The fact that regulators in those provinces have kept the “hammer” in terms of setting and enforcing energy policy and direction is a valid point and one which needs some significant clarification and more certainty as this discussion in New Brunswick goes forward.
What of the bleatings of New Brunswick’s neighbours?
Recall that it is not Danny Williams’ job or Darrell Dexter’s job to look after the interests of New Brunswickers. That is Shawn Graham’s job. Graham has been very clear so far: if someone, anyone, has a better offer to make than the one put on the table by Quebec, he is willing, nay eager, to look at it.
I might have suggested this stance should have come earlier in the process, an open, public request for proposals for the sale of the NB Power assets, but that is a matter of style as opposed to substance.
The fact is with the MOU in play, the intention to sell NB Power is now clear for all to see and with the closing several months away, the opportunity for other bidders to come forward is there for the taking.
To date, what New Brunswickers have received from their neighbours is a list of demands. Newfoundland and Labrador wants this, Nova Scotia wants that. The correct and appropriate answer from New Brunswick has been and should continue to be: what are you willing to pay for it?
The people of New Brunswick now have a firm offer from Quebec, it should be judged on its merits but it should also be judged against what others are willing to put forward. So far it is the best offer on the table because it is the only offer on the table.
That doesn’t mean you should take it. After all, just because we can all agree that something has to be done, does not mean this deal is that something. But for far too long “regional” discussions in Atlantic Canada have been about what’s in it for me.
This MOU at least lays out the starting line for a conversation about what’s in it for all of us. If Mr.
Williams is serious about protecting Newfoundland and Labrador’s interests, he will have to come to the table with something better than what Quebec Premier Jean Charest has already offered to deliver to New Brunswickers.
Charles Cirtwill is the president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), an independent, non-partisan public policy think-tank based in Halifax.