ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Premier Paul Davis cast Newfoundland and Labrador’s support for a European free trade deal in doubt Tuesday over an escalating fishery dispute with the federal government.
Davis said he’ll reconsider backing the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement if Ottawa insists on adding what he says are new conditions to a promised fishery fund for his province.
And he said he would take his growing frustration directly to Prime Minister Stephen Harper during a face-to-face chat in Ottawa on Wednesday.
“I’ll be meeting with Prime Minister Harper tomorrow and we will finalize the details of this agreement or the province will have to reconsider its support for CETA,” he told a news conference.
Just one problem. Harper will be in Montreal for the funeral of Montreal Canadiens great Jean Beliveau on Wednesday. In fact, the prime minister did not schedule a meeting with Davis, said Harper spokesman Jason MacDonald.
“The PM is always prepared to meet with the premier (and spoke with him just a week ago, I believe), but there was never any confirmation for tomorrow,” MacDonald said in an email.
Heather MacLean, a spokeswoman for Davis, said the Prime Minister’s Office had earlier indicated Harper’s availability on Wednesday. Officials are now working on an alternate time, she said.
At issue is a $400-million fishery transition fund touted as an unprecedented injection for an iconic but struggling industry when it was announced in October 2013 by then-premier Kathy Dunderdale. At the time, she said $280 million would come from Ottawa to pay for marketing, research and to support displaced workers, with the province covering the rest.
The cash was in exchange for giving up, as part of the CETA deal, minimum processing rules meant to protect fish plant workers, she said.
While provincial Liberal Opposition critics blasted it as a sellout, Dunderdale talked up access to lucrative European markets and how the $400-million fund would help make up for any lost jobs.
Conspicuously absent from the news conference announcing the deal were any federal ministers to share in the joint credit.
Rob Moore, the federal regional minister for Newfoundland and Labrador, said Tuesday that Ottawa is committed to working out still unresolved details.
“The MPR fund was created to compensate for anticipated losses from the removal of minimum processing requirements,” he said in an email.
“The fund was never intended as a blank cheque that would give the industry in Newfoundland and Labrador an unfair advantage over other Atlantic provinces.”
Davis said Ottawa is trying to put a monetary value on those minimum processing requirements and limit its funding commitment to the province. He said the federal government is now proposing to split funds of up to $280 million among the Atlantic provinces.
Liberal Leader Dwight Ball repeatedly pressed Davis during question period on the dollar amount placed on those rules during talks with federal negotiators.
Davis provided no figure but talked about the cultural worth of the requirements and how dropping them was a major policy shift for his governing Progressive Conservatives.
He stressed on one hand that lifting minimum processing rules for the European Union won’t hurt the provincial sector and would offer unfettered access to valuable new markets.
On the other hand, Davis said Ottawa’s $280-million commitment was a key prerequisite for giving up such protections.
“We didn’t negotiate anything away,” he told the legislature.
Ball said the premier appears to be arguing both sides of the issue with no clear value put on those concessions.
“You walked away from the table, had no idea what you walked away from.”
Documents tabled in the legislature include an email from Bill Hawkins, then the chief of staff to federal International Trade Minister Ed Fast, dated a week before Dunderdale announced the fishery fund last year.
In it, he refers to a “transitional program of up to $400 million” and said the federal government looked forward to fleshing out details.
It could be another two years before CETA is fully implemented as details and legal text are finalized.
A spokesman for Fast’s office did not respond when asked what if any impact it could have on the CETA deal if Newfoundland and Labrador withdraws its support.
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