The missing ingredient in the Muskrat Falls Inquiry

The one thing that government apparently doesn’t want discussed at the Commission of Inquiry is why our democratic institutions allowed such an uncritical handling of the project.

On Friday, April 6th, hearings took place at the Beothuck Building on Crosbie Place to establish who would have standing to appear at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry. A coalition of three volunteer based civil society groups (The Council of Canadians, Democracy Alert and the Social Justice Cooperative) were among the twenty-two requests for standing. I ended up as the spokesperson.

What does Muskrat Falls have to do with three groups that have no expertise in finance or engineering? What could we possibly hope to contribute?

Look carefully at the Terms of Reference for the Inquiry and you’ll see that they largely confine participation to what the Commissioner, Judge Richard Leblanc, referred to at the hearing as “the business case” of Muskrat Falls. What’s missing is an examination of the culture in government that allowed Muskrat Falls to progress in the way that it did.

Our groups felt that it was important to cast a light, not just on the specific bad decisions that had been made, but also on how the different institutions of government had failed to constrain these decisions. In other words, were our democratic institutions behaving the way they are supposed to in a healthy democracy?

We suspected that our chances of being granted status were slim. We were right. Here’s what Judge Leblanc had to say to another participating group even before we actually spoke to our request. “You know, we talk about the democratic deficit. …….but this inquiry is not about deciding what the democratic deficit is, if there is one. I, to be quite frank, based on what I’ve seen to date, in terms of what I have to get through, I’m going to be lucky if I can get through what I have here. And I’m not minimizing the importance of that (concept of democratic deficit), but I also have to be mindful of the mandate given to me.”

Unfortunately the very specific mandate that Judge Leblanc refers to means that, in all probability, the following questions are not going to get asked.

How informed was discussion in the governing parties and in the House?

Where did the power rest in the governing parties throughout the progression of the project? Were too many of the big decisions made behind closed doors? Was the role of ordinary MHAs largely that of uninformed cheerleaders? Did MHAs have doubts? Were their concerns listened to? How much information did they have?

As for the House of Assembly, was debate meaningful or was it mere theatre? Did the questions and debates have any kind of impact on government?

How easy was it to speak truth to power in the Civil Service?

What was expected of civil servants in matters concerning Muskrat Falls? Were there risks to one’s career of being anything less than a cheerleader for the project? Has the NL Civil Service become so politicized that its professionalism is at risk? These were some of the concerns that were raised by former civil servants with whom we spoke before making our submission.

Why was there so little objective analysis of Muskrat Falls decisions from experts?

In the end, the most meaningful criticism of Muskrat Falls has come from outside the system – from ordinary people who have had no choice but to make themselves into experts on the project. The former editor of this publication, Justin Brake, along with the Land Protectors and the Grand River Keepers have risked criminal records to record the human impact of the project on those living close to the dam. Then there are the efforts of people like Dave Vardy, Des Sullivan, Ron Penney, Cabot Martin and others to uncover and expose financial, engineering and environmental irregularities. All of these efforts have been selfless and hugely time-consuming.

There’s something not quite right about that. We live in a primarily rural province with little more than a half million people. Where is the expertise supposed to come from in holding government accountable, if not from our publicly paid intellectuals? Why was there, for example, not more criticism of the project from Memorial University faculty? Is there a culture of restraint in speaking truth to power at MUN?

Judge Leblanc’s ruling

In our concluding statement we acknowledged that we understood that it was not the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry to put democracy on trial. But we argued that “it is important to at least find some space to talk about the culture in the different levels of government that have enabled all these decisions to go through.” That was the missing ingredient we wanted to bring to the commission.

Judge Leblanc’s response in his formal rejection of our application for standing was unequivocal. “While the applicants submit that it is not sufficient to merely conduct an investigation into the project circumstances related to sanction, construction and oversight, that is precisely what the Lieutenant Governor in Counsel has mandated this Commission to do.”

Our post-hearing observations

Perhaps we should be grateful that we didn’t get standing. Persuading past MHAs and civil servants to tell their story either in print or in person at the Inquiry would not have been easy. We would have had to work very hard in the gathering of witnesses and information.

And yet, should we not protest Terms of Reference that exclude or, at least, make it difficult to question the democratic process that allowed a project that was probably badly conceived right from the start to steamroll ahead? That exclusion raises issues about whether government actually has the will to self-correct.

Here’s how we think things are going to go down.

The Commission of Inquiry is going to do their job as they determine it according to the Terms of Reference. We are fairly confident that they will establish that inappropriate measures were taken throughout the project.

Then it will be business as usual in government. We will continue to be dominated by parties that choose to rule rather than govern. In other words, the players will change but the way power is wielded in this province will remain unchecked – with very little protest from the people.

Instead, our anger will focus on blame. In line for public condemnation are senior management at Nalcor and various premiers, maybe even a few cabinet ministers. It has started already.

That focus on blame may seem justified, but will it come at the expense of taking a good hard look how our democratic habits enabled our Muskrat Falls fiasco?

We are arguably overly partial to strong leaders and grandiose gestures in this province. Amongst those of us who vote there is an intense loyalty, especially outside of St. John’s, to the two major parties. That lack of competition from other parties gives the Liberals and Conservatives excessive power through constant majority governments.

We register our disappointment in government by not voting. Newfoundland and Labrador consistently has the lowest voter turnout of any province both in federal and provincial elections. That was even true in the last provincial election in spite of the looming crisis.

Muskrat Falls is an enormous crisis with huge economic fallout. There is already talk of seniors on low income spending their days in the mall so as to avoid putting on the heat at home. Young people increasingly feel they have no choice but to leave the province in search of work. Small businesses worry that people will not have the discretionary income to buy their goods or services.

And then there are the people of Labrador living in the shadow of the Project itself. We can only imagine their stress load and the sense of injustice and betrayal they must feel.

In our opinion, all of this has happened because something went very wrong with the democratic process in our province. The Terms of Reference of the Commission of Inquiry deny us the opportunity to explore that connection.

That seems short-sighted at the very least.

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