Monday, 8 October 2012


Why would Premier Dunderdale refuse a proper debate on the Muskrat Falls project in the House of Assembly?  Why would any government, want to assume complete control over the issue and bring upon itself full and unfettered blame if the costs become more massive than already projected?  

Dunderdale, Kennedy and Marshall leave me in a state of bewilderment as to what influences  their thinking.
My own reference point is the late ’70s to mid-1980s, when Brian Peckford was Premier; it was a time of deep and often bitter federal/provincial exchanges over the Atlantic Accord, fisheries jurisdiction and repatriation of the Constitution.  The level of engagement he fostered with the public was simply huge; it still has no parallel. 

It is not an approach favoured by Dunderdale; she is not one given to citizen engagement in public policy matters; sadly, she does not claim to be one of those confident politicians who engage citizens freely and fearlessly nor one who regards the House of Assembly as a focal point of our democracy.
As Peckford’s recent book, “Some Day the Sun will Shine and Have Not Will Be No More” painstakingly describes, the achievement of the Atlantic Accord was a tortuous exercise. NL was ‘as poor as a church mouse’ and could ill afford to make enemies in Ottawa; yet, he persisted. Strikingly, neither local labour nor business groups, like the St. John’s Board of Trade or the Liberal Party or the NDP, got behind Peckford’s dogged initiative. 

Still, he was not prepared to go along with an Ottawa-centric policy of inscribing our status, as an economic backwater.

Peckford had little time for the business types.  He carved out a constituency among ‘ordinary’ working folk who were not bent out of shape by vested interests. Day in, day out, he went into towns and little communities to explain why a Nova Scotia Offshore Agreement was unacceptable to NL. 

I remember him, at one critical point, inviting heads of various provincially based organizations into the Cabinet Room to explain the importance of getting the ‘right’ offshore oil agreement.  Invitees included labour, business, civic and even church organizations. He did not see it as a partisan issue and he felt he should have their support.
Many groups did not show up. Partisan politics interfered, as did the view among some (though, not all) businesspeople that Peckford should get on with it.

There is a lesson to be learned here.
Counselling prudent management of government money is not proven by occasionally commenting that, “government has to get its fiscal house in order”, as the Board of Trade is fond of doing.  Credibility on such matters is earned through serious and consistent advice; providing support, even when it comes at a price, or refusing to be a cheerleader when bad government decisions are obvious, are part of the price of being taken seriously.

The Board of Trade will not even invite a single critic of Muskrat Falls to address its membership! It has allowed itself to be a door mat for Dunderdale and Williams whenever a timely microphone is needed.  Rather than a forum for public policy debate, the Board is just another ‘old boys club’, now gender neutral.
It was no different on the Atlantic Accord.  For many businesspeople, knowing, as they did, that Nova Scotia would do virtually anything to service the NL offshore from Halifax, thoughts of instant gratification interfered with the calculation of what they might be conceding.

In contrast to Dunderdale, the Board of Trade is not a place where Peckford sought solace or support, as he held out for a better Atlantic Accord.  Yet, both labour and the business community have profited immensely from the Atlantic Accord. 
Had Peckford been as weak as Dunderdale, the ‘contract coalition’, the business group that emerged last week in support of Muskrat Falls, would still be drooling over the crumbs dropped from the table of the ‘big boys’ who have bigger pocket books and bigger limos and who are vastly more capable of navigating the complex web of bureaucracy in Ottawa, where the big contracts get doled out.

Peckford’s efforts have made these same business types far richer than their talents, otherwise, would allow; now, in Muskrat Falls, they see the icing on the cake and an electorate not tuned in to the fact that it is they, not the business types, who are under threat.
Dunderdale has fallen into that same cesspool of short term thinking, where back slapping and bravado are misconstrued as support.  Having failed to step back from a group that Thomas Hardy would see as the antithesis of “the madding crowd”, she hides behind the very groups whose vested interests are not grounded in public policy considerations, long term thinking or a preoccupation with the thought that this Province could sink back into the mire of poverty. 

Dunderdale’s single mindedness is not for or on behalf of the average citizen, in the Peckford tradition; rather, it is one reinforced by the very self-serving group that is rarely aligned with governments' interests.
What can the government lose by permitting keen debate on Muskrat in the House of Assembly following cross examination of a bevy of expert witnesses? Even if Dunderdale has little patience for the democratic process, if she truly believes in the viability of the project, she will see it as an opportunity to let that viability be proven against the test of rigorous scrutiny.

As things start to go awry, Dunderdale will have earned not a single expression of respect with which to cushion the fury that will be expressed by an angry public.
Vested interests are unconcerned about transparency or public policy debates. They worry only about controlling the end game.   

Problem is, in NL, no independent policy organizations have emerged to influence public thought or to act as a safeguard against decisions that threaten the social and economic fabric.  
Little wonder small societies fail.