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Bound for Newfoundland, Ignatieff hedges on Lower Churchill deal

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff walks along the waterfront during a campaign stop in Halifax on April 4, 2011.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Michael Ignatieff is on his way to Newfoundland and Labrador Monday afternoon with a vague pledge to help the province develop its controversial Lower Churchill hydroelectric project.

"We want to look at the deal in close detail, but we have talked favourably about a loan guarantee because it lowers the cost of borrowing money," the Liberal Leader told reporters at a news conference in Halifax.

This will be Mr. Ignatieff's first stop in Newfoundland since the campaign began. He needs to keep his six seats there if he has any chance of forming government.

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Several of the Liberal seats were won with the help of former premier Danny Williams, who was upset with the Harper government and urged voters in his province to vote for anyone but the Conservatives. They responded, shutting out the Harper team in the last election.

This time around, however, there is a new premier, who seems to like what Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has to say - especially on the Lower Churchill project. Mr. Harper arrived there last week with a huge promise that a re-elected Tory government would provide a loan guarantee of $4.2-billion for the $6.2-billion project.

So any waffling from Mr. Ignatieff will not aid his cause.

When completed, the Lower Churchill project will provide clean power to Newfoundland and Labrador, with spare wattage being sold to New England.

There was no mention of the hydro mega-project in the Liberal platform, released Sunday. But when asked about it Monday, Mr. Ignatieff spoke about involving Quebec - and maybe even Ontario - in a "pan-Canadian approach" to inter-provincial energy sharing.

"It's not just a matter of Newfoundland and Labrador," he said.

He argued that a Liberal government would not play off one province against another, suggesting that is what Mr. Harper is doing.

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A federal government, he said, needs to "sit down with the province of Newfoundland and Labrador and the province of Quebec. ... Let's think about this medium and long-term."

He added: "But for heavens sake if we don't sit in a room pretty soon we are going to be suboptimal as a country when we could be a superpower."

The Liberal Leader suggested finding a way to "wheel this power through Quebec" and said that Canadians have to start "thinking big" on energy or risk having highly segmented markets that don't speak to one another.

Quebec and Newfoundland have fought frequently over hydro issues. They have not been able to reach a deal on the Lower Churchill so Newfoundland chose to go the underwater route, which a Conservative government promises to back. That would as a result put a dent in Quebec's dominance of the eastern power exports to the United States.

The Liberals said Monday, however, that the Tories provided no loan guarantee figure in their budget. And Mr. Ignatieff - noting that he has spoken to both the former and current premier of Newfoundland and Labrador on this issue - criticized Mr. Harper for being a Johnny-come-lately to green energy.

"The Harper government has spent five years doing nothing on green energy," the Liberal Leader charged. "Suddenly, he is becoming the big champion of green energy. Where has he been for five years?"

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His officials say he will be more expansive Monday night at his event in St. John's, playing up the "trust issue." Mr. Harper already betrayed East Coasters on the Atlantic Accord, the Liberals say, so why should he be trusted on this?

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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