Monday, 31 December 2012


It did not come as any great shock that Muskrat Falls had not ranked, either first or fifth, among the top news stories of 2012, according to CBC’s unscientific on-line poll; though I worried that the Tory caucus had influenced that outcome, too.  A Telegram front page story, on December 29th , made public the news that the Premier’s communications people directed Caucus Members and their staff, to influence poll questions posed by the media, online; though I am unsure who is surprised.

Rightfully, the Burton Winters story received top billing; everyone felt the sadness and loss shared over one so young.  It was understandable how a grieving family, and the larger NL community, felt embittered that, despite all our technology and resources, a rescue effort could be so badly botched. 
The Premier treated the matter politically, first agreeing to meet the deceased youth’s parents, then refusing to do so, for fear of being challenged on the role the Province played in the failed search effort.   A more confident leader would have pushed aside such considerations and conveyed, to the family, the sense of shared sadness felt by the whole Province.  In addition, she ought to have asked the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to appoint a Judge to look into the tragedy, expeditiously, if possible, and to make public the findings.

The death of a lost child, perhaps unnecessarily, will, because we are human, tug at our sensibilities more deeply than any single public policy issue. Bill 29, too, resonated strongly with the public from the standpoint that something important was also lost.  Opposition Parties were more vigorous and united, on this issue, than on any other matter.  Supplementing Bill 29’s doubtful underpinnings, was the compounded concern over the lack of scrutiny of the Muskrat Falls Project.  In the absence of a real debate on MF, it took Bills 60 and 61 to, again, allow the Opposition to show their mettle.

A popular story, too, was a forecast $253 million deficit having ballooned to $725 million.  A decline in the world price of oil, the source, arguably, of up to half of the gross public revenue stream, could not convince either the Premier or her Minister of Finance to deal with the problem.  Even when he announced confirmation of the higher number, just before Christmas, more than eight months into the fiscal year, any plan to deal with the problem was stamped with delay.   

Though the Government said it was the fault of PIRA, its forecasting agency, the utility of the high price estimate served as a convenient budget plug, making unnecessary any worry that public angst would cause new questions to be raised among those comfortably ignorant of the risks of the Muskrat Falls Project.
Likely, electronic concordance (computer listing of every contextual occurrence of words in a text) of this past year’s news, would confirm MF as the issue most mentioned, even if it was not the favourite.  Most people, especially the business community, appeared to view the Project as just another government sponsored public work, though their glowing regard for the Premier’s vision offered as much insight into high level finance as did a freshman’s social science paper (and just as much math). 

Letters to the Editor advanced the fine art of ‘lips to posterior’, in the direction of Government, but their disguise as argument, was unconvincing.  Cheerleading the campaign was the St. John’s Board of Trade, such was the unanimity of its membership; though the august group never felt confident enough of its monopoly, on fervor, to invite even a single one of the ‘naysayers’ to break bread with their own Knights Templar.
Giving entertainment to something serious, one notable doctor wrote the Paper suggesting MF ought to have a context similar to that of the Pyramids. I looked for, but failed to find, where he had offered himself as slave labour to be beaten and starved, as were the lower orders of Egyptians, to ensure the erection of a monument to hubris. Likely, he was only making nice, too.

Of course, I may have missed the point entirely. Perhaps, the god Kings had justified their supersized sarcophagus as future tourist traps, as MF is supposed to diversify our economy; risks to the Treasury, to an unproven demand curve and high power bills, for the next fifty years, notwithstanding. Only a god King, or a soothsayer, would have the temerity to engage in a speculation on either the rate of growth or the price of oil for more than short time.
These, of course, are mere trivialities when placed alongside the pillorying of critics by Dunderdale, an unfinished Federal Loan Guarantee or the botched 29 page sanctioning agreement with Emera.  Not surprisingly, a slightly chastened Minister of Natural Resources, committed to less stridency in dealing afresh with opposition questions, once again found the challenge too great when the House of Assembly re-opened in the Fall; evidently, a nasty demeanor had been suppressed, far too long in a previous career, by less mercurial and more thoughtful court justices. 

And, speaking of justice, select local ‘big shots’ must be in terror over the likelihood of being denied the opportunity to rub shoulders with SNC Lavalin’s former officers, whose ability to  parse the tune, “Jailhouse Rock”, at least from the outside, may soon be limited.  What better Company to don the tools with which to construct our very own sarcophagus! But, that is a story for another time.
Perhaps, one day, the media will get around to reporting on Emera’s conditional sanction.  Likely, though, they are still drunk on the hyperbolic vapors that hung over the sanctioning ceremony; such was the exotic extent of verbal overkill.  Rex Murphy, on crack, might best describe the Premier’s performance. 

The other story of the event was absence of even the janitor, let alone the CEO, to represent Emera’s interests.   It is truly an omen of some magnitude when the Company, pretending to desire a large stake in the Project, rejects an opportunity to prove its financial heft by refusing to spend the cost of a plane ticket from Halifax, to join in the festivities, denying even the Lieutenant Governor the opportunity to pucker up.
Bad form must have its attractions.  Even the corporate head of Steele Communications, the largest media group in the Province, with ample profile, felt a need to throw in his lot with the Board of Trade types; as if his own sanction could not possibly be absent, given the size of the loot that would be unleashed by the ensuing spending spree.   A good communications strategy is fundamental, especially as costs continue to rise.

Muskrat Falls is not a story of just 2012.  But, what’s another year of enlightenment when we are no better equipped to relate to any singular aspect of its need or viability or even the ability to execute the Project. Why would we worry?  Ed Martin was plucked from the middle management strata of Petro Canada by Danny Williams, given the role of the Province’s Energy Czar, and instructed to produce a multi-billion dollar hydro Project, on demand. The initiative failed to cause even the slightest murmur among either the media or the general public, giving proof to the notion that ‘fit for work’ can be just as easily achieved by proclamation as by experience.  But, we are all rich now, which allows the importance of virtue to be more easily massaged.
That is, perhaps, why I have saved my most generous comments for last.  It is a fact, most disturbing, that the Muskrat Falls Project, given the manner that it has unfolded, both in dimension and manifestation, has uncovered the weak underbelly of our Newfoundland and Labrador society.

The facts are indisputable. The Project is beyond our means, existing social programs will have to be diminished to pay for cost overruns, it is the most expensive power being developed in North America and any merit, it might have had, was refused independent scrutiny. Yet, in a MQO Poll, conducted by the Telegram, 59% of the Newfoundland and Labrador public approved of the plan to develop Muskrat eventhough 37% acknowledged  they had a poor understanding of the Project.  Our political leadership marches us to the edge of a financial cliff.  What do we do? We applaud!

Such a state of affairs gives legitimacy to the question of whether we have matured, as a democratic society, since Amulree, and subsequent suspension of responsible government.   

But hey, don’t worry your heads off about any of that.  We’re going to screw Quebec, we’re going to screw them good!   Well, aren’t we?
Have a Happy New Year.