Let the people have their say

Gerry Phelan
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I want a referendum on the Muskrat Falls project. This thing is so big, with so many potential benefits and pitfalls, that we all deserve a direct say in whether it goes ahead.

As I’ve said for the past two weeks, my mind isn’t made up. I’m as confused as the next person, and wouldn’t want to have to cast my ballot tomorrow. We need some direction to this debate, and I’m hoping giving us all a vote will do just that.

I can hear the catcalls already — we elected the government to act on our behalf and a referendum will be a waste of time and money. Experts tell us the project is the way to go, and if that’s the best advice, we should proceed.

I can accept those responses on many issues, but this one is a lot different. We did not give the Dunderdale administration a mandate in the last election to proceed with Muskrat Falls. It wasn’t on my ballot. I voted for the candidate and the ideals he represented. It was not a yes or no on Muskrat Falls; otherwise my vote might have been different.  

The coming debate in the legislature is the next step, and I encourage a focused back-and-forth on the pros and cons of the project. I expect at least one member will make the case for a plebiscite. Others will call for another review by the Public Utilities Board.

 We’ve had our share of referendums but they have only been used when necessary. We joined Confederation with such a ballot; we changed our education system that way, and there were two votes to do that. I was on the wrong side of that one, but I admit the referendums made sure people had the information they needed on the issue.

I think that’s what would happen in this case. Those in favour of the project, likely the government and business organizations, will take one position; opposing groups — and that may not be the Liberals or New Democrats — will mount their own campaigns. Admittedly, one of the problems is that those opposed to Muskrat Falls will never have the financial resources to study other alternatives or assumptions. They will, however, contribute to the debate.

Given that the voter casts the ballot, issues have to be explained and discussed in common-sense language. If people don’t understand it, they probably won’t vote for it. Everyone has an opinion on Muskrat Falls but we need a clear and strong consensus.

Let’s look to Prince Edward Island and the Confederation Bridge.  

The idea of a fixed link was a lively discussion in that province for decades. There was talk of a tunnel or causeway. Some feared such a bridge would hurt the island’s charm as a stand-alone place, and attract more crime from the mainland.

A pro-link group made the case that more reliable transportation would bring improvements for exporters and tourism. A 1988 referendum gave the project the thumbs-up by just under 60 per cent and a 13-kilometre bridge now connects the island to the mainland. It cost more than a billion dollars.

I agree there can’t be a referendum every time the province faces a tough decision. I acknowledge we elect MHAs to weigh the information, speak on our behalf and cast their votes accordingly. If we don’t like their decisions, we can vote them out the next time around.  

But Muskrat Falls is a multibillion-dollar, publicly funded energy expenditure that will affect us for many years to come. A plebiscite will cost us several million dollars, but that’s the price for taking democracy that extra step, and making sure we can all register our voices on this undertaking. Let the legislature debate take place, but give the voters the final say.

All we need is a simple question — are you in favour of the government proceeding with the Muskrat Falls proposal as outlined by Nalcor: yes or no?

I’m still undecided and still asking questions.

Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster.

He can be reached

at gerryp@bellaliant.net

Organizations: Public Utilities Board

Geographic location: Muskrat Falls, Prince Edward Island

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Recent comments

  • laura
    November 19, 2012 - 12:58

    I certaily agree to a referendum on muskrat falls. I am concerned that the people of this province are very confused about the project just as i am. I have read several articles but still it is not very clear. I have always felt that as voters who put these people in power our roll ends at the polling stations. Well this should change and we need to have more of a say of what goes on in our province.

  • frank o'hara
    November 05, 2012 - 02:44

    it is the responsibility of government to work in the best interest of the people . If the people feel the government is working against their best interest it is incumbant on them to seek a mandate . or put simply when ya want to pawn the family silver ya got to ask mom .

  • Ken Ludlow
    November 04, 2012 - 18:33

    Yes, we need a referendum, what are the PC's affraid of, I didn't see a place for support or no support of MF on my last ballot. I dont think anybody on the pc's will vote the way the people want them to vote, but will tow the party line.

