By: Ryan Young
Here is a question I have to ask: If Muskrat Falls is so bad that everybody refuses to take accountability for it, why don’t we just scrap the whole damn thing? I am not the first person to point out the strangeness of many of the #MakeMuskratRight protesters saying that they don’t want the project stopped entirely. I am sure many people feel that we have too much invested to turn back now, but with the final cost likely to be double what we have already spent, and the questions surrounding the north spur and methylmercury, it is hard to justify the reasoning that we must forge ahead at any cost. None of our political parties are willing to take the bull by the horns and demand a real stop/go analysis of the project, and the Liberals and PC's seem to be entrenched in a never-ending game of who-done-it.
So, just who do we blame for the boondoggle that is Muskrat Falls? At the PC Annual General Meeting last weekend, we heard that their party was not responsible for the current issues with the project. This revelation was met with much eye-rolling and public scrutiny, as is to be expected. This was after all the party of Danny and Kathy, who were determined to push this project through no matter what the cost. For them to take such a stand is laughable, and none but the most partisan blues are buying it.
Whenever we ask the current Liberal government about it they shrug and remind us they didn’t sanction the project. This past weekend, some Liberal MHA’s were sharing a new website that mysteriously appeared at the height of public outrage at the Liberal inaction of the situation in Labrador, highlighting the Muskrat Falls timeline from 2005 until just before the Liberals took office in 2015.
www.thanksmuskrat.com is full of quotes from current and former PC’s, and appears to be a hyper-partisan attempt to shift the heat that the government has been taking back onto the Tories. While the Liberals will deny any involvement in the website, its timing and content would make that appear to be suspect at best. They think the people have forgotten who started this mess, but they are wrong. The people remember quite well, which is why the PC party was reduced to just 7 seats last November. The people know full well who got us here, but they also know that they elected a new government to make things right. This latest move forces us to question if this government is only there to point fingers or if they actually plan to make any meaningful changes to the Muskrat Falls project.
Then we have others who like to blame the NDP and anyone else that was not crying foul of Muskrat Falls from the very minute that the words came out of King Danny’s mouth. Those who would say that if you were not there opposing the project in 2010, you have no business opposing it now. That is a very weak argument considering the many revelations that have come to the public’s attention over the past year or two. When it became clear that Nalcor had not been honest with the people on several issues, we began to wonder what else they might be lying about.
So, who do we blame for this monstrosity of a pickle we have gotten ourselves into? Not many members of the media were printing negative stories about the project in the beginning. Most people were too happy to be finally getting a one-up on the Quebec boogeyman to take a real hard look at the economics or the environmental aspects of the project. Those who did were written off as nay-sayers with their own agendas. Ed Hollett, Clyde Wells’ former EA, was a legendary Danny Hater. Cabot Martin, Dave Vardy, and Des Sullivan were the disgruntled Peckford Tories who were shut out of Danny’s government, Brad Cabana was written off as a Danny hater and a crack-pot, and many others were dismissed and ignored. Despite what your opinions of any of these people might be, they have all contributed to the ongoing Muskrat Falls discussion and have been instrumental in bringing the realities of the project into the public eye. All of these people were largely ignored by the media and the public at large for years. It is only now that the facts about the project are finally emerging that we are collectively realizing what a mess we have gotten ourselves into, and that many of the so-called nay-sayers were right all along.
Over and over we were told to trust Nalcor’s world class experts and science. We were told that the project was the only one that made sense, and that we were on-track to bring Newfoundland and Labrador energy independence. The economy was doing very well at the time Muskrat was announced, and most people were too busy working and enjoying being a “have” province to pay close attention to the handful of people who were daring to go against Danny Williams. Nalcor assured us all that science was sound and that there would be no negative impacts from methylmercury, no safety issues from the north spur, and cost overruns would be minimal.
Former Nalcor CEO Ed Martin told us blatant lies about how the contracts were let for Muskrat Falls. He said that they had used fixed-price contracts, but then later denied that statement and told us that the contracts we not actually fixed at all. This is one of the major reasons that cost overruns have greatly increased since construction began. Neither Martin, nor Lower Churchill head, Gilbert Bennett have ever been involved in a project like this before, yet we were told time and again to blindly trust their leadership without any public transparency or government oversight. Earlier this year, Stan Marshall was brought in to bring the project back on track, but other than to tell us that Muskrat was a boondoggle, silent Stan has been nowhere to be seen. As the project encounters even more problems and costs continue to skyrocket, we are being asked to blindly trust Stan. Sound familiar?
We all know that the PC’s sanctioned this project and basically gave Nalcor a blank cheque and free reign to do as it saw fit. A total lack of government oversight on the project allowed unqualified leaders at Nalcor to let things spiral out of control with not nearly enough attention paid to the economics and environmental concerns. A questionable company, Astaldi, was brought in to construct the dam, and the entire construction process has been mired in delay and controversy right from the start. Yet, if you look at the PC twitter feeds, you would swear that they were never involved in the project at all. Unless of course you ask them if it is still a good project. Then they are quick to defend Danny’s legacy and blame the current Liberal mismanagement for all of the current issues at Muskrat Falls.
No doubt, the Tories have had an easy time in opposition, with new ammo being served up on a silver platter by government almost daily, but their time in the wilderness does not seem to have given them much time for contemplation on how they ended up swept from power last fall. If the PC party is really serious about renewal, a good place to start might be take a long, hard look at how they got where they are in the first place. The Tory arrogance that people were so fed up with leading up to the last election has not gone anywhere, and trying to shift the blame for Muskrat Falls to the Liberals is not earning them any points from anyone but their own partisans.
