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Interview with Earle McCurdy

By: | March 14, 2015

During his first week on the job as the provincial NDP’s new leader, Earle McCurdy fields questions on Indigenous rights, Muskrat Falls, climate change, CETA, the fisheries, the economy and musical chairs in Cabinet

Photo: Newfoundland and Labrador NDP.

On Thursday new provincial NDP leader Earle McCurdy traveled to Labrador to meet with the mayors of Labrador City and Wabush, visit a local women’s centre, and attend a meet and greet organized by the Steelworkers union.

In the morning he took some time to answer some questions by phone for The Independent.

JUSTIN BRAKE: What’s on your schedule today in Labrador?

EARLE McCURDY: When I heard during our leadership campaign that the premier had been down and not bothered to meet with the union, that kind of put in my mind that it would be a good first stop for me in light of the economic difficulties down here. So as quickly as I could get down, I did.”

Indigenous rights and Muskrat Falls

JUSTIN BRAKE: We have four Aboriginal groups in the province and three are in Labrador. The Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut are the last remaining Inuit group in Canada with an outstanding land claim, and members of their group, as you know, including elders — they’ve been arrested and jailed for peacefully trying to protect their land and defend their Indigenous rights against the provincial government and Nalcor’s destruction of Muskrat Falls.

The mega-project is going to have far-reaching impacts not only into the NunatuKavut land claim area, but on the Inuit of Nunatsiavut as well, where it is anticipated a flooded Lower Churchill reservoir’s going to create unsafe levels of methylmercury in the fish, seals, seabirds and other food the Inuit have depended on for food for thousands of years. Some say poisoning an Indigenous group’s traditional food source is a form or tool of colonialism. The Government of Nunatsiavut is also fighting the provincial government over the government’s amendment to the Voisey’s Bay Development Agreement, saying the province didn’t consult with them on it.

Also, the Innu Nation continues to deal with the grave impacts of colonialism and intergenerational trauma, as we see in the news once in a while — reports of substance abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, and children being removed from their homes, communities and culture. It’s a complex problem and one that can’t be solved with money alone. As leader of the NDP, and particularly if elected Opposition Leader or Premier, what will you do to repair the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador’s relationships with the Aboriginal groups in Labrador, who are fighting for basic rights?

EARLE McCURDY: First of all, I think we have to be mindful of the Aboriginal Peoples — they were here first and we—we being the Europeans—came to their lands. I think the track record of the NDP in this province on that issue is very good. One of the few changes I made in the critic responsibilities was I asked Lorraine [Michael] to take on Aboriginal Affairs because she has a background I think second to none in terms of working closely with Aboriginal Peoples, not only in our province but all over the world. Anyone who was at her tribute last Friday night would see just how extensively she’s done that kind of work, and I’ve asked her to take that on.

Our party did not support the Muskrat Falls development, Bill 61, because we felt there wasn’t enough information — there was too much uncertainty to allow us to support the bill. And I certainly look forward to meeting with the representatives of the Aboriginal organizations in Labrador in due course.

JUSTIN BRAKE: A lot of people who did oppose Muskrat Falls are now saying it’s too late [to halt the project], there’s so much construction done. But to some people the flooding of the reservoir is the point to which people will continue fighting. The reservoir, of course, once flooded will create that methylmercury increase in the water, which then goes into the fish and other animals that the Inuit depend on. It also threatens the caribou herds, one of which is down to 20 animals. Given the environmental, wildlife and human health consequences of this project, what is your position on it right now—where it is in development—and how do we justify flooding the reservoir given the seriousness of the problems that will occur if we do that?

EARLE McCURDY: I’ve spoken to the President of Nalcor, Mr. Martin, to request a meeting to get Nalcor’s position on a variety of matters that come under their domain, including Muskrat Falls. I’ll also be meeting with critics of the proposal to get a full understanding. Right now I don’t have sufficient information to give you a comprehensive answer to that question. There are significant environmental concerns and I’d want to get to the bottom of them. There’s also some economic considerations at stake as well, so it’s important to get fully informed before taking a position on such a major item, which is very complex, and a simplistic answer to a complex question is not normally a great idea. That’s obviously an important one for me to delve into and get a better understanding of it than I currently have, a more detailed understanding.

