19 January 2019

The Spring Election - when and why #nlpoli

There's likely going to be an election before Victoria Day.

If - by some miracle - the Liberals manage to win the Topsail-Paradise by-election next week you could be at the polls before the beer turns green for a day.

If you haven't heard that,  don't say now that you haven't been warned.

03 January 2019

Mitigating Muskrat Falls: Ron, Harry, and Hermione are still baffled #nlpoli

Mitigating the impacts Muskrat Falls will have on taxpayers of Newfoundland and Labrador remains the single biggest unanswered question in the province nine years after the project started and the politicians first started talking about how they might do it.

To mark the 14th anniversary of The Sir Robert Bond Papers,  here's the tale from 2010 to now.

Most people in Newfoundland and Labrador finally noticed the impact Muskrat Falls would have on electricity prices when Nalcor chief executive Stan Marshall confirmed that Muskrat Falls would double electricity prices in the province once it was finished in 2021. 

That was the middle of 2017.

The word “mitigates” - to make less severe or painful - became popular overnight.  Since Marshall’s comments, just about all that anyone in Newfoundland and Labrador has fretted about is how the government will make electricity prices not double because of Muskrat Falls.

But here’s the thing:  Muskrat Falls was always supposed to double your electricity prices. Right from the start – November 2010 – the provincial government talked about electricity prices of between 14 and 16 cents wholesale, which would have made the retail cost in this province about double what it was at the time.  No worries, people like Kathy Dunderdale said.  Oil prices will be so high and electricity prices will be so high by 2017, anyway, that you will never notice Muskrat Falls except that it will stop prices from climbing higher.

28 December 2018

The ins and outs of Equalization #nlpoli #cdnpoli

Each year,  Canadian media conduct year-end interviews with politicians and every year the interviews are nothing but space fillers.

This year's version with Premier Dwight Ball  - for NTV (broadcast but not posted yet)  and the Telegram, thus far - are no exception. They asked the same questions,  got the same replies, and anyone that actually watched or read them got the political-turkey sleepies.

The only spark of life came on NTV when Lynn Burry uncharacteristically lost her composure over Equalization and the amount of money Quebec gets.  Burry got so riled up that she actually interrupted Ball just as he started to wander through an answer.

Burry is like a lot of people, especially in the provincial petro-states across Canada,  who decided to get angry at "Quebec" for something that happens every year:  the Quebec provincial government collects the lion's share of federal Equalization transfers.  Provincial governments in Alberta,  Saskatchewan , and Newfoundland and Labrador are all in financial trouble and some of the locals, especially politicians in power, complain about what is happening in another province.

The problem with Burry's question - as with the entire Equalization outrage is that it just nonsense.  So let's just apply a little insight into the whole business and sort things out.

17 December 2018

A spring election now seems more likely #nlpoli

Here's the local poll tracker, now that the final party choice poll of the year is in.  (CRA Q4 Omnibus)

It's every party choice poll by any firm (less a couple of outliers)  all converted, where necessary, to show the results as a share of all choice.

Undecideds are a valid option in the SRBP world.

You can see that the Liberals are still roughly where they were in the middle of the year:  hovering just under 30%.  In this latest poll they are about seven points ahead of the Progressive Conservatives, which is to say they are really not in a very comfortable spot.   They are a minor swing away from being in a bad spot.

The PCs, meanwhile, have been on a slide since the first of the year and they just rebounded slightly.  But given that the rebound is less than the margin of error for all these polls,  they really haven't to any amount worth speaking of.
The NDP are a dismal, distant, and decidedly irrelevant third.

06 November 2018

The MQO poll and Party Choice #nlpoli

MQO's quarterly omnibus poll shows some curious changes in public opinion about provincial political parties.  The province-wide numbers are not curious:  the changes in a couple of the regions are.

Let's take a look first at the provincial numbers.  As usual, SRBP presents the results as a share of all responses, including the refused/undecided/no answer folks.  That's why the numbers here are different from the ones used by MQO in its own release and reported by local news media.  Go to the end of the post for a brief discussion about the way the data is presented.

