The message then:
“Make no mistake about it, my friends. The quality of our children’s future will be determined by the choice we make right here, right now. This is our proving ground, and their future is what is at stake.”
— Premier Kathy Dunderdale, Oct. 3, on why Muskrat Falls must go ahead
The message now:
“There’s no such thing as the perfect deal. … When you’re trying to look 30, 40 years down the road, then there’s always going to be concerns. … There’s always fear; there’s trepidation. But what we’re trying to do is give people that degree of comfort.”
— Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy, Nov. 5, on how the government understands people’s concerns about the project
In a refreshing diversion from government spin, Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy was surprisingly frank during an editorial board gathering on Monday at The Telegram.
Asked if he thought the government has done a good job so far of communicating the complexities and benefits of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, the minister was blunt.
“No, I don’t think that we have done a great job of communicating this, and I can give you a couple of examples myself, that I’ve done. One is, (I was saying) ‘No debate! No debate!’ Then, a week later, (it was) ‘OK, let’s have a debate now.’ You know, so I mean, that’s not good communication.”
The problem with the government’s Muskrat Falls message till now is that it has been a moving target. One week the project was all about clean energy, the next it was job creation, then it was all about being an affordable energy source, then it was a means of foiling Quebec, then it was a lure for mining companies.
In fact, the deal may offer all these things, but it was being sold piecemeal — leaving the government sounding like it was doing the equivalent of throwing spaghetti against the wall to see if something would stick.
At the same time, the government and Nalcor were trying to respond to critics raising a myriad of concerns — among them, a perceived lack of potential customers for energy, cost overruns, intrusion onto land claimed by aboriginals.
In many cases, opponents were shrilly spurned as being doomsayers, which just made the government sound cagey and defensive.
Kennedy acknowledged that the earlier strategy often came back to bite them in the rear.
“As a minister, or as a government, our obligation is to ensure as best we can that factual information is put out,” he said.
“That same obligation doesn’t necessarily attach to our critics, and I can give you an example. … (One critic claimed) ‘power rates will double.’ Well, that wasn’t correct, but it resonated; it was something that was put out there in the public and it took us months to be able to combat that.
“So, this has been an ongoing issue. … Again, it’s that grasshopper effect of jumping from issue to issue, trying to address them all, that has certainly caused problems with the communications.”
In short, the Muskrat message got mangled. The more the government protested that the critics were ill-informed, the more some folks felt there was conspiracy afoot.
That’s what happens when dissent is summarily dismissed.
And you can’t blame people for being suspicious about the government’s single-minded drive to get the deal done. Let’s face it, we’ve suffered our share of boondoggles in this province, so people are naturally leery — and wisely so — when billions of dollars of their money are at stake.
Not a conspiracy theorist
I don’t believe the government is out to fleece ordinary citizens in order to line the pockets of corporate cronies.
Will businesses benefit from Muskrat Falls? No doubt. But how would it be advantageous to the government to saddle us all with a financial burden that we will bequeath to our children and grandchildren? That would merely leave behind a legacy of impoverishment, which carries its own high price tag.
I think the government really is trying to meet the province’s energy needs, and I hope they’re on the right track. But frankly, what any of us thinks makes no real difference, because Muskrat Falls is going ahead.
The government has a majority, so even if the opposition parties were given a chance to participate in a special debate on the project, there’s nothing that will stop the train steaming towards sanction at this point.
This week, we saw the government release a flurry of reports meant to dispel the notion that there are better alternatives out there.
Whether they will reassure people who are still not convinced remains to be seen.
What is somewhat reassuring is that the government finally seems to have realized that its initial approach in selling Muskrat bombed, for the most part, and it is now trying to answer questions rather than shooting down those who dare ask them.
“What we’re trying to do,” Kennedy said of the new communications strategy, “is to give people that degree of comfort that, as a government, we’ve done a good job in terms of providing the information that they require.”
The thing is, it would have saved a lot of time, energy and acrimony in this province if someone had just thought of that sooner.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and
The Telegram’s associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at