Thursday, 29 June 2017

Auditing the Truth

Auditing the Truth

By: Ryan Young

It has been a crazy couple of weeks in the world of #nlpoli. This good rogue took to the wilderness for a few days, sans cell phone or internet, and when I returned to civilization I could hardly believe how much I had missed in just a few short days. There has been a lot of information to digest and to ponder, but one thing that seems quite clear is that nobody appears to have any interest in taking any accountability for the problems with Nalcor and Muskrat Falls.

It’s hard to know where to start. We had a new report released on Muskrat Falls that outlines even more cost overruns, now putting the price tag at $12.7 Billion. We also had the premier saying that he will commit to an audit or inquiry of some sort, but not really. Then there was a release of an old SNC Lavelin report from 2013 outlining probable cost overruns that the premier claims the former CEO of Nalcor ignored and that Ed Martin claims he never saw. And finally, we have Danny Williams firing both barrels at the Liberal Government and Nalcor, calling the current CEO, Stan Marshall, a “boondoggle buffoon,” and calling allegations around the SNC report “bullshit.” Through it all we, the taxpayers, are left scratching our heads and wondering just what the hell is going on in this province.

A poll released on June 20th by CRA showed that for the first time, the majority of NL residents were against the Muskrat Falls project. Surprisingly though, 40% of respondents still supported the project but that number will likely drop when hydro rate increases kick in next week. It will dwindle even more when the full impacts of the project begin to hit people in their wallets when/if Muskrat Falls ever comes online. While protests in Labrador continue to grow in size and intensity, there seems to be a new groundswell of dissent happening on the island now as well. People are already wondering how they will make ends meet when their bills double and more than ever we are seeing a push-back from the public at large against the project as a whole.

While there have been no shortage of experts speaking out against the project, it was especially painful to hear former premier Brian Peckford express his dismay that once again, Labrador power would be enjoyed by another province at much lower rates than the people of NL. Emera customers in Nova Scotia will enjoy much lower rates than NL customers for the same power from a project funded entirely from our tax dollars. It is certainly an epic fail of smallwoodian proportions, and Peckford, who spent his entire political career fighting against resource giveaways, can only lament the direction our subsequent premiers have taken us, and wonder how different things might have been if he had been given the same financial resources to work with.

With all of the political pressure and negative press, even the usually slow to catch on Liberals are able to see that the public is no longer willing to buy the platitudes about cheap power and projected revenues from the sale of spot power on the US market. Instead, they have changed their tune and are now talking about things like rate mitigation, while always continuing to point the red finger of blame at those dastardly Tories who got us into this mess. It might even work too if ole Dwight was willing to open things up to a full forensic audit to expose the inner dealings of the sanctioning of the province to satisfy the nagging questions many people have about whether the endless delays and cost overruns are the result of corruption or just pure incompetence. For some reason, the premier seems to see no value in getting to the bottom of things, despite his constant finger wagging. By playing the blame game without utilizing the options available to him to try to make things right, Ball is planting seeds of doubt in the public, leaving them to wonder what the premier might be hiding or who he might be protecting.

I’m not suggesting that the premier is doing anything wrong, but when you fail to be transparent and accountable to the electorate, there tends to be an element of distrust that hangs around like a bad odour. All the premier needs to do to get rid of that Muskrat sized cloud that is hanging over him and his government is to be open and transparent. There is absolutely no good reason not to immediately order a complete forensic audit and Ball’s reasons for dithering are absurd to the point of bordering on pathetic. An audit would in no way compromise the continuation of construction at the site and it would not have any bearing on any future costs or delays. All the premier is trying to do is say enough words to make it look like he intends to do something, without actually saying anything at all that would commit him to taking any sort of real action. With so many questions and allegations hanging over the project the only responsible thing left to do is to order the audit and let the truth speak for itself.

The main narrative that Ball and Siobhan Coady will continue to push is that they will review the project after the fact. The main problems with that are that a) it does nothing to help restore the confidence of the public in the project, and b) it is a very strong possibility that Dwight Ball and his government will no longer be in power by the time the project is completed and therefore will never have the opportunity to order an audit or review. The ideal time for a forensic audit would have been in early 2016, right after the election. Openness and transparency surrounding Muskrat Falls was a major part of the Liberal platform after all. Of course, that didn’t happen, but there is still time for Ball and company to do the right thing and open the project up to the full scrutiny of an independent body. The time has come. C’mon premier Ball, let’s make it happen…

Monday, 12 June 2017

The Federal NDP Leadership Race Comes to St. John’s

The Federal NDP Leadership Race Comes to St. John’s

By: Ryan Young

I decided to take in the federal NDP leadership debate in St. John’s on Sunday in order to see how the competition to decide who will take on Justin Trudeau in 2019 was shaping up. I was expecting a fiery and spirited debate and I was not disappointed.

