Monday, 14 January 2013

What the Members Opposite Don’t Understand

Excerpt from Hansard: Address by Premier Kathy Dunderdale, Private Members Motion in support of sanctioning the Muskrat Falls Hydro Project.  House of Assembly, Wednesday, December 5, 2012.
 

“...Mr. Speaker, I am not placing the fortunes of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador in to some foreign entity over which we have no control. Nalcor is owned by the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, Mr. Speaker. They work for us, Mr. Speaker. Nalcor works for us, and let me tell you, Mr. Speaker, that Nalcor is a regulated company and they have a regulated rate of return set by the PUB. Everything they earn beyond that regulated rate of return either gets reinvested on behalf of the people or returned to the government of the people. You see, Mr Speaker, this is some of the challenge, because even the basics of how energy is managed here in this Province is not well understood by the people opposite”.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

Note to the Premier: 1. Nalcor is not ‘regulated’ by the Public Utilities Board (PUB). Newfoundland Hydro Corp. is the Crown owned regulated Utility. 2. Newfoundland Hydro is not permitted to earn any return over the “regulated rate set by the PUB”.  Any utility charges in excess of the regulated return are ordered returned, to the ratepayer, by the PUB.  3. You were heard on an open line program suggesting that Newfoundland Hydro built the Churchill Falls Hydro Project.  Not true. The correct answer is BRINCO.

Some further comment is necessary.
Faux pas, such as those, could be overlooked as minor matters of misspeak, but for the fact that they are a frequent occurrence by the Premier and often, too, by her Minister of Natural Resources. 

Opposition Members seem to accept this unfortunate reality. The media, too, are inclined to let the public make their own judgement. Problem is, basic errors, such as those noted above, suggest that the Premier simply does not know her file, despite having been the energy Minister and one of the leading spokespersons on Muskrat Falls.  

 This item is not about the cut and thrust of politics when Members of Opposition parties exchange barbs and insults accross the floor of the House of Assembly.  This subject addresses the question of whether leading politicians are up to their jobs. 
 
One cannot be allowed to forget the Government's early and deliberate strategy of obfuscation.  It had a very specific purpose: fend off the critics.  It confirmed this hypothesis: the Premier and her leading Ministers don't really understand the intricacies of Muskrat, they know that they don't; now, they have to keep it secret.

The strategy grew legs as Muskrat’s questionable entrails were exposed and as its rationale changed.  When one justification stretched credibility too far, another was inserted, and kept active as long as it had staying power with the public. Argument for Muskrat Falls began with the proposal that power could be exported profitably.  When that blew up, it was replaced with the idea of power for new mines, then later, the mantra was economic diversification.
 
The essence of today’s media, the ten or twenty second sound bite, erodes any necessity for depth of knowledge or even the most basic analysis.  The Premier and her two Ministers used the limitation with great success. 

Their favourite and well-rehearsed scripts included a plethora of innocuous lines scripted by PR types , like: “we need the power” ; “Nalcor says Muskrat is the lowest cost option” or “the ratepayer will enjoy stable electricity rates for fifty years”, knowing full (or ought to have known) that the demand, price of oil, construction costs and a plethora of other “known unknowns”, to quote a former U.S. Defence Secretary, were well beyond anyone’s ability to calculate. 

And, what happened when they were confronted with any question of complexity and demand for more detail? They deferred to Nalcor….Nalcor are the experts.  The leadership is off the hook!

Politicians ought to understand the very matters to which they are obligating Government and the taxpayers. 

When did it become acceptable for the political leadership to defer to senior bureaucrats for any purpose other than occasional technical details? 

The very notion that the CEO of Nalcor could be sent to the airwaves, week after week for over a year, to conduct the Government’s communications campaign and to deal with what the Premier and her Ministers are unwilling or unable to comprehend, has no precedent in the annals of the political history of this Province, whether the Tory or the Liberal version.      
To the same point, that the media fundamentally failed to challenge the political leadership, and to have them justify Muskrat Falls, without deference to Ed Martin and Nalcor is, I believe, the single greatest media failure of the entire Muskrat Falls ‘debate’, not that you can grace any phase of Muskrat’s unveiling with that interactive and engaging term.

