Monday, 18 March 2019


It is not a good feeling when government cannot be trusted.

Yet, notwithstanding all the partisan nonsense that props up one Party over another, it is the trust that government acts solely in the public interest that keeps the democratic system strong.

It is an issue that permeates many of the articles and comments that appear on this Blog. Underneath them is the fear, to phrase it in the vernacular, that the Ball Government will sell the Province down the river.

There is reason for that and, paradoxically as it may seem, the origins of such scepticism are found with Ball’s Tory predecessors.

Since the days of the Williams Administration, hyper-partisanship has increasingly characterized political decision-making. It influences the choice of people appointed to key positions. Politics was always competitive as it should be but the “game” now displays the quality of recklessness, as evidenced by our fiscal condition, as well as government’s penchant for secrecy and obscurity. Persistent second-rate leadership doesn’t notice that the public interest is the long game and that principles guide priorities.

Worse, politics has become very personalized. In unleashing Danny Williams it has become a one-man show to which other politicians, and bureaucrats, only add fuel.  Process and policy structures don't fare well in that kind of boss knows best environment. Not just Muskrat Falls, but the huge budgetary deficits and spending of the Marshall and Davis Administrations are an integral part of that narrative, too.  

The Ball Administration failed to turn around that style of governance, though they ought to have known it is inherently self-destructive. The Liberals, dealt a poor hand at the outset, made a choice; they embraced not just the Tories’ free-spending ways but gleefully embodied the practice of depicting profligacy as manageable. That, however, is only a part of the reason for distrusting the Liberals.

This Premier has exhibited uncommon weakness in virtually every public policy sphere in which leadership is required. It started with Ball’s handling of former Nalcor CEO Ed Martin's firing, letting him depart on a without cause basis with a rich severance package. His complicity, at first denied, was uncloaked. It is found in the surf clam issue and in the timid provincial response to the Feds’ determination to revamp the offshore environmental assessment process without paying due deference to the Atlantic Accord.

One could add his refusal to order a stop/go analysis on Muskrat or make the service and program cuts necessary to deal with our growing fiscal crisis.

The Government lacks key people to guide it through Atlantic Accord negotiations. This key piece of public policy is now in the grip of Nalcor: the same hucksters that helped construct Muskrat’s false premises and promises. Then, too, the Natural Resources Minister has simply not grown in that critical job.

It’s enough to keep an entire public from sleeping.

One is right to worry, therefore, when a flat-footed Premier takes on something as important as the Atlantic Accord. Governments that have low credibility with the public, as Ball’s own poll numbers confirm, ought to know that, until the loss of faith is restored, extraordinary measures should be taken to confirm their good intentions.

Transparency, reinforced with earnest public communications, ought to have compelled the Premier, long ago, to have issued a statement of principles, or at least objectives, in advance of these negotiations. Not having done so, and with the 1985 Atlantic Accord largely taken for granted by a public which it has served for 33 years, means that the impacts of any change may not be fully understood by them until, that is, like Muskrat the fallout begins. 

The Atlantic Accord established this Province's right to be the principal beneficiary of its oil and gas resources, to collect royalties and revenues from the resources as if they were on land and, among other things, to a joint management regime with the Government of Canada. Are these “pillars” of the Atlantic Accord to be traded off to avoid responsible management of expenditures that are out of control? The February 2005 agreement on Offshore Revenues provides for a “review” in 2019. Does Ball see this review as a way to secure federal funds through an avenue which does not open a “me-too” Pandora’s Box? What do we have to give in exchange for this largesse?

 As much as some may think, it is no accident that Bull Arm and Husky's Argentia fabrication site exist, or that ships and helicopters that service the offshore leave and return to a base here, not in Nova Scotia or Quebec. It is because of the Atlantic Accord. Equally, the fact that this is, by definition, a have Province as opposed to one of the have nots, is precisely due to the rights afforded under the Accord.

Admittedly, the fact that the Feds and the Province agreed that there would not be a dollar-for-dollar loss of equalization due to the receipt of oil revenues is an important principle of the Accord. What the Premier needs to remember, however, is that that provision was never intended to be a back-door through which management and taxation rights granted under it could be reversed.

Accordingly, when a weak Premier is given the role of playing the hand of a financially weakened Province, and one of the very few instruments of prosperity within our control is on the table, we should be afraid.

When some of the very same group that gave us Muskrat are permitted to tinker and lever a critical piece of public policy, for another one-shot payment to help obscure failed leadership in advance of an election, we should be very afraid.