As a Newfoundlander living “away,” I wasn’t surprised that the crowd of provincial Tories jumped to their feet and gave Stephen Harper a loud and long ovation when he promised “a loan guarantee or equivalent financial support” for the Lower Churchill project.
Why wouldn’t they?
Finally, a federal leader who cared about one of the longest running grudge matches in Confederation.
Not much sparks as much bitterness as Newfoundland’s long-running complaint that Quebec is ripping it off under a legal, binding, and iron-clad contract that sees Hydro Quebec pay a pittance for the Upper Churchill electricity that is then re-sold into American markets and earns the Quebec utility huge profits.
The promised federal help could allow Newfoundland’s utility to bypass Quebec, develop a new hydroelectricity source at Muskrat Falls on the Lower Churchill River, and tap into bigger profits too.
But Brian Lee Crowley of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a small-c conservative who lived a long time in Nova Scotia, chronicled the special treatment all politicians reserve for Quebec, and takes a dim view of reckless spending, is not dancing a jig.
“It’s a nutty project,” he says.
“It’s completely out of tune with where I think electric generation is going, which is away from giant projects in remote locations which require very expensive infrastructure that involves a lot of loss of electricity current along the way to distant markets.”
Crowley says there are other alternatives to coal-fired power generation, pointing to increased natural gas supplies, as a result of shale gas developments.
“The idea that this kind of old-style engineering-dominated power generation makes sense anymore is completely overtaken by events.”
“The fact that it requires very significant subsidies in order to create these power lines I think is further evidence of the economic non-viability of this project in particular.”
Crowley says Harper is tapping into a deep-seated resentment in Newfoundland.
“I can see the political value in Newfoundland of the federal government saying we’re going to help Newfoundland break Quebec’s stranglehold over the development of their hydroelectric resources here.”
“This is the Tories signaling to Newfoundland that they will help them in the decades-long battle to the death with Quebec over control of hydro resources in Labrador…It’s about using Newfoundland nationalism in order to get back in the good graces of the Newfoundland voter.”
But it’s a calculation Crowley says Harper has made on the path to a majority government.
“My guess is the Tories have decided the extra votes that might push them over into majority government territory are not going to come from Quebec and they’ve decided to look at Atlantic Canada, the 905 belt around Toronto, northern Ontario and the west as the place where they can make up the 12 seats or whatever it that they’re short, and my guess is their calculation is probably correct.”
Yet Crowley says Harper’s taking the easy way out.
Harper could help Newfoundland climb out of hydro-hell but it would “be even more offensive to Quebec.”
“My view is they have the constitutional and political duty to use the (federal) trade and commerce power to create an open electricity market in Canada so that Quebec could not prevent Newfoundland from exporting its electricity.”
Before the election writs were dropped last week, the federal Conservative government struck a deal with Quebec to draw oil and natural gas royalties from the disputed Old Harry area of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in what some say was a bid to deflect criticism of Thursday’s campaign pledge.
We’ll have to wait and see if it does.
Meanwhile, in St. John’s Harper says the persuasive talents of Premier Kathy Dunderdale convinced him there is a “sound business case for the project with the risks being shared by the provinces, utilities and investors.”
Danny Williams, who had championed the project, must wonder what took him so long?
Anyway, Harper made clear, bygones are bygones.
On the anniversary of Newfoundland becoming Canada’s 10th province, the Conservative leader waxed both prosaic and sentimental about the province.
Even though it shunned him in the last election, he reminded folks he built them two new Marine Atlantic ferries – the main shuttles for minivans of families to get home or go to the mainland.
But he said it would be better if Newfoundland MPs were in his caucus.
“You needed to join Canada, but we needed Newfoundland to join,” Harper said.
“It’s not what you can get out of it, it’s what you bring into it,” he said. “We need you.”
You don't say.