And where is Wade Locke these days? The MUN economist was long the PC’s champion “expert” in justifying the business case for sanctioning the project. Locke assured us that oil prices would remain at record highs long into the future, and that the only option to be considered was Muskrat Falls. The words “lowest cost option” were thrown around so much that they lost all meaning to anyone who was listening. When asked by Pete Soucy when the project would no longer be the best cost option, Locke put the number at about $8 Billion. You would think that statement should have raised more eyebrows. Surely they must have anticipated cost overruns in such a remote construction location. With a ceiling of $8 Billion, they were left with very little wiggle room from the start. Now that oil is trading at less than $50 a barrel and cost overruns have but the project at $12 Billion and growing, it would be nice to hear Mr. Locke tell us at what point it makes sense to pull the plug.
That brings us back around to our current Liberal government. Yes it is true that they voted against the sanctioning of the project, but don’t read too much into that. Voting against a majority government is what opposition parties do. The real litmus test came when the Liberals took over last fall and were handed the keys to the Muskrat castle. We were given lots of words like “oversight” and “accountability,” but we didn’t really see any of those things, or any changes to the project. Pulling the plug was never on the table for the Liberals, and neither was further clearing of the reservoir to mitigate against methylmercury concerns until the protests got so loud. Instead the government followed the same template as their predecessors and kept Nalcor firmly in the driver’s seat. Finance Minister (and former PC supporter) Cathy Bennett sat on the board of directors at Nalcor and was accused of conflicts of interest regarding business contracts related to Muskrat Falls. It comes as no surprise that despite her harsh words for Nalcor in the budget speech, that she and her colleagues in cabinet were quite content for the project to keep moving along, business as usual. Unfortunately for her and the rest of the Liberals, that didn’t happen, and we were left with the Ed Martin severance fiasco, the mass resignation of the Nalcor board, and the nationwide protests that our premier assured us had no bearing at all on governments decision.
The Ed Martin debacle was a golden opportunity for the Liberals to break Nalcor and Muskrat Falls wide open. They could have opened things up to the public and let us see the extent of the mismanagement at our crown energy corporation. They could have ensured that the public fully realized the mess that the project became under the PC’s and would have earned an enormous amount of political capital without having to take any ownership for Muskrat Falls. Instead they chose to bumble and delay, and make themselves look like they were trying to hide everything from the public. For several days, last spring, each time the premier opened his mouth, lies came out. Instead of taking a golden opportunity to come out swinging and throw the PC’s under the bus, they decided to take ownership of all that negativity, and put themselves in a very tough position. It makes one wonder what, or who, they might be protecting?
That brings us right back to where we started. Who do we blame for Muskrat Falls? The answer is certainly not black and white, and the blame runs deep. Danny, Kathy and the PC’s part played their part, as did Nalcor and its board and executives. The Liberal and NDP opposition of the day didn’t do enough to bring science and evidence into their political opposition to the project. The people have been too trusting of government, Nalcor, and the media to bring them the facts about the project. And now, the current government has not provided any degree of acceptable leadership to restore the faith of the people in the reasoning for finishing this project. It is easy to point the finger of blame and find a target when it comes to Muskrat Falls, but now that it has become crystal clear that this government has no intentions of stopping the project altogether, we need to stop talking about blame and start talking about responsibility.
The premier can stand in front of the province and say that he did not sanction the project and that his government inherited this boondoggle, but at this point those things no longer matter. The day he was sworn in as premier, he took responsibility for Muskrat Falls, and it is his responsibility now to make sure the concerns of the people are heard. The poor planning and management has continued under the leadership of Ball and Marshall, and the premier has dithered on each and every issue he has encountered. This has caused him to keep getting backed into corners and appearing weak whenever there are questions about his leadership. What we need is for our government to tell us the truth and stop trying to pull the wool over our eyes on Muskrat Falls like the previous administration did for so long. It was this attitude that pushed the PC’s back into the political wilderness, and the way things are going, the Liberals are very likely in for a similar fate.
All the blame in the world cannot hide the fact that the Liberals hold the power now. They have the numbers and the science in their hands and they have had more than enough time to develop a real plan for Muskrat Falls. The premier can stand at the microphone and say that the protests had nothing to do with the recent agreement with indigenous leaders, but we all know that this government failed to act until they were backed into a corner, again. Even then, he was quick to point the finger of blame, and suggested that we were asking the wrong premier questions about Muskrat Falls. Well here is some advice for our premier. Real leadership is not about pointing fingers and ducking out back doors. It is about meeting problems head-on and making decisions, even when they are hard or unpopular. It is about engaging the people who are desperately seeking your leadership on important issues, even when you know they wont agree with you. And most importantly it is about standing up for what is right and good, and inspiring others to follow you and to believe in you.
Does Dwight Ball have what it takes to be a real leader? I won’t attempt to answer that, but I do know that our premier has done very little to inspire confidence in our people. How can we believe in him, when he has not done or said anything to give us something to believe in? At this point we are left to judge on the track record so far, and for that, the 20% approval ratings might be generous. It is time for our premier and our government to stop playing the blame game and to stand up and lead this province. We can no longer afford to look to our past, the time has come to start looking to the future. So please Mr. Premier, stop playing the blame game and start leading.