13 July 2006

"To listen to old, archived messages, press 2..."

Voice mail has an odd quirk.

Every now and then, it sends an old message along with a new one.

The message could be days old, or on rare occasions the message seems to be from weeks or months ago.

But it is definitely old and likely is one received and answered long ago.

That was Danny Williams' news release yesterday on ExxonMobil, Hibernia, Hebron and fallow fields.

There was nothing new in it at all, on any level. Even the financial information on Hibernia revenues are essentially what local economist Wade Locke told the offshore oil and gas conference in St. John's about three weeks ago.

So what's up with that?

People in the Newfoundland and Labrador have long noticed that the Williams administration seems to be a serial government. Issues don't get handled in parallel. Rather, the Premier's desire to keep close personal control over major files usually means that things get handled one after the other. There seems to be manic activity on one file, then a period of less action and then another period of manic action on some other file.

Except for the bright, shiny object that current holds the Premier's attention, everything else goes on hold.


The Serial Government approach is one of the reasons, for example, that the Premier's business department - originally created as his personal domain - has languished for three years without a full staff compliment or even a clearly defined mission.

In this case, Williams seems to be reacting to comments made during the offshore oil conference three weeks ago. Several presentations at the conference addressed the future of the oil and gas industry in the province in the wake of the collapse of talks about Hebron.

Yesterday's release seemed to be aimed at those comments.

Likely this statement would have been released back then, except for one big interruption: the audit scandal at the House of Assembly. The Premier got wrapped up in micro-managing that one and now that it has been largely put back behind the curtain - at least to the Premier's reckoning - he can now get back to stuff he planned to do a while ago.

Aside from the quirky timing, the Premier's new release raised a bunch of obvious questions.

Like, when did ExxonMobil refuse auditors access to the Hibernia books?

Like, how could it be that the Government of Canada, with an 8.5% share of the project, netted over a billion dollars in 2005 while ExxonMobil - with 33% - netted a little over $900 million?

Like, why did the Premier refer to the federal government's supposed $10 billion cash stake in Hebron yet omit entirely the $10 billion plus that would have flowed to provincial coffers? (not including the construction spending in the province and the subsequent cash flowing from the development of Ben Nevis)

Like, why the Premier only now raised the issue of tax concessions with the federal government after he flatly rejected the idea of concessions when they were first presented during negotiations last year? The feds would have to agree with a sales tax holiday for the construction phase since sales tax - HST - is a joint federal/provincial undertaking.

Like, why the Premier is talking about this stuff publicly when he ought to be talking about it privately if he was seriously interested in restarting the Hebron talks?

Like, why is NOIA committing treason for merely suggesting the Hebron project is important and that the parties should restart negotiations?

Like why the Premier would poor-mouth Hibernia royalties when he knows the project will move to a high royalty regime within the next five years or so, thereby pouring billions into provincial coffers over a longer period of time than previous expected?

Like, why would the Premier raise the issue of an "audit" of Hibernia, when he knows that the companies are required to provide information for the calculation of royalties and have been doing so all along?

or lastly, why the Premier would find it personally insulting when someone supposedly offered the comment that Hibernia wasn't meeting initial expectations, let alone why he would find it insulting at all? Maybe the Exxon accounting nerds made a big miscalculation. Why would Danny take personal ownership of someone else's error? Maybe we need to hear from Dr. Phil and not Navigant on that one.

Of course, as people have started to ask questions of the Premier - let alone hard questions - he evidently doesn't like it one bit. That's why he is now claiming to be focused on getting Ottawa to back fallow field legislation rather than fixate on ExxonMobil's supposed audit problem.

Press 2 again and you'll see that Prime Minister Stephen Harper already explained to Danny that wasn't going to happen.

Four months ago.