MQO kindly provided the data tables for this analysis free of charge.  The data collection methodology is theirs.  Interpretation of the data here is solely SRBP.  There is no business or other relationship between SRBP  and MQO to create a conflict of interest.

Contrary to media reports, support overall in the province for the governing Liberals didn't change in the last two quarters of 2018.  The Liberals had the support of 29 percent of respondents in Q3 and 28 percent in Q4.  Support for the Progressive Conservatives declined by four points - 25 to 21 - while support for the NDP went from 11 percent to nine percent.  The number of respondent who refused to answer,  were undecided, or planned not to vote grew by five points (from 36 to 41 percent of responses).

24 September 2018

The Windsor Lake By-Election and polling #nlpoli

Market research firm MQO released a poll on September 10 about the Windsor Lake by-election.

They'd surveyed 300 people about how they would likely vote and about who they thought would make the best Premier from among the provincial party leaders.

On their choice among the candidates, MQO reported that 41% of decided and leaning voters favoured Paul Antle,  37% favoured Ches Crosbie, and 22% favoured Kerri Claire Neil.

The result on September 20 saw Crosbie win with 43% of votes cast.  Antle got 38% and Neil garnered 19% of votes.

Pretty much the opposite of what MQO said.

So MQO got it wrong,  some will say.

Others will think that Antle's campaign collapsed and Crosbie surged ahead based on whatever factors they might like to pick.

Well, there are a few problems with either of those scenarios.

18 August 2018

The PUB, Exemptions, and Muskrat Falls #nlpoli #cdnpoli

Here’s some background on the issue of Muskrat Falls and Public Utilities Board exemptions. 

At the end you should know what an exemption is all about, how the exemptions – there are more than one – came about – and what that means for now and in the future as far as electricity rates go.  We’ll deal with mitigation in another brief post next week.

The information here is based on material in the public record plus additional research and information accumulated over 30 years working on public policy issues in the province. That includes the 15 years of SRBP, much of which wound up being about the Lower Churchill project.

Let’s start with what an exemption is.

27 July 2018

Bay du Nord and Equity #nlpoli

In a staged political event Thursday that was woefully short of basic details,  the provincial government and Equinor announced they will proceed with development of the Bay du Nord field in the Orphan Basin.  The news release for the event referred to a framework agreement only.

Bay du Nord is located approximately 500 kilometres east of St. John's,  in between 1.0 and 1.2 kilometres of water.  Equinor and its partner Husky Canada believe the field contains at least 300 million barrels of light crude.

The project will cost $6.8 billion to bring into production using a floating production storage and offloading vessel similar in concept to the FPSOs used for Terra Nova (1996)  and White Rose (2002).  The provincial government acquired 10% equity in the project in addition to royalties under the Offshore Oil  Royalty Regulations (2017).  The provincial government will therefore pay $90 million initially as well as $680 million during the construction phase.

Project sanction is expected in 2020 with first oil in 2025.

The following table shows a comparison of Terra Nova,  White Rose, and Bay du Nord, with all dollar amounts in 2018 dollars.

03 July 2018

Electricity prices, risk, and what the editors didn't say #nlpoli


What Muskrat Falls will do to electricity prices is not funny.

Never was.

But what *is* extremely funny are columns like Russell Wangersky's latest hand-wringer about the most recent round of electricity rates hikes.
Remember when we were told that Muskrat Falls was needed to stabilise electricity rates? 
Now, it’s pretty clear that it is destabilising them —- in a frightening fashion.
Let's review some information that has been in the public domain since the beginning of the project.  Russell has clearly either forgotten or chosen not to remember details because none of this stuff is new.

SRBP. "Fear and loathing on the energy campaign trail" from November 2010.

Note the date.

20 June 2018

Rumpole and the Bleak House #nlpoli #cdnpoli

A scan of the docket for the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador, General Division reveals that the Provincial Court Judges are having another whack at the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador over their ongoing and unresolved pay dispute.

