ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Provincial politicians head back to the legislature Monday in St. John's, N.L., amid growing protest over the $7.4 billion Muskrat Falls megaproject.
The house of assembly, in business for the first time since June, will be dominated by the pricey plan to bring hydro power from the lower Churchill River in Labrador to Newfoundland then Nova Scotia.
And it looks like the project billed as the heftiest public expenditure in Newfoundland and Labrador's history is set to go forward without committee scrutiny or even a special debate.
"It's awful," said Christopher Dunn, a political scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland. "It's not a good thing for the shape of democracy in the province, and my feeling is that it's going to come back and have a harmful ricochet for the government.
"The political rules of the game have changed," he said of increasing demands in the province and across Canada for more responsive and inclusive governance. A megaproject such as Muskrat Falls should, at the very least, go before a legislative committee equipped to question expert witnesses, Dunn said.
At most, it should be put to a referendum that would allow all voters to have the most direct say, he added.
"People aren't willing to accept old models anymore with regard to political life. And this just strikes me as the political class deciding our affairs when that model is so yesterday that it's kind of tragic."
The majority Progressive Conservative government has refused Liberal Opposition demands for a special debate or committee format that would include questioning expert energy witnesses.
Premier Kathy Dunderdale has rejected any regulatory review by the provincial Public Utilities Board since it declined to endorse Muskrat Falls at an earlier stage, saying it wasn't given enough time or information.
Instead, Dunderdale said a raft of government commissioned reports by consultants who validated Muskrat Falls as the best option should satisfy skeptics.
"We've had the work audited and validated," she said last week. "Now it's time for our policy debate on whether or not this is a sensible thing to do."
Crown corporation Nalcor Energy's plan with private Nova Scotia utility Emera (TSX:EMA) is to bring hydro power from the lower Churchill River in Labrador to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia using subsea cables. The project has been endorsed "using the best utility practices in the world," Dunderdale said.
Her government is expected to officially approve Muskrat Falls in coming weeks.
But a growing grassroots movement calling itself the People's Assembly will host events over the next week in protest. Its members have used Facebook and Twitter to blast the government for steamrolling the public with its consultants' reports and a $500,000 advertising campaign to promote Muskrat Falls.
"What we really are looking for is for democracy to be put back into the process," said protest leader and singer-songwriter Con O'Brien of the Irish Descendants. His new song "Our Daughters and Our Sons" laments what could be a millstone around the necks of future ratepayers if Muskrat Falls soars over budget.
"We have a responsibility to the future generations of Newfoundland not to put them in a position that strangles them for 60 years," he said.
Dunderdale said Muskrat Falls has been debated in the province in one form or another for decades. She also asserts that her government won approval for the project when it was re-elected in October 2011 with its energy platform front and centre.
Not so, says O'Brien.
"She does not have that mandate as far as many people are concerned."
Liberal Leader Dwight Ball said he tried since last June to compromise with Dunderdale on a special debate for Muskrat Falls — a format that requires unanimous party consent.
"We gave her a number of options and she refused all of them."