A professor with the Department of Political Science at Memorial University says while the participation of unelected figures in House of Assembly debates is uncommon, there are other ways to publicly debate the feasibility of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.
Christopher Dunn said government could make use of a legislative committee to debate the project’s feasibility with the help of expert witnesses.
“Parliamentary practice usually forbids in most Westminster systems (of government) the presence of ‘strangers’ in the House, which means that parliament is only for parliamentarians,” said Dunn. “So I can see government falling back on that as a rationale for their statement.”
Government House Leader Darin King told The Telegram Monday that a special debate will not happen in the House of Assembly if opposition members insist on the involvement of expert witnesses to answer questions posed by the MHAs.
“We’re not prepared to bring so-called experts in,” said King. “That’s a deal breaker.”
House leaders for all three political parties met on Tuesday. Speaking with The Telegram following the meeting, King said it appeared there would be no special debate in the legislature concerning Muskrat Falls.
“The Liberal Party has pulled the plug on the debate,” he said, adding that the New Democratic Party and independent MHA Tom Osborne were in agreement with government on how the debate would proceed.
Dunn said it is not impossible for the government to hold a special debate as proposed by opposition members, but to have a committee question experts would not be unprecedented.
“In normal legislatures, of which we don’t have one, that is done all the time,” said Dunn.
Scott Reid, a per-course instructor with MUN’s Department of Political Science, said there was a case during the years of former Premier Joey Smallwood when expert witnesses were called to appear before the House in relation to activities at the Come By Chance Refinery.
“There is some precedence for it, and it has happened in the past,” said Reid, who is also a former Liberal Party consultant and former caucus employee.
Reid agrees that a legislative committee could handle a review.
“The whole idea of committees is that it takes some of this stuff away from the House, and it’s usually a little bit cumbersome to deal with this as a whole House.”
In years past, Reid said legislative committees were tasked with reviewing new legislation and seeking input from the public.
“In my mind, the committee system hasn’t been really functioning in this province in our House of Assembly for a number of years.”
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Earlier this year, CBC News reported that the public accounts committee had not held a public meeting in six years. The committee has since then held several meetings.
Not legislative issue
Questioned about the possibility of bringing the Muskrat Falls project to a committee for review, King said it is not a legislative issue.
“Government doesn’t need to bring this forward. We presented our plan on Muskrat Falls in two successive elections. We’ve been very clear that if elected or re-elected, that we were going to follow that option, and that’s what we’re doing.
“We indicated upfront, when asked, that we’d be interested in a debate because we felt it was important for Members of the House of Assembly to engage and debate, but this is not a legislative agenda item, and that’s what you’re talking about when you talk about legislative committees and those kinds of things. We’ve done our homework on this project.”
Dennis Browne, one of the lawyers involved with the 2041 Energy Inc. group promoting alternatives to the Muskrat Falls project, makes note of the fact the project has not met the standards of two public reviews.
A federal joint review panel’s analysis of the project found that Nalcor Energy’s assessment of Muskrat Fall’s feasibility was inadequate, and the Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities (PUB) earlier this year refused to certify the project as the least-cost option based on concerns surrounding dated information.
“The people of the province can have every confidence in our Public Utilities Board,” said Browne. “Our Public Utilities Board has kept rates reasonable and stable here since Confederation.”
If the government wants to bypass the PUB, Browne said, it is important to have a similar review conducted by a regulatory body. He said if a special debate were to take place in the House of Assembly, it should involve experts who can review the reports government is basing its support of the project on.
“The opposition parties on their own, as indeed the government on its own, would have no ability to deal with these reports unless experts were retained to comment on them,” he said.
The House is scheduled to open for its fall sitting on Nov. 19.