After the NDP’s historic collapse in 2015, many were left to ponder the future of the federal New Democrats. After winning official opposition status with 103 seats in 2011, Tom Mulcair was unable to capitalize on that momentum and a disappointing campaign saw only 44 NDP MP’s elected to the House of Commons. As a result, Mulcair narrowly lost a leadership review last April, which began the search for a new leader to unite the party, and the electorate.

There are five candidates currently in the running for the leadership and they all took in the capital city this weekend, meeting with people to hear about the concerns of NL voters and to talk about policy. After being shutout in Atlantic Canada in the last election, the NDP are keen to rebuild support “down-east,” and winning back the seats the lost here in this province is a big priority.

There are no real frontrunners in the race at this point but the candidates are beginning to reveal their policy ideas and the debate on Sunday was the most divisive so far among the hopefuls. While they may appear very similar when it comes to policy, there are some distinct differences that will separate them leading up to the vote in September.

Jagmeet Singh, the newcomer to the race, faced some attacks from his fellow candidates as he was questioned on his commitment to the federal party and his failure to commit to a policy on pipelines until he had a chance to consult with voters in Alberta and BC. The Ontario MPP and former lawyer stepped down from his role as Deputy Leader of the Ontario NDP to join the federal leadership race, and he hopes to lead the charge against poverty and inequality. Singh is very popular, and he has the potential to unite the half million Sikh voters in the country, which would be a big boost to NDP fortunes if they wish to form a government. Some have described him as a “Progressive Justin Trudeau.” He is very selfie friendly and talks like a very skilled politician, but he failed to offer much in the way of solid policy ideas. In fairness, he is new to the race and is promising to release his policy platform soon.

Peter Julian also took some heat during the debate about the credibility of his policy ideas. The point was made that Justin Trudeau had many aspirations during the last election, but has failed to deliver on many of his promises. As such, NDP policy should produce promises that are well thought-out and costed. Julian spent most of his time talking about climate change and clean energy jobs and defending his ideas about affordable housing and free post-secondary education. The long-time BC MP has been involved with the party for four decades and is a popular organizer and activist. While Julian certainly has some good ideas, he was not able to demonstrate how he would implement his policies and I don’t think he was able to convince the audience that he really understands the issues that matter to the people of NL.

Niki Ashton is a fierce debater in the House of Commons and she wasted no time in going on the offense on Sunday. She was tough on Singh for his lack of commitment on pipeline policy and criticized Caron’s basic income policy as “not being an NDP idea.” Hailing from Manitoba, Ashton has been one of the most consistent voices in Ottawa when it comes to indigenous issues and precarious work. At 34, she is the youngest candidate, but by the time the next election rolls around she will have already spent a decade as an MP so she certainly can’t be called inexperienced. She seemed to be on the attack for most of the debate on Sunday and made a strong appeal to millennials in the audience to support her vision of a stronger Canada for our youth.

Charlie Angus was the most jovial of all of the candidates at the debate. His casual but direct style is probably the most leader-like of anyone in the group, but at times it seemed like the debate got away from him under tough questions from the other candidates. The long-time Timmins, Ontario MP is an advocate for indigenous rights and is very vocal on the fact that the NDP needs a clear and concise platform to build the support of Canadians leading up to 2019. While cracking a few jokes, Angus asked his colleagues tough questions about how they intend to implement their policy ideas and closed off by telling us that he has our backs.

Guy Caron was probably the most impressive candidate in the debate. The MP from Rimouski, Quebec is an economist, and is running his campaign on a platform of basic income, electoral reform, and tax reform. Caron probably faced the toughest questions of the day, (an indicator that his opponents see him as a threat) but I felt that he held his own very well and was clear in explaining exactly how his policies would work. So far, he is the only candidate to offer a breakdown of what his policies will cost and how he plans to implement them. I was also impressed with the fact that he was the only candidate to talk about what the NDP might demand if they were to hold the balance of power in a possible minority government situation. This earned him criticism as it was suggested that he didn’t think the party could win, but Caron is very much a realist and despite his desire to become Prime Minister, he understands that the NDP may have a different role to play, depending on where the cards fall in 2019.

