Atomizing political dissent


After returning from Boston this weekend I heard that Stuart Jamieson had just resigned from the provincial Liberal cabinet over the sale of NB Power. To revisit last week’s column, let me reiterate that partisan politics can often distort good thinking when it comes to important public issues. Jamieson’s resignation is another sad example.

Jamieson’s position is correct. The concept of selling of NB Power should be debated. Publicly-owned utilities such as NB Power and the long departed NB Tel are public investments that belong to the people. As citizen-owners, the public deserves to have clear insight into the operations of these companies as well as providing some oversight of managers and regulators.

I know this from personal experience. As I’ve written before, one of my previous clients was just such a utility. Thunder Bay Telephone is the largest independently owned telco in Canada and serves an area about the size of New Brunswick. Each year, on top of reinvesting its profits back into the region’s infrastructure (which includes wireline, wireless and internet service), the company returns more than $10 million in operating profits back to the City of Thunder Bay. Even so, there are regular lobbying efforts to sell off this cash cow for a huge one-time windfall—much like what happened to NB Tel.

Thunder Bay Telephone was a working partner with NB Tel back then, and received a lot of its leading edge technology from its New Brunswick associate—and these resources were sorely missed after the sale of NB Tel.

Last week I inadvertently misspoke about NB Power. I gave the impression that the utility’s debt load added to the provincial debt. That is not the case. NB Power’s debt is a business debt attached to the corporation and its assets—and not provincial debt.

In saying that, it is in all our best interests to learn more about the health of NB Power. I found an interesting blog that sees the issue from our neighbour’s perspective. More folks than just Danny Williams in Newfoundland and Labrador who have an interest in how we handle this issue.

Check it out at if you’d like to read more.

It’s important because Newfoundlanders have previous experience with Hydro Québec. Together they share a very lucrative hydro generating development on Churchill Falls in Labrador, a project first seriously proposed by Joey Smallwood in 1949. Unable to develop the project on their own, Newfoundlanders invited Quebec to partner in the venture. Today, Churchill Falls can generate a whopping 5.4 gigawatts of power. As co-owners, Newfoundland owns 65.8% and Quebec owns 34.3% of the Churchill Falls (Labrador) Corporation.

However, here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the deal: “According to long-time Hydro-Québec critic Claude Garcia, former president of Standard Life (Canada) and author of a recent assessment of the utility commissioned by the Montreal Economic Institute, if Hydro-Quebec had to pay market prices for the low-cost power it got from the Churchill Falls project in Labrador, the 2007 profit would be a whopping estimated 75 per cent lower. In the 2008 case, Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams claimed it is estimated that Hydro-Quebec reaped profits from the Upper Churchill contract of approximately $1.7 billion, while Newfoundland and Labrador received a mere $63 million.”

That means Newfoundland gets only 3.6% of the profits from a resource it actually owns. Wow. I don’t know who wrote that original deal, but I guess if I were a Newfoundlander I wouldn’t much care for Hydro Québec either. That original deal, by the way, is based on Quebec’s guarantee to purchase power for ¼ of a cent per kilowatt hour—or less—until 2040. Given current retail rates for power are 40+ times higher, that’s quite a bargain.

Of course none of this has to do with the actual proposed deal on the table between the Province of New Brunswick and Hydro Québec. NB Power doesn’t produce cheap electricity. It does, however, provide a valuable power tie-line between Canada and the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. And likely that connection is what interests Quebec most about the current NB Power deal.

While thousands of New Brunswickers have joined the protest the handling of this deal, including cabinet ministers, the government has been running an advocacy campaign to promote the deal. No wonder—with our own governments spending our money to quash debate—that we’re losing our ability to openly and constructively debate the issues that affect us. But the underlying question becomes, “how did we really get so disconnected from personal involvement?”

Three reasons come to mind. First, here in New Brunswick—where so much redistribution of wealth comes through provincial government channels—a lot of us are afraid to speak out for fear that our projects might be negatively affected. Second, thanks to the wide-scale corporatization of every aspect of our lives, we’re experiencing an atomization of our society supervised by large corporations—fuelled by the global electronic media revolution of the last 50 years which has inundated us with highly credentialized experts, a tidal wave of junk opinion on the Internet, and a digital universe of pure escapism—leading to a Bablelizing void and the disappearance of common sense. Third, as 21st-Century couch potatoes, we just don’t care.

The medium really has become the message. We all feel, somewhere deep down, that there's very little differentiating us as unique individuals as we swim through this numbing media ocean of white noise—for hours every day. Aside from a handful of famous people the rest of us can't possibly matter, or at least that’s the psychological net impact. Ironically, the illusion of individuality accounts for the popularity of social networking on Facebook and Twitter. But it’s just an illusion.

How we conduct our thinking—and communicating—is what we’re becoming as a society. Building a more advanced electronic network won’t fundamentally improve anything other than our growing dependence on that network. The more we live on-line, the less we exist in the real world of face-to-face politics. And because of that, we leave the real world of political protest to professional politicians, lobbyists and terrorists, which are the most unhealthy symptoms of all in my opinion, since the ordinary citizen’s reluctance to speak out will become the next irrational—yet logical—outcome.

But I would agree that the network is—thanks to its atomizing-friendly code—the organizing platform for coordinating, informing, governing and controlling, this new atomized society. Who controls the platform will control the world.

And if we’re not careful here at home it might be Hydro-Québec.


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