The unfolding of the Muskrat Falls issue, as it has, demands that we pause for a moment. The government and its proxy, Nalcor, has managed how we view the project by parcelling out selected information, steadfastly refusing the release of critical data, subverting the public review process and pummelling legitimate critics.
As members of a democratic society, we need to consider how such behaviours have impacted our rightful participation in this major public policy initiative. Equally, we need to consider what we have willfully acceded to the state given that many people have denied their responsibility to assess the project and its risk to themselves and to our economy; we also need to consider how we have enabled this process.
From the very beginning, government was careful about the information it released, ensuring that it was minimal. When it was forced to send the issue for review, after opposition protest, it framed a very narrow reference question, and gave the PUB little time to conduct its enquiry.
When the PUB failed to provide the government the approval it had sought, its petulant response was to inflict damage on the PUB’s credibility by publicly stating that it had lost all confidence in the semi-judicial body. Then, it unceremoniously circumvented the PUB, going direct to the Board’s Consultant, Manitoba Hydro International, the only group to have given government qualified approval for the scheme.
This behaviour is not just reprehensible; it is unbecoming of a democratically elected government. It suggests government has an exaggerated sense of its own omnipotence.
The problems of small economies and their attendant small populations are not limited to NL. Indeed, it is communities like ours where democratic deficits are magnified. The reticence of people to be publicly critical, for fear of retribution, is integral to this issue. That is why the onus rests on government to set the tone of the debate and to demonstrate that it welcomes public participation, and not take advantage of the very shortcomings that “smallness” affords.What is equally disturbing is the ability of a Crown Agency like Nalcor to have a disproportionate influence on government decision makers; hubris on its part and weakness by the elected have allowed it to unduly influence decisions which impact the very broad public interest not just for one generation but, in the case of Muskrat Falls, for 50 years! Hydro Quebec is such a mega agency, already boasting the power that Nalcor desires; except that Quebec has 5 million population, plenty of watch dogs and a watchful media to control “la Regie”, as Quebecers not so affectionately refer to the "state within a state" that is Hydro Quebec.
There are few watchdogs in this Province. Nalcor’s pursuit of Muskrat Falls, if successful, will give it, in a relative context, unparalleled influence and, I fear, one that will come at great social and financial cost. Government already finds itself deferring to Nalcor even to conduct the most basic Q&A and other PR initiatives. The politicians have a bare grasp of the issues and choose to hide their evident intellectual deficit with aggressive behaviour designed to close down essential and warranted opposition.Muskrat Falls evokes issues which go beyond the risks of a construction project. Discussions about billions of dollars, megawatts of power, peak demand, consumption curves, the isolated island option, and other issues, challenge most clear thinking people. Because the matter is complex, people feel challenged by it; we should be fearful that they are deferring to those they perceive to ‘know better’; the so-called ‘experts’.
In a functioning democracy, citizens should not take for granted the participatory aspect of the democratic principle. Indeed, people naturally expect that they will not be limited merely to the act of voting every four or five years.On the other hand, citizens defer many public policy decisions to their government, for obvious reasons. But our contract with the elected assumes that we, the people, will be consulted on ‘matters of state’, essentially on any issue so important that it has the potential to do our province grievous harm.
You should know that few issues fall into such a category. When the state fails to inform us deliberately or otherwise, as it has on Muskrat Falls, it fails in the performance of an essential part of the democratic contract; implicitly, it assumes that the populace is too dumb to understand; that it alone has the authority to act.No one is an expert on everything. Citizens need to remember that. In the assessment of risk, the public is quite capable of performing a determination, but only when the process of communication is completely transparent. Transparency is not the same as an assurance that our ‘best interests’ are being considered. Transparency is achieved when all the information, critical to why government wishes to take a certain course, is unreservedly laid before the public.
Should government always listen to the people? There may be times when it should not, such as when, in its view, the arguments are compelling enough, or in a case of ‘a clear and imminent danger’. At a minimum, the situation must be clearly and painstakingly explained. Even then, the government ignores public opinion, at its peril.
In such circumstances, if the noble project fails, the government assumes not merely the burden of having been imprudent, it suffers the cost of having acted arrogantly. These are not characteristics that advance the cause of democracy.As some would have us believe, the lights are not about to go out anywhere in this Province. There is no case of ‘clear and imminent’ danger.
Nalcor’s submission to the PUB for assessment of Muskrat Falls as the ‘lowest cost option’ is not the same as government submitting the issue to the public. You have no contract with Nalcor or with the PUB, however well-intentioned they may be. A few sound bites by politicians on the public media do not constitute informed comment either. The issue cannot be summed up in a few seconds or even a few minutes. The point remains, nevertheless, that government has so far failed to act prudently or having regard to the essential requirements of democratic government.
This is not a time to feel carefree! It might be time to look for a referendum.