08 September 2014

Trash, Give-aways, and Conservative Policy #nlpoli

Friday is trash day in the world of political communications. It’s the day when you slip out stuff that is unpleasant in the hopes people will miss it.

If you can slide in another story, like say the completely unnecessary appointment of a finance minister who will have the job for a mere two weeks or so, it’s possible you can bury one load of trash under another.

That’s what happened last Friday in St. John’s.

Tom Marshall grabbed a couple of people and ran downtown on Friday to get His Honour the Administrator,  that is Derek Green, the Appeals Division chief justice, to swear in a new finance minister and a new minister for the status of women.  Those two jobs became vacant because of Charlene Johnson’s curiously timed resignation.

Now Marshall could have just had a couple of his existing ministers do a fill-in job.  Indeed,  that’s how he could have handled pretty well all the resignations lately caused by the Conservative leadership or the string of resignations for long-serving cabinet ministers who had no particular reason to leave in such a hurry.

Instead, Marshall decided to make Ross Wiseman the new finance minister.  He handed off the status of women job to Susan Sullivan.  That second one was basically a case of doubling up, but with Wiseman’s appointment,  Marshall put a fellow back into cabinet who is already in the queue for retirement.  Wiseman will only have the job until the next party leader takes over. 

And that’s really where the story is a wee bit curious.  There’s nothing on the go at the moment that requires a full-time finance minister.  Ottenheimer, Kent, or Davis will have to appoint a new finance minister in  a few weeks anyway – likely one of his leadership rivals – so Wiseman isn’t really going to have time to unpack.

While the local Twittering classes were tweeting the cabinet shuffle and other piffle on Friday, the seem to have missed entirely the sale of the Come By Chance oil refinery.  Actually, it isn’t the sale that was the news:  we’ve known for a while that the former owner was looking to get rid of the old refinery.  They finally did,  to a Delaware corporation called SilverRange, that has a set of offices in Manhattan and a pretty low public profile otherwise.

Included with the announcement was a news release from Derrick Dalley,  the natural resources guy these days, and Vaughn Granter in environment.  The provincial government supporters the sale of Come By Chance they said.  The provincial government had a hand in the deal beyond just being happy about it.  They did something material to help out.

Good news, says you on every level.

And it would be two except for the help that Tom Marshall and his gang of lame-duck ministers did to “help” sell the refinery:
Government supported this agreement by providing assurances that SilverRange’s acquiring entity will not be responsible for any pre-existing environmental liabilities at the refinery site relating to soil, sediment, groundwater and surface water.
In other words,  the new owners won’t have to worry about clean-up if they should decide to shut the whole thing down while they are running it.  That’s no small matter.  The refinery dates from the 1970s. It was mothballed for the better part of a decade after it went bust.

But more importantly,  the news that the owners got a get-away free card for the environmental liabilities that normally of with owning an industrial operation isn’t what Tom Marshall, Charlene Johnson insisted was their policy.

The year 2009 is not so long ago that they had forgotten, surely.

Back then,  they insisted that the government policy was that the polluter would have to pay for any clean-up of industrial sites in the province.  At the time they were locked in a scam orchestrated by Danny Williams to strip three private companies of lucrative hydro-electricity generating plants under the pretence that one of the companies – Abitibi – had broken its solemn promise to the province when it shut down a century-old, money-losing paper mill in declining paper market. 

Incidentally, we know it was a made-up story to cover the asset grab for two reasons.  First,  Danny Williams denied it up and down.  He attacked a lawyer who raised the hydro assets as a “traitor” for raising the issue. Williams even went after the Globe and Mail over a column that identified the hydro assets as the key part of the expropriation. Second, we know the hydro assets were the real target because Kathy Dunderdale said let is slip in 2012.

Anyway, Charlene Johnson was environment minister at the time.  As part of the whole expropriation scheme, she issued a bunch of orders requiring Abitibi to clean up the properties they’d purchased from the previous owners who purchased them or otherwise acquired them from the owners before that.  Abitibi wasn’t  the last owner, in some instances, since the government had actually taken ownership through the expropriation.  As is the usual way these things work out legally, it isn’t the polluter who payers but the owner. 

Anyway,  in the big legal dust-up that attended the provincial cabinet’s scam,  cabinet ministers stood on their hind-legs in the House of Assembly and insisted, up, down, sideways, and backwards, that they were only doing their sworn duty to protect the innocent taxpayers from harm, including being on the hook for costs.

Polluters pay,  they said and that is official government policy.  Kathy Dunderdale was the parrot-minister of natural resources at the time.  Williams really ran the show but she did her part,  standing in the House in April, 2010, for example, to say this:
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. 
Mr. Speaker, our Environmental Protection Act, as well as Bill 75, state quite clearly that the polluter pays, regardless of who owns the properties. That is the principle that we maintain.
Then there’s Charlene Johnson:

April 28:
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. 
Mr. Speaker, we take issues of the environment very seriously and our Environmental Protection Act is very clear. It is based on the principle of polluter pays, Mr. Speaker. We have not taken the position that Abitibi is off the hook for this and that is why we are seeking leave to appeal the decision of the Quebec court. That leave will be heard on May 12, and we are going to pursue all the legal options that are available to us to ensure that these properties are brought back to the state that they were found in when Abitibi came here.
May 10:
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. 
Mr. Speaker, under section 99 of the act, I issued the orders in reference to section 7 of the act where it clearly defines that the person who releases the substance into the environment is the person who is responsible for cleaning up. That is the general premise of the polluter pays principle, Mr. Speaker. That is why we appealed this decision and that is why we are looking at our options now on a go-forward basis, Mr. Speaker.
Mister Speaker.  Polluter pays, Mister. Speaker.  Mister Speaker,  it is a principle, Mister Speaker.
The cheque is in the mail, Mister Speaker.

