Thursday, 20 February 2014

DANNY WILLIAMS: PITH AND CIRCUMSTANCE

“No Brainer” says Danny Williams, as he urged the new temporary Marshall Government to build a third transmission line to Labrador West, substantially at public expense.


I’m not sure when the public will grow tired of Mr. Williams.  I wish they would ask him to stop trading on the goodwill with which he was rewarded while in Office.  

Danny lets no one forget his popularity.  Even his Notice of appointment as a Director to the Alderon Board is careful to point out: “Mr. Williams served as Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador from October 2003 until November 2010, retiring from the position at a time when his government had an approval rating of over 80%.” 

The Chinese Government, through Hebei Iron Ore, the largest shareholder in Alderon must be very impressed.

There is nothing wrong with a retired politician, even a former Premier, continuing to contribute to public life.   But there is a great difference between a public policy role and engagement for the purpose of corporate self-interest.

Brian Peckford advised caution on Muskrat Falls to Kathy Dunderdale, but was summarily rebuffed when his remarks failed to reflect positively on her high-handed approach to the issue. 

During the eras of both Williams and Dunderdale one could ever say there was room for critics, including former Premiers, if their interests were unaligned.  Unlike Williams, Peckford lives in British Columbia, and is not reported to have business interests here with which to cause potential conflict.

Williams does; though he need never fear that the current Premier will give him rebuke. 

Not even the Consumer Advocate would dare chastise Williams even if his demands are far too expensive for ratepayers.

Is the third transmission line to Labrador West really such a “no brainer”? 

There was a time, not long ago, when $260 million plus cost overruns, was a lot of money. How did the new standard of fiscal prudence, in this Province, get to be: just add it to the public debt?   Fiscal over-exuberance, during Williams’ tenure, will find many parallels with the recent ‘bubble’ in the iron ore industry.   Bubbles burst. Just ask Cliff Resources.  

Bubbles can be extended using public money.  If a Company is lucky enough to be in possession of a rich ore body, all the better; no public money is justified.

What does Alderon boast about the feasibility of its Kami Mine? It states:

Based on the Feasibility Study, Alderon plans to commence commercial production at a rate of 8 million tonnes per year at a grade of 65.2% iron with a mine life of 30 years. The Feasibility Study also illustrated robust project economics including a pre-tax NPV8 of US$3.24 billion, a pre-tax IRR of 29.3%, a payback period of 3.8 years, capital costs of US$1.27 billion, and operating costs of US$42.17/tonne concentrate.

An Internal Rate of Return of 29.3% and a capital payback period of 3.8 years! Those numbers do indeed constitute “robust economics”, just as Alderon suggests. 

Does that fact not confirm Alderon’s capacity to assume a larger part of the financial burden of a transmission line? Why should rate payers, directly or indirectly, have any responsibility to be burdened by private corporate objectives?

In the interest of fairness and equity, for all large industrial users, shouldn’t the Government have a policy for when it steps in versus when industry should look after its own investments and assume its own risks, as did IOCC with the construction of Twin Falls (later incorporated into the Upper Churchill) and Vale to develop Voisey’s Bay?

Should a Government be milked? Or, is it the case that if a Company possesses a powerful lobbyist, public policy can be altered to favour the more influential?  

In a Province experiencing a dearth of public policy debate, what better place for a former Premier to infuse his reputed business knowledge?  What better time to chide his protégé, Premier Marshall, for practising reckless financial decision-making. 

But, the former Premier is counselling nothing of the kind.

Somehow, “no brainer” just seems such an intellectually deficient contribution for one possibly capable of more.  

Should we be robbed of a more generous elaboration of Danny’s public policy heft?  Must we be content with pith now that time has run out on his pro bono offer of governance? 

Can it be, Danny, that only the Alderon Boardroom is worthy of your earnest contemplation, that our limit is two words: “no brainer”; not even a third could be spoken without the offer of commensurate pay?

When matters are left to the ragged arsed artillery, they are apt to ask questions.  They might not be prepared to glorify “no brainer” as even a pedestrian example of inspired thought.  One might even ask the former Premier:

Why should such a huge expenditure fall on the public’s shoulders when IOCC is up for sale, when the Cliff Resources’ Wabush Scully Mine is about to be shuttered, the Bloom Lake development suspended and put up for sale? 

Didn’t Labrador Iron Mines announce that it is reviewing whether it is feasible to start seasonal production this year?    

Given the declining price environment of the iron ore industry worldwide, wouldn’t it make sense to confirm that the transmission line will be needed, in the foreseeable future, before committing the expenditure of a quarter billion dollars or more? 

Wouldn’t it be appropriate if the Power Purchase Agreement with Alderon was made public, allowing those who will pay the cost to be informed of the commercial terms of the Company’s obligations?

No one will dispute the right of Directors of Alderon to advance its corporate interests in this Province.  That is exactly what one would expect.  But Danny Williams is not just any corporate Director.  Few have access to the Premier’s Office or to senior Ministers of the Government as he does.

Very few get to be so personally engaged in the choosing of a new Premier. 

When a former Premier gets that close to the decision-making machinery of the Government shouldn’t the public feel uncomfortable?  Ought not the burden of restraint weigh more heavily on him?

Power vacuums, characterized by weak leadership especially weak First Ministers, like Kathy Dunderdale and Tom Marshall, are fertile soil for those tempted to confuse the public interest with those personal and corporate. 

Alderon announced yesterday Danny’s resignation from its Board, stating he will stay on as a Consultant.  What’s left to do, now that the transmission line is assured, except to get paid for services rendered? 

Of course, he will want to deliver Frank Coleman the mantle of Tory Premier.  Then he must find a hockey team.

Doesn’t leave much time for inspired public policy, does it?


3 comments:

  1. This is one of your best posts. The fact that so few others are publicly asking similar questions speaks volumes about the current political culture in NL.

    Jerry Bannister

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  2. Prudent fiscal responsibility would have been to take the risk of the costs of this transmission line away from us as citizens and rate payers. I would have suggested at the very least Govt. of Newfoundland take a bond or letter of credit from Alderon for 50% of the outstanding costs of the transmission line, (~$130M) until such time the mine is open and we are earning some royalties back. If they are committed to the project and based on IRR this shouldn't of been a problem. In meantime we're holding the bag should the price of iron ore tank further and for other unforeseen circumstances Alderon pulls back from operations in Labrador.

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  3. The day of reckoning will be coming for Williams and the conservatives. It will be in 2017/2018 when the power bills are nearly double where they are now. This is from the MF project, Third Line to Lab West, and the third line required in Newfoundland. People will finally wake up when our power bills double, and NS bills decrease all from MF power. Meanwhile at the same time, the resource projects (Hebron, LC, Husky WHP, Vale, and Alderon) will all be complete, and the short term construction jobs gone as well.

    The echo boom will be very dramatic on how this unfolds in Newfoundland. 2010-2016 will have hyper inflation. The hangover from that will be severe. 2017 will be a very difficult year in NL.

    In 2017 Danny Williams popularity will not be there, because his legacy was of terrible fiscal management. People will finally become aware of this because it will be hitting them directly in their pocket books.

    I am just not sure he will actually give a F$ck.

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