Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister and leader of the federal Conservatives, just promised loan guarantees for the proposed 824-megawatt hydro project at Muskrat Falls on the Lower Churchill River in Newfoundland-Labrador. Opposition parties, when they’re being honest, have cautiously supported this. New Democrat Thomas Mulcair, in a fight for his political life in Outremont, the NDP’s only Quebec seat, on March 31 told CBC Power and Politics host Evan Solomon that he supports carbon-free energy and that “all provinces should have access” to similar financial backing for similar projects.
Mulcair is taking a bit of a risk saying this, because Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe called the Conservative announcement a “slap in the face for Quebec.”
Duceppe doesn’t like the route of the transmission lines that will wheel Muskrat Falls power into the northeastern U.S. That is, it will not go through Quebec. Duceppe hopes his criticism will play well in Quebec, where he enjoys a tenacious kind of popularity.
Mulcair knows this, which is why his support in principle—Muskrat Falls, after all, is about 824 MW of zero-carbon power, which the NDP supports—is risky.
Of all the politicians in Ottawa, I find Mulcair one of the most interesting. He appears regularly on inside-politics talk shows like Power and Politics and CTV’s Power Play, and always delivers forceful and intelligent commentary that completely belies the prevalent but facile notion that minority parliaments are unworkable. He knows his policy, argues it well, and does a masterful job of balancing policy with partisanship—both of which are inalienable elements of a stable democracy.
Could his cautious support for Muskrat Falls indicate a better knowledge than Duceppe’s of the politics of clean energy in Quebec? Again, he lives on the edge of a volcano in Outremont, and he was the provincial minister of sustainable development for two years prior to winning his federal seat. I’d say he knows what he’s doing.
Mulcair’s support of the Muskrat Falls loan guarantees is very encouraging. If all provinces should have access to similar financial backing, then that must apply to Ontario’s new nuclear construction project at Darlington. The project could be for up to 3,500 megawatts.
The Muskrat Falls loan guarantee is promised for an 824-MW project that is expected to cost $6.2 billion. Back in 2009 when the Ontario government asked vendors for proposals to build the new Darlington reactors, federally owned AECL’s bid was rumoured to be around $26 billion. Do the arithmetic, and you see that the federal Conservatives are willing to back a Newfoundland-Labrador power project that is, dollar for dollar and megawatt for megawatt, almost exactly proportional to Darlington.
Of course it’s not just about dollars and megawatts. It’s also about votes. Harper hopes his support of Muskrat Falls will get his party back onto the Rock, where he was shut out in 2008.
Well, if that’s the case, how would similar support for Darlington help him in Ontario?
It is impossible to say how the election will turn out. But it is not inconceivable that we could end up with another Conservative minority government. If that happens, then at least two federal leaders—Liberal Michael Ignatieff and NDP Jack Layton—will be on their way out. If Mulcair wins in Outremont, then he is a sure candidate as NDP leader, and probably the instant front-runner.
The Conservative budget was released on March 22. Mulcair’s NDP said it would not support it in the form in which it was presented. Though that form included $405 million for AECL, that doesn’t appear to have been where the disagreement lay.
So if the Conservatives win another minority, then how would the NDP play the continued support for AECL? With Mulcair in charge of the NDP, I like the chances. What needs to be clearly understood is that of all the forms of clean energy, nuclear is demonstrably the cleanest.
The Canadian Institute Nuclear Symposium will be held just ahead of the May 2 election. Darlington is a crucial issue for just about every speaker who will be presenting. It will be interesting to hear what they have to say.