What are we really talking about?

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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.

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Recent comments

  • Brad Cabana
    August 28, 2012 - 05:34

    Good article James.Unfortunately, like almost all the coverage of Muskrat Falls, it scratches at the surface while ignoring the real issues. For instance, it accepts Nalcor's explanation of the two lines which is not complete, and even has the size of the lines wrong. It critques the MHAs use of smear tactics without delving into why he would use them in the first place. It bemoans my use of the word "shit" and givesit as much weight as the issue itself. At some point the media must become far more investigative which woukd relieve us of having to do months of research that shoukd be done by them. I therefore find it a bit much when sit in judgement of citizens instead of doing tge investigative, and thorough research which would normally be their role. In a sense, it is like a hockey game turned nasty, because tge referee has refused to call any penalties. It has become chippy, but ask yourself is it the players or the refs that need to enforce the rules? In this case the rules of a democratic society.

  • Ed Hollett
    August 27, 2012 - 12:45

    Geoff: Nalcor has produced demand forecasts which they contend supports their case. Others who have looked at it, including the joint review panel, dispute the conclusion. They dispute it based on detailed, technical analysis. All of that material is available online. If you want the background documents, the Nalcor version is in their PUB submissions: http://www.pub.nl.ca/applications/MuskratFalls2011/submission.htm For the critique, there are plenty, also available at the PUB site. I recommend this one because it is perhaps the most thorough and detailed, even if it is 75 pages of bullet points and charts: http://www.pub.nl.ca/applications/MuskratFalls2011/files/comments/11-JM-2012-02-29-Rev1.pdf Take the time and read that one. You may have more questions at the end but it will certainly add hugely to an understanding of the issues. On the alternatives, Nalcor insists that they have reviewed all of them. When it comes to evidence of that, there is nothing beyond their claims that they looked at them, especially before they decided to go ahead with MF. At the CEAA hearings, Nalcor's position on NG was that because the oil companies hadn't figured out how to exploit the NG offshore and make money, Nalcor didn't look at local NG as an alternative. (pp. 96-97 here: http://www.ceaa.gc.ca/050/documents/49395/49395E.pdf ) That means they just didn't look at it. Other explanations - that they looked at it and dismissed it, for example - came later. If you want to look specifically at others who have raised the potential for demand side management or natural gas, there are a bunch of links on that. Again a lot of it is at the PUB site: http://www.pub.nl.ca/applications/MuskratFalls2011/comments.htm Jim Feehan's presentation is there on demand management as is one from Stephen Bruneau on natural gas. The 175 pager I pointed you to argues that the line from Soldier's Pond to Churchill Falls makes the most sense. Among other things it would give the island access to the existing CF recall that Nalcor is selling to Emera in NY today apparently at a loss. On some of the more recent issues - Labrador mines - there are conflicting government positions. One holds that we need Muskrat to meet the need. Another is that the Labrador mines haven't asked for energy so it theoretical. They will answer that in the future. Those comments have been in the House and the media over time. I don't have links ready to hand, I'm afraid. There are other issues, such as MF's output, where Nalcor initially slammed the critic (Tom Adams) and most recently has confirmed not just what he said but given more information about how Nalcor intends to cope with the problem. If you want more, I can give you links. iI'll try to add some links to the "Ghost in the Turbines" page I started at SRBP.

