Hypocrisy Watch

November 2, 2009 10:41 AM

The debate on NB Power is now fully engaged, and there's a lot of anger out there, and there are a lot of accusations aimed at the government: that it has no mandate to do this, that it goes against self-sufficiency.

Let's take the easy one first. The self-sufficiency agenda was never about shutting our borders to commerce in favour of building, growing, and generating everything we need within the province. It was about eliminating the need for federal equalization payments. Reducing our total public debt (government and NB Power combined) from $12.5 billion to $7.8 billion is arguably a step in that direction, if (and it's a mighty big if) the province gets serious about paying down the rest of it.

So there's no contradiction there. But it's the Liberals who are to blame for the confusion. Rather than making it clear to voters that self-sufficiently meant an end to dependence on equalization, they gave in to the temptation to use the term as a slogan to justify all sorts of initiatives. By trying to make it mean everything, they allowed it to mean nothing.

Another line of attack is that the Liberals have "no mandate" to do this and that they are breaking an election promise. I see these two as not quite the same. A mandate, in political terms, is what the voters have given the government the permission to do, based mainly on election promises. But there has to be a sliding scale: by year four of a government's term, a lot can change, and governments must be able adapt to a changing context. The "mandate" notion doesn't contemplate everything that can happen.

Plus, the "no mandate" argument is only deployed when voters don't like the "non-mandated" initiative. Bernard Lord didn't have a mandate to take the HST off home heating in March 2006, but no one was howling that he lacked a mandate to do it because, frankly, it was a crowd-pleasing move. "No mandate" becomes an argument of convenience, or of perspective.

Where the Liberals have a real problem is with the "broken promise" charge: the 2006 Liberal platform, Charter for Change, is explicit that NB Power will remain in public hands. When a party drafts its platform document, the implication is that it has considered all possible scenarios that may occur, and still believes the promise can be made.

If the Liberals are arguing they must break their promise because they couldn't foresee the debt-Point Lepreau crunch at NB Power, they should admit they didn't perform due diligence before releasing the Charter for Change. NB Power's debt was known to be a problem in 2006, and there was certainly a possibility of Lepreau delays. They made the promise anyway.

In fact, perhaps the rhetorical u-turn on the debt and on Point Lepreau should provoke a bit more outrage. Six months ago, if you asked the government about Point Lepreau delays, you were told that AECL was working hard to make up time and that no one should jump to conclusions about a major delay. And if you asked about the growing debt, you were told to relax: the government had a plan to return to surpluses in four years and start paying down that $7.8 billion government debt. (The figure cited, by the way, was the government debt. No one at the time was lumping NB Power's debt into the equation, even though taxpayers were on the hook for that, too.)

In perhaps the most egregious example of the spin, the province's August 28 press release on Moody's downgrading of our credit rating fudged it as a "revised" rating that "maintains [New Brunswick's] leadership spot."

I joked a couple of months ago that what we needed in Fredericton was a "reality hub." Now, suddenly, we seem to have one: officials are now up front about the fact NB Power's debt is part of the province's overall public debt, and that it is indeed raising alarms at credit-rating agencies, who see it as a major risk. (They cite the Moody's downgrade as an example, so what was spun as benign in August is a harbinger of fiscal apocalypse in October.) The eventual need to replace or decommission the Mactaquac dam adds another billion or two dollars of uncertainty, we are told, potentially making it difficult for the province to borrow money at all.

All of this is probably true, and may even leave New Brunswick with no choice but to sell. But maybe if someone had been candid about these mounting problems earlier, rather than brushing them off with artfully-worded press releases, the public wouldn't be quite as shocked to hear that desperate times require desperate measures.

The lesson here is that spin isn't just misleading. It can spin all the way back around and bite you in your political posterior.