Monday, 4 October 2021

DANNY WILLIAMS: Bottom Feeders and Naysayers

Guest Post by Ron Penney

On September 15th, Memorial hosted a conference on the “Economic snd Fiscal Trajectory of Newfoundland”. 

I took a miss once I saw the program and the list of speakers, including Mr. Williams. I suspected the day would not be very edifying. 

A program on our fiscal situation which didn’t include Dame Moya Greene, or a member of her committee, or the Auditor General, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, all of whom have extensively reported on our dire financial situation, but did include the author of much of our current problems, didn’t inspire much confidence. I thought it would be a waste of a day and it would appear I was right. 

What possessed the conference organizers to give a forum to Mr. Williams to spout, unchallenged, his usual nonsense about Muskrat Falls and to continue his diatribe against the critics of the project? At the very least they should have given us equal time! 

But since they didn’t, Uncle Gnarley has kindly agreed to give me his forum to respond to Mr. Williams and to remind readers of what Mr. Justice Leblanc said about Mr. Williams and his treatment of critics of the project. 

The video of the conference is not yet online so I have to rely on press reports of what Mr. Williams had to say about we naysayers and “bottom feeders”, to use his phrase. 

“He said critics of the project “actively” wished for its failure and have “taken advantage” of the narrative” to “completely erase” the benefits of the project” (CBC) 

This is his usual approach of demonizing us because we had the temerity to warn of the dangers of his pet project. 

Some of the critics of the project, such as myself and my fellow naysayer, Dave Vardy, have devoted just about all our working life to public service, and we felt that it was our duty to warn the people of Newfoundland and Labrador about the project. Dave Vardy, in particular, had a most distinguished public service career, including being Clerk of the Executive Council, the most senior public service position in the province, with his last position being Chair of the Public Utilities Board, which gave him a particular expertise on Muskrat Falls. 

To say that we “actively” wished for its failure is the continuation of his tactic of painting us and other critics as unpatriotic. 

It’s as if he thinks our criticism caused the Muskrat Falls debacle and it we had joined the supporters of the project all would have been well! 

What we did do is express the opinion that the project was unnecessary, that it ignored the end of the Upper Churchill contract in 2041, that it should have been subject to the approval of the Public Utilities Board, and that it was likely to be way over budget. 

We did not “actively” wish for the failure of the project, rather we warned that it was likely to fail. There is a difference. 

Unfortunately we were right but we wish that we weren’t. We’ve spent most of our lives here, except for leaving to obtain our post graduate degrees, and have made a contribution to public administration and public policy. We decided to stay here and to continue to contribute to public policy debates after our retirement,  as well as to participate in civil society through our volunteer efforts and this is how a former Premier treats us. No wonder hardly anyone else dares to dissent. 

Mr. Justice Leblanc devoted a chapter of his report to this kind of behavior and it is worthwhile providing a summary, as it has gotten very little attention. 

The title of chapter 21 is “Dealing with Opposition to the Project”. Yours truly is on the short  list of public critics referred to in the report. You can read the whole chapter here (p.333). It’s only six pages long and tells you all you need to know about how we were treated. 

Judge Leblanc noted that “many of the concerns raised about the Project by the people listed above have, in fact, been borne out.” 

He refers in particular to concerns that Dave Vardy and I raised in January 2012 and then Premier Williams’s response that our concerns were “garbage” and “nonsense”. 

In his appearance at the Inquiry Mr. Williams described us as “bottom feeders who go out and disparage our people and state they’re not world class, I think, do a serious injustice to the people in this province.” 

Judge correctly concluded that “this kind of extreme and derogatory language does not advance reasoned public debate.” 

He further notes that “Mr. Williams seems to regard most criticism of the Project as somehow being “disloyal” to the Province.” 

In addition, Judge Leblanc referred to an attack made on Dave Vardy by Jerome Kennedy, then the Minister of Natural Resources, and obviously a keen student of Mr. Williams’s tactics, accusing Dave Vardy of advocating the closure of the Corner Brook paper mill. As Mr. Vardy pointed out at the time this was untrue and particularly so as he had  led the efforts to keep the mill open!  At least Mr. Kennedy acknowledged in his testimony that his comments were inappropriate and that, in retrospect he should not have made them. No such apology from Mr. Williams, it goes without saying. 

Even the Clerk of the Executive Council at the time, Robert Thompson, suggested to then Premier Dunderdale that in her remarks for a dinner with the Nalcor Board a key message that she give is that she “won’t be deterred on MF by detractors pursuing narrow and petty agendas.” 

It is clear from his most recent comments that the Judges criticism of his behavior has had no effect on Mr. Williams. Giving him a forum to continue those personal attacks on us and to continue to spout such nonsense about Muskrat Falls, reflects badly on my alma mater. 

Many thanks to Jen Deon for her confrontation of Mr, Williams at the symposium about his treatment of critics. It was very brave of her. But even saying that tells us a lot about the state of public discourse in this place. 

We have very big problems here and we need everyone’s contribution to the public debate but this is what those who attempt to contribute have to face. No wonder most people don’t bother.