22 December 2008

The opposite of sober second thought

Jack Layton paid a visit to confer with his provincial counterpart, Danny Williams on Monday. He also dropped in on Lorraine Michael, leader of the New Democratic Party in Newfoundland and Labrador, which, in practice is really just a subset of the Provincial Conservatives.

You can hear the clacking of the keyboards already at the suggestion Conservatives and New Democrats are really just the same creature.

But for those of you who aren’t just reflexively ignoring this, consider that Danny and Jack (and Lorraine) are on the same wavelength when it comes to AbitibiBowater, for example.  Smack those evil companies around.  All good populist nonsense.

Jack hates the senate, the chamber of sober second thought and just last week, the Provincial Conservatives, the local Liberals and the lone New Democrat in the House of Assembly joined together to show their considered opposition to thoughtfulness.

They all worked together to ram through the expropriation bill, based on nothing more than a hasty briefing from the government side.  The only piece of legislation that passed the House in the past decade with fewer words and less consideration was the one that set the legal framework for what became the House of Assembly spending scandal.  No measure of experience gave anyone concerns about a rush job on what the Premier himself described from the outset as unprecedented legislation.

If you really want to see the complete lack of thought involved, go no further than to read the speeches made by the natural resources minister, opposition leader Yvonne Jones and the New Democrat’s Lorraine Michael.

Lorraine’s comments are as good an example of what happened last week.  Let’s take a look at them.

What we have before us today is an opportunity to do something that is precedent setting because finally lands that had been ours and had been given away are back – the potential is to have them back in our hands where they belong, in the hands of the people of this Province. It shows what can happen when we have control over what we own.

The lands never left the province.  They were never taken away.  AbitibiBowater held licenses to use the resources and they have always been, ultimately under the control of the legislature.

So it is absolutely essential I think, that we take the time today to make sure that the decisions we make and the papers that we approve are to the best possible benefit of the people in this Province and that we make sure there are no loopholes that somebody can go through so that it will not work. This has to work. So, while there is urgency about what we have to do today, we also have to take those urgent steps with caution as well. We have had a discussion, all three parties together, obviously the government with the members of the Opposition parties and we will get time to step out of the Chamber and do some thinking and do some consultations that we have to do so that we can, when we do finally enter into full discussion on the floor, have as much information and thinking that we can put in before we do that.

How odd then that Lorraine and the rest of her colleagues – at least on the opposition side were prepared to endorse the bill after only a few minutes of notice that it even existed. The time she referred to in that quote was merely the hour or so it took from the time she said those words in response to the Premier’s ministerial statement until she came back later that same day to ram the bill through all three stages of debate. 

How fast?

Let Lorraine tell you herself from later in the short debate on the bill:

That is what struck me as I have been reading some of the documents. This has been quite a day today, because this was presented to us at 12:45 this afternoon and now it is not even 5:00 o’clock and we have been through briefings, we have started the debate here in the House, et cetera. It has all happened pretty fast, so it has been a pretty quick crash course that we have been involved in.

What consultations took place in that time, let alone what thinking?

The answer is none.

And to really drive the point home, Lorraine bitched just the same week about not having enough time to consider another bill which had been presented with far more warning and which had no less significant implications. She proposed no amendments, took no action to amend the portions of the bill she claimed to have had concerns about.

But back to the expropriation bill.  Lorraine adds some information:

In reading the documents that have been accumulated by the government as they brought themselves to the point of writing this bill, it surprised me to read some documents – I don’t suppose it surprised me, but it upsets me to read some documents in which, for example, Abitibi-Consolidated has been claiming ownership of the land and ownership of the water. No, they never owned it. They had a lease that allowed them to use it and the lease was renewed, but it is not ownership.

At no point did it occur to her that she was receiving a briefing from only one party to a dispute.  More importantly, at no point did she see fit to ask that those documents she mentioned be tabled.  The rest of us are not allowed to see the justification presented for this hasty piece of legislation.

Now we had a corporation in Abitibi-Price who I do not think recognized its privilege. It was a corporation who had the cheapest fibre. They really had a cheap wood. They had the cheapest power and they did no investing in the mill. This is a fact.

Abitibi-Price?  Some of the documents she read must have been old.  As for the rest, it is true in some respects but Lorraine ought to have read the forestry report released in November by the same government that introduced the expropriation bill.  That report shows the current state of the two mills still existing in the province; it is not the one presented by someone with a few minutes of looking over carefully selected information from the bill’s proponents.

