Muskrat Falls Inquiry doomed before it starts?

An Inquiry is too important to be dragged into partisan bickering.

It sounds like an inevitable refrain in this province—one step forward, two steps back.

Just when people may have started to have faith in Premier Ball’s gradual commitment to an inquiry into Muskrat Falls—slow-moving though his acquiescence to the inevitable has been—his comments at a recent $500-a-plate Liberal fundraising dinner risk shattering any hopes that he will rise above self-interested partisanship and actually show himself capable of principled leadership.

His comments on the Inquiry descended into narrow and partisan PC-bashing. An inquiry into Muskrat Falls is too important to allow it to become a Liberal election ploy.

Muskrat Falls encapsulates everything that is wrong with this province: the self-interested entitlement of its old guard elites; the predatory pocket-lining of its new-guard consultant-class; the short-sightedness of the natural resource megaprojects which are pursued with an almost childlike ‘throw-all-the-fiscal-eggs-in-one-basket’ mentality; the desperation of its poor and working people who see little choice but to get a few weeks’ work on a project which stands poised to doom the province into generations of debt; its colonialism; its classism; the desperate hope of its impoverished people continually dashed against the rocks of fiscal despair.

An inquiry into Muskrat Falls is not just about where money was lost. It’s about how we can regain our self-respect and integrity as a province. It’s about how we turn the page on a mentality which continuously—regardless of the colours of the party in office—gambles our future on reckless and irresponsible schemes, and opens us up to the predatory exploitation of privileged elites.

It’s a chance to turn the corner on our political infantilism and commit to a new, transparent and accountable approach to how things are done in this province—starting by enumerating all the things that were done wrong in the Muskrat Falls debacle.

All the things done wrong by everyone, not just the PCs.

Prefiguring the outcomes

When government frames problems in partial and biased ways, it behooves us to think what possible outcomes there could be.

In the case of Nalcor and Muskrat Falls, one possible outcome we need to be wary of is the possibility that the Muskrat Falls disaster gets pinned on Nalcor—on its structure or leadership. We must be wary about solutions that might seek to change, or even dismantle, Nalcor. Because that would be doing nothing to tackle the real problem.

Yes, Nalcor’s leadership is part of the problem. But it’s not the crux of the problem. Nalcor’s leadership could have been substituted by any number of other individuals and the outcome—this flawed, disastrous project—would have been exactly the same. Those who say that the problem lies in a state-run corporation having a monopoly over energy in this province are wrong. A privatized version of Nalcor, or several competing privatized versions of Nalcor, would have done nothing to improve the situation. In fact they might very well have made it even worse, by making authority and accountability even more obscured behind multiple layers of unaccountable private interests and individuals.

The problem is not the existence of Nalcor but the incompetence of successive provincial governments in running it. The provincial government should not even be in the position of having to investigate Nalcor. If it’s a state-run monopoly, it ought to be run by the people we elect to run the state. Ball—like Premier Paul Davis before him—should have been on top of everything going on at Nalcor. They ought to have made sure they knew what was going on, so that they could take accountability for everything that happened.

Instead, both administrations abdicated substantive leadership over the crown corporation they were supposed to be running. They essentially let it run itself, which is to say that they turned a blind eye to what was going on. Why, it’s hard to say. Perhaps they didn’t want to bother. Perhaps it was too much effort. Perhaps they felt it would make it easier to dodge accountability and responsibility if something went wrong.

Whatever the reason, the outcome is the same; whatever went wrong at Nalcor, the responsibilities lie squarely on the heads of both provincial administrations. For Ball to continue trying to blame the Muskrat Falls debacle on the Progressive Conservatives not only denigrates his own character, but it insults the intelligence of the province’s population.

Ball was in charge of Muskrat Falls for the past two years. It was on his watch that the bizarre and still not entirely understood exit of former Nalcor CEO Ed Martin took place. It was on his watch that the occupation of the workers’ camp took place, and that hundreds of RCMP officers flooded into Labrador and physically intervened in Indigenous peoples’ attempts to protect their land, traditional foods, families, communities and ways of life. We know that his government was in communication with the RCMP during that period.

It was on Ball’s watch that the shameful treatment of Beatrice Hunter and other imprisoned Indigenous land protectors took place. It was on his watch that the project’s price ballooned to what it is currently at.

The list goes on. For Ball—the premier whose administration will draft the terms of the Inquiry—to publicly claim that the PCs are to blame for everything, is to doom the Inquiry to irrelevancy from the start.

If an Inquiry is to have any credence or worth, it must be independent of the provincial leadership. Premier Ball needs to have the courage and integrity to admit his own portion of responsibility and accountability in the ongoing debacle, and cede the drafting of the terms of reference and operating principles of the Inquiry to a suitable, independent third party or parties. And by ‘independent’ I do not mean EY—the company that has acted as the provincial government’s lapdog and has profited so regularly and parasitically from our province’s misfortunes—when we have plenty of other informed, civic-minded individuals who could do the job just as well, if not better.

Otherwise, the whole exercise will just be a joke. And it will then fall to someone else—either a future provincial government, or some combination of journalists and other investigators—to continue working to reveal the truth of how Muskrat Falls became the defining shame of this province. And to impose real justice on those responsible for it.

Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.

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