Shawn Graham and Bernard Lord speak to reporters shortly after the Liberals won the 2006 election. Lord told Graham that a vote should be held on the NB Power deal. ((CBC))

Former New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord is jumping into the debate over the sale of NB Power, calling for a referendum on the controversial power deal.

About a month ago, Premier Shawn Graham called Lord, whom he defeated in the 2006 election, to ask him what he thought about the proposed NB Power deal.

Lord said he told the premier that the people should have the final say, either by means of a referendum or an election.

"It's truly a question of democratic legitimacy," Lord said in an interview with Radio-Canada.

The Liberal government has agreed to sell the majority of NB Power's assets to Quebec for $3.2 billion. New Brunswick residential ratepayers will receive a five-year rate freeze, while large industrial customers will get a 22 per cent rate cut.

The Liberal government has suffered heavy political casualties over the energy deal. Graham has already scaled back the proposed deal from the $4.8-billion memorandum of understanding that was signed in October.

Graham faced a caucus revolt in January, and then Stuart Jamieson resigned from cabinet, insisting the deal should be put to a referendum.

The original power deal also saw Graham criticized by Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter and Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams over whether the agreement would affect their provinces' ability to sell power into the United States.

Campaigned against NB Power sale

Lord pointed out that the Graham Liberals campaigned in the last three elections saying they wouldn't sell NB Power.

So, he said, the only way to settle the issue is to let the people vote.

The Liberals have pointed out throughout the NB Power debate that Lord's former Tory government hired investment banking firms to examine the possibility of selling NB Power or some of its assets.

In 2003, the Tory government overhauled the Electricity Act that broke NB Power up into competing subsidiaries. Graham and Energy Minister Jack Keir have criticized those reforms since coming to power three years ago.

The Lord government experimented once with a referendum during his tenure as premier from 1999 to 2006.

In 2001, it asked New Brunswick voters to cast ballots on whether they felt the province should keep video lottery terminals.

That referendum was held with the municipal elections to save some costs, but it was criticized because some groups, who opposed the gaming devices, did not have the financial wherewithal to launch significant campaigns.

Liberals not backing down

Despite the former premier's advice, Energy Minister Jack Keir said the Liberal government is not about to launch a referendum over the power deal.

"Our party in 2004 disagreed with using referendums to govern. It's not through a referendum, it's by making difficult decisions on behalf of all New Brunswickers," Keir said.

Keir used the example of the Official Languages Act, which never went to a referendum.

However, the former Progressive Conservative premier said that comparison doesn't work.

Lord said the Official Languages Act had the unanimous consent of the legislature, something that is obviously not the case with the NB Power proposal.