HALIFAX - A provincially appointed panel will release its opinion Monday on a controversial deal to sell major NB Power assets to Hydro-Quebec, but New Brunswick's Opposition leader is already dismissing its work.
Conservative Leader David Alward maintains the six-person panel appointed last November by Premier Shawn Graham to provide independent advice has been "irrelevant from square one."
He also questions the legitimacy of the panel's report, which will be presented in Fredericton by chair David Ganong and panel member Louis LaPierre.
Alward believes the report will amount to a "public relations exercise" on behalf of a government that has already made up its mind to proceed with what is now a $3.2-billion deal that would see Hydro-Quebec get New Brunswick's hydro, diesel and nuclear generating plants and its transmission exports to the United States.
"There are good people on this panel," Alward said in a weekend interview. "Unfortunately, they've been asked to do an impossible task by the premier. ... And just like the premier's deal, their work has been behind closed doors in secrecy, and that is unacceptable."
The panel is tasked with offering advice on whether the proposed sale is in the best interests of the public.
It's since been assessing the financial implications of the deal, its impact on New Brunswick's future energy sovereignty and its long-term effects on residential power rates.
The report was initially expected to be released in mid-January, but Ganong warned last month that the panel would need more time because of the deal's complexity.
Their recommendations will be released in the face of mounting unrest over a lack of public consultation about the proposed sale - something Alward is doing his best to capitalize on with a New Brunswick election looming in the fall.
"I do not believe (the report) will have a significant impact one way or the other," said Alward. "They (government) have lost a tremendous amount of credibility on decisions they take because they've left people out of the process."
Alward said he wants the sale dissected in public before an all-party legislative committee.
Government officials declined to comment over the weekend preferring to wait until the panel's report is released publicly.
However, David Coon of the New Brunswick Conservation Council thinks what the panel will have to say is important, although he objects to an overall process he said is proceeding without a stated provincial energy policy.
"My hunch is their focus will largely be on how NB Power should operate and be organized substantive to the deal being arranged rather than as much on the deal itself, but we'll see," he said.
Coon is also critical of how the deal was rolled out, although he concedes the recent revisions are a major improvement over the initial $4.7-billion deal signed last October because the province is no longer selling NB Power and took transmission and distribution off the table.
"I think (the report) will add a new sort of dimension into the discussion on, what now?" he said.
Meanwhile, energy analyst Norm Rubin of the Toronto-based lobby group Energy Probe believes New Brunswickers stand to come out ahead in any deal that relieves them of a large part of the debt racked up by NB Power.
But as for the panel and any insight into the way to proceed, he said there's simply no blueprint available on the proper reformation of a provincial Crown utility.
"I guess the government would like to do it in some way that doesn't get them turfed out by angry voters," said Rubin. "That sounds like one condition and it's not clear they've met that condition because the popularity of the government seems to have dropped."