Debate could go to committee level: prof

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Andrew Robinson
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Government House leader says no special debate this fall

Darin King — Telegram file photo

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.”

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.

arobinson@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @TeleAndrew

Organizations: Department of Political Science, Liberal Party, MHAs New Democratic Party Public Utilities Board CBC News Energy Inc. Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities

Geographic location: Government House, Westminster, Chance

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Recent comments

  • Cyril Rogers
    November 07, 2012 - 23:12

    Some of you may be "sick and tired" of the debate around this project but if you don't pay close attention now, it will come back to haunt all of the citizens of this province in years to come. Darren King, is the new epitome of arrogance for the Tories; of course they don't want experts. That would uncover some nasty little inconvenient truths that they are glossing over in their zeal to consummate this deal. The Tories can't bear the thought of real scrutiny in an open debate and with expert testimony that contradicts their so-called "facts". The whole thing was contrived from Day One and the cover-up continues. NALCOR and government keep singing the same old song despite all kinds of evidence to rebut their position. If it doesn't fit, it doesn't count for anything.

  • Jay
    November 07, 2012 - 19:29

    And I have to laugh at Dennis Browne praising up the PUB as a credible organization. If the Conservatives hadn't stupidly appointed Andy Wells as Commissioner, they'd have their go-ahead from the PUB by now. And Browne would be crying that the PUB was a rubber stamp for government.

  • saltheart
    November 07, 2012 - 12:35

    Mr. King, how can you achieve the highest quality of information if you do not allow the experts to answer questions, they certainly do know alot more than you and the rest of you collegues, we as citizens of the middle and lower class has the most to lose because we don't have big pensions like the ones all politicians will leave with, i am very much in favor of the muskrat falls deal however it certainly seems like the government is hellbent on keeping the general public in the dark, all i have to say is STOP PLAYING POLITICS WITH OUR LIVES, THIS IS NOT THE TIME OR PLACE FOR IT.

  • Ben
    November 07, 2012 - 07:50

    I have to laugh the Liberals bring up that Joey brought in experts back in the 70's. There is a big difference with access to information now than back in the 70's. We have all kinds of avenues to get information that we would not have dreamed off in the 70's. Either have the debate with the MHA's speaking on the topic or don't have it at all. I think alot of us are getting sick and tired of the retoric.