04 January 2005

Which is to be Master?

In July, I released a discussion paper on the Williams administration proposed changes to the Atlantic Accord.

The title comes from Alice through the looking glass, by Lewis Carroll. The theme running through the paper is that so much of Danny Williams' claims are based on changing the meaning of words. For example, although the provincial government already receives its entire provincial government offshore revenue, he claims that 100% was merely 14%.

Or, in the Atlantic Accord, the province gains more than just provincial government revenues from offshore oil development. "Principal Beneficiary", under the Accord includes the right to set revenues (not the amount of money involved), the right to manage the resource with the federal government, and local preference for jobs and spin-offs work.

Well, to get the full paper in PDF format, just send me an e-mail (ed_hollett@hotmail.com) and I'll forward it to you. If I can figure out how to upload the file to the blog, I'll post it. The paper is also available online through Greg Locke's blog (www.greglocke.com) in a posting he made in July. Greg and I may not see things exactly the same way, but he did manage to give this paper some exposure and give a decent summary.

In the meantime, here's an article based on the paper that was carried in the Telegram at the time.

Which is to be master?
Public discussion, more information needed on Atlantic Accord changes

The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador currently receives 100 per cent of provincial revenues. Under the 1985 Atlantic Accord, the provincial government gained the right to set its own revenue regime for offshore oil and gas developments and it has done so through legislation and development agreements with the companies that have brought Hibernia, Terra Nova and White Rose on stream. It collects every penny of the revenues defined in the Atlantic Accord, and set out in those development agreements. In addition, it collects revenues, mostly taxes, from the business that have grown up around oil production.

The Williams administration, like the Grimes administration before it, claims money is lost through an Equalization "clawback". There is no clawback in the way that word would normally be used. Ordinarily, Equalization is a glorified top-up scheme. Any provincial government making less than a national standard from its own-source revenues gets a cheque from Ottawa to make up the difference. Make more money; get less of a top-up. If there was a sudden growth in high technology manufacturing - if the province became a Celtic Lynx - Equalization would be reduced accordingly.

The Atlantic Accord contains a provision than offsets any losses in Equalization transfers resulting from growing provincial government revenues, for a period of 12 years. The calculation is made on a 10 province standard, so it is no surprise that last year the province collected $123.8 million in oil royalties and received $178 million in offsets. The major problem with the offsets - if there is a problem - results from the fact the offset provisions are triggered by quantity of oil produced, not on their economic impact as such. Once triggered, they decline over time irrespective of how many oil fields have been developed or what their economic benefit has been to the province. Danny Williams' current proposal is apparently aimed at changing the offset provisions of the Accord.

There are at least two major problems with the proposal from the Williams administration that would, as Danny Williams recently put it, "renegotiate the Atlantic Accord". The most significant problem is that there is no plain English description of the problem or of the government's proposed solution: it isn't in writing. How can anyone judge the success or failure of upcoming negotiations between the federal and provincial governments if we do not know what the Williams administration is seeking?

The second problem is in the way the argument has been framed. The Williams administration claims that by changing the offsets, the provincial government can become the "principal beneficiary" of the offshore, as the Accord intended. Unfortunately, the Atlantic Accord does not say the provincial government will be the principal beneficiary nor is "principal beneficiary" defined as meaning provincial government revenues. The Atlantic Accord delivers significant benefits to the province as a whole. The provincial government gets the right to co-manage the offshore with Ottawa. The provincial government sets its own revenues, as if the resource was on land. The province as a whole gets industrial benefits, something Brian Mulroney considered to be a major aspect of the Accord. Those industrial benefits go against the spirit if not the letter of inter-provincial free trade agreements and the North American Free Trade Agreement, Right now, the Accord is exempt from NAFTA.

"Principal beneficiary" is central to the Accord; redefining it changes the Accord fundamentally. Change the Accord's underlying principals and it may well become a new deal, one that would be subject to NAFTA. Of all the Accord provisions, the one that would clearly not fit NAFTA is the industrial benefits provision. We can't be certain, in largest part because the Williams administration proposal has not be clearly stated and thoroughly examined. There is enough information, though, to encourage the provincial government to be cautious.

It should not escape notice that in making its proposal, the Williams administration is merely picking up where the Grimes government left off. There is precious little difference among the three political parties in the province on this issue. In itself, that should be cause for concern, as Mark Twain warned.

More important than mere contrariness though, the absence of public debate prevents a thorough discussion of options, a chance to see dangers and avoid them. Getting more cash from Ottawa is one thing. If that comes at a larger cost, namely bringing the Accord under NAFTA, then the Premier will need wider public support to continue on his path. If nothing else, the people of the province have a right to know what is being talked about. They will either reap the reward of the proposed changes or bear the burden.