In Newfoundland and Labrador, as in most of the so-called developed world, the gulf between the ideal of democracy and the reality of its functioning is widening. We continue to elect representatives to government, but that’s about the extent of it, and the choice between the two dominant parties is increasingly no choice at all.
Bouncing from blue to red, we vote not for those looking to take power, whose promises we know to be false, but against those currently in power, whose promises are the most recently broken.
Exacerbating the matter is a first-past-the-post system prone to giving us majority governments whose politicians owe their obligation not to the electorate who voted them in, nor to the neutral departments they minister, but to the party. And buddy you’d better toe that party line, as the recent scandal revealing the dysfunction of the Liberal Party has forced us to confront. Of course, exploit it though they try, the PCs are a pea in the same petty pod. You could liken provincial party dynamics to those of high school, but you wouldn’t want to insult the kids like that.
It is in this context, newly exposed but deeply entrenched and a surprise to no one, that we take a look back at the sanctioning of the Lower Churchill Project, a process characterized by repeated disregard for democratic due process.
Early in 2012, retired senior civil servant David Vardy, along with Ron Penney, a former deputy minister of justice, co-authored a letter to the Telegram raising a series of red flags as to the handling of the Public Utility Board’s review process of Muskrat Falls by Nalcor and the PCs, then headed by a Dunderdale government, groomed by its predecessor to see through the sanctioning and construction of its legacy-to-be. Said predecessor, a certain Danny Williams, had a few choice remarks for Vardy in particular who, in addition to questioning the review process, indicated in a subsequent interview that he knew of many people who strongly objected to the Muskrat Falls development plan, but were afraid to speak out for fear of putting at risk their relatives employed by government.
Danny’s response included the following: “What kind of garbage is that?” “I’m very disappointed in Dave Vardy’s comments, and the kind of nonsense that he’s getting on with.” The typical dismissive bluster, serving to make Vardy’s point for him with exactly the sort of patronizing response — devoid of logical backing as was and is so often the case in government’s response to legitimate criticism — that exemplified why potential critics of the project might choose to remain silent. If this was the public response, imagine the private one.
The red flags then planted were, as we now know, thoroughly warranted. The following is a summarization of the other major review process of Muskrat Falls by Consumer Advocate Dennis Browne, “The 2011 Federal-Provincial Joint Review Panel held 30 days of public hearings on Muskrat Falls in nine locations. The panel concluded that there were no known markets for that power, the need to bring that power to the island was not established, and there were alternate, economically viable and responsible ways to meet electricity demands. Government ignored its own expert panel.”
These findings by the Joint Review Panel plainly contradicted the bulk of the argument put forth to justify the project. Needless to say, such findings would give any rational and responsible enterprise considerable pause. The enterprise in question, however, constituted the biggest capital works project in the history of the province, to be paid for and executed by Nalcor, “the people’s energy company,” with the people’s money. Fair to say the stakes resting on responsible, rational due diligence could not possibly have been higher?
The only other body standing between the Project and its sanctioning was the aforementioned Public Utilities Board, whose task it was to assess whether Muskrat Falls was indeed, as claimed, the lowest-cost alternative. Their mandate more broadly was to oversee the setting of electricity rates, but as covered in part two of this series, this was legislatively overwritten in a bill exempting Muskrat Falls from the jurisdiction of the PUB; its sibling bill, equally draconian, completed the one-two punch by consolidating an electricity monopoly under Nalcor by forbidding commercial competition in renewable energy. The combined consequence is that NL ratepayers alone — without the help of promised but non-existent external markets — are on the hook for paying back the billions. To their credit (even if playing politics), the two opposition parties prompted a marathon filibuster to delay the passage of what Lorraine Michael called “two of the most dangerous bills ever presented in the provincial legislature,” but alas, the Tory majority inevitably closed further debate.
As the PUB’s deadline to submit their final report approached, it surfaced that Nalcor was in some cases withholding key information, and in others, releasing information without ample time for review. “It’s been a torturous process,” PUB chairman Andy Wells told CBC at the time. Their final report deemed the information supplied by Nalcor “inadequate,” and on those grounds, adhering to their mandate to represent the public interest, refused to endorse the Project as the least-cost alternative. Premier Dunderdale responded by deriding the PUB in the House of Assembly, as if this quasi-judicial body was a mere partisan hack.
On December 15, 2012, with the urgent findings of the Joint Review Panel unresolved and the PUB to be legislated into irrelevance the following week, Muskrat Falls went to the legislature. Both opposition parties requested experts to testify and both were constrained. The government then sanctioned the largest expenditure in provincial history — though even as such, at an estimate that has since doubled, and whose real cost is utterly untold.
Revisiting these events reveals a true blackout in the integrity of our elected (and in the case of Nalcor, non-elected) leaders. At every step, the informed critiques and impartial evidence issuing from the democratic mechanisms which exist to protect the public were ignored, denied, or attacked, as a seemingly possessed government thwarted every check and balance to force this project into being by any means necessary.
The arrogance and irresponsibility of the sanctioning process is matched only by the depravity of its consequences: the massive indebting of a shrinking, aging population with very few economic prospects, and next month’s subject, the majority indigenous Labradorians downstream whose ancestral culture and livelihood are under very real threat.