Boats on the headpond

March 29, 2010 10:54 AM

The government's explanation of the collapse of its negotiations with Hydro-Quebec has been about as sure-footed and straightforward as the original public-relations pitch for the proposed agreement.

We are told that as Quebec looked more closely at the Mactaquac dam, it identified financial risks that, remarkably, it had not realized were there when it began kicking NB Power's tires early in 2009. "Simple things like what the level of the headpond has to be," Energy Minister Jack Keir explained. "That there's boats that use that headpond. That there's campgrounds on that headpond."

When we pointed out that all those facts have been there, in plain sight, not just since last year but for decades, Keir acknowledged that was a "fair" observation. "I guess it's more a question for Hydro-Quebec," he said. "I'm telling you what the discussions were. And the discussions were exactly that."

This less-than-coherent explanation allows the PC Opposition and the grassroots opponents of the deal to portray the deal's collapse as a direct result of their efforts. They want this to be not just a defeat for the Graham Liberals, but a triumph of democracy. "What would be nice to see what follows is that all those people continue to speak," said Dennis Atchison, one of the organizers, on the day the deal fell apart. "They also had the seeds of the solutions. ... Everyone of them separately couldn't do it on their own, but put them all together and you've got a brain set, a skills set, that's phenomenal for problem-solving with what's going on right now with our power situation."

Atchison's talking about a whole new style of consensus-driven politics. He's probably overly-optimistic: extensive consultation always sounds nice, and it does work in some cases, but it can also be a recipe for policy paralysis, as any critic of the Bernard Lord government will tell you.

Premier Shawn Graham has tried to have it both ways. "One thing I have learned in this process is as a government we have to do a better job in engaging people along the way," he declared last Wednesday, minutes after asserting that the deal he'd negotiated without engagement was the best deal possible.

Even if there is a legitimate, Mactaquac-cost-risk reason for the collapse of negotiations, however, public opinion still played a role in that demise: if there had been broad and deep support for the talks, Graham might have had more leeway, more political capital, when Quebec asked for concessions. Instead, he had no margin to manoeuvre. He was boxed in.

The Liberals came into office in 2006 convinced New Brunswickers were tired of what they saw as Lord's diffidence, and were ready for them to move in the opposite direction, towards quick, bold decision-making. They must now wonder if they swung too far in that direction.