What's the point in having a debate if nobody is listening?
On Thursday evening, while waiting to meet a friend for coffee, I treated myself to a little rant.
Sipping on a cappuccino, I allowed myself to be provoked, and unloaded a blast on Twitter about the current state of debate over the Muskrat Falls project.
It took me a few tweets to work up to it, but the whole thing boiled down to this: "What's the point in even debating anything if you can't respect a word your opponent says, and you only believe people who agree with you?"
I was mostly blowing off steam, but it's a question worth thinking about all the same. You and I are staring down the barrel of three months of intensely politically charged debate over a multi-billion dollar hydroelectric project. The whole thing will culminate in a week-long debate in the House of Assembly, probably some time in October or early November. It bears asking: What exactly are we expecting from the debate?
Let me back up a little bit. The evening started with Brad Cabana making an interesting point. Around lunchtime, Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy went out of his way to call reporters to Confederation Building to say that Quebec is putting up roadblocks to Labrador hydro development, and don't believe former premier Roger Grimes if he tries to tell you anything to the contrary. Fair enough. Kennedy's the natural resources minister, I've never tried to sit down and negotiate power deal with Quebec, and it's been a decade since Grimes has either. Anyway, Kennedy was basically saying that Quebec is an obstructionist player when it comes to Labrador hydro, and he was making the point he often talks about, that Muskrat Falls will allow the province to escape the geographic “stranglehold” that La Belle Province has us in.
On Twitter, Cabana raised an intriguing point: “Maybe Jerome Kennedy can explain why he is running 2 900 mw capable lines from MF to UC if those dasrardly (sic) Frenchmen are the enemy.”
And then, he followed up with this: “Cause if Jerome Kennedy could explain that I might not think he's so full of shit.”
Before it went off the rails, I was kind of interested. Last I checked, Muskrat Falls is only capable of generating around 800 megawatts of electricity. Why is the province building lines to carry more than double that?
(SIDE NOTE: I put exactly this question to Nalcor — albeit in a somewhat more diplomatic way than Cabana phrased it — and in less than a day I had an answer. Here's that answer verbatim, in its entirety: "Two, 315 kilovolt (kV) transmission lines are required between Muskrat Falls (MF) and Churchill Falls (CF). A transmission interconnection is required to facilitate the flow of power between MF and CF. This enables water management between MF and CF that permits production from all plants on the river system to be optimized. The operation of the agreement requires that energy be moved back and forth between MF and CF. Our engineering analysis has determined that two, 315 kV lines are required to maintain stable operation of the electricity system to ensure the reliability of the interconnection for customers." I don't pretend to be an expert in any of this stuff, but that all sounds fairly reasonable, right?)
Anyway, on Thursday night, I'd had enough. This right here is an absolutely perfect example of why we can't have an intelligent, respectful debate about Muskrat Falls. There is plenty of legitimate public policy and political debate to be had without resorting to vile personal attacks and cheap shots on the credibility of anybody who's saying something you don't agree with.
Brad Cabana is a good example of this because he sort of exists outside the realm of conventional partisanship. To my knowledge, he doesn't hold any formal position within any political party, and as somebody who tried to run for the leadership of both the PC Party and the Liberals in a single calendar year, he's practically non-partisan.
Stepping a little bit closer to the centre of the political stage, let's talk about Steve Kent for a minute. Kent took to Twitter in the past week or so to fire back at the five lawyers who collectively came out in opposition to the Muskrat Falls project. They say we should be looking for stop-gap solutions to the province's power requirements to bridge the gap between now and 2041, when the Upper Churchill deal expires and we'll be able to use that incredibly cheap source of power.
If Kent spent any time refuting their argument, I missed it. It was drowned out by a deluge of attacks on the credibility of the five men making the argument. Kent made underhanded comments about Bern Coffey's failed Liberal leadership bid, and without addressing what they're saying now, he dismissed three of them for allegedly making contradictory statements a year earlier. Essentially saying, “Don't even bother listening to what they're saying now because they're hypocrites,” isn't exactly the strongest argument to make.
When it came to Dennis Browne, without providing a shred of evidence, Kent vaguely suggested that he'd somehow been paid drastically more when he was the province's Consumer Advocate than any other person to hold that position.
