26 August 2010

And the NAFTA/expropriation winner is…

In their offices in the Sun Life Building in the heart of Montreal’s financial quarter, the boys at AbitibiBowater are likely making toasts using the finest single malt scotch they save for just these special business occasions.

There haven’t been too many of them for the managers at the financially troubled company lately but this week, they can crack open the bottle and enjoy themselves.

And while they are at it they can make two toasts.

Their first one should be to Danny Williams. 

Were it not for the Premier’s unshakeable  - and entirely unfounded - belief in his own infallibility, AbitibiBowater could not have achieved its monumental success in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Not only did Danny Williams’ astonishing business and legal prowess relieve them of the huge liability for environmental cleanup in Newfoundland and Labrador, he voluntarily took their financial liabilities to some of their former employees and handed them all to taxpayers in his own province.

On top of all that, AbitibiBowater will get a nice cheque from the federal government for their troubles. That money will easily cover the minor costs for remediation at the couple of properties they still own in this province and leave pretty much all of Stephen Harper’s $130 million intact.


And if all that were not good enough, they still get to watch their lawyers humiliate the provincial government in its own courts over those environmental orders cooked up during the NAFTA war. Lay money on judge after judge stuffing the orders up Danny’s nose for as many appeals as he may want to make.

AbitibiBowater could use more enemies like Danny Williams. If he wants to practice corporate law after he retires, AbitibiBowater would hire him in an instant to go to work for their competitors. He’s just that good.  

The other toast would be to the biggest losers in the expropriation, namely the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.  The five hundred odd thousand people of the island – and Labrador -  are stuck with the bill for all this. The environmental messes, the legal bills to Toronto and Montreal firms, the severance and all the rest of it.

But supposedly the raggedy arsed artillery of Newfoundland and Labrador have mighty assets now, according to Danny Williams, to cover those liabilities.  These assets would have been sold to unnamed others had Williams not struck with his expropriation sword.  Of course, he fails to mention that the liabilities go with the assets such that who ever owns them cannot get one without the other. But then again  Williams the Great Lawyer knows this already even if he does not share his knowledge with his clients.

That is really part of Williams’ brilliance as a lawyer, however and why companies like AbitibiBowater will want him to work for their competitors once he leaves politics.  Only a truly amazing talent could shag his own clients so completely and yet have them lust for the rogering like a pubescent suicide bomber eager to get down with the 72 virgins he’s been promised.

Both are in for a rude shock, of course.

But unlike the child-fanatic, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador have a good clue that these very expensive assets are far less valuable than they’ve been made out to be.

One of the three companies interested in the timber – and one very seriously considered for a while – was a bankrupt German paper maker looking for massive government hand-outs.

Another even less appealing prospect wanted to turn prime logs to sawdust in order to make wood pellets out of them. To appreciate just exactly how lame is that idea, one need only realise that wood pellets are most often cited as a way of using the scraps left over from making major wood products like furniture or paper. Anything else is a waste of a very valuable log.

Yet to be tallied into the cost of this expropriation fiasco are the payments the taxpayers in Newfoundland and Labrador will have to make to a bunch of companies who are essentially collateral damage in Danny Williams war against – or is it on behalf of? – AbitibiBowater.

Settling fairly with these companies was a condition of the federal government’s payment to AbitibiBowater, according to Danny Williams. Undoubtedly the rather obvious preferential treatment given to these other companies compared to AbitibiBowater, not to mention Williams’ own comments attacking AbitibiBowater, coloured the expropriation bill to the point where the lawsuit could have cost the federal government much more dearly than the $130 million it did.

As it is, Fortis, ENEL, Clarica, Sun Life Assurance, Mutual Life Assurance, Standard Life Assurance, and Industrial Life Assurance will all be restored to their former financial position, according to the Premier during his scrum with local reporters.  Talks are still going on, but according to the Premier, they will get cash or a power purchase agreement or some other arrangement. Fortis is already getting cash: the provincial government assumed responsibility last year for a $60 million loan Fortis and AbitibiBowater had for their hydroelectric partnership. Keep an eye on those talks.  Their outcome could be most interesting indeed.

Whatever the conventional media may be saying about the latest part of the expropriation saga, the winners and losers are not as they initially appear, nor is the magnitude of the loss yet known.

The saga’s last chapter has yet to be written.

- srbp -