Somewhere, the gods of irony are having themselves a great big chuckle, or maybe even a belly laugh. Late last week, former St. John’s city manager Ron Penney and former Public Utilities Board head David Vardy wrote a letter to The Telegram talking about Muskrat Falls.
It was a letter that was relatively moderate in tone. The guts of it? “What we need is the most robust and thorough review possible, and the consumer advocate should be given all the tools he needs to ensure this is the case and that the public interest is protected.”
Vardy and Penney also chided those who have private concerns about the massive project, but prefer to keep those thoughts to a gentle backroom murmur: “We know there are many knowledgeable people who have strong reservations about this project but, who, for personal reasons, are reluctant to make their concerns public. It is now vitally important that they make their concerns public while there is still time to influence this decision.”
Once again, seems reasonable. If you’ve got something to say, say it publicly, while it still has some kind of chance to have an effect.
But apparently that’s not reasonable at all, according to former premier Danny Williams, the original architect of the Muskrat Falls project. The CBC tracked him down
to get a comment or two, and Williams was obligingly offensive.
“I’m very disappointed in Dave Vardy's comments, and the kind of nonsense that he’s getting on with,” Williams blustered.
“Basically (they are) saying that it’s a small community and people are afraid to speak out. What kind of garbage is that?” Williams said. “To try and sort of taint it with some insinuation that people don’t want to speak out on this is absolutely absurd and it’s irresponsible.”
Oh, and, by the way, it’s true.
Because if you do speak out, you’re speaking, um, irresponsible garbage and absurd nonsense.
I’ve spoken to a series of business people in this city who are unsure about the project as a whole, decidely concerned about the current process that seems to trundling along with all the decisions effectively already made, and yet are absolutely determined not to say one single public word.
They’ll phone and tell you issues they’d like to see addressed, they’ll ask questions and explain their concerns, but they start every conversation setting the ground rules — not one single thing they say is to be attributed to them in any way.
That they’ll be singled out and publicly lambasted — something we all know happens, and which Williams himself, even in premierial retirement, is once again living proof of — and more sinisterly, that their businesses will be affected.
Will their businesses be affected? The fact is, the provincial government has a long arm in this economy and no business person worth their salt will harm their own opportunities if there is even the appearance that speaking publicly will bring corporate repercussions.
Does that appearance exist? Well, it must: otherwise, companies doing consulting work for the provincial government would not feel it necessary to buy whole tables of seats at party fundraisers. The same business people who aren’t talking publicly about Muskrat Falls also aren’t talking publicly about being telephoned by party representatives — telephone calls where the business people are told how many seats they are expected to buy for specific events.
Clearly, there must be some concern that there’s a direct line between your actions and corporate repercussions.
It may not be a legitimate fear that if you speak out against Muskrat Falls, your business will be affected.
But one thing is for certain: if you do speak out on Muskrat Falls, there’s a good chance you’ll be publicly roasted.
It’s ironic that Williams not only decided that the Vardy/Penney letter was more strident than it actually was, but that he also had to then go out and prove that what they hadn’t really said was actually true.
You could not make this stuff up.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.