11 February 2005

A tale of two cities

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

For those who aren't familiar with the oil support business, there are two associations in Atlantic Canada representing businesses that supply goods and services to the offshore oil and gas industry.

In Nova Scotia, there is the Onshore/Offshore Technologies Association of Nova Scotia or OTANS. Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, we have NOIA - the Newfoundland Ocean Industries Association.

Now NOIA is the older of the two organizations, and while they publicly might deny it, there has always been a bit of a rivalry between the two. NOIA likes it place as the senior organization and the NOIA leadership gets edgy whenever it looks like OTANS is doing better than NOIA.

So it is no surprise that as details come to light of the two signing ceremonies on Monday - St. John's and Halifax - NOIA should be a little uneasy. According to some unpublished reports, it appears that OTANS is playing a prominent role in the Nova Scotia ceremony, as well should the organization that represents one of the significant ways in which that province is the "principal beneficiary" of the Nova Scotia Accord.

Over here, NOIA can come and show up with rest of us in the great unwashed mass at the ceremony in St. John's.

Now there could be many reasons for this difference. For one thing, the event in St. John's is being controlled by the provincial government. The One Who Was The Fight doesn't really need to share much of the spotlight as he claims his prize. In Nova Scotia, the whole offshore Accord fight has taken longer - Danny would have gotten nowhere with Jean Chretien any more than John Hamm did - and has been conducted with much less vitriol than the campaign from here. But more importantly, the minority Nova Scotia government will likely want to spread around some of the glow of victory to as many groups as it can.

But in the long run, aside from this ceremony, OTANS might well wind up much better off than NOIA.

In Nova Scotia, OTANS took a professional approach to government relations recognizing that long after this racket dies down, OTANS still has to maintain healthy positive relationships with both the federal and provincial governments. It has to do that in order to represent its members best interests. Check OTANS news release section on their website and you'll see plenty of releases on OTANS representing its members interest on this file or that. That's exactly what OTANS members pay membership dues to see happen.

What you won't see is what you will find on the NOIA site in October: two news releases in which NOIA blatantly sides with provincial government. In fact, the releases could have been written not by NOIA staff as one might assume but by someone working in the Premier's Office. They are full of the same blatant misrepresentations that characterized the provincial government's campaign. That was after the October Incident, the first of the great stormings, and as it turns out, a deal that wasn't apparently as bad as it seemed given the January deal.

Then there was The Ad: a full page ad complete with the NOIA logo in which the Newfoundland offshore association threw its entire support behind the provincial government and against the feds.

I wouldn't be surprised if Government of Canada officials in all the agencies on which NOIA depends moved telephone messages from the NOIA leadership farther down the pile and took just a bit longer to answer its letters.

The way bureaucrats look at things, the political fight was for the political types; the rest of the world can make arguments in private but never ever step into the bear pit of politics in public. It just isn't done among the people, public sector and private, who do the leg work on all sorts of files. They work quietly. But once you start taking sides you get treated differently because you have become different. For bureaucrats, it's ok to deal with private sector types ("us" dealing with "not us"), but it gets hinky when someone becomes political. It isn't okay for "not us" to become "them".

In the political offices, the response might be much chillier - and justifiably so. If nothing else, NOIA's endorsement of the province's campaign to rewrite the Accord's beneficiary provisions proved that NOIA places a higher priority on provincial government revenues than on the interests of its members in getting guaranteed offshore work. In that light, why should the Government of Canada be overly concerned about whether local industries are getting their rightful share of the Accord benefits? After all, their industry association doesn't think guaranteed local industrial benefits is part of making Newfoundland and Labrador the "principal beneficiary" of offshore oil development.

To cap it all, NOIA was one of the first interest groups to rush forward with its hand out looking for, well, a hand-out from the new federal transfer. How exactly does provincial government cash benefit NOIA members in their core interests? So far no one has stepped forward from NOIA to explain their logic.

If that wasn't enough, here's the release from NOIA issued once a deal had been reached in January. The language is very interesting if you look at the "principal beneficiary" comment and the mounds of praise heaped on the provincial government [read "Danny Williams"] for "steadfast leadership" in becoming "principal beneficiary". Even typing the words, I have a hard time fighting the hoover-like suction. Look at the slight praise for the Government of Canada. Talk about back-handed compliments!

Once NOIA stepped into the political bearpit, it stopped being a non-partisan representative of its members interests and took sides in a heavy-weight political dispute.

It would be a surprise if the mouse tangled with the elephants and didn't pick up a scratch or two.