09 July 2014

Convergence #nlpoli

A couple of years ago,  Liberal leader Dwight Ball said the Liberals would use earnings from Muskrat Falls to lower electricity prices for consumers in this province.

The Conservatives dismissed the idea at the time.

Then a couple of weeks ago, with news the cost of Muskrat Falls continues to climb, Premier Tom Marshall told the province that he and his colleagues had adopted the idea of using revenues from Muskrat Falls to lower consumer prices as their own policy.

That’s not all of it.  To understand the importance of Marshall’s comments fully you have to start at the beginning.

At the news conference with natural resources minister Derrick Dalley,  Premier Tom Marshall said that “a lot of people” talked about getting electricity to market “by a method other than through Quebec.”

“That’s all great,”  said Marshall, “but the key thing was to provide electricity to the people of the province “at the least cost that could be available.”

Well,  that just isn’t true.

The news release in November 2010 that announced the project included the export of electricity without going through Quebec was a key justification for the project.  In fact,  the quote attributed to Danny Williams comes first in the release and focuses exclusively on the export angle of the project:

“This is a day of great historic significance to Newfoundland and Labrador as we move forward with development of the Lower Churchill project, on our own terms and free of the geographic stranglehold of Quebec which has for too long determined the fate of the most attractive clean energy project in North America," said Premier Williams. [emphasis added]

Williams said the benefits of the project included "thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of economic activity.”  The priority for the provincial government was “to achieve maximum benefits for our people, and to secure stable rates and markets with a good return for the people of this province.”

So, it wasn’t “a lot of people”.  (t was Danny Williams, Premier of the province and – by extension – the Conservative administration of which Tom Marshall was a key part. 

Nalcor’s Ed Martin added the local supply angle in his comment in 2010 when he said that this “configuration is the most economic and reliable option to meet Newfoundland and Labrador’s needs over the coming years”  but he added immediately that the deal “opens the doors for the province to begin reaping the export benefits of our wealth of clean, renewable resources.”

What Marshall said a couple of weeks ago was literally true in the sense that the “lots of people” were behind the project,  but Tom was wrong when he claimed that the export thing was never a big part of why those “lots of people” were building the project.

Export was a big part, if not the main part.

But that isn’t the case any more, just like it isn’t true that Muskrat is the “cheapest” way to deliver power.  In December 2013, Nalcor officials confirmed their plans to import cheaper electricity from the United States along the Maritime Link.

Things are very bad among the Conservatives. Things are bad for Muskrat Falls.  They must be bad if Tom Marshall must completely fabricate recent events, as if one could not easily prove the falsehood of his comments with a couple of clicks of a mouse.

Now look at the news from Marshall that a policy he dismissed is now his own.  In a sense, that marks the final convergence on Muskrat Falls among the three parties.  Some New Democratic Party supporters will by now be chanting their silly “Liberal, Tory, same old story” line but what they forget is that all three parties have supported Muskrat Falls and continue to do so despite the mounting evidence that it is an appalling mess.

The difference  - the point that just leaps out at you - is who is leading the policy and who is following. 

You can see the same trend this week in the Conservative leadership race.  Both of the leading contenders – Paul Davis and Steve Kent – announced that they would make changes to the way the House of Assembly operates.  The fact that neither had any concrete ideas doesn;t matter.  The point is that of all the things both could have picked as their first policy to talk about,  both chose democratic reform.

This is an issue that first the New Democrats and lately the Liberals have been speaking about.  The Liberals are more popular than the Conservatives and the New Democrats used to be.  Without any idea of their own,  the Conservatives are adopting a popular idea for themselves.  If the Conservatives had not already neutralized the Bill 29 issue with a review committee, odds are that both candidates would have first talked about access to public information.  They may still turn to it yet.

It’s taken the Conservatives a while to get to this place but four years after Danny Williams got out while the gettin’ was good they are now roughly where the Liberals were during the last year or so before the 2003 general election.  The most obvious sign of the convergence back then was what became the Blame Canada commission.  Closely related to it was the fight with the federal government over something or other.  Vic Young’s commission recited the litany of old and largely imaginary grievances that animated the anti-Confederate pseudo-nationalist crowd that loved up the Tories.  The fight with Ottawa was a pale imitation of the relentless aggression Williams displayed from 2001 onward.

In both cases,  you have incumbent parties that have pretty much run out of political steam.  They don’t have any ideas of their own.  The best they can come up with is to ask the departments to throw up some new policies here or there. And when that runs out and they are falling in the polls, they look to see what is popular and then they copy that.

Aping the popular is what politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador tend to do.  Who sets the tone and who is the clone is a way to tell who is politically dominant.

One of Clyde Wells’ favourite words was unconscionable. It’s not a very common word in English anywhere on the planet but after Wells became nationally famous in 1990,  Tories would use “unconscionable” far more frequently than one might expect. Even Brian Tobin started using the word. Tory election platforms in the 1990s even started to look and sound like Liberal platforms. 

After Williams came to power and once Roger Grimes was gone,  Williams’ political popularity ensured that opposition politicians would side with him and the Conservatives rather than oppose him on just about anything.  The fight to get a permanent transfer in 2004 and remain dependent on Ottawa.  The 2008 Expropriation.  Lower Churchill.  Muskrat Falls.  You name it and all sorts of politicians in other parties went along with it. 

As it seems,  the defeats of Danny Williams in Virginia Waters and again in the Coleman leadership debacle have had a profound psychological effect on the province’s political parties.  You could see signs of it before. Opposition politicians will tell you that the Tories who were once arrogant and stand-offish are these days more friendly and looking to chat. The fact none of the incumbents wanted the leader’s job before now was also a clue. They were in a different place:  none wanted to volunteer to be Kim Campbell.  With Coleman gone,  they now have no choice. One of them has to do the job.  They had a choice before.  Now they are screwed.

The way the Conservatives are now openly copying the Liberals is a sign that the political tide has indeed shifted.  The  Conservatives have subtly,  but perceptibly sensed a shift in political tide in the province. 

Now they are going with the flow. 

That’s what politicians always do.