That said, the most basic failings of two key agreements, the Federal Loan Guarantee and the Emera Sanction Agreement, are as unknown to the people of the Province today, as when they were first announced. Why would our politicians care if they know thay will never have to explain.
 
Perhaps that is why the Minister of Finance feels completely fearless that he can go on the public media and be glib about returns on Muskrat Falls.  He knows that neither the media or anyone else has access to independent numbers that might prove that he is 'full of it'.  
 
The media are easy targets.  It is unfair to lay on them the shortcomings of a preoccupied or disinterested public or, for that matter, the failings of politicians.  But, on major issues whose impacts are significant, the political leadership must be held to account. They must, as a bare minimum, be challenged and be required to show proof that they understand their files and that they are not mere puppets of smarter, more knowledgeable and controlling bureaucrats whose interests may vary with the public interest.    

The comments of the Premier, recorded by Hansard, and noted in the introduction, are not misspeak, or ‘slip of the tongue’.  They reflect a Premier, who knows little of the facts underlying the complex issues for which her Administration is responsible; they represent a mindset that feels empowered enough to say whatever comes to mind, even if it is totally inaccurate and off-the-wall.  The Premier knows she will not likely be challenged by anyone, that she is free to pillory offending critics.

Hansard awaits enrichment by the Province’s First Minister and her key Ministers.  Many of us have no such expectation.

3 comments:

  1. I agree wholeheartedly
    DGL

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  2. You say the single greatest media failure of the entire Muskrat Falls 'debate' is not holding the political leadership accountable, that they could say anything and not be challenged. So true, and it continues. I watch Debbie Cooper, of CBC daily talk about the proposed rate increase of 7.2 percent. The application, Section 5 page 5-1 says 6.0 percent in customer rates, (which averages residential and commercial). For residential customers, the average 'increase' will be approximately 7.2 percent. So Debbie seems correct, except it reads "the average increase", not the "rate increase". Page 5-16 reads DOMESTIC: The Company proposes to increase the Rate1.1 energy charge by 7.9 percent. This increase is is approximately 0.7 percent higher than the average increase for the Domestic Class'.
    So what is the difference? It's this: the power bill we get has 3 components: basic charge for your meter, which is just over 15 dollars; the energy charge, now at 11.17 cents per kwh, and the HST at 4 percent for heating. They have left the meter charge unchanged. They propose to hike the energy 'rate' by 7.9 percent, but because the meter component is unchanged , the average increase comes to 7.2 percent, even though the 'rate' is actually 7.9 percent.
    But consider the difference. Current cost of 11.17 becomes 12.05 cents at 7.9 percent rate increase. So forgetting the meter charge, which is unchanged, the RATE INCREASE IS 7.9 percent.
    The average electric heat customer uses 1563 kwh per month on average, so 18756 kwh per year. At present this costs $2095.04 for energy. If the increase was 7.2 percent it would be $2245.88, a increase of $150.84. At the actual rate increase proposed of 7.9 percent it would be $2260.54, a increase of $165.50, an extra $14.66 per household. With about 170,000 electric heated houses, this is an EXTRA 2.49 MILLION dollars than the figure 7.2 percent suggest. Is that trivial? Is 7.2 therefore misleading? Now add the 100,000 residential non electric , and that little 0.7 percent adds probably another million to their revenue. And this is just one example of the way of presenting figures by the power companies. Doesn't 7.2 percent increase sound better than 7.9? So devise a way to say 7.9 is 7.2 and the public will get less aroused, and who would think it could add almost 4 million? Will Johnson alert us? And meanwhile many commercial customers will see a decrease in rates, some as much as 6 percent, while some have increases. And big commercial users get as much as 28 percent discounts if they use a lot of energy! Please correct me if I'm wrong. Wouldn't want Debbie misinforming the public . Winston Adams

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  3. We are paying Joan Shea's boyfriend a $100.00 an hour for his appointment as Chair of the Board of directors for Nalcor. He sells beer for a living. This government is dishonest, deceptive and STUPID!!!

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