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Monday, August 27, 2007

Hebron MOU Becomes Political Football

On August 27 VOCM radio’s question of the day on their web site asked, “Do you think government (of Newfoundland and Labrador) should release all the information it has on the Hebron Deal”?

At last check the result showed:

NO – 62%
YES – 34%
Undecided – 4%

Very interesting numbers to say the least and they should prompt everyone in the province to stop and think for a minute.

Keep in mind that the poll is by no means a scientific one. People can lobby friends, family or even political party faithful to vote one way or the other and (though I won’t discuss how) there are ways to vote more than once if you have nothing better to do. Regardless, the poll results ought to raise a lot of questions and concerns among the population. If they don’t then God help us all.

From my own perspective, I’m at a loss to understand why so many people would not want to know the details of an agreement that will significantly impact them, for better or worse, for decades to come? When you consider that the people of Newfoundland and Labrador have witnessed some of the most idiotic contractual blunders in history, starting with the Terms of Union, the results are very disconcerting.

The people of Newfoundland and Labrador have lived for decades under a lopsided contract for Churchill Falls power. The province has seen the wasteful and shameful results of the Sprung greenhouse fiasco and as recently as a few years ago witnessed the Liberal government, under Roger Grimes, stopped in its tracks in an attempt to sign a less than stellar contract for the Lower Churchill.

Why, with those and other shameful examples of government idiocy permeating the collective psyche, would so many people be willing to put their faith and their future in the hands of any government, no matter how popular, with no concern over the details of the deal?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those self proclaimed “public relations” or “public policy” consultants who haunt the open line programs while waiting by the phone for the next interview request from the national media. You know the ones. Those poor folks who once held highly paid positions under former Liberal governments and now spend their days desperately scratching for any way to attack the governing PC party. Doing so, I can only suppose, in the hopes of one day finding their way back into a cushy job and the halls of power.

No, I don’t fall into that camp and I don’t play that game, not at all, in fact nobody is happier than me that a deal is finally in the works for the Hebron project, but I have to question whether or not secrecy is really in the best interests of the province.

I fully understand the government’s resistance to simply handing the MOU out to the public, or even bringing it to the House of Assembly a month or so before a provincial election, but the entire situation bothers me anyway.

There are arguments to be made both for the release of the document and against it. Perhaps the most compelling argument against releasing the details might be that it contains information that could impact the publicly traded companies involved.

When it comes to documents that affect share prices or competitive advantage, either adversely or otherwise, secrecy is not only understandable but necessary. The problem with the Hebron MOU is that I don’t know if this is the case and neither does anyone who hasn’t seen the paperwork. I’d suggest though that a determination of whether or not it does could be made if the agreement was provided to the proper regulatory agencies for review.

Assuming for just a minute that the companies involved would not affected by the release of the MOU, what about the upcoming election?

The fact that the Williams government pulled off such a coup immediately prior to the election must have hit the local Liberal and NDP parties like a runaway freight train. There is no doubt both opposition parties would love nothing more than to find a way to tear the agreement apart and through it, the Williams express, but what would that provide to the public other than a political spectacle?

Releasing the MOU this close to an election would provide little more than a political football with the Hebron partners caught in the middle while candidates scramble for political points. That situation wouldn’t do much to help the public understand the real question, whether or not the deal is a good one. Instead it would more likely cloud the issue and confuse voters.

Another option might be to wait until after the election to release the document and debate it in the House. The problem with this approach is that by all accounts premier Williams will have secured a second majority by that time, if not the total annihilation of his opposition, and with a majority in place the deal would likely proceed anyway, good or bad.

There are those (most of the 62%) who will, for whatever reason, stick to their guns that “Danny is the man” and we should all just leave him alone. Not me. I like the man. I fully understand, even support, many of the decisions he’s made since elected, but I don’t believe absolute power should be handed to anyone. Remember Joey Smallwood?

There are also those (the 34%) who believe this agreement should be brought out immediately. Some of them see the potential for political advantage (read Liberal) and others who believe that openness and transparency makes for a much more responsible government than secrecy does. I agree in principle with latter group but after looking at the issue from a number of angles I can honestly say, while I would personally love to see the Hebron MOU, I can understand the problems tabling it now might present.

There is no black and white to be found here, only shades of grey.

As for the 4% who were undecided in the poll, I usually look on undecided voters with little or no respect. The reason is simple. Usually their response is the result of a lack of concern over important issues or a lack of knowledge about them, both products of their own doing. I don’t feel that way about the respondents to this particular poll.

So where does this leave yours truly on the issue?

In my 40+ years on this earth I can’t recall ever slipping into the “undecided” camp on any poll and while this one has me stumped, baffled and befuddled, I refuse to go there now.

