17 December 2008

The forest for the junk

There's something about woods work in central Newfoundland that brings a tendency in some to take junks of wood to the sides of heads.

We don't mean here the tragic case of Bill Moss, the Newfoundland Constabulary constable killed during the woodworkers strike that started 50 years ago this month.

We are speaking here of the junks of legal wood then Premier Joe Smallwood took to the heads of the woodworkers themselves to settle that strike.  Smallwood used the brute force of the legislature to legislate their union out of existence and impose on them a government-controlled crowd.

A half century later, the pretender to Smallwood's demagogue populist Crown used the brute force of the legislature to cancel rights and seize assets.

Then, as now, the wider issue was lost amid the noise of the moment.

In the current day, the noise is exemplified by two statements.

First, in Wednesday's Telegram, a letter writer lays out the case for the government to take action to ensure that - as many other voices have cried these past couple of weeks - AbitibiBowater cannot walk away and "take our resources" with them. 

The company would be able to generate power from its hydroelectric assets and make money from it, according to Sean Dyke.  He's right on that but the power wasn't about to leave the island any time soon. 

The company might take the wood it held in Newfoundland and ship it somewhere else to be made into paper or toothpicks, Dyke warns. 

Nothing could be further from the truth, to quote a well known public figure.

AbitibiBowater was planning to shut down everything, including its port and harvesting operations. The cost of exporting the timber to another mill would be prohibitive.  If no company in Newfoundland could do it profitably by bringing logs from nearby Labrador, there is little chance it could be done profitably by shipping central Newfoundland trees to England or the United States or China.

No assets were leaving the province, unlike in Stephenville where the provincial government allowed the company to remove its 30 year old Valmet machine from Stephenville and ship it off to Heaven knows where;  ship it out of the province instead of moving it to Grand Falls-Windsor where it was originally supposed to go to replace one of the ancient and slow machines that are still running out there in the papermaking museum on the Exploits.

Second, there's the claim by Premier Danny Williams that there is little likelihood of court action by the companies involved.  According to the Premier, the only issue is compensation since, the brute force of the legislature transfers the assets to the Crown and that's all there is to it.

If it is possible for something to be even further from the truth than anything else, then that contention by the Premier would be it.

The expropriation legislation is unprecedented, in the Premier's own words.  It is unprecedented in a situation where the company was party to legal agreements with the provincial government, where there were no allegations of bad faith or of failing to meet its legal obligations.

The Premier tried a supposedly failed moral obligation but even that one can't stand up to reasonable scrutiny.  Over a century of successful operation is hardly a failed obligation.  It's also hard to accuse the company of perfidy when it tried diligently over the better part of a decade to revamp the mill only to find that no deal could be done with its unions, not once but twice in the space of a year.  in tough economic times, hard decisions get made.  Forces beyond the company's control - those words will ring true for the Premier come budget time - make necessary a tough business decision.

So where exactly is the basis for seizing assets?

There isn't one, at least not one that stands up to the barest of scrutiny.  Sure, the usual suspects are crowding open line shows to praise their hero but it is hard to imagine that even the Premier's frail mother could show such unflinching devotion to her son as some of these characters do. They love him anyway.

And if there was a way for the Premier to smack AbitibiBowater in the side of the head with another junk, that crowd would gnaw down the trees with their own teeth to keep him supplied with weapons.

AbitibBowater clearly had no interest in the timber any more.  It held land and mineral rights but odds are the company was looking to get rid of those licenses and lands anyway.


The only asset of any obvious and enduring value were the penstocks used to create electricity. Smacking the company in the head with a legal junk was, evidently, the easiest way to get that.

Far from being a case of merely settling compensation, though, AbitibiBowater can argue that it had an interest in continuing to operate those assets. It had every legal right to do so.  They can argue that there was no legitimate reason to seize those assets by brute force.

Nowhere is that more plain than at Star Lake.  While the rest of the company's generating capacity primarily supported the mill, Star Lake was a separate project.  Abitibi and a private sector consortium developed the 18 megawatt site in response to a call for proposals from Hydro a decade ago. The goal was to replace some of Holyrood's environmentally dirty production with cleaner hydro. Why did government seize that asset?

Maybe it won't wind up being a legal argument.  Maybe the Crown can get away with taking an axe to contracts.  Maybe the brute force of legislation, without due cause, due consideration and due process is enough.

It should certainly be a political argument, even if the rump opposition in the legislature can't seem to grasp the wider implications of what they supported yesterday.

It's certainly a policy argument worth considering when the province depends - as surely as it did in 1905 - on attracting foreign capital to develop local natural resources.  It's certainly an argument worth considering given that in 2006, this same administration argued for the power to expropriate oil and gas licenses merely because the companies involved and the government couldn't reach a development deal.

Sometimes, it seems, it is hard to focus on the forest of problems with the AbitibiBowater expropriation.

It's masked by the the thud from the junks of wood being laid up side heads.