Those who suffered through the tale of tardy judges will note that this is a new application.  The judge who heard the other application in the same dispute has yet to deliver a decision some 18 months later.

The Provincial Court Judges are serious about this.  They have retained an army of lawyers all named Susan Dawes.

Most likely to appear for the Crown will be Rolf "Change the regs" Pritchard.  He's the ace Crown attorney who first came to public attention during the Cameron Inquiry and who was most recently seen arguing with Bern Coffey  - who appeared behalf of a Corner Brook ophthalmologist - about whether people should get cataract surgery in a private clinic and have the taxpayers cover the bill through MCP.

The government's solution to the cataract dispute was to change the hospital insurance regulations.  Undoubtedly,  officials in the health department cracked open the spare bottle of sodastream water in the health department last Friday to celebrate the loophole they'd closed that allowed a doctor to think they could do that one procedure in their office while everything had to be done in a hospital.

They celebrated too soon.  The wording of the new regulations allows doctors to do everything MCP covers outside a hospital, paid for by the Crown,  *except* for cataracts.


Don't be surprised if ophthalmologists do everything but cataracts in their clinics and bill MCP for it.

And stand by for the cardiologists and all the other cutters to see what they can do in their private clinics as John Haggie foots the bill for the whole lot.

Meanwhile,  the judges in Provincial Court will just have to wait for yet another decision on yet another application in their ongoing dispute.  Perhaps they'd have a faster result by praying that someone from Health gets a job as assistant deputy minister in Justice. That might be the only way they will get their problems resolved quickly.  The wheels of justice grind exceedingly slowly in Newfoundland and Labrador.


11 June 2018

Rumpole and the Ticking Clock #nlpoli #cdnpoli

There are rules about how long a judge may take to issue a decision.

Now, now.

The lawyers among you are already spitting their morning coffee across the breakfast table at their long-suffering spouses but it is true.

There are rules.

25 May 2018

Nalcor contractor secrets still safe under revised law #nlpoli

Anyone who cracked out the champagne over the bill that would purportedly shed light on Nalcor's embedded contractors might want to spit some back in the bottle for another day.

Bill 19 went through second reading on Thursday,  putting it one step closer to becoming law by the end of next week.  It makes changes to the definitions in the Energy Corporation Act that would,  if you listen to the official explanation, prevent Nalcor from holding back the information on embedded contractors that caused such a fuss last year.  That's the only legislation changed by Bill 19.

The problem is that the Energy Corporation Act was only part of the legal argument Nalcor made in its decision to withhold financial details. Nalcor withheld the financial information for individual contractors on the basis it was "commercially sensitive information" under the ECA. You can see the whole thing neatly summarised in access and privacy commissioner Donovan Molloy's decision last year on an appeal about the Nalcor decision to withhold chunks of information.

Bill 19 deals with the ECA changes.

But Nalcor withheld other information - related to folks who were working through an intermediary company  -  using section 40 of the Access to Information and Protection of Personal Privacy Act.  Bill 19 doesn't do anything with that so the odds are good Nalcor could still hold back information people wanted.

But it gets worse.

Whoever drafted this bill might think the changes to the EPA were enough to cover the individual contractors.

Guess again.

The words in the ATIPPA might look like they say it is okay to release names, remuneration and other information for public employees but Justice Gillian Butler had other ideas.  In her outstandingly twisted and entirely ludicrous judgement in the Sunshine List case,  Butler turned out the lights on disclosure of precisely the sort of information contained in the original embedded contractor information requests.

If the law was never an ass before,  Gillian Butler gave it two sculpted cheeks and a well defined crack. Even though the words of the law say it is *not* an unreasonable invasion of privacy to disclose names and salaries,  Butler concluded that the legislature actually said that information should be be kept secret.  The sunshine list law that some people might think nullified Butler's decision only covered disclosure by the provincial government of some information for employees making more than a specific amount.  All the requests for information under ATIPPA are still covered by the Butler decision, no matter how much money the employee makes.

