Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Just why Andy anyways?

Almost a year ago Andy Wells leaked to the media that he was Premier Williams' choice for the Chairmanship of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board.

The reaction was immediate. There was the obligatory and pro forma announcements of support from the friends, family and supporters of both Wells and Williams. Specific interest groups were horrified: a chill went through the local oil and oil-related community. Generally, though, the people of the province scratched it's collective head trying to figure out what was going on. We still are.

But some things have become clearer in the last 12 months. The first thing that comes to mind is that Wells now has the same chance of becoming Chair of the CNLOPB as my cat. The second is that Premier Williams will steamroll over anybody (Max Reulokke), hang up the legitimate activities of any organization (the CNLOPB) and stop any industry in its tracks (oil development) to get what he wants.

The real question is What does Premier Williams really want and why does he want it?

There was some speculation that Williams didn't really want Wells as Chair and wildly different reasons were proposed. Some thought he just wanted him out of the Mayor's chair to facilitate regional municipal amalgamation or to pave the way for his old buddy Jack Harris to waltz into city hall. Others thought that Wells was a bogeyman candidate in order to get another, more realistic and acceptable candidate in place.

I don't think we will ever know for sure why such a patently poor candidate was put forward by the Premier. Wells may question Halley's characterization of him as an unqualified candidate but let's call a spade a spade: Wells is a professional municipal politician with no experience in any business sector touching on the petroleum industry and has no technical expertise or training in any of the issues that the CNLOPB deals with every day.

There are some politicians who believe that their political experience provides some kind of universal qualification for every and any field of human endeavor. Wells is clearly one of those and Wells is clearly wrong about that - political experience does not provide anything like those qualifications. It can provide leadership experience in bringing together disparate groups and welding them into a consensus in order to achieve a higher goal. It would take an over-dose of hallucinogenics for a sane person to put Wells into that category of politician.

So why did Williams propose him? I think it can only fall into that class of things that seemed like a good idea at the time.

Williams' public reasons have been clear enough. Generally he wants the CNLOPB to stand up for the interests of people of the province and more specifically he wants the CNLOPB to initiate a fallow-fields process and so push the Hebron consortium into a deal of Williams' making.

Unfortunately for us who are trying to figure out what is really going on these public reasons are total nonsense. First the CNLOPB is a regulatory body that does not negotiate or establish industrial benefits for the province. Rather, it manages benefits that are previously negotiated and approved by the provincial government and industry consortium. In other words, it can only play with the hand that is dealt to it by others.

This puts the industrial benefits issue back into Williams' lap.

Second, and possibly more important, the CNLOPB cannot and will not initiate a fallow-fields process to push Exxon-Mobil et al off the Hebron project. The only way that could happen is to get the federal government to commit to supporting the province on the grounds of national self-sufficiency or national security of supply.

Not only do neither of these grounds apply to this case (Williams being merely unable to get what he wants), Prime Minister Harper has already made it abundantly clear that he views this dispute as a purely commercial one, to be resolved through negotiation. Notwithstanding the Premier's hopeful comments, no support will come from that source.

So again, the matter is thrown back into Williams' lap.

Does Williams really understand the environment and institutions he's dealing with? Can he be so fundamentally mistaken in such matters of basic roles, principles and responsibilities? I can't imagine how his experience as a lawyer and businessman, his exemplary education or the experience and knowledge of the senior officials who advise him could possibly lead him this far astray.

Far be it from me to question the motives driving the most popular provincial premier since Smallwood, but it seems clear that he will not be able to get through cheap and easy back doors what he has been so far been unable to achieve through the challenging and time-consuming front door. Governing a province is less about the grand gesture timed for the latest quarterly poll and more about the slow and incremental process of dealing with the dirty details like swallowing your pride and constructively bringing people together in negotiations to the benefit of all.

It's not always a zero-sum game, where winning necessitates others losing. Sometimes all sides can win.

Lets get on with it.

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