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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 across 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 and they have to keep it a 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. It began with the proposal that power could be exported profitably.  When that blew up, it was replaced with the prospect of power for new mines; 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 include a plethora of innocuous lines scripted by PR types: “we need the power”; “Nalcor says Muskrat is the lowest cost option” or “the ratepayer will enjoy stable electricity rates for fifty years”. The politicians knew (or ought to have known) that Demand and the price of oil, 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, Dunderdale said.  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 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 they 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 nor 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.