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Russell
Russell Wangersky
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Here’s a little object lesson about how the world of access to information has changed in Newfoundland.

Years ago, then-opposition leader Danny Williams almost burst a blood vessel about the fact that the final deal between the province and Inco for the development of the Voisey’s Bay project would not be part of the debate on the project in the House of Assembly.

This, from Hansard in 2008, is just one example: “Isn’t it true, premier, that the people in this House, and that the people of this province, want to have this matter debated, even some members of your caucus. Some members of your own caucus do not even know what the deal is, just like we do not know what the deal is. We have no idea what the deal is. Isn’t it true that some of the members want to debate it? Wouldn’t it be proper, Mr. Premier? What is wrong with a full and open discussion in this House, by an open and accountable government like you say you have?”

Eventually the deal was signed, and, afterwards, under the Liberals, all of it was posted on the Internet. You can see it here: http://www.

nr.gov.nl.ca/nr/royalties/legal.pdf and read every single word of it, if you like.

You can also fast-forward to 2009, when the Williams government announced it had made things better for everybody under the sun. You can see that deal, called the “Fourth amendment to Voisey’s Bay Development Agreement” here: http://www.nr.gov.nl.ca

/nr/royalties/amendment_4_redacted.pdf

There is no sign of the first, second or third amendments, or any clear information about what those changes may have contained.

One difference you notice immediately about version four?

Large portions of the amendments to the deal have been redacted — in other words, they’ve been cut out of the deal because they are “commercially sensitive,” meaning we’re not allowed to know what the company and the provincial government have promised each other.

Interestingly, the fourth amendment includes a clause that says construction of the project must be completed by Feb. 28, 2013 — a target it’s unlikely to meet — or there will be penalties. But more on that in a minute.

Fast-forward to last week, when The Telegram asked for the latest amended deal between the parties.

The new mantra?

We can’t see even a redacted version of it — the whole deal is now apparently commercially sensitive. It’s not clear what might have changed.

Since 2009, has there been one revision? Two? Six? And what might they contain?

The province, in earlier deals, committed to guaranteeing electrical power for the project, and supplying it at the province’s prevailing industrial rate. Has that changed? Who knows?

Perhaps the most likely change is a softening of the project’s completion date guarantees.

The Feb. 28, 2013 date may now be substantially different — but we’re not allowed to know that anymore, and we’re not allowed to know what the government might have gotten in exchange for slacking off on the schedule. Are there tradeoffs? Benefits? Or just a gently moved date?

We may never know.

Why? Because, under the province’s access law, with something as sensitive as cabinet documents, there’s a sunset clause in the legislation that lets them be released only after 15 years.

Documents that the province has decided are commercially sensitive?

Well, there’s no obvious sunset for half a century — if the documents still happen to be in the control of the government five decades from now, they can be released. That’s 50 years after the fact.

The rules are even more strict for commercially sensitive documents within Nalcor.

Now, Premier Kathy Dunderdale said as recently as Wednesday that there are no Nalcor secrets, at least as far as Muskrat Falls is concerned: “Already, we have released thousands of pages of information, including the analysis of independent professionals with unassailable expertise in the energy industry.

“Never before in the history of our province has a project undergone such scrutiny. Never before has so much detailed information been provided. Scrutiny is a good thing. It is the right thing. This project will stand on its merits or not at all.  We will continue to make information readily accessible so that the people of Newfoundland and Labrador will have the opportunity to engage in the discussion.”

Laudable words.

But it’s interesting that when it comes to commercially sensitive information about Muskrat Falls, the decision isn’t in the premier’s hands. The head of Nalcor is responsible for that decision, and if his decision is appealed to the province’s access commissioner, he has the option to dictate to the commissioner that Nalcor’s view is the right one.

And, while thousands of pages have been released, a significant amount of information hasn’t been. Sixty-seven of the company’s exhibits during the PUB examination of the project had portions of their contents edited out, and 15 exhibits the PUB looked at were listed by Nalcor as confidential documents — including the study that oil price forecasts were based on, a study that estimated the “firm generation potential of the Muskrat Falls development” and the Gate 2 capital cost estimates for both the Muskrat Falls generating facility and the island link power line project.

One thing’s for sure.

What governments feel their constituents have a right to know seems to ebb and flow.

Want a fun fact?

When the UN General Assembly held its first general session in 1946, it declared that “freedom of information is a fundamental human right.”

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: House of Assembly.This, UN General Assembly

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Ed
    October 09, 2012 - 10:50

    See "2008" in 3rd paragraph.Should this not be much earlier, maybe 1998?

  • DON II
    October 07, 2012 - 13:52

    Russel Wangersky has saved me the time and effort of having to say what needs to be said. I agree 100% with Mr. Wangersky. The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador is totally out of control and lacks basic fundamentals such as honesty and ethics. Professional competence is completely lacking and an open and transparent access to information process is non existent. Competent and ethical bureaucrats are routinely ignored, passed over for promotion or threatened with being replaced by hand picked flunkies at every opportunity. The Premier and the Ministers have usurped the role of the bureaucracy and are open to lobbying and all manner of persuasion by vested interests.The Government is so poorly administered and policed that fraud, corruption and abuse of authority is assured. As things currently stand, I have reason to suspect that the Muskrat Falls project will end up being the greatest political boondoggle and financial disaster in the history of the Province!

  • saelcpve
    October 07, 2012 - 08:50

    The big dig in Boston was said to be 2.8 billion and ended up costing 12 billion careful what you wish for

    • Eli
      October 08, 2012 - 08:42

      The Big Dig is still leakin' but doesn't have the stink of our harbour cleanup which went $40-million over budget. Lord Dennis was among the estimators of that budget.

  • Ron Tizzard
    October 07, 2012 - 07:57

    Russell...you wrote, 'What governments feel their constituents have a right to know seems to ebb and flow'. You are so right, and the statement is so true! Personally, I think democracy is in the mind of the 'holder'...and that is as far as it get's on any given day. And we, the voters, give our assent to that variety of obfuscation each election. So, we can shout, swear, smear, dance in our disdain for our elected 'word-dancers'; but, in the final analysis...they are indeed our voices for 'a term'. But, we have an opportunity to change that...but, we don't take advantage to do just that! Maybe, that's because we cannot see any differnce in the options...even in 'not voting'. And, that's called 'burn-out'... we just can't or don't care any more...thinking that any prospect of respectful change is just a myth.

  • Ron Tizzard
    October 07, 2012 - 07:42

    Russell...you wrote, 'What governments feel their constituents have a right to know seems to ebb and flow'. You are so right, and the statement is so true! Personally, I think democracy is in the mind of the 'holder'...and that is as far as it get's on any given day. And we, the voters, give our assent to that variety of obfuscation each election. So, we can shout, swear, smear, dance in our disdain for our elected 'word-dancers'; but, in the final analysis...they are indeed our voices for 'a term'. But, we have an opportunity to change that...but, we don't take advantage to do just that! Maybe, that's because we cannot see any differnce in the options...even in 'not voting'. And, that's called 'burn-out'... we just can't or don't care any more...thinking that any prospect of respectful change is just a myth

  • Ed. A.
    October 06, 2012 - 10:52

    the next election should be like what happened to the conservatives after mulroony. and every election after that should be cleanout time. get rid of the garbage.

  • Pierre Neary
    October 06, 2012 - 09:12

    Russell, I stand to be corrected but wasn't Sandy Pond one of the great changes made by Mr. Williams and Minister Johnson?