24 August 2007

Masters of our domain: the [insert list of superlatives here] deal in the history

In 2002 and 2003, then-opposition leader Danny Williams made a big deal out of demanding to see not only the memorandum of understanding but the final legal text of the agreement to develop Voisey's Bay.

Then Premier Roger Grimes relented to the attacks, tabled the MOU in the legislature and out it to a free vote in the House. It passed with a couple of opposition members bucking the party line to vote with the government members.

Fast forward to Williams' own MOU on Hebron. As Premier Danny Williams is touting the need for near complete secrecy as a "normal" part of deals like this. He even chided reporters for getting too close to the copy of the document he waved about during the hastily called news conference announcing the tentative deal.

Asked about putting the deal in front of the legislature, Williams told reporters he "hadn't even thought about it" but that the deal was so good ratification would not be a question. Not really the point, though since as a government measure the thing would pass in all likelihood anyway. Not really the point either since Williams' set the standard by which he'll be measured on the very sort of issue of openness, transparency and accountability

Members of the opposition have been asking Williams to release the document.

Such is the story that both CBC's Here and Now and The Telegram carried stories today highlighting the stark contrast between Danny Williams then and now.

But "hadn't thought about it?"

Natural resources minister Kathy Dunderdale, taking a leaf from her boss' copy of Hyperbole for Beginners, publicly defend the cone of silence on the MOU on Thursday by referring to the current administration as the most open, accountable and transparent administration in the province's history.

Dunderdale, who buggered up a simple explanation of one aspect of the deal during a radio talk show appearance today, even trotted out the old thin-skinned line about supposed personal attacks by the opposition on the Premier and his ministers.

Hadn't thought about it? It only begs the question of how the most open, accountable and transparent administration in the province's history did not think about public disclosure.

Of course, they thought about it.

They thought about it as they agreed with their co-venturers in the oil business to keep the whole thing under wraps.


Incidentally, there's likely a bit more to this issue than the mere claim by "outs" about the nefarious ways of the political "ins", as some have suggested; but that is for another post.

For the record, here are two Canadian Press stories from 2002 on the Voisey's Bay dust-up.

As a curiosity, note that the energy minister at the time was Lloyd Matthews. His daughter worked as communications director with the Liberal administration at the time, including a stint handling comms for current opposition leader Gerry Reid while Reid was provincial fisheries minister.

Where is Lloyd's daughter today?

Well, Elizabeth Matthews bolted from Reid's office suddenly and surprisingly, shortly before the 2003 election to take up a job with Danny Williams.

The rest, as they say, is history, although playing six degrees of separation among the political classes in the province is obviously a fool's errand.

Nfld. premier trying to avoid scrutiny of Voisey's deal - opposition

May 2002

St. John's, Nfld. (CP) -- The only thing standing in the way of an agreement to develop the fabled Voisey's Bay nickel mine is a signature from Newfoundland Premier Roger Grimes, the province's Conservative Opposition leader said Monday.

But Danny Williams said Grimes is stalling because he doesn't want to close the deal and face public scrutiny while the legislature is still sitting.

"Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can sense that a bad deal is about to be made," Williams told a news conference. "Why won't he debate it in the House of Assembly? What is he trying to hide?"

Grimes was out of the province Monday attending an oil industry conference in Houston. But the province's mines minister, Lloyd Matthews, confirmed talks with mining giant Inco Ltd. -- owners of the $4.3-billion mineral deposit -- were in their final stages, though the outcome remains unclear.

"Over the next several weeks, one way or the other, we should bring resolution and clarity as to whether or not there will be a deal," Matthews told the legislature.

Matthews said a number of key issues remain on the table, but no meetings are scheduled with Inco because the company is in the midst of negotiating the terms of benefit agreements with Labrador's main aboriginal groups, the Innu and Inuit.

Williams said while the premier and minister have been coy about discussing the prospects for a deal this spring, executives with Toronto-based Inco have been dropping hints at every opportunity.

