If you are confused by the provincial government’s struggle over free trade with the European trade, find comfort in the fact you are not alone.
Pretty well everyone is confused by what the government is up to.
That includes, incidentally, intergovernmental affairs minister Keith Hutchings and industry minister Darin King, who announced on Monday that the provincial government was pulling its support for every free trade negotiation Canada has going at the moment except for the European trade agreement.
Before going any further, let’s just put the whole thing down in one neat package for those who haven’t followed the SRBP posts on CETA. With that information under your be in a better position to see just exactly what has happened with this most recent twist.
The federal and provincial governments reached an agreement in June 2013 to create a pot of money on a 70/30 basis to help the fishing industry in the province get ready for the European trade deal. The federal government would put up $280 million and the provincial government would toss in $120 million for a total of $400 million.
Before they nailed down any details with the federal government, the provincial Conservative announced in October 2013 a phantasmagorical new program they called the Fisheries Innovation Fund. In January they started talks about the details of the June agreement and in May 2014, the provincial government made it plain they wanted something completely different from what had been settled on in June the year before.
The fisheries deal wouldn’t be limited to the European trade deal. It would apply to the entire fishing industry. The federal government might have to transfer some of its existing programs under the new umbrella program that would be controlled by the provincial government.
Not surprisingly, the federal government wasn’t too interested in this idea. They were even less interested once other provincial governments got wind of the slush fund proposal from May 2014 and started to make noises that they’d expect the same thing for themselves.
So it is that having successfully screwed themselves, Hutchings and his fellow ministers decided to launch a jihad against the federal government claiming – falsely – that the feds had somehow scuttled the original deal.
Give us the June deal, they scream.
The deal is there for you to take, say the feds in reply.
Give us the deal you promised us in 2013, the provincial Conservatives yell back. Honour the deal you made.
And the federal Conservatives roll their eyes and wonder how they got caught in a cheap remake of Who’s on first?
Costello: When you pay off the first baseman every month, who gets the money?
Abbott: Every dollar of it. And why not, the man's entitled to it.
Costello: Who is?
Costello: So who gets it?
Abbott: Why shouldn't he? Sometimes his wife comes down and collects it.
Costello: Who's wife?
Abbott: Yes. After all, the man earns it.
Costello: Who does?
On Monday, Bud Hutchings and Lou King [right, not exactly as illustrated] released a letter actually sent to the federal government two weeks earlier.
The last line is priceless, but you will only get the joke now that you know the backstory.
Should the federal government fail to honour the terms of the June 2013 agreement to establish a fisheries fund, you will appreciate that the Province will reconsider its support for CETA.
The federal government already has the cash set aside to honour the June 2013 deal, of course. The provincial government knows this. They just have to accept the money on the original terms, the ones they claim they are trying to get.
In other words, this is a threat that Bud and Lou and the rest of the comedy troupe doing business as the provincial cabinet won;t have to honour.
Smart readers will notice, as well, that the letter says the provincial government won’t honour any deals that actually aren’t very important to the local economy. The letter doesn’t withdraw the province’s support for CETA even though that’s the deal the boys are fighting about.
The reason they won’t back out of CETA is that the deal is important to the provincial economy. It’s worth more, as is, to the fishery and the rest of the economy without the paltry bit of federal cash.
Meanwhile, the latest twist in the CETA fight has actually brought the major economic groups out of the closet. They all issued news releases on Monday criticising the provincial government for its decision to scrap free trade deals. The economy of Newfoundland and Labrador is built on trade. Free trade works to our advantage because it gives local companies access to overseas markets. It was true a hundred years ago and it is true today.
The only support the provincial Conservatives are getting with their latest move is from a national group of professional anti-trade activists.
A provincial government with voter support in the toilet is publicly fighting to get money they already have in a dispute over a deal that would actually improve the economy. They’ve now pissed off major interest groups in the province and made Maude Barlow happy.
That isn’t the outline of a screwball 1940s comedy.
It’s Newfoundland and Labrador’s 21st century government at work.