What a week! (August 23, 2020)

Good Sunday Morning

And what a week it was.  Major political assumptions were turned upside down – chief among them “nothing happens in politics in the dog days of summer.”

For a quick review, on Monday, the Minister of Finance Bill Morneau stepped down and also announced he was resigning his Toronto Centre seat.

The next morning, we learned the new Minister of Finance is Chrystia Freeland who remains Deputy Prime Minister. Also present at Rideau Hall for the swearing in was Dominic Leblanc with an increase of duties. In addition to President of the Queen’s Privy Council and responsibilities for democratic reforms, he takes over Freeland’s duties as Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs.

Later Tuesday we learned that earlier that same day, Justin Trudeau had met with the Governor General and she approved shutting down parliament until September 23! 

Also this week, on Monday, the Premier of New Brunswick called an election for that province on September 14.  And on Wednesday, Andrew Furey, the new premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, was sworn in.

That is a lot of news to unpack. So, let’s get started!

Starting at what most Canadians noticed least – the new premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. Andrew Furey is by any measure an extraordinary person.  He is an orthopedic surgeon, married to a doctor, and has been active in humanitarian relief work. Politics is a very recent thing. In fact, he had never been elected to anything until the N-L Liberals elected him leader, thus making him premier. He does not have a seat in the provincial legislature. His father, George Furey, is Speaker of the Canadian Senate.  George and I were in the same year at Dalhousie Law School. I have always wondered how he survived as well as he has growing up in the infamous Mount Cashel orphanage. His son has taken on a job few would crave

For one thing, Newfoundland and Labrador is teetering near bankruptcy.  And here is where British Columbians should take note. The boondoggle that has the province swimming in a sea of red ink is a lot like Site C.  The N-L disastrous dam is Muskrat Falls in Labrador.  It is now two years late and $6 billion over budget. And just as the BC government wants to do here, N-L is forbidding any competition from less expensive solar and wind so there can be some market for the super-expensive electricity from violating indigenous rights and flooding important caribou habitat in Labrador. Nova Scotia has contracted to buy Muskrat Falls hydro through an undersea cable, but the GE software to run that does not seem to work. COVID has shut down the project, now described as 98% complete, for at least another year..

Provincial finances are also cratering as oil revenues plunged and COVID related emergency costs soared.  All of us across Canada need to be prepared to help Newfoundland and Labrador.  First step, and a very brave thing to do, would be to decide the sunk costs of the Muskrat Falls fiasco must just be written off.  Pull the plug. And invest in wind and solar. Use the underground cable to export far cheaper power. Next is to diversify the economy to survive without the off-shore oil. Hibernia oil is a better bet than oil sands bitumen because it is conventional crude. It could last more than a decade or so, but not for the long term.

It has been a building story all summer that Site C’s geological reality is also teetering.  On top of all the other reasons we should pull the plug on Site C, the risk of catastrophic failure is real.  In case you missed it, Saturday’s Globe had an excellent opinion piece from former premier Mike Harcourt, chair of the federal-provincial review panel into Site C, Harry Swain and an old hand on World Bank mega-project financing, Mauro Chiesa. They make the case it is not too late to pull the plug.  BC Hydro’s Site C dam has become an albatross”.

Back to the dizzying events of this week in Ottawa. Applying a climate lens to recent events, there were significant improvements in the cards we have been dealt.

Of all Cabinet ministers, I think it is safe to say Bill Morneau needed a lot more convincing to actually move off fossil fuels. He did get persuaded not to bail out Big Oil in the pandemic, by focusing on workers and cleaning up abandoned oil wells. But he drove the insane project of buying the Kinder Morgan pipeline for much more than it was worth. Getting it shut down should be easier now. 

As well, the prime minister has tapped former Governor of the Bank of Canada- as well more recently – Governor of the Bank of England - Mark Carney as an advisor. Carney is the UN Secretary General’s personal envoy on climate finance based on an impressive record of calling out the folly of investments in “unburnable carbon and stranded assets.”  Fortunately, he and Freeland have a long-time friendship. Another person with whom Freeland has a close relationship is Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.  Greens have been loudly trumpeting a great study by Stiglitz, and a stellar list of co-authors, including Sir Nicholas Stern who authored a major climate report for Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer (apologies for slip up in last week’s GSM. Stern wrote for the Chancellor. He was never in politics himself). 

So, if our new Minister of Finance is looking at issues of building back better and how to ensure economic recovery is aligned with climate, she is already well associated with two of the best brains on the topic. Which brings me to another aspect of the appointment: Freeland herself and her brain. She is the first woman to ever hold the post.  And typically, the press has wondered if she has the qualifications. She is very, very smart. And as a business reporter and author, she has a full grasp of the topic.  Likely much better than many men who have been finance minister.

Now to the very big surprise of prorogation. I am distressed that the prorogation hit immediately. It has the effect of stopping all work by parliamentary committees. While I worked with the Finance committee on the WE charity scandal (which is, of course, the real reason Morneau stepped down), I was far more interested in the good work we were doing on the fisheries committee on the future of Pacific salmon. I will do all I can to get that work back on track after September 23rd, once committees are set up once again.  We literally have no committees now. No chairs, no committee members.

This prorogation is not anything like the 2008 prorogation when Harper shuttered parliament to avoid a confidence vote he knew he would lose - blocking a waiting coalition government. This prorogation actually creates a confidence vote which Trudeau may lose. Prorogations are legitimate when the government’s agenda is completed, or, as is the case now, when the agenda has been overtaken by events. The December 5, 2019 Speech from the Throne seems a lifetime ago.  Pre-pandemic. Pre-ballooning deficits. Pre- the world turning upside down. I can accept the legitimacy of a re-set.  

While we could be in a federal election in the fall, I doubt it.  More than likely the NDP will prop up the Liberals. The Conservatives will emote loudly, while quietly breathing a sigh of relief. Their new leader (and we will know later today who it is) will not want to be in an election so soon.

I really hope the week of August 24th will be quiet.  I would like the option of “boring” if such were available.  I may be off to New Brunswick to help Greens there for the September 14 election. That will require being in isolation for two weeks in order to campaign for two days.  I sure would love to see my dear friends  Jenica Atwin, MP for Fredericton and MLA David Coon, leader of New Brunswick Greens and all their colleagues…. But is it worth the scary trip to get there?

Back to hoping life can be boring for a while.



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