Climate change

JUSTIN BRAKE: I want to talk about the elephant in the room in our province…climate change. We are an oil economy. Every bit of fossil fuel that’s extracted and burned right now worldwide is contributing to climate change and inching us toward a point where we can’t turn back, where we can’t stop the intensifying effects, which is already causing major human suffering and death in parts of the world — and Newfoundland and Labrador and the rest of North America aren’t exempt from these intensifying and accelerating extreme weather events. Yet as a province we’re pushing full steam ahead with offshore oil development, we’re considering drilling in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and we’re even looking for new ways to get oil out of the ground on the west coast, with fracking — and the review panel was not even asked or mandated to consider the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change. What is your position on climate change, and how can we meet our province’s economic needs in the face of the contradiction that if we contribute to the problem of rapidly rising levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere that we lose out in the long term anyway?

EARLE McCURDY: On the issue of climate change, it’s hard to believe there are any deniers left. The evidence to me is overwhelming. Clearly it’s going to have a very significant impact on our fisheries. It’s appalling the extent to which the Harper Government has walked away from any responsibility with respect to the environment. They appear to be climate change deniers, I believe including the prime minister himself. They’ve walked away from Canada’s commitment under Kyoto and have generally made an embarrassment out of Canada in international circles in so far as the environment is concerned.

The amount of our total production of offshore oil in relation to world supply — if we went ahead or didn’t go ahead, I don’t think the impact would be significant at all in terms of the total climate change situation. I believe all jurisdictions have a responsibility to try and have a responsible overall use of the environment, so any measures that can be done to mitigate should be done.

Fracking I think is just too risky. It gives me the willies to think that they would do fracking in the ocean — it’s just too dangerous, too risky, too volatile, and too unproven. So our party does not support the panel, which we believe was set up really to justify fracking, and we don’t support that technology. I don’t think we need it or that we have enough information on the risks; what information we do have to me says we shouldn’t be at it.

Oil, climate change and rural revitalization

JUSTIN BRAKE: You’ve been critical of the government for not putting away some of the money from the province’s oil wealth. In that essay you wrote for the CBC on the 20th anniversary of the northern cod moratorium a few years ago, you said, “What we need now is a made in Newfoundland and Labrador plan to use some of our oil wealth to challenge the dog eat dog mantra of the federal government and revitalize our rural communities.”

How much, or how long, do we continue to support an oil economy in this province in order to accomplish that goal of revitalizing rural Newfoundland and Labrador—again with climate change being a big factor there. As you said, Newfoundland and Labrador may be a drop in the bucket in terms of worldwide fossil fuel reserves, but the science is telling us that 80 per cent of all known reserves have to be left in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change. Every [jurisdiction] that has just a drop in the bucket, if we all say that we cross the threshold pretty quickly—

EARLE McCURDY: —I guess that’s why these international forums are held periodically, because any individual jurisdiction, other than maybe a very large one, would be inconsequential in tackling it.

 The government essentially conducted itself as if the good times would last forever, kind of like the grasshopper who fiddled all summer.

And these international conventions and gatherings are intended to get everybody contributing to the effort, and if that meant, for example, reducing the amount of fossil fuels worldwide, then that would be an example of something that could happen — efforts to diminish greenhouse gas emissions and so on. But when our federal government walks away from that, that’s not terribly helpful.

I certainly wasn’t encouraging, in that article you quoted from, that that revitalization of Newfoundland should drive oil production — it was simply to say that what that did was provide resources we’re not really used to in the province, and we haven’t had historically, that would allow us to stabilize our renewable resources for the long haul. Unfortunately that wasn’t done; the bulk of the surplus was used to subsidize tax cuts that we otherwise couldn’t have afforded. The government essentially conducted itself as if the good times would last forever, kind of like the grasshopper who fiddled all summer.

