19 January 2005

Struggling against reality

FRANCES: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.
REG: It's symbolic of his struggle against reality.

In Monty Python's The Life of Brian, one of the numerous Judean independence groups gets locked into a pointless discussion about how Stan should have the right to want to bear children even if he obviously can't. The two comments quoted above end the scene.

It's funny stuff.

The editorial in today's Globe and Mail puts the Upper Churchill contract into a proper historical context. Local "nationalists" will likely find in the editorial further cause for grievance against our supposed Canadian "oppressors", but then again, what topic can they not turn into further evidence of the conspiracy to crush our province? It will likely be funny watching them exercising their irk yet again.

The Globe leaves out the financial aspects but it is a useful and factual rejoinder to the ludicrous drivel being foisted on editorial boards across the country by the likes of John Crosbie. Too bad a great many people in this province will not see the editorial.

Had the Globe included the financial information, they would have gone a long way to correcting much of the misinformation about the contract being spread most recently by Premier Danny Williams and The Independent.

In its "balance sheet" series, the Indy staff claimed the cumulative benefit to Quebec of the Upper Churchill contract has been $23 billion or more. I'll let an economist tackle that one in detail, but on the face of it there is no basis to claim, as they do, that one megawatt of power produces one job.

Last October, the Premier told CBC's Carol MacNeil that Hydro Quebec makes about $800 million a year from the Upper Churchill and that as a result the federal government saves billions in Equalization. Curiously, that same situation - Equalization goes down as a province's own revenues climb - is a bonus in Quebec but here it is a travesty.

Last year Hydro Quebec earned about $1.9 billion in net revenues. It has about 33, 000 megawatts of generating capacity of which Churchill falls represents about 14%. At current market prices, that means Churchill Falls power was worth about $275 million to Hydro Quebec - that's only one third of what the Premier claimed. Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro earned $65 million. That's disproportionate but it isn't extortionate and it is a heck of a lot less than the local aggrieved claim.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that the total value of Upper Churchill power was $300 million last year and has hovered around that level for the last 10 years. Let's also assume that the revenue was split evenly between Quebec and this province; after all both province's own the Churchill Falls company though their respect Crown energy companies. There are a couple of conclusions you can draw.

First, that means the provincial hydro company would earn $150 million from Upper Churchill power. That's it. This year's oil revenues will be higher - closer to double that amount. Factor in the Equalization offsets under the existing Accord and you see that the Upper Churchill is more of a mythical cash cow.

Second, since Equalization would drop on a dollar-for-dollar basis, Upper Churchill revenue would never have amounted to any sort of windfall of cash. The provincial government would have had much the same amount of money, even if we "fixed" the shortcomings of the Upper Churchill deal, as it actually had anyway.

Therefore, the real solution to our financial problems is not likely to be found in getting excited about supposed past injustices. The energy we waste in getting irked would be better spent on managing our provincial budget in a smarter way and developing and diversifying the economy.

Everything else seems to be an ongoing struggle against reality.