“I'm curious. How much did Mr. Browne make as Consumer Advocate? My guess is millions. Now they want to save money?” Kent tweeted.
Kent also read some sort of significance into where two of the lawyers were looking during a CBC interview. “Why wouldn't Cashin and Hearn make eye contact with (Lee Pitts) throughout their On Point interviews on (CBC)? Awkward. And telling.”
As it turns out, according to Pitts, it's only “telling” of where the cameraman decided to put his camera.
“Actually, that was a direction given to them by cameraman. Sightlines or something? Not sure why,” Pitts replied on Twitter.
I'm picking on Kent here a little bit, and that's not entirely fair. In the past week or so, he's been notably outspoken on Twitter, which makes it very easy for me to scroll back through his tweets and pull out the quotes I'm looking for. But when it comes to the tone of the debate, Kent isn't doing anything different from what I hear publicly and privately from all three parties.
Hardly a day goes by when I don't hear somebody affiliated with the Liberals or the NDP casually smear CEO Ed Martin and the overall credibility of Nalcor. I've interviewed Martin more times than I can count, and I've never found him to be anything other than a very intelligent, capable man who's working very hard for what he believes to be the best interests of the province. Debate is a wonderful thing, but calling his credibility into question should not be done lightly, and it should not be done without evidence.
(By the way, when you really think about what a lot of the anti-Muskrat Falls folks are saying, you'd be astounded how many of their arguments are predicated on the idea that Nalcor and Martin are somehow cooking the books and fudging the numbers. That is an absolutely monumental accusation that neither the PUB, Manitoba Hydro International, Navigant or the Joint Review Panel have found any evidence to support.)
Meanwhile, within the opposition parties, I've had staffers suggest that Nalcor is pushing Muskrat Falls so hard because they think it would be fun to build a big hydroelectric dam.
All of this brings me back to what I was asking at the top of this post. What do you expect from the Muskrat Falls debate?
This is not a rhetorical question. There's a comments section below. I want to hear some answers.
Do you sincerely expect anything that gets said in the next three months will change anybody's mind about Muskrat Falls?
If anybody raises valid criticisms of the project, will anybody in the government listen to them? Alternatively, is there anything the government could do or say at this point that would convince their opponents?
If you answered “no” to all of the above, is there any point in having a debate?
I just got back from two weeks on vacation. I drove to Ontario. I spent the vast majority of my time not thinking about Muskrat Falls. It was sublime.
But while I was visiting with my mom and dad, I sort of said that I was dreading this fall. It's going to be an interminable three months of intensely technical debate dominated by emotionally charged true believers who won't listen to anything that doesn't jibe with what they're already absolutely sure of.
In the course of the conversation, I explained the Muskrat Falls project in some detail, and told my parents that I thought there are a lot of really legitimate issues to be discussed. On the one hand, I explained that none of the independent experts have ever concluded that Muskrat Falls isn't the cheapest source of electricity for Newfoundlanders. I explained that the potential Labrador mining projects can use all the surplus power and more if they all come through, and I explained that the Maritime Link is also a good way to unload excess electricity, and it opens up tantalizing possibilities for future energy development. On the other hand, I explained that the current structure of the deal leaves the province on the hook for an outsized share of potential cost overruns, and if all of the excess power ends up getting used in Labrador, then the province is going to be sending 20 per cent of the electricity over to Nova Scotia on the Maritime Link and not seeing a whole lot in return. I also explained the trust issues the government has run into, when it limited the scope and length of the PUB hearings, and only grudgingly agreed to do a debate in the House of Assembly. I explained that by refusing to do a detailed, public examination of natural gas right off the bat, they left an information vacuum that has been enthusiastically filled by Muskrat Falls opponents. The same, to a lesser extent, is true of wind power as well.
There is a lot to talk about when it comes to the Muskrat Falls project, and to answer my own rhetorical question from above, yes there absolutely is a point in having the debate. There's a value to giving our province's political class a week to talk in the House of Assembly and get it all on the record. There's no equivalent venue where the province's government and its elected critics can make their arguments, stand and be counted and have it all recorded verbatim for the public record.
I just hope they spend the time actually talking about hydroelectricity, and not talking about who's got shifty eyes and who's full of shit.