Not any more

Harper’s millions for Williams will cost Canadians billions

In Canada on August 26, 2010 at 08:58

Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams speaks with reporters after a meeting with Prime Minister Sephen Harper in St. John's on Jan. 29, 2010.

Thursday, August 26, 2010 5:50 AM

Harper’s millions for Williams will cost Canadians billions

Norman Spector

Perusing my morning read, I come across a Canadian Press dispatch buried on page 5 of the Report on Business under the headline: “Williams defends Abitibi seizure.” Old news — I think to myself — thinking back to Newfoundland’s expropriation of the forestry company’s assets in December of 2008. However, as I prepare to turn the page, I spot what appears to be some funny business in the lead sentence of the story: “Critics are calling it a rash blunder that will cost Canadian taxpayers far more than $130-million…”

Say what? It turns out, according to the article, that the Departments of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada announced on Tuesday that Ottawa will settle a $500-million lawsuit the now-bankrupt company was threatening to launch.

According to the terms of Nafta, Ottawa is responsible for settling legal claims under Chapter 11, which is understandable considering that Nafta is an international agreement. However, the fact of the matter is that the one and only government that all Canadians get to elect had no say in Premier Williams’s decision to seize AbitibiBowater’s water and timber rights — presumably to the benefit of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, not to speak of the boost this gave the Premier’s political fortunes.

In fact, far from regretting his costly actions, Mr. Williams is still proudly touting the decision he made two years ago:

“When I look back, of the many things that I’ve done during the terms that I’ve been in government, this is probably one of the actions that I’m the most proud of.”

Perhaps that’s because, according to the Premier, it’s Canadian taxpayers who’ll be paying the dime — or, more correctly, the many dimes — for his actions. Indeed, Mr. Williams says that Prime Minister Stephen Harper “assured him in a conversation two days ago that there will be no retribution for the bill Ottawa must now foot.”

Fair enough: In Canada, there’s no place for retribution in Ottawa’s relations with the provinces. However, nor in a federation like Canada should taxpayers from sea-to-sea-to-sea be expected to pay for decisions such as the expropriation of AbitibiBowater’s assets.

No one needs to explain that Mr. Williams is very popular — even stalwart defenders of medicare like Jack Layton ducked when he went south for heart surgery — or that he can inflict serious pain on the fortunes of a federal party leader in Newfoundland. But given the nature of provincial politics and politicians (have I mentioned that Bill Vander Zalm is on the comeback trail?), establishing a precedent in this matter will end up costing Canadian taxpayers billions of dollars in future years.

In a forthcoming budget — Conservative or Liberal, before or after the next federal election — Ottawa should ensure that no such precedent is established. In other words, no “retribution.” But officials in the Finance Department must find a way to recoup the $130-million that Ottawa will be paying to settle AbitibiBowater’s damage claim out of court.

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