All in all it was a spirited debate and New Democrats should feel good in knowing that no matter who wins the leadership in September, the party will be represented by a team of leaders who are bringing some exciting policy discussions to the forefront. While there was no clear winner or loser, I felt that Caron made the best remarks about policy, while Angus really drove home the direction the party needs to take if it wants to have success. With three months left to go before the vote, it will be interesting to see what kind of policy ideas come to the table and if the candidates can remain united and respectful or if the race will get uglier as it moves towards its conclusion.

No matter who wins this leadership race, they will have their work cut out for them when it comes to rebuilding party support. During the federal Conservative leadership race, the tories were able to triple their membership and the NDP will need to do the same if they wish to be a real threat to Trudeau's re-election hopes. It will be very interesting to see who party members choose, and the direction they take New Democrats in the lead up to 2019. It's an exciting time for the party and this race will be worth watching in the months to come.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Strange and Sad Story of Beatrice Hunter

The Strange and Sad Story of Beatrice Hunter

By: Ryan Young

Like many people across Newfoundland and Labrador, I have been following Beatrice Hunter’s story very closely over the last two weeks. For those who may not be aware, Beatrice Hunter is an Inuk grandmother and Land Protector who is presently being held in custody at the penitentiary in St. John’s for refusing to stay away from the Muskrat Falls site.

On May 29th, during a court hearing for Protectors who broke an injunction to stay away from the Muskrat Falls site during Victoria Day Weekend, Judge George Murphy asked Hunter if she would promise to stay away from the protest site. Hunter told the judge she could not make that promise and as a result she was remanded into custody.

The story took another turn on June 2nd when it was learned that Hunter had been transferred to Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s. Since then, there has been a large public outcry at Hunter’s incarceration, including protests at Nalcor headquarters and outside of HMP. In Labrador, fellow Protectors have held vigils and rallied for Beatrice’s release, and there is a large rally planned for Thursday at Colonial Building in St. John’s.

For the government, this has become another case of very bad optics. While most people seem to agree that they should not interfere with the judicial system, the fact that the injunction itself came from Nalcor makes the government responsible for Beatrice Hunter’s incarceration. They had they option of telling Nalcor to back off from the charges against the Protectors but chose not to do so. Now, with Hunter’s defiance, they have painted themselves into a corner that can have no positive political outcome.

I don’t think that Hunter intentionally tried to make a martyr of herself, but in many ways, she has become one. Many people across the province were upset with the treatment of the Land Protectors who were charged for standing up against Nalcor, and when Hunter was transferred to HMP, the cries of colonialism out of Labrador began to grow in volume and urgency. When our justice system takes an indigenous grandmother away from her family and her home for exercising her rights to protest, it leaves many wondering just what our priorities are.

Despite the many socio-political issues at play, we can’t ignore the fact that Beatrice did break the law. No matter how much we may not like the law sometimes, we can’t blame those whose job it is to enforce it. She left the judge little choice when she refused to stay away from the site, and under the law he felt compelled to do something. What that something was, however, is the issue at hand.The discussion should not be whether or not Beatrice should be punished under the law, it should be whether or not the punishment fits the crime. Hunter is a law-abiding citizen who has never been in trouble with the courts before and her only crime was protesting what she believed to be an injustice against her people. It does not seem unreasonable to think that there could have been another solution that could have been explored instead of sending this grandmother to the pen.

The whole situation is very, very sticky. In addition to Beatrice’s direct story, it also touches on issues of overcrowding in our prisons and the differential treatment of protesters on the island vs those in Labrador. I understand the importance of not having the government interfere with the justice system, but at this point it seems inevitable that they will have to act in some capacity. Hunter is due back in court on Friday and if she continues to be held at HMP, the disgruntled murmur from the public will soon turn into an angry roar. There are options, and Andrew Parson’s should be exploring every possibility of how to get Beatrice home. Considering all the talk about truth and reconciliation in this country, we need our leaders to take a stand and ensure that we are doing everything we can to protect the rights of aboriginal women.

