Analyst says New Brunswickers shouldn’t expect to be surprised

The eagerly awaited report by the independent panel charged with evaluating the NB Power deal will be made public this morning.

But the report isn’t, perhaps, quite so eagerly awaited now.

Critics say the panel had its legs cut out from under it when the government went ahead and negotiated a revised agreement without waiting for the panel’s recommendations.

Tory Leader David Alward has called the panel “irrelevant” and says those on it have been put in an impossible situation.

But Energy Minister Jack Keir says the panel’s work is still important.

The panel was kept informed about the changes to the deal and will still be able to make recommendations on the transmission and distribution assets which are now being kept by NB Power, Keir said last week.

“There’s still all sorts of discussions we could have on the regulatory side,” Keir told reporters a day after the revised agreement was released. “I’ve talked all along about the changes I want to make to the Energy and Utilities Board, to give it more teeth and make it a better opportunity for rate-paying New Brunswickers.”

Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, says he isn’t expecting to hear anything new from the panel.

“I would be surprised if the independent panel comes out absolutely one way or another. I expect they will have balanced, cautious language. They will highlight the benefits of the deal and I expect they will highlight at least a couple of risks,” he says. “I will be surprised if New Brunswickers are surprised by anything these people say. You should have heard it all before.”

But Cirtwill says the panel’s work was still a valuable exercise.

“I’d much rather have too much analysis than too little,” he says, adding it is very unlikely the panel will completely pan the deal.

“It seems to me if the panel comes out and says this is a really bad idea, (Premier) Shawn (Graham) is going to have a hard time signing the contract. But what are the odds of that?” he says.

The Tories questioned the independence of the panel after it was revealed two weeks ago that panel chair David Ganong had met briefly with Communications New Brunswick deputy minister Maurice Robichaud, and Hill and Knowlton vice-president Steve MacKinnon in a Fredericton hotel.

Ganong issued a statement at the time saying that he had only reiterated that the panel planned to release the report Feb. 1 (it was originally expected mid-January) and to tell them he would let them know how the panel was planning to make the findings public.

Alward says the meeting showed there was not an impartial process taking place.

But Cirtwill says it just wouldn’t make political sense for the Liberals to interfere with the independent panel.

“If, in fact, the Liberals designed a process where they are going to have yes men come to this, it wouldn’t be in their best interest,” he says. “If at some point that came out, it would undermine all the work they’ve done to sell this deal. There is not a lot of upside to gerrymandering this process at this point.”

Besides Ganong, the six-member panel includes former University of New Brunswick president John McLaughlin, Efficiency NB president and CEO Elizabeth Weir, McCain Foods Ltd. board chairman Allison McCain, Université de Moncton professor emeritus Louis LaPierre, and former Mouvement des caisses populaires acadiennes president and CEO Gilles Lepage.

The panel was tasked with examining all aspects of the NB Power deal including the economic advantages and disadvantages, the effect on residential rates, and the potential for any loss of sovereignty or control over the province’s energy policy.

* With files from Nick Moore.