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Thursday 19 April 2018


The Hearing Room, on the first day of the Muskrat Falls Inquiry, might have served as metaphor for the author Joan Clark, and her story of madness and altered perception in “An Audience of Chairs”. She would find plenty of sub-plots here, except that the madness to be assessed will likely have only a tangential association with delusion.

Even that assumption — as with all those that gave the project its silver lining — may seem excessive. Madness? Delusion? On this first day, at this Inquiry, at $12.7 billion and counting, we might wonder: who is asking? That’s because the audience was mostly chairs. The place was virtually empty, except for the usual bevy of blue suits and a few others.

Judge Richard LeBlanc
The lawyers were seeking Standing for their clients: the right to participate in the Inquiry. A few individuals, not yet lawyered up, waited for the Commissioner to arrive. This minority included the Grand River Keepers, the Labrador Land Protectors, Democracy Alert and the Concerned Citizens Coalition under whose banner David Vardy, Ron Penney and this blogger had teamed up. Otherwise, a few Commission staff, media, and a lone spectator gave the bare place some semblance of occupancy. 
The Session offered no opportunity for titillation; the public must have known that. 
Today would offer only the opportunity for procedural fairness for the known suspects, the complicit, the deferential and the tangentially involved. There was not even a hint that the Hearing presaged a far larger event. The queue of blue merely constituted proof that private interests outnumbered the public interest. It remains to be seen if they might cleverly outweigh it, too. 
After a short address from the businesslike Commissioner, the proceedings got underway. I wondered if Judge LeBlanc thought, as I did, that the Inquiry was the most important undertaking in NL history — at least since Amulree, which presaged Government by Commission in 1934. 
Billions having already been spent, it is doubtful that LeBlanc’s role will entail a component of destiny, though some of the individuals he will soon confront certainly helped hasten its arrival. The Judge rightly indicated that he would not have time to assess our democratic deficit, but he must know that nothing he could say will stop our determined rush into the abyss, anyway.  
With titillation not on offer there was, however, a modicum of intrigue — if one knew where to look for it. Waiting to be appraised was not who sought Standing but under whose tent the parties had aggregated.
Danny Williams sought Standing under a group innocuously called “Former Provincial Government Officials 2003­–2015” which also included former Premiers Tom Marshall and Paul Davis, and former Natural Resources Ministers Sean Skinner and Derrick Dalley. In contrast, Kathy Dunderdale's application suggested she was sharing her tent with no one. 
Hadn’t Jerome Kennedy and Tom Marshall helped circumvent the PUB — with her — when Dunderdale was Premier? Didn't they strategize to limit debate in the Legislature and preside over the Sanction of the project, too? How had Dunderdale distinguished herself from them, I wondered? 
Dunderdale has been quiet: chastened, no doubt, by events that have, since her dismissal, assumed monumental gravitas. Her most famous (and banal) of platitudes, “if you got the juice, we got the use” — more braggadocio than aphorism — now seems sillier than ever in an oversupplied North American market of collapsed electricity prices. 
But, then, she was never blamed for abusing the art of rhetoric, was she? That may have been because she was always in competition with one far more practiced — her predecessor — for whom self-aggrandizing bluster was paramount.
Still, I wondered if time has changed Dunderdale’s perspective. What does she thinks now of the vortex of deception which she helped create? Does she better understand the weight of Danny Williams’ millstone – the term "boondoggle" an inapt ascription for something so ruinous? 
Of course, such musings don’t excuse the mendacity that oversaw “ring-fencing” of “isolated-island” and “inter-connected” options, the latter given an untruthful advantage, even if the PUB was told to choose it anyway. 
Perhaps the former Premier will unveil a “tell-all” narrative with answers to our most urgent questions. What was the hurry for Sanction, when an economy in overdrive was already looking to Ireland and Poland for help? Why was Nalcor allowed to spend millions, inviting in the process a royal screwing by Nova Scotia? Why the charade when the Water Management Agreement was a fake? 
Oh! If only Dunderdale were brave enough to put news on the News!
But I digress.
The Government sought Standing in the Right of Her Majesty the Queen. One might have thought that such a status would have assured protection for all public servants — past and present — who played some role in the project. But, evidently, not so. 
For example, Julia Mullalay, former Clerk of the Executive Council under Dunderdale, joined with that Premier's Deputy Minister of Natural Resources, Charles Bown, who went on to chair both the fake and the strengthened Oversight Committee. Robert Thomson, former Cabinet Clerk under Premier Danny Williams, insisted on his own tent and took on lawyer Bern Coffey — also a former Clerk — to represent him.
In a similar vein, lawyer Dan Simmonds was there to seek Standing for Nalcor, but four former Nalcor Board Members — Ken Marshall, Leo Abbass, Gerry Shortall and Tom Clift — wanted Standing all by themselves, too. Now, they really must think that they are special! The Commissioner awarded them limited Standing.
Then there was the “star” of the show, former Nalcor CEO Ed Martin, who begs asking: will he deliver luminosity or just magnitude?
Martin’s lawyer, Harold Smith, dutifully followed him to the podium and looked on, seemingly enthralled, as Martin displayed the skills of the silver-tongued; the capacity evidently having eluded Smith even after a lengthy legal career. On display was Martin’s ineluctable attraction to the absurd. As if readying his response to a victim impact statement over the Muskrat debacle, he again offered assurances that the $12.7 billion project would work out for the province. Given Standing by the Judge, he quickly disappeared — with the media.  Only one reporter returned, giving confirmation — like the nearly empty room — that not much has changed. 
A little later, Dennis Browne, the Consumer Advocate to the PUB, stepped forward on behalf of ratepayers, though confirmation of his status will await a directive from the Provincial Cabinet; the authority governing his current appointment, for matters before the PUB, being insufficient for this Inquiry. 
Likely no one saw any inconsistency: Government having applied for, and receiving from the Commissioner, Standing for itself while it was expected to authorize Standing for a third party, too!
A sober government would have deferred or delegated such a matter to the Inquiry Judge. The Commissioner might, as a result of such deference, chose to create a public interest advocate, one who has taken no public stand on the project, and who is mandated to protect both ratepayers and taxpayers.
Browne has credentials to be sure, including as a Muskrat “naysayer”. But transparency demands means full disclosure. His two Terms as Consumer Advocate occurred under Liberal Administrations. He is a brother-in-law to the Inquiry’s star witness, former Nalcor CEO, Ed Martin. Can he be a partisan, cross-examine Martin and represent ratepayers, too?
The Concerned Citizens Coalition received full Standing from the Commissioner. The status of other Groups has now been posted.
Impressions after the first day of the Inquiry?

That the Inquiry is a fact, alone, is confirmation that Governments pushed hard enough will respond.  Then, too, the Commissioner is a highly regarded Judge in the legal community, earning the ascription competent and hard working. Co-Counsel and Commission staff are thought to be top drawer. Essential due process is underway. 
Otherwise, the most important public examination of bad decision-making in NL history has had an inauspicious start.
To me, that sounds pretty auspicious.