I’m almost convinced that the Williams government will win a large majority in October regardless of whether the MOU is released or not. With a majority government in place, even if the deal calls for the province to give the oil away and pay someone to take it, there’s not much anyone will be able to do about it.

The only thing releasing the MOU would do at this point is to give the Liberal party a fighting chance of winning a couple of close ridings. If their publicity machine is strong enough to make anything out of its content that is, something that’s by no means guaranteed.

The public already knows enough about the deal to understand that billions will come into the province and thousands of jobs will be created. Even if there are major problems with agreement I doubt the Liberal machine is functioning well enough to make much out of the details. They might pick up a seat or two but I seriously doubt they can do anything to change the overall outcome of the October election. At this point even if it were uncovered that Williams had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for eternal life and a crunchy bar he’d likely win.

So, should the MOU be tabled in the House at the first opportunity? Should the government keep it under wraps? Should it be brought to the House after the election for public debate?

I don’t know but all these questions are making my head hurt.

I also know that the MOU itself won't contain all the details of the final contract so while it may contain some insights for the public it won't answer all the questions. Even if the MOU never sees the light of day everyone in the province needs, and should demand, to be made fully aware of the details in the final contract when it's drawn up. They deserve to review every last comma before anyone lays a pen on it to sign us up. That at least will let the public know who they should congratulate or who they should hang from the flagpole on Confederation Hill.


Willi Makit said...

FYI - it;s easy to vote multiple times by removing the cookies on your computer and hitting the "question of the Day" link on the VOCM site - process takes less than 10 seconds. Pay 5 high school kids $20 eack for an hours work and you can manufacture 1000+ votes. Even a better deal if you're a party hack with nothing better to do with your day. Look at any poll that could potentially come out with negative connotations for the government and you'll notice that responses are 2, 3 or even 5 times higher than the normal response rates (Metis claims that DW lied and fiber optics are two such examples). My guess that if you commissioned an independant poll not subject to manipulation, Newfoundlanders would respond overwhelmingly in favor of releasing the details of this development.

WJM said...

Willi, I've noticed the same thing... whenever there's a question that the Eighth Floor might have a particular interest in a certain outcome for, the total number of votes goes WAY up.


Ussr said...

"FYI" - someone needs some manners!!!

Glenn said...

I stopped voting at vocm when they would cherry pick comments to be posted and even edited some comments I submitted. It happened once while praising the Williams' gov and once while criticising it, my comments didn't jive with the agenda VOCM was pushing with regards to those particular questions.

I find it very disturbing that so many would give over their right to be informed to any politician, especially those bordering on hero worship like Premier Williams has.

To say that the timing of this agreement has nothing to do with the upcoming election is also a stretch. Yes, I understand the PC's didn't need the Hebron deal to win the next election, but it goes a long way in ensuring there's a real good probability of a sweep. Don't kid yourself into thinking that premier Williams would like nothing more than to wipe the Libs and NDP out of the House. There's talk around the district about "being on the Govt. side" and all that. God help us.

There's a petition over at Port-aux-Basques online to legislate 50% of Hebron revenue to be placed against the provincial debt and for it to become an election issue. Being originally from the west coast of the province and just returning to live this summer, I am appalled at the lack of government attention paid to this area. I think its great that the Avalon is doing so well and its economy has been strong enough over the past year to "take the hit" with the Hebron delay. At least with the debt paydown all the province can benifit equally.

What do you think Patriot? Is this something you would be willing to push here since you have a lot of readers?

Here's the link


Patriot said...

Hi Glenn, Thanks for your comments.

I'd be more than happy to help promote the paying down of the provincial debt. In fact I'm a big proponent of using as much of our oil revenues as is feasible to do just that.

I'll be happy to post the link you provided in my links section and will likely be writing something on the topic of debt reduction in the near future.

We all need to remember that the oil resources will one day be gone and when they are we will need a continuing source of revenues. The most dependable source of government revenue is taxes. The problem today is that a large chunk of those taxes are going to service our massive debt.

By paying down the debt money that would be needed to service it can be funnelled into provincial infrastructure, services and programs indefinately.

While many say we can become "masters of our own house" and that we are being abused in Canada (myself included) there is not much we can do to take our future in our own hands until we get out from under the weight of the billions we owe.

Thanks again,


Patriot said...

By the way Glenn, if you care to send me your email address I'd be happy to talk with you about promoting the petition through NLDL.org, an organization dedicated to moving our province forward. Debt reduction is also one of NLDL's key objectives and with members across the province and around the world it may be able to help drum up some support.

My email address is higginsmyles@yahoo.ca