Both mills are old and require capital. The Corner Brook mill has received significant capital investment in recent years, with a rebuild of PM 7 in 2000 and installation of a co‐generation facility in 2003. However, neither of the other two machines in the mill has had significant capital investment since the mid‐1980’s. In Grand Falls, neither machine has received a significant capital investment since the mid‐1980’s.

Of the five machines operating as the time of writing, five are ranked in the fourth quartile of paper machine productivity by RISI. On labour productivity, RISI data indicates that the Corner Brook mill performs in the third quartile, while the Grand Falls mill ranks last among the 44 newsprint mills analysed. (We note, however, that recent changes and cost reduction efforts in Grand Falls may have improved performance somewhat, though we do not have access to more recent RISI data to confirm this possibility.)

However, on a positive note, the Grand Falls mill ranks in the second quartile and the Corner Brook mill ranks in the third quartile on total delivered cost per finished tonne of product. These rankings clearly reflect the beneficial impact of the access to very low cost, hydroelectricity enjoyed by both mills. Indeed, the Grand Falls mill is more than completely self‐sufficient in energy and sells approximately 45 MW (slightly more than 40% of total generating capacity owned by ABH and partners) to the Island grid….

The condition is not merely the result of neglect and indifference as suggested by the government, but of the cumulative effect of many circumstances. It is the result of a new paper machine for Grand Falls being diverted to Stephenville.  It is the result of that same machine being taken from the province rather than moved to Grand Falls to replace a unit first installed in 1926. The current administration has not explained how that occurred and it will not, so long as it can count on the unquestioning support of the legislature.

The Premier has referred to the wood room at Grand Falls. Had Lorraine Michael read the November report (in the hands of government since early 2008) she would have seen a recommendation to eliminate the wood room altogether. The consultant’s report, had it been implemented might well have provided a way of lowering costs at the Grand Falls mill and thereby allowing it to continue operating.

The expropriation bill killed that chance. Had Michael and others read the consultant’s report they might also have noticed something about the hydroelectric assets expropriated by the bill they were speeding through the legislature:

The terms and conditions of the power purchase and sale agreements between ABH/CBPPL and NLH are private, commercially confidential arrangements. As a result it has been impossible for us to quantify precisely the economic benefit to the Grand Falls mill of the surplus power generating capacity in which the company has an interest.

However, even if one assumed the sale and purchase prices for electricity exchanges between Abitibi and NLH were exactly equal, it is apparent that the cost of power consumed at the mill would be very low – at or near the marginal cost of generating a unit of hydroelectricity. At published rates ($48/MWh), the power consumed by the mill could be assigned a hypothetical value of $27 ‐ $29 million, while the surplus power sold by ABH to NLH could hypothetically be valued in the range of $18 ‐ $20 million. Therefore, if one assumed an internal cost of power to the mill of say $1.50/MWh (roughly $1 million), the total hypothetical economic value of the power generating capacity to the Grand Falls mill could be in the range of $45 ‐ $50 million, subject to adjustments to account for the partnership interests of other parties in some of the generating assets.

In the face of current market and industry conditions, this is a significant contributor to the viability of the Grand Falls mill. [Emphasis added]

None of that stopped Lorraine from ending with a flourish based as much on wishful thinking as anything else:

How do we diversify the economy using these resources so that in the future we do not have a situation again where one industry stops and a town could be faced with disaster? The other challenge, too, is even if the town continues with a pulp and paper mill, which is a possibility, probably not with the same building that is there, but a pulp and paper mill, then how to do that in a sustainable way so that the day will not come when that ever has to be closed down the road.

So, we are taking a big step here today, but it is the first step. I really encourage the government to continue the process of consultation that it started today. We had a very collaborative effort happen here in this House today, the second time this year by the way; two good collaborative efforts in 2008, the energy bill and now Bill 75.

I thank the Premier for the way in which he worked with us today. I thank the Minister of Natural Resources. It is a pleasure to be part of what we are doing here.

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker.

At this point – at the end – we finally discover what consultation she meant at the start.  Consultation with the opposition;  by that, of course, she meant, showing them a few sheets of paper and giving the chance to support the government motion.

In the future  - perhaps a few months or even a few years - someone will look back on this time and wonder how such steps could be taken.  They wonder how the Churchill Falls deal could have be done, with the concurrence of all members of the legislature.

In the energy bill and now the expropriation bill – as exemplified by Lorraine Michael’s comments - they have a very simple answer. No one bothered to think.

Perhaps it’s time to reopen the Legislative Council.