21 December 2008

Something’s missing: Powers, Hydro, Danny, Abitibi and The Globe

Tim Powers is a well-known Conservative activist who, in his work-a-day, is a professional lobbyist.  As we’ve noted in this space before, he’s a smart guy and Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro was well advised to retain his services to help deal with the federal government on Lower Churchill and the national electricity grid.

According to the lobbyist registry in Ottawa, Powers is still lobbying for Hydro, which is, it should be said, a provincial Crown corporation controlled entirely by the provincial government.  It is no more arms length from cabinet and the Premier’s Office than the natural resources ministry.

The lobbyist registration was just renewed a couple of months ago so it is pretty fresh and there’s no indication it has been suddenly cancelled.

That’s a good point to bear in mind when you read Tim’s comments over the past week on the AbitibiBowater expropriation.  Aside from anything else, he writes a regular blog over at the Globe and Mail.

Over the past week, Globe online readers have been getting comments like this, for example:

History provides a great guide into Newfoundland and this Premier's disdain for broken contracts, apparent or otherwise. Was anyone paying attention to the battle between Ottawa and Newfoundland over the Atlantic Accord?

Perhaps one of the reasons Newfoundland is now a "have" province because she does not sit quietly by and accept that a company can abandon its responsibilities regardless of global circumstances.

For those of us who were paying attention back in 2004/05, we know that there were no broken contracts involved, apparent or otherwise.  And that second bit really doesn’t make any sense since there is no evidence that the company involved- AbitibiBowater – has abandoned any responsibilities.  It’s decided to shut an expensive mill in the midst of global recession and in the face of tough financial times within the company. The mill has been operating for 103 years, with Abitibi running the thing since the 1970s.

That all might be a matter for debate for some people but there a subtext to this that just can’t be ignored and that has to do with the relationship between Powers, Hydro and Danny Williams.

The expropriations involved in last Tuesday’s sudden move by the provincial government involved hydroelectric generation.  The new custodian of those assets is the province’s energy corporation  - NACLOR - and its subsidiary, Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro. 

Subsidiary isn’t the right word, really.  The whole thing is so tightly interconnected, the directorates so tightly interlocked, that it is hard to distinguish one bit of NALCO Reborn form another unless you are a lawyer.  It’s so closely tied to the provincial cabinet that Danny Williams habitually makes all the major announcements for the company. This is not like a Norwegian Crown corporation; it’s more like a Nigerian one for the level of direction it receives from the political end.

At no point, does the Globe point out the connections and Powers doesn’t either, at least not as far as your humble e-scribbler can see.

And just so there’s no mistaking the role Powers’ client is playing in this whole expropriation, let us look no further than the words of Danny Williams himself.

The Premier said it in his statement announcing the unprecedented expropriation:

The Provincial Government will also be taking control of the power plants of Abitibi as without these power plants the hydro power would be wasted. Nalcor Energy will now manage this asset.

The Premier expanded on the point during Question Period the same day:

The Premier:  A good question, Your Honour.

The way that this has been constructed, I indicated in my remarks that the assets, particularly the water assets, would be managed by Nalcor Energy, because obviously Nalcor Energy are now the parent company of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, so our expertise lies at Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro. They would be, obviously, the appropriate ones to move in and to oversee the water assets particularly and then also to work in partnership with Fortis and Enel on the two partnerships that are on the river. The assets themselves actually revert to the Crown, so the Crown, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, is actually standing behind this, so we would basically be repatriating our water rights and also repatriating our land and timber rights back to the Province.

If, at some point in time, on a go-forward basis, then for purposes of the efficient operation and management of the hydro assets, for want of a better term, then, in fact, an arrangement would be done with Nalcor, but the ultimate liability and the ultimate responsibility very clearly rests with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Something’s been missing this week from the Globe and Mail:  it’s the disclosure of this apparent conflict of interest.