“There’s a pulse out there,” said Kevin Aylward after he was named the leader of the provincial Liberal Party. Aylward was referring to what he believed to be a growing opposition to the government’s plan to develop the Muskrat Falls portion of the Lower Churchill. With such a bold statement made directly after his coronation and on the eve of an election, it seems clear that leading the charge against the mega-project is going to be a major plank of the Aylward’s election platform. I can’t help but think that Aylward is way off the political mark on this one.
The role of the official opposition
Yes, it is the duty of the official opposition party to ask the important questions, press the governing party for details, present a different point of view, and hold the government accountable for its actions. This is something the Liberals were sure to do under Yvonne Jones’ leadership; seemingly every opportunity Jones had in the House of Assembly was used to interrogate Williams or Dunderdale on the Lower Churchill developments.
And yes, there is no doubt that there are some very real issues with the project. Why are we building something that will ultimately lead to more expensive electricity for us? Are we giving too much to Nova Scotia? Is Nalcor, a crown corporation, too partisan in its drive to develop the resource? This is just a sample of the important questions we must ask our government about Muskrat Falls; Newfoundlanders owe it to themselves to give the project a sober second thought – because it is afterall our money that is financing the billion dollar project, and it’s not like we haven’t made mistakes on mega-projects before.
This is now an election campaign
But from a strategic point of view, hammering away at the project throughout the course of an election campaign is political suicide.
The reasons for this are twofold. First, the Muskrat Falls agreement was engineered and delivered by one of the most popular politicians in the history of the country, let alone in Newfoundland. Whether the Liberals agree with his politics and methods or not, they have to accept the fact that he was and still remains one of the most beloved characters of Newfoundland and Labrador. He is the man who depleted the Liberal opposition to just 3 seats in the House of Assembly, and he regularly enjoyed approval ratings between 77% and 82%. His track record for delivering for the province makes the majority of Newfoundlanders not just believe in him, but trust him. And if Danny Williams was the man who created the Muskrat Falls agreement, then he knew what he was doing. An attack on the Muskrat Falls agreement is not just an attack against the governing PC party, but is an attack on the works of Danny Williams… and people just won’t like it.
The second reason Aylward should stay away from Muskrat Falls in the election is even more important than the first: it is a self-defeating strategy. The better argument he can make, the worse off he will be. Let’s just say that the Liberals actually manage to gain some traction in their position against the Lower Churchill development, and voters in the province on a large scale really start to question whether or not this is the right thing for Newfoundland and Labrador. What do you think the odds are of Danny Williams staying on the side lines while his pet project – the project he essentially entered politics to develop – is even mildly threatened by Liberal momentum? Nil. If Aylward and his Liberals make gains in the campaign through opposition to Muskrat Falls, Danny Williams will be there to defend his project, his legacy, and our future. And if Danny Williams gets involved in this election campaign, I’m sorry but it’s over.
Let go of Muskrat for now
No matter the case Aylward can make against Muskrat Falls, the defence of the project is much more attractive: our economic future beyond oil, regional cooperation, clean energy, job creation, independence… the list goes on. And that message is infinitely more powerful if delivered by Williams. The Liberals have to let go of Muskrat Falls for now, swallow their resentment for Williams, and fight the Lower Churchill battle another day within the confines of the House of Assembly.
So whatever tricks Kevin Aylward has up his sleeve in the next two months, let’s hope they extend far beyond feeling this pulse. Note to Liberals: let the sleeping dog lie.