CETA and the fisheries

JUSTIN BRAKE: As fisheries union president you supported CETA, even though it means giving up, as critics have said, our economic sovereignty. International corporations of course can sue Canada if Newfoundland and Labrador changes its regulations around a particular industry, whether it’s to protect jobs or the environment — and Harper has said he will find ways to recover that money from the provinces if such an instance arises. And moreover, it doesn’t appear our government, when it relinquished minimum processing requirements (MPRs), considered what climate and ocean scientists are telling us — that we don’t know what the composition of fish species in our waters is going to look like in five, 10 years since the oceans are warming and acidifying at such an alarming rate.

Did you consider the imminent impacts of climate change on our fisheries, as well as the problem with the investor-state dispute settlement lawsuits when you supported CETA?

EARLE McCURDY: I’d like to correct you. I did not support CETA. Harper didn’t call me to see what I thought about CETA. What [the provincial government] requested from me was, with respect to the fisheries matters that were under consideration in the CETA agreement — they were pushing hard for tariff relief. They had a program they were pursuing [and] they wanted the input of the union on the tradeoffs that were involved in those CETA negotiations. They were not soliciting my views anymore than anybody else in the general public on other aspects of the CETA agreement.

I personally find the investor rights contents of the trade agreement to be obnoxious and reprehensible. They undermine our sovereignty and really dimish statehood in favour of multinational corporations. So at no time did I say that I agree with the implementation of CETA; what I said was within the area that the provincial government was being—and they had other areas that had nothing to do with my job or our union’s role, with respect to procurement and so on. They sought it on the fisheries aspect only and that’s what I commented on, and I made that distinction whenever I spoke to it.

On the climate change issue, we will always have fish in those waters — at least I hope we will and I expect we will. We will have fish which we will need to sell. We will likely have less shrimp—maybe even at some point no shrimp—we will likely have less crab, we will likely have more cod, we will likely have more fin fish species. Europe will remain an important market opportunity, and in the case of codfish, with the tariff structure we’ve got now, there’s MPRs in place that supposedly protect jobs — I mean, [one] codfish plant in the province was closed for several months last year because the economics of the operation didn’t permit them to buy processed and market fish, so the MPRs in that case did not achieve the purpose of protecting jobs and the tariffs were a major barrier to economic activity. So I believe the balance — and not just me, the executive board in our union had a close look at it and were of the view that if the tariffs were removed it would result in—even in conjunction with the exemption of the MPRs as relates to the EU—on balance more work and more economic opportunity, not less.

Corporate and union money in politics

JUSTIN BRAKE: One of the issues one of your fellow leadership candidates Chris Bruce campaigned on was getting corporate and union money out of political parties and elections. We know the NDP in Newfoundland was started by union leaders…but Chris Bruce’s point was that if the NDP led in getting corporate and union money out of the parties and elections, it would deliver a huge blow to the other parties, which get such a large amount of money from big business.

EARLE McCURDY: I believe if the NDP engaged in unilateral disarmament, or whatever we want to call it, any destabilizing would be to the NDP. I don’t buy that we play by the Marquess of Queensberry rules when the other parties got brass knuckles and switchblades. The rules should be the same for all parties; I’m quite open to a debate about replacing the current regime with the use of publicly funded election financing. To simply cut off union and corporate funding without anything in its place means that there’s no resources to carry on a campaign, and I know, just in terms of starting to map out a plan for the upcoming election, my goal is to travel as widely as I can in the province — I’m here in Labrador today. That takes money, and that money has to come from somewhere.

If there was a publicly funded system as there are in some jurisdictions, I’d be all ears and quite willing to enter into a debate to talk about how to make that transition. But it would certainly have to be a level playing field for everyone, and not just us taking away our own ability to run a reasonable campaign while the other parties carry on business as usual. I think they’d kill themselves laughing at that — I don’t think the fact that we stopped would bother them one iota, and the only real way it would change is if the party in power decided they wanted to change it. So unless and until we replace what we currently have with a system of public financing of elections — I’m all for talking about limits on how much can be contributed and so on, but it does take a significant amount of money to run an election campaign. There’s no question about that.

