The sale of NB Power to Hydro-Quebec died suddenly this week, either Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning.
Shawn Graham delivered its eulogy at about 10:30 Wednesday morning. For perhaps the first time since the deal’s creation, the premier looked tired, the bags under his eyes betraying, perhaps, how little sleep he had had Tuesday night. His speech ran the rhetorical gauntlet from eloquence to simplicity, defiance to humility. While there was no coffin to shovel soil over, no furnace to cremate the deceased, the so-called “Deal of the Century” was dead and buried.
As it did in life, the deal brought questions in death, the first foremost being “How?” The cause of death, as it turned out, was Hydro-Quebec itself. H-Q, in its due diligence, calculated how much it’d have to pay to refurbish the crumbling Mactaquac Dam and found the number to be too high. The cost of eventually decomissioning the Point Lepreau Nuclear Plant may have also troubled the Quebec utility. It then demanded concessions that made the deal unpaltable even to Graham. The government of Quebec has itself admitted that they killed the deal.
The thousands of protestors who fought so vociferously against the deal did not kill it. If H-Q had still wanted this deal to go through, it would have happened despite the protestors. Graham repeated his belief yesterday that he thought the deal was the best he could do for New Brunswickers, which now looks like nothing but brutal honesty. The protestors’ happiness is merely coincidental.
Graham, of course, has lost a lot of political capital. Other ministers in his government wore its other faults – Kelly Lamrock bore the brunt of criticism of the Early French Immersion and teacher assistant cuts. Ed Doherty was shuffled out of cabinet over the unpopular Miner-L’Ecuyler Report on post-secondary education, the one that proposed turning UNBSJ into a polytechnic. But the NB Power deal was always the premier’s – he negotiatiated it, announced it, and tried his best to sell it. He lost so much of the public’s trust over this deal that its failure – and how it failed – will not restore that trust.
The public won’t believe for a moment Graham’s contrite claim about respecting process because he made the exact same claim after the EFI fiasco. Even disregarding NB Power, his track record on process hasn’t been a stellar one (cough, ferry cuts, TA cuts, cough, cough). I doubt Graham will have enough time before the election to prove the sincerity of his comments and I equally doubt many will take him at his word. Such is Graham’s current popularity that the PCs didn’t even demand his resignation Wednesday – a demand that would normally have come for much less than this.
The Progressive-Conservatives, incidentally, have lost their biggest weapon against the Graham government. The deal’s collapse ensures the next election will be fought on the Liberals’ record which, due process aside, is better than the PCs’ last term in office. The cause of its collapse puts all the more urgency on David Alward to announce his party’s energy policy considering NB Power may be well and truly broken.
That brings us to the biggest losers in this theatrical tragedy: us, the citizens of New Brunswick. The most experienced hydroelectric utility on the continent abandoned NB Power because refurbishing Mactaquac would cost more than expected. Considering the most conservative estimate to fix the dam was $2-billion, it’s quite sobering to think of how much the job will cost now. It will almost certainly mean a sizable power rate hike, a fair-sized tax increase, and likely service cuts in many other areas of government. Billions of dollars that might have gone in to hospital beds or classrooms will now have to go into the dam. While the job needs to be finished within a decade or two, it will need to start far earlier – if the dam fails, much of Fredericton will be underwater in minutes.
Not to mention the public utility we’re now stuck with is in disarray. NB Power lost many of its highest, most experienced executives during this affair, executives that somehow returned the corporation to modest profitablitity after years of politically motivated losses. Government made no more than the most cursory search for replacements, considering they planned on selling most or all of the utility. Those new executives now have two weeks to come up with a sound plan to run the company nobody else wants.
Forget self-sufficency – the very sustanability of New Brunswick depends on it.
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