Indeed, Inco chief executive Scott Hand has said he hopes construction can begin at the site in northern Labrador by next month.

Meanwhile, there are indications the company has already lined up a contract with the Quebec engineering firm SNC Lavalin, Williams told the legislature.

Earlier, Williams suggested the deal will be announced some time during the last two weeks of this month, after the legislature adjourns for the summer recess.

Wants Debate

Williams said the deal should be brought before the house for debate to ensure the province gets the best deal possible. But Grimes has already rejected that request on the grounds he is not obligated to submit such a business deal for legislative approval.

Grimes will try to avoid public scrutiny of the deal because the Liberal government will be forced to admit it has abandoned the tough stand taken by former Liberal premier Brian Tobin, Williams said.

Tobin won widespread public support when he insisted all the ore extracted from Voisey's Bay had to be processed in Newfoundland. He won two general elections by repeatedly declaring the province wouldn't give away its raw resources so that others could profit from processing the ore into finished nickel.


All fired up: Opposition politicians expected to demand details of Voisey's Bay deal as House opens

Michael MacDonald (Canadian Press)
Monday, June 17, 2002

Opposition politicians will have one, simple question for Premier Roger Grimes this week when the Newfoundland and Labrador legislature holds a special debate on the Voisey's Bay mining project: Where's the legal text?

The question stems from the Liberal government's decision last week to sign a tentative, $2.9-billion development deal with Inco Ltd. based on a so-called statement of principles, rather than a legally binding commercial agreement.

"That's where the truth lies - the devil is in the details," said Ed Byrne, the Conservative house leader. "About 95 per cent of the details have yet to be negotiated."

During the debate, which starts Tuesday and culminates in a historic free vote Thursday, Conservative Leader Danny Williams will argue the final draft must be held up for public scrutiny.

Grimes has said the legal text will be drafted behind closed doors by a team of lawyers from Inco and the provincial government by Sept. 30, but it won't be up for debate.

The three-day debate on the statement of principles should provide skeptics with all the details they need, he added.

"There are some legitimate concerns, with people seeking a little more information," Grimes told The Telegram on the weekend. "They're looking to have a little better comfort level. ... I think people will have a greater level of comfort after the debate."

Scott Hand, Inco's chief executive, dismissed the Tories' demand for the legal text.

"The statement of principles is a very detailed document," he told reporters last week after speaking to the St. John's Board of Trade. "It really sets out all the commitments, guarantees and remedies required. ... The legal agreement will reflect that quite clearly."

But some observers aren't so sure.

"What about the final deal itself?" asked Peter Boswell, a political science professor at Memorial University. "Is that going to come before the house? If not, then that's why this whole thing is a charade."

Echoes of Charlottetown accord

Boswell said the political sparring over the Voisey's deal reminded him of the debate 10 years ago over the Charlottetown accord - another in a line of ill-fated attempts to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold.

The accord was rejected by 54 per cent of Canadians in a national referendum, but not before popular opinion forced the federal government to release a legal text.

"There's a lot of things in this statement of principles that are open to change," said Boswell.

"The free vote is almost like a public relations exercise. They're just going through motions."

Still, the debate in the House of Assembly could offer direction to the lawyers drafting the final documents, he said.

Too many loopholes: Williams

For example, Williams has suggested the statement of principles contains too many broad exemptions and escape clauses for Inco, which could lead to long delays in the project.

He zeroed in on something called the force majeure clause, which excuses the company from meeting its obligations if it is beset by shortages of supplies, accidents, breakdowns or inflated prices for raw material.

"I've looked at hundreds of these during the course of a legal career," said Williams, who worked as a high-profile lawyer for 30 years before he was acclaimed Tory leader last year.

"This is the weakest, broadest one I've ever seen. There's things in here that are ridiculous."

Provisions "normal"

Not to be outdone, Hand said he's seen more force majeure provisions than Williams has.

"I've been a lawyer for 32 years," he said.

"It's very normal. It's fundamental for financing. It doesn't eliminate our obligations. All it can do is suspend it for a little time."