  • Winston Adams
    November 03, 2012 - 10:37

    The PUB normally has the responsibility to protect us from the power companies making decisions that are detrimental to supplying lowest cost power. Nalcor was set up with special provisions to avoid that, and important alternatives, like efficiency, can be ignored.And our consumer advocate merely rubber stamped the Nalcor data. He showed himself to be the Nalcor advocate. Any process that short circuits the PUB is not ideal, even a referendum. Because this project ,and any alternative is technical, ALL reliable, economic alternatives should be assesses, and all reviewed by the PUB, where experts can be questioned. This should come before any referendum, as it will help define technical issues into layman language, where the voter can be in formed, instead of being misinformed by MHAs.

  • Maurice E. Adams
    November 02, 2012 - 14:52

    Muskrat Poll Results Todate Option 1 [9%] Option 2 [9%] Option 3 [29%] Option 4 [53%] HAVE YOUR SAY. Go to www.vision2041.com for details and to vote

  • Cyril Rogers
    November 02, 2012 - 10:40

    A referendum is the only DEMOCRATIC way to go on this project. The financial implications are too big for it not to be otherwise. For those who believe the electorate is too uninformed, or "too stunned" to understand it, I say this. While some aspects of this project may be technical and the engineering is complex, the bottom line is that we, the ordinary people of the province are the ones who will suffer most when, not if, the project runs billions of dollars over its projected costs. These DG3 numbers are suspect, at best, and we are being led like lambs to the financial slaughter by a government that is too stunned to explain it properly. All they are doing with their glossy ads is putting out motherhood and glib comments that most people can agree on but that have no real substance. If it is such a wonderful deal, I am sure they will have no trouble explaining the positives and negative to the great masses in clear and simple terms. For those who argue that the last election was their referendum on the project, you are full of "you know what". The numbers and the details have changed significantly since the last election, as has the government's rationale for the project. Also, since that time, the government, by using its heavy-handed approach of muting criticism, and dismissing all valid critics as "naysayers", has demonstrated its arrogance and lack of respect for all who have a different point of view. Bill 29 was, in large part, an effort to control the flow of information about this project, the PUB was given a very limited and narrow terms of reference, and the Opposition are being treated like children by government. I will accept the outcome of a referendum, whatever it is, but if we are going to put ourselves into a financial cesspit, then let the ordinary people of the province be the ones to do it.

    • Morry
      November 02, 2012 - 12:57

      You think only some of the aspects are technical? Really? How about all of it. The only problem I see with a referendum is that public votes quickly turn into negative campaigns based on fear mongering. I can see it now "A vote against MF is vote against jobs" or "A vote for MF is a vote for bankruptcy". Like all other campaigns, the truth will be the first thing tossed aside.

  • Disagree
    November 02, 2012 - 09:06

    I don't know if a referendum is the way to go. This is a very technical issue that involves economics, finance and engineering knowledge. Most members of the public do not possess knowledge in any one of those fields. We need to make the right decision, not the popular decision. I would prefer to see this project handed over to a panel of MUN profs that would consist of representatives from their engineering, economics, and business schools. Let them review it make a recommendation, not to government, but to the public.

    • Ken Collis
      November 03, 2012 - 07:08

      Sorry, but MUN is a government body. There is nothing independant about them at all. They all know what side their bread is buttered on.

  • Christopher Chafe
    November 02, 2012 - 07:46

    Exactly Mr. Phelan, what we need is a referendum. We the payers of this project need to be able to voice our opinion in a non partisan way, and the only way to do that is to review all the facts concerning this project. We do not need some politician who is standing on his/her last leg to poke down our throats their perception of MF. If the people of NL vote for MF, then the Liberals and NDP will see that the people want this, and like wise if the people vote to reject MF then the PC's will see we don't want this risk. Then at the end of the day, Newfoundland can get on track to bring innovative industry to this province and keep our most important resource here........our people!