When will Quebec ever learn?

Posted on November 08, 2010 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments

Quebec’s meddling in the affairs of its neighbouring provinces has been, in turns, despicable, disreputable, dubious, and archly devious. But, downright dumb-ass?

So it was this summer when Premier Jean Charest sent to the Prime Minister’s Office a missive objecting to Newfoundland and Labrador’s and Nova Scotia’s joint application for federal funding to construct an undersea power cable between their two provinces. Apparently, according to the mandarins in Quebec City, granting such a request would constitute an unfair subsidy to the two Atlantic provinces.

If that’s a joke, it’s a bad one. Over the years, successive federal governments have poured countless billions of dollars into La belle province’s aerospace and defence industries. They have propped up its dairy and pork producers, and extended preferential treatment to many of its state-supported social programs.

Less amusing, perhaps, is Quebec’s peculiar definition of equity in the delicate balance of provincial interests that proscribe Confederation. It has built its energy behemoth (arguably, the most successful in the nation) on the bones of a patently unfair, 65-year-old deal that permits it to resell power from Labrador’s Upper Churchill facilities and reap the profits with no consideration for Newfoundland. And, despite repeated injunctions, it refuses to renegotiate the arrangement.

It also denies the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador’s request to wheel hydro-electric power from the Lower Churchill River through its transmission lines, a move (it surmises correctly) that would introduce competition to its currently hegemonic lock on U.S. and Ontario energy markets.

No province is ever expected to act against its own interests. But Quebec’s heavy-handed approach to inter-provincial relations stings even its most ardent admirers, one of whom, it’s entirely correct to say, is not Newfoundland and Labrador’s easily angered, eminently quotable premier.

After learning about Charest’s attempted fiat, Williams was practically beside himself in the dog days of summer, spouting a string of trade mark “Dannyisms”. What gives Quebec the right, he thundered, to interfere? Specifically: “What gives Quebec, or the Government of Quebec, or the premier of Quebec, the right under any circumstances to object to an application for funding by other provinces that have nothing to do with Quebec? They don’t want us to go through Quebec, and now they don’t want us to go anywhere. I think these are really very predatory practices and I don’t like it, and I’m not going to put up with it.”

Nova Scotia Energy Minister Bill Estabrooks echoed these sentiments in a CBC interview: “In my opinion, the premier of Quebec should mind his own business. He’s dismissing a very valid idea which comes from two provinces that have worked very carefully in terms of giving a reliable energy service to our provinces.”

And not just “their” provinces. An undersea power cable would be the first step towards a true Atlantic energy grid, supplied with clean, renewable hydro-electricity, that could reduce costs for all classes of consumers in all parts of the region. It would also vastly improve the East Coast’s competitive position as an international energy exporter, stimulating robust economic development in all partner provinces.

Quebec’s purpose, of course, is to savagely curtail these opportunities any way it can. Its failed bid last year to buy the major assets of NB Power has left it in a bitter, petulant mood. If Charest can’t secure access to the U.S. northeast through New Brunswick, then nobody can – certainly not dear, old King Danny for whom he holds no special regard.

In all of this, the federal government appears now to be playing its cards exactly as it should. Prime Minister Stephen Harper reportedly told Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter that Quebec has no “veto” on matters that quite properly fall within the framework of national decision-making.

Which may be another way of saying the feds will consider the joint funding application on its own merits. And if they do, then the cable will be built, the Atlantic region will reap the benefits, and Charest’s meddling will be as moot as it is dumb – if no less annoying for the squalling, squawking selfishness it represents.

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