Sunday, 10 June 2012

HOW SHOULD THE GOVERNMENT INFORM ITS CITIZENS ON MUSKRAT FALLS?

The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador has failed in its obligation to provide transparency on the Muskrat Falls issue; as a result, it has allowed a serious democratic deficit to occur.  Government has an obligation, as part of the democratic contract, to explain the complexities of Muskrat Falls; citizens should be engaged in the issue in order to assess the risks of the project themselves; they should not defer to the so-called experts.  It is the people, ultimately, who must take responsibility for critical matters of state. 

These are issues to be explored in another posting.  Let’s set the stage for that discussion by first dealing with this most basic question:  how should the government inform its citizens about the Muskrat Falls project? 

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The Online Newspaper, “Mashable” reported these comments, after its Reporter interviewed the Icelandic President:
“Overall, the Internet has played a big role in modern day Iceland. The government recently asked citizens to post online comments and feedback about what they thought of its new constitution proposal.”

“Iceland’s progressiveness in embracing modern technology is astounding. In fact, Iceland’s 2011 Constitutional Council crowdsourced its constitution, turning to social media sites to make the process transparent and to collect input from the public.”
“Since Iceland is a small society, transparency here probably has a different meaning than larger societies where a bureaucratic state is in place,” says (Icelandic President) Grímsson. “It’s never been the case in Iceland. But like many other countries right now, we have a lot of activism created with the help of the Internet and social media.”
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Iceland, a small island nation of 300,000 people, provides a perfect backdrop to demonstrate how citizen engagement and transparency is not only desirable, it is achievable and affordable.

With the proliferation of information technology, in our hands, as easily as in our houses, we have been left with no excuse for any citizen to be left out of an important debate. Some might think that Muskrat Falls is too complex for ordinary people.  That would not be true. Some might agree that a country’s new constitutional document is more complex than a hydro deal.  Don’t forget Iceland.
Are we so much larger than that island country? Not much.  Is our internet or are our social media sites deficient relative to Iceland’s? Definitely not.  Only our government’s attitude to transparency is different.

What should we do in this Province?  I suggest government should start with a series of public information sessions; they should be scheduled in all the major population centers of the province.  Both politicians and senior Nalcor representatives should be on hand to give these presentations and to deal with questions from the audience. The sessions should be widely advertised to attract the maximum public participation.  They should be broadcast on the public media.  If the broadcast media do not agree to carry them, the broadcast facilities of the House of Assembly ought to be employed to permit verbatim telecast on television and over the internet.


The government’s web site should be used, not just to link the public to a number of technical
documents; it should be a means of explaining these documents.  In this age of instant
communications networks, citizens should be able to write questions to government and have
them answered in a timely manner; these questions and answers can be available to all
members of the public.

A special web site should be constructed geared solely to the Muskrat Falls issue. Research, dealing with the myriad issues of this project, should be available for immediate public access.  Such information should be updated as a consequence of the questions and experience coming out of the public information sessions. In addition, the Manitoba Hydro International (MHI) Report, the PUB Report as well as the Report of the Consumer Advocate noted a number of issues which required further study and assessment.  The answers to these questions should be among the first  supplied.

Then there are the general media, who likely would follow these public meetings, and cover the most interesting sound bites. 

We cannot rely on the private or public media outlets to inform the public about Muskrat Falls.  Indeed, some local media have already executed their responsibilities poorly. That is a story for another day.  For now, let me just say, the government’s responsibility is to make sure you are informed; the process is not entirely a decision for the CBC, VOCM, The Telegram or some other media outlet to decide. 
What can citizens do if government does not respond?  You can take to the public media; write your newspaper, call Open Line Shows, place comments on the Opinion Sites of all the major media.  Snail mail/email the Premier.  Engage all of the social media tools.  The success of these tools has been demonstrated in many places, including Iceland.

What else should you do? Demand that the government justify the expenditure of the large financial commitment required for Muskrat Falls.  Insist that the true cost of the electricity be made public. Require that a full accounting of the subsidies necessary in the early years of transmission be disclosed; ask government to justify Nalcor’s demand numbers and why they are not in sync with government’s own growth expectations, demand that the alternatives to Muskrat Falls are examined fully and transparently. Indeed, a host of questions remain unanswered.

When that job is completed by your government, and when you are fully informed, then and only then will we be able to decide, as a people, whether we should change course or whether we willingly are prepared to ‘risk the shop’ on this single project.   
In conclusion, I would offer this warning: When the Royal Commission of Inquiry on the Muskrat Falls fiasco is completed, likely around 2018, it will deal with the question of why the public were left out of the debate. It might also ask why a new Constitution could be assessed by citizens in Iceland, but not a hydro project in NL. 

But then, it will be too late.  You will already be on the hook for the project and for the cost overruns. Now is when you need to be counted!

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