02 February 2009

Equalization “best of” times, the worst of times

As your humble e-scribbler writes this latest Equalization post,  Liberal member of parliament Scott Simms is telling some reporter at CBC that – quelle surprise – he will be siding with Danny Williams on whatever it is Danny wants on Equalization this time.

Scott’s got a history of playing follow-someone-else’s leader on the basis of bogus information.  He did it in the first round of the Equalization Follies and he’s apparently bent on keeping at it despite the previous experiences.

Simms joins a group of politicians from Newfoundland and Labrador who belong to the same club or who – inexplicably  - have been stampeded into creating problems in their own political backyard, robbing them of whatever influence they did have and setting themselves up for yet more of the same old pattern of hysteria and blackmail.

Politicians who refer to the e-mails and phone calls to justify their decision should note that the whole thing was orchestrated.  If they’ve been alive in this province at all over the past five years, they should know how things work. Sounds like they are just hunting around for convenient excuses.

If a Provincial Conservative member of the legislature is on the phone it is usually because someone in the Premier’s Office directed or approved the call.  They don’t have the luxury of voting against the wishes of their leader, at least not if they want to keep their seats, let alone get into cabinet.

Ditto e-mails.  You get one from “at gov.nl.ca” and you know it’s been approved from the top.

And all those calls from listeners to talk shows at the voice of the cabinet minister are pretty much from people who have faithfully followed whatever position the current administration is pushing irrespective of the fact it contradicts the position taken a year ago.

Or yesterday.

Is there an issue on Equalization this time?

Not really.

It all has to do with the words, some of them on agreements signed by the provincial government over time.

The 2005 transfer deal, for example, states in part that if another province gets a better deal than this one on Equalization and offsets, then the provincial government here gets it too. 

That’s the reason why the previous round of discussions by which Nova Scotia can toggle back and forth between the different Equalization options also applies to Newfoundland and Labrador.

It’s that ability to pick the “best of” that sits at the heart of the current round of nonsense.  Danny Williams is a little miffed  - or so he claims – that there is only a choice between two options instead of three. A better-of choice, instead of a best-of.

But then that new Nova Scotia thing cuts in and the whole problem vanishes. Odds are that the budget implementation deal, and that’s the bill that matters,  will apply the best-of provisions to both Atlantic oil and gas provinces. They have before.

This thing isn’t about and never was about screwing over Danny Williams, as much as he might like to think so.  It was about dealing with Ontario receiving Equalization and not bankrupting the federal piggy bank Williams lusts after in the process. 

Now if you really want to get a sense of how much a problem this Equalization thing isn’t, bear in mind that under the Equalization program there have always been provisions that shield a province against catastrophic drops in Equalization from year to year.

If that wasn’t enough, since 1994 Newfoundland and Labrador has had the ability to chose an Equalization option retro-actively to always ensure that it gets the one which gives the most cash. In a month’s time – March 1 to be precise – the provincial finance minister can pick which Equalization option delivers the most cash for the year that is almost over.  And then next year, he gets to chose again based on actual experience for the year that is already past.

That too makes this whole thing a bit premature if not downright silly.

Then there’s oil prices.

News stories this weekend refer to oil prices being close to the province’s projected US$40 a barrel from the December budget update.  The only problem is that the price they give isn’t for the local oil.  The local oil has been trading considerably above US$40 and with the 25% premium for a weak Canadian dollar, the provincial treasury is getting more cash from oil than it forecast.

If those prices just hold where they are, finance minister Jerome Kennedy will have more real cash from this year to carry over to next year and he will definitely have more cash than he will let on in his April budget.  By next March, there likely won’t be an issue at all involving a mere $400 million on a budget of over $6.0 billion and an economy that churns out $25 billion in goods and services annually.

By then it will be time for yet another Equalization fooferah and people will be playing what is rapidly becoming the replacement for the March Madness of the seal hunt.

But what of members of parliament from this province?

Well, some of them will wind up having the worst of political times, yet again.  If they think this is bad, just wait for the games that are coming from the same quarter and based on the same completely false set of premises.

Those guys will be having the best of the same federal politicians yet again.

And none of those games are in the best interests of the people any of them were elected to serve.