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Opposition Leader David Alward says the public should have a voice on the power deal, which will affect the province's future. ((CBC))

The New Brunswick Liberals have voted down an Opposition demand for a referendum on the NB Power deal.

Conservative Leader David Alward argued Thursday that the government doesn't have a mandate to sell the majority of NB Power's assets to Hydro-Québec for $3.2 billion.

He said the public deserves to have a voice on the issue, which will affect the province's future.

The motion came on the heels of comments this week by Bernard Lord, the former New Brunswick Tory premier. Lord called for a referendum on the controversial deal.

He said he told Premier Shawn Graham the people should have the final say, by means of either a referendum or an election.

The vote also came in the wake of Liberal MLA Stuart Jamieson's ejection from cabinet on Feb. 5 for insisting the deal should be put to a referendum.

Opposition motions rarely succeed, since they lack the votes needed to pass them, but the Conservatives had hoped some Liberals might break ranks in this case and support the idea.

Vote split along party lines

The two-hour debate broke down along party lines, however, with all 22 Conservatives voting in favour of the motion but 28 Liberals voting to defeat it.

Tory MLA Bev Harrison said a referendum was needed because once the deal with Quebec is finalized it can never be undone.

"This is a forever deal and it's part of the fabric of this province, it's part of who New Brunswickers —what they think of themselves in terms of what they own and who they are," he said.

'If the Opposition had some type of plan other than the status quo, there'd be a clear choice. There's no clear choice here.'—Energy Minister Jack Keir

But Energy Minister Jack Keir said there was no point to a referendum because the Tories haven't said what they would do if the deal were defeated.

"If the Opposition had some type of plan other than the status quo, there'd be a clear choice. There's no clear choice here," he said.

Three Liberal MLAs were away Thursday and missed the vote, including Jamieson, the member for Saint John Fundy.

Jamieson, the former tourism minister, has said he remains a loyal member of the party and is concerned the Liberals might lose the next election if there isn't a referendum.

Jamieson, who is not expected to run again in the Sept. 27 election, has also said he would vote against the deal unless there is a referendum.

The $3.2-billion sale would see Hydro-Québec acquire most of the province's power-generation assets, but New Brunswick would maintain control of transmission and distribution.

Under the deal, expected to be finalized by the end of March, New Brunswick's residential ratepayers will get a five-year rate freeze. Medium-sized industries will see a roughly 15 per cent cut in power rates and will have those rates locked in for five years, while large industrial customers will see their power prices fall by roughly 23 per cent.

After five years, rates will increase with inflation and be regulated by the New Brunswick Energy and Utilities Board.

The deal was watered down from the original $4.8-billion package announced in October because of a public outcry and open dissent within the Liberal caucus.