Mr. Speaker, I am from the provincial government and I am here to help.

And Mr. Speaker, I will respect you in the morning, Mr. Speaker.

The provincial government took the whole matter to court, and, not surprisingly, they lost. For all the Legal Geniuses who have been in the Conservative cabinet since 2003,  it is strange they have not won a single case in court. 

Anyway, the taxpayers were on the hook, after all, not only because the provincial government had a crappy case based in no small part on ludicrous claims,  but because the law holds that the owner inherits both the assets and the liabilities.

As it was, having the taxpayers foot the bill was part of the logic of the expropriation scam all along. In the original version of the scam, you see, the Conservatives explained that they planned to strip the lucrative assets away and leave the company – teetering on the brink of bankruptcy – with all the liabilities for clean-up. They didn’t say it publicly but that’s what they told the other political parties in the House, in private, at the time of the expropriation.

There was a bit more to it, though.  You see, no less an authority than Danny Williams said a few times that he figured the company would go bankrupt.  The taxpayers, in such an instance, would get the liability for themselves.  Williams never ventured onto that ground in public, of course, but surely he was smart enough to see it as not just a possible outcome but a likely one if his expectations played out. 

As it turned out,  the entire expropriation scam was done so hastily that the crowd running the place made even more mistakes beyond the stupid policy of swiping the assets it the first place. They expropriated the mill itself, one of the worst of the sites.  And in other instances, they tried to blame Abitibi directly for pollution at places like Stephenville or deep in the woods in central Newfoundland at times when Abitibi wasn’t even operating in the province.  Sounds nuts,  but it is what they did and said.

Through it all, the Conservatives never abandoned the pretence that it was all based on protecting the public, though. Here’s Tom Marshall, in the House of Assembly in December 2012.  He told the House that the provincial government had to go after Abitibi because the company was trying to escape from its responsibilities for clean-up and such.  Abitibi was “trying to sell assets in Stephenville, selling in Buchans, getting rid of their assets, getting money and then getting the heck out of town. That is why we expropriated and if we had to go it again, we would do it again.”

Not true, of course, on any account.  We know that because in 2010 we got insight into what Abitibi had proposed to deal with a significant contamination at Buchans, on a site Abitibi owned but that had been extensively polluted by a previous owner.  The company hired an expert engineering and environmental company to advise them.  The company recommended digging a big hole,  lining it so the pollution would be contained, and then burying it.  They suggested using a glory hole or to go down in one of the abandoned mine shafts and seal off a space in which to bury the polluted earth.

The provincial mines department opposed the idea in largest part because the preferred option would preclude the possibility of opening up the abandoned mine if, at some undefined point in the future someone could make a go of it.  The provincial government included the Buchans site in the Abitibi land stuff they wanted to expropriate.  In 2010,  Charlene Johnson issued a news release to trumpet the way her environment department was cleaning up Buchans.  They put sods over the contaminated ground and left all the mine shafts free to use in the future, if someone wanted to. 

Polluter didn’t pay. Taxpayers did because they wound up as the owner of the polluted land. And the private sector owner, the company that was supposedly trying to elude its responsibilities, wanted to do a more extensive and expensive clean-up than the provincial government wanted to do.  Taxpayers paid twice,  in the end, in that case.

It’s a sorry tale,  but what we need to remember for the sake of understanding Friday’s story is that the government people involved in the Abitibi fiasco insisted that government policy held that the polluter pays.  That means that the owner gets the assets – the stuff that’s valuable – as well as the liabilities – the stuff that costs money to address.

Not so long ago,  Tom Marshall,  Charlene Johnson and all their cabinet colleagues spent a huge amount of cash fighting in court to support that idea.  And even if they were actually on another course back then, the fact of the matter is that Tom and Charlene were saying something that is a long-standing policy and a good idea to boot:  the owner should assume both the liabilities and the responsibilities for a business in the province.

That’s what makes the deal with SilverRange that Tom Marshall, Charlene Johnson, and their cabinet colleagues approved before Johnson resigned stand out so clearly. They’ve said one thing, and yet again, done exactly the opposite. The provincial government will undoubtedly justify their decision by pointing to all the jobs at Come By Chance they have secured by deciding that taxpayers will clean-up any mess at Come By Chance.  Accept that if you will.  It’s a plausible argument.

But the thing is, Marshall and Johnson have insisted all along they would not do it.  Polluter pays.  No more give-aways.  But, yet again, the Conservatives have said one thing and done something else.

Marshall, Johnson, and the Conservatives cut a deal with SilverRange to absolve the property owner of their responsibility to the public for environmental clean-up.  They have forced taxpayers to cover the cost.  It is an enormous give-away of public money and the public environment to private sector companies.  And to compound the insult, they slipped the news of the enormous financial liability in a Friday announcement rather than own up to it fully.

Let’s not forget, either, that they have cut this deal to benefit a private company and increase the public debt at a time when politically they lack the support of the majority of the population.  They are legally the government of the province.  They won the most seats in the last election.  They’ve got every legal right to do what they’ve done.

But when the tables were turned,  when the Conservatives were out of power but ahead in the polls,  the Conservatives called the government of the day illegitimate in everything it did.

That’s right.

They said one thing and have done something entirely different.