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Monday 20 February 2017


The act of telling a lie is nothing new. In the English language the word “mendacity” has hardly changed from its ecclesiastical Latin origin, mendacitas or 'lying'.

Individuals lie. Often they are only fibs with harmless intent, like those that preserve innocence about belief in the Easter Bunny.   

Governments lie too, sometimes with minor consequences — to escape political accountability, to bolster popularity, or to avoid public retribution.  

There are different classes of mendacity. Society can tolerate political and bureaucratic lies, up to a point. But when the consequences are too injurious — that is to say, when the policy makers or their proxies are reckless enough to have “gambled” (to use Stan Marshall’s word) and lost, or worse, possibly having contrived the fundamentals going so far as to assure billions in profit— a minimum expectation is that the culprits will be held to account.

In democratic societies, instances of egregious public policy failures on the scale of the Muskrat Falls project — given magnitude by a small population and limited fiscal capacity in our case — are rare.

While government’s refusal to install credible oversight is a major problem, it is also the case that most people deny that politicians or senior bureaucrats might act with such callous disregard for the public interest. They demand accountability only when calamity hits them in the face. A weak and conflicted government counts on such passivity.

Recently, a professional engineer — a Nalcor insider — alleged mendacity at the executive level of the company. He allowed himself to be extensively quoted. In the post entitled Muskrat: Allegations of Phony Cost Estimates and the preceding post, the engineer stated, “I could not put up with falsifying information anymore.” Said he: “The likely costs (of Muskrat) were known about three years ago, but Nalcor Management kept it a secret, steadfastly denying that there were major schedule delays and cost overruns, until it was no longer possible to hide the true status with the election of a new Provincial Government.”

“Nalcor, he said, “simply took a policy decision to understate the project costs” which — together with the ensuing bids for the work — required “creative accounting on a massive scale”

In short, the cost estimate of $7.4 billion, he alleged, was mendacious from the very start.
Now at $11.7B — expected by some experts, including this engineer, to rise to around $15B — the project will vastly worsen our fiscal circumstance. 

The public should be more proactive, but in matters that are complex and that have not been subjected to transparent review, they rely on the authorities, especially the media, to exercise their respective roles and to ensure that mendacity — or malfeasance — is laid bare. Yet, the “authorities” (a rather diverse group to be sure) are unwilling to exercise those responsibilities. They can’t rise above their own incompetence or their conflicts to intervene.

As to the professional engineer’s narrative of “falsified” project estimates, there has not been a whimper.

Not from the Premier, not from the Minister of Natural Resources, nor even from the Minister of Finance who sat on the Nalcor Board during much of the time the deceit allegedly occurred.

There is not a word from CEO Stan Marshall, whose silence is affirmation that he may as well as have been appointed head of a University Department — feigning ‘ivory tower’ as long as the fee is right.

His Chairman, Brendan Paddeck, addresses the best paragons of mendacity on the northeast Avalon, the St. John’s Board of Trade, and in so doing expresses a desire to restore Nalcor’s pride without acknowledging that simple honesty in the administration of public affairs is a vital place to begin.

Then then there are the Opposition Parties.

The self-righteous NDP are nowhere to be found, incapable — speaking of incompetence — to perform their first duty as members of the House of Assembly. Of secondary importance, they are too politically dumb to recognize that they are in possession of a portal out of the political wilderness.  

Then, too, there is not a word from the current Tory leader — notwithstanding our engineer’s claim that the true project estimates were held “until it was no longer possible to hide the true status [of the project] with the election of a new Provincial Government.” By the standard of modern democratic societies, when a major conflict of interest is alleged, Paul Davis is expected to step aside until the allegations have been dismissed. There is no place for unallayed perceptions of conflict among Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. 

And, there is not a word from the Consumer Advocate or the Auditor General.

The media are complicit by their silence. And silence metastasizes mendacity. It propagates ignorance.

The media have ignored the engineer’s allegations, evidently finding a convenient sidestep in his anonymity. They refuse to see that this man took a courageous step in making the disclosure at all. He didn’t have to. Yet, their lethargy is endorsed by news directors and station owners who no doubt warn about risk of lawsuit — and the threat to ad revenue — thereby allowing a mendacious government to be excluded from the responsibilities of journalistic licence. They do not as much as pick at the fringes of deceit. Not just flat-footed, they are muzzled.

A quote attributed to the Russian writer, journalist, and philosopher Dostoyevsky reads: “Much unhappiness has come into the world because of… things left unsaid”.

It is a suitable citation and it invokes two disturbing reminders.

The first is that our engineer alleges not just deceit but also the pervasiveness of who knew about it. He said "everyone knew" that the budget estimate was unsustainable.

“Everyone knew” — but no one said anything. The statement needs no interpretation, and its clarity invokes a jarring second reminder: the Mount Cashel scandal.

Painful as it is to recall, the abuse was allowed to perpetuate because it was kept secret, and the abusers given protection from prosecution. The cover-up occurred at the highest level — politics, government, the justice system, and by at least one member of the media.   All bowed in fealty to a lesser god to protect special interests, especially abusive priests and the Roman Catholic Church — and to subvert the public interest.

Perhaps not everyone, but a good many knew — and did nothing about it.

That was the 1970s and the fallout — the pain and the lawsuits — attributable to the officially prescribed silence continues.

Now, a new scandal threatens. The government, the opposition parties, the oversight institutions of government, the media, the academic, social, and commercial elites, and the public have been given not the whole story, by a long shot, but clear, unambiguous insights into alleged mendacious behaviour on a grand scale. The consequences are easily quantified — the imperilling of the economic and social fabric of our society. But the cause — the process used to give the project sanction, and those responsible — await investigation.

The pain of those who will have to choose between heating their homes and feeding their families may never equate with what young boys endured at one of the darkest times in our history.

It hardly seems sufficient, but what can’t be reversed can be accounted for.

We can ferret out the truth. It is our collective responsibility.

The very group charged with illuminating darkness is the media. Though they have been flatfooted, they are vital to this process — that is, unless the claim of journalistic licence is a sham.

Veteran journalist Nazlı Ilıcak, 72, among those detained.
The Economist recently reported that during Turkey’s latest round of troubles the state, headed by the increasingly tyrannical President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — another tender ego — arrested 100 reporters to suppress examination of its violations of human rights and the rule of law.

This isn’t Turkey or Russia or any of those places where reporters, doing their jobs, fear for their lives. Here the rule of law is defeated only by opacity and silence — by inertia, by denial, and by the willingness of special interests to be deferential or to entertain their own conflicts.

The media are not supposed to be part of that group.

In Turkey, Russia, and other places, reporters face down state thugs.

Imagine: history will record that, here, reporters couldn’t even face down Dwight Ball.