And Butler's judicial brain fart remains the law until a higher court overturns it or the legislature passes a law that says "Gillian Butler's nuttiness notwithstanding" this information will be made public.

All the information that folks wanted from Nalcor can stay secret.  Nalcor can justify it based on Butler's decision and the ATIPPA, 2015.

The funny thing about this sad tale is that the Premier and any minister of the Crown could have released all the information folks wanted back when the fuss was raging either at Nalcor or over the Sunshine List.  They could release the information based not on a request through ATIPPA but based on their own exercise of the Crown Prerogative. That's the basis on which Danny Williams gave the Auditor General access to documents in the fibre optic cable scandal, for example, even though Williams originally claimed he couldn't do it. 

Fuss as some of them might have,  there's nothing any of the contractors could have done about it since the Prerogative is not subject to judicial review.


22 May 2018

A cabinet, a caucus, and a legislature walk into a bar... #nlpoli

Don't feel bad.

Most people in Newfoundland and Labrador have no idea how our political system works.

Self-described experts.



Very often hopelessly lost when discussing even the most basic points about our political system.
The real problems start when the politicians and, as it turns out,  the public servants supporting the House, have no idea what they are talking about.

Like, say, the briefing note handed to the House of Assembly management committee last week that included these statements:

08 May 2018

First Wells ministry, 05 May 1989 #nlpoli

May 5, 1989 was a Friday. 

It only took the couple of weeks between the election on April 20 that year and May 5 for the government to change hands between political parties for only the second time since Confederation.  The House met before the end of the month was out and before that first session ended,  the province had a new budget.

Clyde Wells was the fifth Premier after Confederation.  He was preceded by Joe Smallwood,  Frank Moores, Brian Peckford, and Tom Rideout.  

In the first 40 years after confederation,  we had five Premiers.  Since 1999 - that is, in less than 20 years - we have had eight Premiers.  Dwight Ball is number 13 in the line, the majority of whom since 1999 have served for four years or less.  We might have a fourteenth, depending on how events turn out.

The habit after 2003 has been for a majority party elected in the fall to wait upwards of six months before opening the legislature.  The initial excuse was that there was a work to do in getting ready for the House.  In 2007 and 2011,  the government was re-elected and did the same thing.  

This is the official portrait of the cabinet sworn in May 1989 by Lieutenant Governor Jim McGrath.  The photo is courtesy of Rex Gibbons, who you can see standing on the extreme left. The photographer was Don Lane.

It was a relatively small cabinet at 15. The cabinets immediately before it had had upwards of 23 members. It was also a fairly well-educated cabinet: three of the people around the table had doctoral degrees (two in education and one in geology). There were a couple of lawyers, some teachers, business owners, and folks like Walter Carter who had spent all of his working life in elected public service.

Most of them carried on in cabinet for a while after or in the House and later still went back to their old careers or took on new adventures. Five of the members of that cabinet have passed away since.

The ministry consisted of:

Standing (left to right)
  • Rex Gibbons, Mines and Energy
  • Eric Gullage,  Municipal and Provincial Affairs
  • Walter Carter, Fisheries 
  • Chuck Furey, Development  (after 1992 - Industry, Trade, and Technology)
  • Dave Gilbert,  Works, Services, and Transportation
  • Jim Kelland,  Environment 
  • Paul Dicks,  Justice,  Attorney General
  • Chris Decker,  Health
  • Herb Kitchen,  Finance

Seated (left to right)
  • Graham Flight,  Forestry and Agriculture
  • Patt Cowan,  Employment and Labour Relations
  • Clyde Wells,  Premier,  Intergovernmental Affairs
  • His Honour, James McGrath,  Lieutenant Governor
  • Winston Baker,  President of the Executive Council,  President of Treasury Board
  • John Efford,  Social Services
  • Phil Warren,  Education

Corrected name of Furey's portfolio, 09 May 2018)