Monday, 1 October 2012

PAN the Muskrat Falls Debate...Unless

If you feel a sense of hopeful anticipation about the impending House of Assembly debate on the Muskrat Falls project, likely, you will be disappointed! 
You may well ask, why?

If I suggested that elected Members ought to be well briefed, in advance of voting, you might agree.  
You also might also think: government will soon have the so-called Decision Gate-3 numbers (the latest cost estimates) and Manitoba Hydro International’s (MHI) latest comfort letter; isn’t that all they need to get the debate underway?   
I don’t like to answer a question with a question.  But, don’t you think Members ought to intimately understand the key elements of the Project and the government’s shifting rationale, first?  Then, the DG-3 numbers would be far more relevant.   

If you thought all the issues relating to Muskrat Falls had been mastered by your MHAs, think again.
The fact is your elected Members are not ready for a debate on Muskrat Falls.

How might they have been prepared?
By now, the MHA’s of the three political parties should have spent considerable time reading all the available material presented by Nalcor, the Joint Panel and the PUB and by other proponents and opponents, too.   
Experts should have been made available to assist them.  Complex issues, such as electrical demand, deficiencies in Nalcor’s models, the Water Management Agreement, Muskrat’s winter handicap, the financing structure, PPA vs. COS pricing schemes, construction costs, the contract with SNC Lavalin, the implications of cost overruns to the rate payer and to the Treasury, myriad technical issues, the failure to plan for cheap Upper Churchill power in 2041 and other alternatives to Muskrat Falls, all would be part of the examination.  

If your beloved MHAs had prepared themselves to deal with all these issues, they would still not be ready for the Debate!   But, they would be prepared to start asking the right questions!  Afterall, it is not a good idea for Members to ‘wing it’, as they stand to speak, on a public project originally priced at $6.2 billion and now likely higher.
What should have come next?  

All summer long, you ought to have been hearing about “The Special Committee of the House of Assembly on the Muskrat Falls Project”.   
Such a Committee would have had the power to obtain essential information, subpoena and cross examine witnesses and hire experts.

By now, you should have been fed up to the teeth with hearings of “The Special Committee”.  The fact that you are not, serves as proof elected MHAs have not done their homework.  Indeed, I think you would have been pleased if your Members had worked all summer, with the singular goal of protecting you from a bad public policy decision, at least enough of them to form a Committee.   
It didn’t happen. Why?   

It was the Government’s job to propose the idea.  But the government was not going to put to scrutiny what it had worked hard to suppress.  When the government didn’t offer “The Special Committee”, the Opposition parties should have insisted. 
Opposition MHAs rightfully and very effectively made a big huff about Bill 29, the government’s amendment to the “Access to Information Act”. They put up a filibuster and made a fine show of the government’s determination to keep embarrassing matters secret.  

They ought to have huffed and puffed and filibustered, with even more gusto, on Muskrat Falls.  Why didn’t they? You may ask and you should.

Had “The Special Committee”, which would have comprised both Government backbenchers and Opposition MHAs, spent the summer poring over Nalcor’s Submissions, asking questions and arriving at a conclusion, they would have been prepared for a real debate; one that found them informed and able to inform you.  The Debate, this fall, would have been intelligent and forceful. It would have been useful.    
They might have succeeded in either bringing clarity to or condemning Muskrat Falls.  The fall debate might never have taken place, at all!  

One final question is proposed: “The Special Committee” not having happened, can anything be salvaged now?

The answer is, yes, though the opportunity is limited. 
Rather than engage in a debate based upon gross generalities and partisan sniping, as a condition precedent to joining in, the Opposition should obtain agreement from the Government that, for a period of several days prior to the official debate, the House will meet in ‘Committee of the Whole’.  The House, in Committee, affords Members more flexible rules such as the right to repeatedly stand in debate and to request information or suggest points for clarification. And, within that Committee structure, non-elected persons are permitted to appear (having been summoned) before the ‘Bar’ of the House to be questioned by Honourable Members.  

The ‘Committee of the Whole’ should be ‘visited’ by proponents and opponents of the Project, as well as a list of ‘experts’, jointly agreed upon with the Opposition. 
‘The Committee of the Whole’ is not nearly as effective an approach as the ‘Special Committee’.  Among other things, it would hear far fewer experts and the opportunity for cross examination on detailed technical issues would be missing; but, that option, as I have stated, has been squandered.

If the Government engages the Opposition and all three parties co-operate, something can be salvaged in an effort to have MHA’s better informed and, consequently, the Debate more useful.

The Muskrat Falls project is multi-faceted, technical and complex. Understanding it is fundamentally different than assessing a piece of legislation, like Bill 29.  It is on a completely different scale than the Vale Inco project, even if the Premier does not know the difference.  If ignorance is allowed to trump knowledge, as this debate threatens, choosing form over substance is worse than anti-democratic; it is an insult to our most important legislative institution: The House of Assembly.  It is an affront to a trusting citizenry.
If the Debate proceeds anyway, without any of the preparation described, history will record that it was graded for its rhetorical flourish rather than for its insights and preoccupation with the public good.

You will not be served.

Postscript: Because this Post was written prior to the Liberal's Opposition's policy statement on rules for the Muskrat Falls Debate,  it does not contain any reference it.  I will discuss that release, in the context, of a related issue, soon.

Des Sullivan