Make Them Pay for Muskrat Falls

It was voted The Telegram’s top news story of the year: the Muskrat Falls Inquiry into a project that is “publicly funded, years behind schedule and billions of dollars over-budget.”

The public has been riveted as they follow the proceedings. Those in the spotlight trade barbs with each other and the inquiry officials; they rant self-righteously and sanctimoniously defend their reputations. It will be interesting to see what the Inquiry concludes. (So far, the longer it goes on, the less popular the Muskrat Falls project becomes.)

Interesting, but little else. The $33.7 million inquiry is unlikely to lead to any substantive change, unless it identifies guilty parties and proceeds to sanction and punish them. ‘Guilty’ in the context of public decision-making, of course, can span a broad spectrum: guilty of hiding or ignoring important information; guilty of failure to do due diligence; guilty of failure to uphold the public trust by asking important questions or challenging poor decisions.

If the Inquiry helps us to determine whether individuals were guilty of failing to meet and uphold the expectations of the public trust, then it behooves us to also ensure there are consequences for the public figures who failed us.

There must be punishment for those who made poor decisions.

Our province’s history is the story of poor decisions, and will continue to be until we figure out a way to rise above it. Economic and political development is treated broadly like a game: “well, let’s give this a shot, and if it fails miserably, what odds?’ It’s as though governance is a poker game, where an audacious strategy that fails miserably is greeted with laughter and back-slapping and a round of shots at the end: “Oh well, best kind, we’ll try it again next week!”

Only there is no next week when it comes to this province’s development. We are running out of options. We urgently need a governance culture that takes its job seriously, and not like a poker game.

Part of the problem, is that we need to stop incentivizing failure. All of those people who failed so miserably and so grandly in the Muskrat Falls debacle—they will go home to their big houses, or disappear for the winter to their Florida homes and Caribbean resorts, and return come spring to gamble anew with our economy and our future. They are not the ones struggling to find work in a devastated labour market; the ones struggling to keep their homes as they lurch toward bankruptcy. The cold pain of rising heat bills is for the rest of us, while the rich and guilty run free to spend winter in the Caribbean. They will all be back come spring, no doubt, in order to start primping themselves for election in the fall.

So long as these types of public figures are allowed to continue in public life without feeling the pain of their failures, failure will continue to be a defining characteristic of the political economy of this place. The sort of cultural shift that is necessary in order to start treating due diligence seriously, and to replace fawning sycophancy with objective research and sensible policy-making will simply not happen unless an example is made of those who abused or failed the public trust when they had it.

There is a difference between learning from our mistakes, and making failure a lucrative enterprise.

How can we do that? Let’s be creative. A newly elected provincial government, if it aims to wipe the slate clean, could pass legislation sanctioning the individuals who aided and abetted the Muskrat Falls debacle. I would certainly vote for a party that promised that level of accountability! Legislation could be introduced barring the government from doing business with individuals deemed responsible for the Muskrat Falls debacle. Municipalities could refuse to allow them to undertake development projects and other business operations. Fines could be levied against these individuals and their operations, to help off-set the costs they’ve saddled this province with. Sanctions like these are routinely applied in professional industries: industry regulators have the power to ban individuals from working in the financial sector when they are found to have engaged in wrongful or unethical activities.

The individuals responsible for Muskrat Falls’ failures ought to be similarly punished, and excised from the political and economic life of this province. Only then, when failure ceases to be our province’s most notable growth industry, will we be able to start putting our economy back together. The Muskrat Falls debacle has imposed a serious burden on the finances, future and reputation of this province. There’s nothing wrong with figuring out a way to make those responsible pay. In fact, the painful experience of Newfoundland and Labrador’s 20th century history suggests it might be the only effective way of ensuring future legislators have the courage and incentive to do their job right.

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