In a video released by CBC on June 6th from inside HMP, Hunter expressed the major frustration that she and many other Land Protectors have with Nalcor. A lack of answers to their questions. This highlights the larger issue of the lack of openness and accountability when it comes to the Muskrat Falls project. Despite promising to open the project up to public scrutiny, the Liberal’s have become even more secretive than the previous administration was and are refusing to release any reports from the oversight committee. The message being sent by government via Nalcor to the people of Labrador is don’t ask questions and don’t try to get in our way or you will end up in jail. I don’t think they were betting on the defiance of someone like Beatrice Hunter to turn public opinion against them.

No matter how this story turns out,  irreparable damage has already been done to an already strained relationship between the government and the people of Labrador. The Smallwoodian “develop or perish” attitude seems to be alive and well with the current incarnation of Liberal leaders, and the steamrolling of the Muskrat Falls project without the support of the people living in Labrador will not soon be forgotten. The intimidation of Nalcor will always be seen as the strong arm of government against the people living downstream of mighty Muskrat and the dam will continue to enforce the idea of colonialism that is spreading through the big land like wildfire. There is no political value in having Beatrice Hunter locked up, and the first thing this government needs to do to start repairing the rift is to send her home. The second thing they need to do is start listening to people like Beatrice and start giving them the answers they have been demanding. That doesn't seem like too much to ask for...

Monday, 5 June 2017

When Money Talks, Democracy Has No Voice

When Money Talks, Democracy Has No Voice

By: Ryan Young

There was quite a bit of talk about political finance reform going around the province last week. Both NDP leader, Earle McCurdy and former Premier, Tom Marshall spoke out publicly in favor of getting rid of large corporate and union donations to political parties. This comes in the wake of a Telegram article that reported Corner Brook Pulp and Paper as being the Liberal’s largest corporate donor, at the same time that the provincial government was making a deal with the company to shore up their pension plan.

Now I am certainly not suggesting that the two have anything to do with each other. In fact, the recent pension deal seems to be a good one for both the province and the company. If there was any issue with the deal at all, it would have to be from the original deal signed under the previous administration. The problem is that in politics, optics are everything and when you see the government making deals with large political donors, it can’t help but breed cynicism and contempt. It is exactly why a large portion of our population think that all politicians are crooks.

An old adage says that when money talks, democracy has no voice. The truth of that statement might be debatable among political circles, but the electorate take it to heart. As far as the average voter in Newfoundland and Labrador are concerned, we are still living under a merchant class system. How could we ever convince them that we are not? Maybe I am naïve in thinking that corruption in politics is the exception rather than the rule, but it is not hard to understand why many people feel differently. As long as the government is doing big money deals with big time political donors, the idea that politicians are crooks will be a hard one to break.

One of the things that really breeds contempt for the system is the way that donors change their allegiances (and their donations) depending on which party is in power or is expected to take power soon. From a voter’s perspective, the only reasonable assumption is that these donations are not made based on political views but on the hope of being in the good books of the governing party when it comes time to divvy out government contracts. Democracy Watch has called our political finance system nothing more than “legalized bribery,” and by all accounts it seems like the majority of our elected officials are quite fine with that label and the status quo.

On an even more disturbing note, it was also reported in the Telegram last week that the St. John’s Board of Trade will be hosting a cash-for-access fundraiser that will give anyone willing to shell out $500 for the opportunity to mingle with the premier and a handful of ministers and federal MP’s. The premier’s office says that it will be a valuable opportunity to meet with business leaders and that they consider all requests seeking the premier’s participation in fundraising activities. MP Nick Whalen has compared it to a “charity fundraiser.” According to James Mcleod, Whalen said: “When people talk about cash-for-access, they mean cash for the politicians for access to the politicians. They don’t mean a charity fundraiser.” I’m not sure I agree with Mr. Whalen on that point since the members who pay the fee get direct access to key decision makers in government. That sounds like cash-for-access to me and the whole thing does not seem to be sitting well with the public at large.

Fixing this problem is so easy that it is ridiculous that it has not been done already Either remove, or place a sensible cap on all donations to political parties. That way there can be no preferential treatment for the biggest donors because no individual, corporation or union would be able to donate any more than any other. Our democracy should not be dependent on who can raise the most campaign dollars or spend the most money on lobbying for favorable contracts or legislation. Confidence in our political system is at an all time low, as evidenced by the record low voter turnout in the last election and the dismal approval ratings of all three parties. It’s time to take the first and easiest step in renewing confidence in our democracy and take the money out of politics once and for all.