Economy, social services and privatization

JUSTIN BRAKE: A $1.5 billion deficit, and we have no control over global oil prices obviously. How do we keep important services public and accessible to all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians?

EARLE McCURDY: I think that there’s been some bad ideas floated. The reaction from some of the business organizations—their advice, if followed, would be very damaging to the very businesses they claim to represent, in that if you said let’s do a massive cut in spending you would shrink the economy. You’d have less spending, less economic activity, people would be into retrenchment, and it would compound the problem. That’s why I’ve said a hatchet is a lousy tool for getting yourself out of a hole.

 I’ve seen no evidence whatsoever to suggest [privatization] provides either better services or more cost-efficient services.

There’s three levers you got to deal with a situation like that: raise more money, spend less, and borrow more — or whatever combination thereof. And the idea of massive cuts does not make any sense to me. Privatization of services I think is a self-serving thing from some in the business community; I’ve seen no evidence whatsoever to suggest that provides either better services or more cost-efficient services. As a matter of fact, the Attorney General in Ontario examined 10 years of the so-called P3, public-private partnership arrangements in infrastructure projects, and came to the conclusion that the cost to the taxpayer under those 10 years of projects was $8 billion higher than it would have been under the more traditional way of tendering that work and having it actually managed and controlled by the public sector and the construction undertaken through tendering projects by the private sector.

I think privatization of services is the wrong way to go. I don’t buy the notion that our yardstick should be how much we spend per capita on services compared to other provinces. For example, the Island of Newfoundland alone is a huge land mass, let alone Labrador. The Island is twice the size of Nova Scotia [and] we got half the population. How do you possibly provide services on a per capita basis for the same cost, other than have lousy services?

Really what we need to look at is both sides of the balance sheet. Obviously you can’t keep running deficits year in and year out because you build up a debt such that the cost of servicing that debt drains your resources and your ability to provide adequate services that people depend on in the future. You really need to look at the bottom line over a full business cycle, whatever it is—seven or eight years or so—not any one individual year.

Nalcor’s energy monopoly and feed-in tariff legislation

JUSTIN BRAKE: One of the big expenses at a household level if Muskrat Falls goes online is going to be our power bills. How do you feel about feed-in tariff legislation, about Nalcor’s energy monopoly in the province? Should we as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians be able to create our own energy in our yards, power our own homes and sell the excess back on to the grid?

EARLE McCURDY: I’ll give you the same answer I did at the VOCM debate: The answer is yes. The NDP policy has been and continues to be.

Cabinet shuffles

JUSTIN BRAKE: In about 10 minutes the premier is going to announce a cabinet shuffle. What are your thoughts on that, and on the frequency with which ministers are changing seats in Confederation Building?

EARLE McCURDY: My view is that cost should not be the driving consideration of the size of cabinet — it should be one of the considerations, and we can’t afford to carry any passengers or more than we need. But the driving consideration, when we’re talking about our democracy, should be, ‘What size cabinet does it take to do the job that’s required to run the province?’ I don’t think there’s a magic number to that, but I don’t regard shrinking the size of cabinet as a virtue in its own right. If a case can be made that we can do with a couple less ministers and still meet the needs, then that’s fine. But it shouldn’t be just about saving money any more than shrinking the legislature should be done solely for the purpose of saving a couple of dollars.

On the issue of frequency, I know from experience outside government, but dealing with government, that continuous changes at the minister level really makes progress difficult on complex files because you got to start all over again every time a new minister comes in — because it’s challenging. You come into a new portfolio, whichever one it might be—natural resources or fisheries or finance, or whatever the case may be—[and] there’s a huge learning curve there, a huge amount of stuff to take aboard, to understand, to find out what the views of different interest groups are and so on, and when there’s constant change of minister of any particular portfolio, for the people who have to deal with that ministry on a regular basis it can get frustrating. I think it’s desirable to have people in portfolios for a longer amount of time than has been the case in the past couple of years for sure.


Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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