  • Dave Moore
    August 27, 2012 - 10:34

    Great to see an attempt to sort out the vitriol from the facts. A year ago this question was around for debate in an election campaign, and I don't really believe that we learned much back then. Sad really, because it was hardly a new issue in August 2011. Now we are nearly into 2013 and signs are that a decision will be made without the public ever getting a good grasp on the keys to the decision. I blame the partisan, school-yard nature of the debate. I blame the apparent move to secrecy with the Dunderdale government. (How do you feel good about government press releases on the topic after the changes to the freedom of information policies? ) I see a government that makes policy and personal attacks on critics, but rarely addresses questions asked. I see an opposition that falls into the trap of a public mud-fight rather than getting much in the way of facts out to the people. To my mind, neither is effective in their roles. Like many people, I suspect that any debate is a show that will be shutdown quickly or yield little in the way of facts. The decision has been made, and made 2 years ago. Money is already being spent on the project - despite the rules. Bill 29's passage earlier this year was sudden and bizzare. A change to the freedom of information legislation that allowed the government to decide if a request was worthy of a reply. The debate shut down because of the childish debate tactics employed by those who tried to turn it into a personal conflict. A house that sits rarely and public debates more likely to occur on Twitter than in the Confederation Building. A government that labels updated cost projections as "projected cost over runs". (If the project has not been approved - then how can it be a cost over run?) You don't have to be Nostradamus to see that Muskrat Falls is going to happen no matter what. Equally obvious is that no facts about the project will be released unless it is the interests of those with the keys to the Confederation building. Thank God the people and the media are debating this in public furums and the internet, as those discussions will be the ones that history remembers. Poor old Joey's ghost has long carried the chains of a bad deal over Churchill Falls, I suspect he will be relieved to see somebody else carry a fresher burden over Muskrat Falls. It needn't be that way. I just wish some folks would cut the bluster and bile and simply explain why it all makes sense, estimate truly how much it will cost. Name a price point where they would back away and then let the people decide.

  • Talking points
    August 27, 2012 - 09:48

    The answer above sounds fairly reasonable. It's a fairly reasonable answer indeed. It's an answer to some question, but it's not an answer to the question you asked them, is it?

  • Mark Nichols
    August 27, 2012 - 09:28

    Initially I was trying to read all arguments put forth both by proponents and opponents of the project. At some point I had had enough (for the very reasons Mr. McLeod writes of in this excellent article) and stopped reading anything on the project. In my opinion the Government has made their decision and nothing the Opposition says in the upcoming debate will change that. I want to believe that the project will be of benefit to the citizens of this province (I really do!), but I have concerns about the cost of the electricity to the consumer. Yes, we need to ensure a sufficient supply of electricity, but we need to be able to afford it for it to be of any benefit. That concern in me has not been addressed adequately by either side. Let me take that last statement a little bit further. If indeed the Lower Churchill project turns out to be a disaster for the people of this province, the opposition parties will (in my mind) bear as much responsibility as the Government beacuse they did not present clear, rational, non-partisan arguments before the populace as to WHY the project should not go ahead. So, what do I want from the debate? Just the facts please! Seriously, just present the facts of your argument, for or against, in accessable language (for us non-engineer types) completely devoid of any partisan mudslinging and/or demonization of opposing views. The citizens of this province deserve that much at least.

  • Andrew
    August 27, 2012 - 08:37

    You're not new to politics, I'm pretty sure the western world has been asking this same question since 1988 when the American presidential debate stopped asking tough questions and transformed into a political infomercial. I mean, the ancient form of 'debate' was to present logic and facts in order to convince the other party - today, certainly thanks to media - it would be foolish to admit you're wrong, weather the facts are there or not. The amount of money that is put into specific interest negates any true hope of factual choices based on evidence and are instead guided by particular party interest (which are usually created and re-enforced by those at the top).

  • Geoff Meeker
    August 27, 2012 - 08:09

    This is good stuff. Part of the problem is that the premier and resources minister have also questioned the motives of Muskrat Falls critics. That doesn't do a lot for the tone of debate either. I am not an opponent of Muskrat Falls so much as a person with a lot of unanswered questions. I think the media have done a good job of gathering quotes from all sides of this debate. However, there has been precious little investigative journalism, to really probe the critical issues. For example, can you point me toward a link, document or news story demonstrating that our province actually NEEDS this power? Or how thoroughly they have investigated alternatives, including demand side management? If these documents can be produced, they should be at the centrepiece of discussion. If they aren't on full display, why not? I could go on, but I'm writing a blog item about this as well. Thanks for prompting this discussion.

  • Fred
    August 27, 2012 - 08:07

    Why not pick on Mr. Kent if he is picking on others and undermining people's credibility all over the place, on twitter and CBC? Also, I don't know about the language you used there at the end, James.