22 December 2014

All they need for Christmas is new talking points #nlpoli

Keith Hutchings - the provincial cabinet minister leading talks with the federal government on European trade  - issued a statement on December 9, 2014.that began with a simple statement.

“In June, 2013,” Hutchings began,

“our governments agreed that, in exchange for the [provincial government] agreeing to lift minimum processing requirements (MPRs) for the European Union (EU), the Federal Government and the provinc[ial government] would establish a fund that would provide for total expenditure of $400 million based on a 70/30 federal/provincial cost share.”

The money was for “industry development and renewal [in the fishing industry] as well as worker displacement”  according to Hutchings.

But when Hutchings spoke with the Telegram’s James McLeod six months later, things weren’t quite so cut and dried.

Getting more money from the federal government

Hutchings told McLeod that talks were just starting with the federal government about where the money would go. 

Rob Moore  is the federal minister responsible for implementing the deal with the provincial government.  He was in St. John’s in January and delivered a speech to the St. John’s Board of Trade.  He also met with Hutchings and other ministers.  According to Hutchings, the meeting with Moore was “the first discussion we’re having … in terms of putting some parameters in place” about where the money would go.

Charlene Johnson was the industry and trade minister back then. She met with Moore separately from Hutchings.  She was trying to get more money out of the federal government,  according to the Telegram story. 

That wasn’t the only time Hutchings changed his position on the June 2013 deal.  In an interview with CBC and NTV last week,  Hutchings said that the provincial government made its intentions for the federal-provincial fund clear not in June – when they had a deal -  but much later. "We did our announcement [in October 2013],”  said Hutchings, “we made it quite clear prior to the announcement what our intent was."

NTV broadcast only a very small portion of Hutchings’ answer to one question. In the bit they selected, though, Hutchings said that the provincial government was trying to get the federal government to spend money on more areas of the provincial fishery than it has to date.

Province changed position, trying to change 2013 deal

As much as Hutchings tried last week to convince reporters that the provincial government hadn’t changed its position on the fisheries fund, everything Hutchings said confirmed what SRBP posted on Monday.

What is clear from the letters the provincial government released is that the provincial government is trying to alter the CETA deal dramatically and has been since at least January 2014. The scope of the changes are contained in a letter from Hutchings to Moore dated 14 May 2014. The letter started by referring to the meeting Hutchings had with Moore in early January and to an unspecified number of subsequent meetings that provincial and federal officials had in between.

In the letter, Hutchings acknowledged letter that the original agreement in 2013 was for a fund that “could only be used to address CETA-related issues and opportunities.”   That’s consistent with the federal letters released by the provincial government.  Hutchings wrote that the federal government was “steadfast” on this point and that, as a result, any funding for non-CETA initiatives would have to come separately.

However, Hutchings described the provincial government’s interest in a redefined version of the CETA agreement that would include the European deal as well as “other market opportunities worldwide.” Hutchings stated that the new fund would have to “reflect provincial priorities”, code for a fund directed by the provincial government. The wider agreement would also have to be flexible enough to apply to new circumstances. Hutchings used the example of cod. If current trends continued, Hutchings argued, cod recovery would mean short-term problems for fishing interests and those problems would require compensation. That’s code for new money.

The provincial government also wanted a deal that wouldn’t finish in a couple of years as agreed in June 2013, according to Hutchings. The new deal  would last for five to 10 years.  Implicit in Hutchings letter, though, was the possibility the deal could last longer.

Hutchings made no mention of new provincial money to cover the new areas to be covered by the deal. That’s why, in its most recent comments, the federal government has stated repeatedly that its 2013 deal was not a “blank cheque.”

No confirmation of provincial claims

The problem for Hutchings is that there’s just no sign the federal government has changed its position since June 2013 when it insisted the deal reached with the provincial government was connected only to CETA.  That’s in the documents the provincial government has released, including Hutchings’ letter to Moore in May 2014.  Hutchings says something completely different in his interview with CBC and NTV, three minutes of which is included with the recent CBC story.  But there’s just nothing that backs Hutchings’ latest version of events.

Asked by the CBC’s Chris O’Neill-Yates if the federal government had ever contradicted the provincial position,  Hutchings said in the interview that they haven’t.  That’s not true, though, as Hutchings acknowledged in his May 2014 letter.

The federal position is also clear in a letter from Moore to provincial fisheries minister Vaughn Granter dated 03 November 2014.


Hutchings also told reporters that the agreement was for a couple of years after the CETA deal came into force.  Again, that’s inconsistent with Hutchings’ May 2014 letter in which he clearly states the provincial government wanted a deal that was both wider in scope than the original deal and would up to three times longer!

But the documents, including words over Hutchings own signature, affirm that the June 2013 agreement was expressly and repeatedly tied exclusively to the CETA deal.  Missing from the documents is any letter from the federal government or even a simple statement that agrees with the provincial government on anything after the summer of 2013. 

Media reports include only unfounded provincial claims

It is true that the provincial government has accused the federal government of changing its position,  including letters from provincial cabinet ministers.  What’s striking, though, is that one of the only places you will find a reference to changes on the federal side is coming from Keith Hutchings or one of his cabinet colleagues.

Neither Hutchings nor other provincial ministers have explained the fairly obvious change in the provincial government’s position.   To the contrary  Hutchings insists that the provincial position has been consistent, even though the available evidence shows the clear contradictions over time.

The other place you’ll see claims about the federal position is in some media reports. CBC’s online story about Hutchings’ latest comments, for example, includes the flat statement that “the federal government's definition of what the agreement was all about has evolved to the point where compensation has become the main focus, and not industry renewal and development.”  It isn’t attributed to anyone so CBC has presented it as a statement of fact.

Unfortunately, the CBC edited the recording of Hutching’s interview before positing it on line, so we don’t know what else reporters asked him and what else he said.  In a separate interview with CBC’s central Newfoundland Morning Show,  Hutchings denied there’s any change in the provincial position.  He didn’t address the contradictions in the provincial government’s position over time.

Province seeking support

Hutchings confirmed last week that the provincial government was looking for support in its position from other provincial governments and from provincial members of parliament and senators.  he also said the provincial government had some influence over the federal government.  Unfortunately, that seems to be based on a couple of online comments by a Carlton university professor who wasn’t familiar with the federal and provincial positions when he endorsed the provincial position.

That works.  After all, Hutchings and his colleagues don’t seem to be familiar with the government positions either.