As they did last year, Jacques Poitras (poitrascbc) and Dan McHardie (mchardie) produced a great year-end edition of their political podcast (and blog), Spin Reduxit. During the podcast, they played clips from 2010 and asked listeners to make their pick for clip of the year (starting at 11:12). This gives me the opportunity to jot down a few thoughts that have been rattling around in my head.
My pick is definitely Shawn Graham‘s statement: “Some people pose the question, ‘Are you ready to lose an election over this?’ I think it’s more important to say ‘Are we ready to do the right thing?'” Often I encounter people who speak of Graham as a stubborn and naive for his NB Power stance. After the election loss, these folks look back on the attempted sale as a foolish political gamble; why would a government attempt pursue the sale in the face of such overwhelming opposition in the last year of its mandate? It’s revealing in the way that quote reflects Graham’s state of mind on the issue. According to Graham, solving NB Power’s debt problem, getting cheaper electricity for industry (not to mention frozen rates for residential customers) was simply the “right thing” to do. Whether you agree or disagree with the sale, Graham clearly believed that the positive aspects outweighed the negatives by a significant margin.
Graham actively defied the voices of opposition and by doing so antagonized a public already leery from the proposed changes to UNBSJ and French immersion. The sale became emblematic of a government that is “out of touch” with the voters. It’s increasingly clear that Graham’s cabinet and caucus were not willing to lose the election over this issue. The sale became such a distraction that it overshadowed or tainted many other government initiatives. We now know Graham was fully aware of how much New Brunswickers disliked the deal from its inception. Polling and focus group work performed by Innovative Research Group show that the deal was unpopular from the start. In fact, New Brunswickers trusted Danny Williams on the issue more than their own Premier, even though Williams had only NL’s interests in mind.
Why stick with it then, to the point that it irreparably damaged the government’s chances of reelection? The commitment to the idea over all other policies shows that Graham had some key beliefs about NB Power and energy policy. With access to all of the information a Premier would have, he didn’t believe that NB Power was worth keeping as an asset. Clearly, in his mind it was a completely debt-ridden liability that was incapable of recovering on its own in the short term. It has a growing problem of $1 million per day for Point Lepreau replacement power, and it’s uncertain we’ll see a cent in compensation from Ottawa. We will see what Alward’s energy commission concludes, but it seems clear that Graham believed NB Power was not worth retaining.
More than that though, it seems clear that Graham believed that lower power rates for industry was key to the economic well-being of the province. As Derek Oland wrote last year, one-in-five New Brunswickers work in the goods-producing sector. These are “good jobs, with wages that are 40 per cent higher than the average wage in New Brunswick – contributing more tax dollars to health care, education and other services.” Oland argued high energy costs were a significant factor in thousands of lost jobs in the forestry sector. It could be said that dropping industrial energy prices 23-30% was Graham’s leading economic development and job creation strategy for 2010, probably based on feedback directly from industry.
So, for me why is it the clip of the year? In a handful words, it defines the downfall of the Graham government and many things that came after it. It shows that contrary to popular belief, Graham was fully aware that pursuing the sale of NB Power would cause a divide and could cost him the election but he made the determination that it was worth it. Relentlessly pursuing this action resulted in the formation of a new political party, helped the NDP resurgence, caused huge splits within the Liberal party, and resulted in a Tory landslide. It also bred a small handful of citizen activist groups, which are still active. I’m guessing the sale resulted in a larger deficit as well, where it could be argued that the Liberals overspent on stimulus in part to rehabilitate their image and heal internal party rifts.
Even if one concedes all of the negatives of the deal were potentially true (which I personally don’t), it’s still arguable that Graham’s attitude and deliberate actions on the NB Power sale changed politics in the province and the impact will last for many years.