Thursday, 27 December 2012


On February 16, 2012, The Telegram printed an article I had submitted entitled, MUSKRAT FALLS: SOME ADVICE TO THE PREMIER.  Though I had been away from the political scene for many years, I had never lost my interest in politics or public policy.  It was with a great deal of dismay I watched the Premier and he Minister of Natural Resources offer only rebuke to the early critics of the Muskrat Falls Project, making it clear they did not appreciate being questioned and that no voluntary information would be forth coming to assuage their worst fears.  I had spent eleven years on the staff of Frank Moores and Brian Peckford, 1979-85.  I had invested a geat deal of personal effort to help oust Smallwood and then to play a role in two Tory Administrations. 

It would be an understatement to say I was never keen on Danny William's style of Government. But I found Kathy Dunderdale's approach, in both style and substance, not just one that undermined good public policy, it was an embarrassment to any citizen who cared about such matters.  I took up pen again, and the missive that follows was my first commentary on Muskrat Falls.  Like the comments of David Vardy and Ron Penney, of Cabot Martin, Richard Cashin, Dennis Browne, Bern Coffey, Dr. Jim Feehan, JM, Brendan Sullivan, Maurice Adams, Tom Adams of the Tom Adam Energy Consultancy, Winston Adams and many others, my own advice was, as expected, summarily rebuffed.  I am certain that, had the Premier, listened to at least some of the advice from some of her critics, the Muskrat debate would have been more useful for everyone.  At worse, it would have advanced the cause of democracy.

One of the worst characteristics of a politician is the inability to accept criticism — refusing to believe that someone holding a different opinion, and having the ability to articulate it, could be anything but partisan.
Another unfortunate characteristic is the refusal (sometimes, lack of ability) to answer, in a straightforward manner, the specific arguments of the critic, including the partisan. Even when valid issues are raised, the politician often employs that lazy tendency to strike back with the implausible or the absurd.

So it is with the debate over Muskrat Falls.
I don’t know David Vardy well, but well enough to feel confident that when he raises alarm over an impending public policy decision which could add some $5 billion to the public debt, he is not doing so out of partisanship or for any reason other than genuine public interest.

Hence, neither he nor other critics should be pilloried by politicians like the former premier or the current minister of Natural Resources.
They should be encouraged to engage in public discourse, not just because we live in a democracy, but because it is respectful to listen to those who wish to play a role in vital public policy initiatives.
Indeed, anyone who believes Muskrat Falls is not a vital public policy matter has missed the enormity of concern over the decision. It may have serious, enduring financial ramifications for the province.

Vardy was correct when he said many people are fearful of speaking publicly against the project. When I served on Brian Peckford’s staff in the 1980s, it was a great source of frustration that key players in the province’s economy were not prepared to come forward and assist in the struggle to negotiate the Atlantic Accord — which current politicians conveniently forget is the basis of our newfound wealth.
At that time, we recognized it as a fact of our small population that public comments quickly became personalized and that relationships, both family and business, became the subject of scrutiny. The attempt by elected officials to discredit the critics and accuse them of scaremongering should never substitute for informed debate.

I believe the government needs to chill a little. Yes, there are partisans out there who have already fulminated against Muskrat Falls, and will continue to do so. Government may not enjoy it, but it’s democracy.
Instead, the premier and ministers need to take some time to review Nalcor’s analysis, ask tough questions and be entirely satisfied that the decision to proceed is based upon solid estimating, accounting, financing and engineering practices.

The premier and cabinet need to understand that they are at the mercy of Nalcor’s analysts and consultants; that they cannot rely on the expertise being available in other areas of government as they can on lesser public policy issues, and they can’t rely on the PUB. The expertise simply isn’t there. 

In addition, the Department of Finance has not tapped the bond markets for six years. As a consequence, it has had no need to maintain a relationship with the province’s fiscal agents. How is cabinet to be advised, and by whom?

The Manitoba Hydro report was useful, but the study should have been performed for the government rather than for the PUB. Government requires its own private energy and financial consultants to analyse Nalcor’s work, to answer government's own concerns (it must have some questions) and to prepare it to make a decision.
I have no doubt Nalcor officials have every good intention, but in the end, it is this government that will bear responsibility, especially if it fails. 

Finally, the government must be ready, when the House opens, to engage in rigorous debate; debate that informs, that deals with contrary views, that is not juvenile or obnoxious.
The government has an opportunity (as well as a responsibility) to display its knowledge of the project, and especially of the issues which torment the critics. 

Whether the government wants it to be or not, Muskrat is a legacy project. The current premier and government will wear it for generations to come, just as Smallwood has worn the Upper Churchill.
My advice to the premier: take your time. Ask tough questions of Nalcor. Get solid, independent advice. Make your decision only when you are certain you have received it. Be respectful to all who wish to participate in the debate.  Instruct your Ministers to follow your lead.

The members on the other side of the House, like you, have a job to do. Show them why you were the one whom the people elected. They will respect you more, and so will a very concerned public.