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Sunday 12 May 2013

Annus Orndatra

The knock on the door reverberated in my head like dynamite. It was a late night, the 20th Anniversary concert tour of Great Big Sea was spectacular. As the cliché goes, it was the soundtrack to my life. Now, I was feeling the ill-effects of the night out. My head never felt like this 20 year ago.

There was only one person who would be knocking on my door at 7:30 AM on a Sunday morning. My wife turned to me and said, “for god’s sake go let him in, before he knocks again”.

Wearing nothing more than my housecoat, I went to the door to let my old friend in…

“Nav, it looks like you chased a fart through a bag of nails. The evidence clearly suggest that it was a large night”.

With that the old economist passed me over a cup of coffee. I was thankful, and gestured for my friend to sit down.

“Nav, I am a little disappointed that I was not invited to your anniversary celebration, especially considering the role I have played".

The lift in his eye was a sure sign that Uncle Gnarley was poking fun. Yet, the fear of forgetting my wedding anniversary momentarily paralyzed my thoughts.
"Uncle Gnarley I don't have any idea of what you are talking about?"

"Well, Nav, it is one year started your blog”.

My old friend surprised me, as the occasion had completely slipped my mind.

"Nav... to be truthful I was not optimistic, at first. You are not gifted with the cognitive ability of a Russell Wangersky, nor the pure talent of a Ray Guy. Yet, you have left a modest contribution to the political scene in Newfoundland and Labrador”.

Momentarily, I was stunned by what appeared to be a compliment from the old man.

“But, Nav, you have been blessed with some of the most fertile material a political pundit could ever cultivate".

With that, Uncle Gnarley had a point. The blog was incubated in opposition to the Muskrat Falls project, the largest public policy initiative in a generation.  The ever changing reasoning for the project, along with the many communication errors, has provided a natural subject for well over 70% of the posts from the year. 

"Nav, your blog was conceived in the aftermath of the PUB report being released. Initially, I thought that Dunderdale got the result she deserved. Why should the PUB make a definitive decision, when their terms of reference were intentionally restricted to such a narrow focus? They were railroaded”.

“A curious choice of words Uncle Gnarley and very fitting to describe the entire Muskrat Falls Project.”

Uncle Gnarley took a sip of the Jamacia Blue, an indulgence he acquired from an old friend. 

“But now, Nav, I have come to realize that the PUB decision was the best thing that could have ever happened to Dunderdale, and the rest of her muskrat litter!"

In testament to the mast head which bears his name, my old friend had made yet another provocative proclamation.

"Uncle Gnarley, you have me intrigued, why don't you explain this theory to me while I make some eggs".

"Well, Nav, it is simple. The original project schedule had the DG3 decision and project sanction being completed in January of 2012. At this point in time the total project cost was $6.2 billion.  When you strip out the escalation, contingencies and the Maritime Link component the actual base cost was $3.9 billion for the link and the dam.

With the political fallout the sanction was delayed by about 1 year. Within that time the base estimate had increased by some $1.6 billion, an increase of some 41%!"

The reference to DG2 had brought back some vivid memories of 2012, but the old economist had a point.

"Uncle Gnarley, that is very interesting. All the discussions about Natural Gas, the loan guarantee, wind, and econometric models really camouflaged the biggest issue. Despite Nalcor's assurances during the PUB hearings, that the DG2 numbers were robust, and built with best industry practices, there was still a 41% increase".

"Nav... can you imagine if Sanction happened in April of 2012. Right now Dunderdale would be dealing with all the fall-out from the Budget, on top of massive over-runs on her pet project. It would be a perfect storm for defeat in 2015"

Again the old economist impressed me.  “Well, Uncle Gnarley, it seems as if Andy Wells did a favour to Dunderdale”.  I laughed, as I was sure that few within the PC Party would share this opinion. 

However, it was clear that the 40% increase in the base project cost was an issue which did not get the attention it deserved in 2012. 

“Uncle Gnarley, it has been 6 months since the DG3 numbers were released. Has

there been any update on the final cost estimate for the project?"

"Nav, if you listen to the politicians, you would think that the DG3 numbers were final, and 16.9 cents per kwhr is the charge that we will see, on our Bill, in 2017.  However, the DG3 numbers were an estimate, and the rates are subject to change.

But, to answer your question, I do not believe that Government or Nalcor have provided an update on the project forecast spend since the DG3 numbers last October” 

"Well, Uncle Gnarley, would they have that information?"

"Nav... it has been many years since I was involved with any major projects. However, there was generally a monthly or quarterly report which would be issued to give the general financial position of the Project when it got underway. The report would include such things as the invoiced amount, committed costs, accrued costs, and total forecast life of Project costs. These are updated when any subcontract is awarded, or a change made to the Project schedule. This information should be readily available along with schedule status, and key safety indicators"

I was impressed by the industrial knowledge of the old academic.  But, I remembered that he had worked in the iron and other mines when he was still a graduate student. 

"Nav... we are both democrats, with perhaps an idealistic view of the world. However, I firmly believe that Nalcor and Government should be providing a quarterly report to the House of Assembly which summarizes the performance of the project”

"Gnarley, this is a good idea, but it will never happen"

With that the old man's lip began to curl, all good will had evaporated from his face.

"The major finding, of a not so distant Royal Commission, was that the House of Assembly should be regularly updated on the total cost of these types of large projects when public money is being used. This PC Government would not be wise to ignore the words of Mr. Justice O'Reagan.

Nav.. do not ever forget this is our money. The salaries at Nalcor, SNC and the Premier’s Office are paid for by you and me. The consequence of the Government ignoring our basic democratic rights should be as certain as your hangover the day after a Great Big Sea concert”

My old friend is a democrat and an idealist.  I could not totally agree that the consequences of secrecy are so certain for a government in this modern society.  More likely, public apathy is the greatest ally of any regressive government.

Whether my writings are either right, or wrong, I only hope they lead to public engagement.  For this is the greatest ally of a functional democracy. 
Editor's Note: This Post was written by "JM", the anonymous researcher, writer and
presenter, to the PUB and in local Blogs, on the Muskrat Falls Project. JM has written a
number of Uncle Gnarley pieces, including,  Gnarley's Theory of Political Devolution, Parts I and II and The Great Revolutionary from the Shore
 and most recently THE QUEST FOR McLEOD'S DEEP THROAT. His latest Paper is entitled: Muskrat Falls Revenue Stream: Fact or Fiction 
- Des Sullivan