Making their own mark, post-Williams
During the next few months leading up to the October 2011 provincial election, the provincial Tories will be trying to leave a mark — they’re going to try to show why a post-Danny government is a good thing, with different and new ideas.
I’ve got a few suggestions — and being that it’s New Year’s Eve, you could even call them possible resolutions.
All of them fall along the same line. Instead of continuing the fiction of what former premier Danny Williams always liked to call one of the most transparent and accountable governments in the country, the Tories could try something new — they could bite the bullet and try actually being transparent and accountable.
Here are a few options:
• Reform the province’s access to information legislation so that citizens of the province actually have a right to information, rather than depending on the divine right of cabinet ministers to release what they deign fit.
Right now, the province has a bizarre system where cabinet ministers decide what should and shouldn’t be released from their departments.
Not much of an appeal
You can then appeal a minister’s decision to an access commissioner who is supposed to have the skill and experience to interpret the legislation — but whose opinion is functionally worthless, because all the commissioner can do is to issue a non-binding recommendation, which the minister can then blithely ignore.
That’s a stupid system — but don’t take my word for it.
Another observer had this to say: “You can appeal … and that person has no power … This piece of legislation is nothing but a sham.”
That prescient observer?
Danny Williams in 2002. In government, he chose not to fix the problem. The Tories could now show they actually know what transparency means.
• Whistleblower legislation. The Williams government spent an equal amount of time promising that they would bring in whistleblowing legislation — it’s the kind of protection that would allow a government employee to notify senior staff about critical problems within government without facing disciplinary action.
Finding missteps faster
What good would that do?
I don’t know — maybe a laboratory worker in Eastern Health would go ahead and promptly report testing problems with tissue samples, if they had the security of knowing that whistleblowing legislation protected their job.
Maybe a House of Assembly functionary might have pointed out that MHAs were soaking up millions of dollars of constituency allowance funds without ever deigning to provide receipts. The possibilities are mind boggling.
• House of Assembly sittings. Just because the Williams administration clearly thought the House of Assembly was a useless waste of time, there’s no reason for the new Tory government to continue the same way.
We’re almost always near the bottom in the nation when you consider the number of sitting days in Canadian provincial legislatures.
Well, 51 days in 2010, 43 days in 2009, 52 days in 2008, 34 days in 2007, 40 days in 2006 and 46 days in 2005.
That’s 44 days a year, or you can look at it another way: the House has been in session for a combined 266 days in the last six years. If you’ve got a full-time job with three weeks of vacation a year, you’ll have almost as many work-days in a single year as the province’s legislators have spent in the House in the last six.
Find something to do
Maybe the government will complain there’s nothing to do: well, how about whistleblowing legislation, access to information legislation, etc.?
And here’s an interesting thought: Postmedia columnist Joan Bryden recently wrote about the impact of ever-shrinking federal parliamentary sessions, and spoke to Queen’s University political scientist Ned Franks, who has been watching the diminishing number of sitting days and the fact that more and more decisions are made at the cabinet table.
“I think there’s a problem there,” Franks said. “I think in the long term government itself suffers because the bills that get through haven’t stood the test of parliamentary scrutiny … And so, we’re governed in ignorance.”
Anyone want to accidentally expropriate a contaminated paper mill?
• Then, there’s the big elephant in the legislative room, the most expensive option this province’s electorate has been asked to take on sheer faith for years.
What could the Tories do about it? Well, they could provide more information on just what is happening with Muskrat Falls, the single largest project on this province’s horizon and one that could topple us into Irish-style superdebt.
Over the last fistful of years, we’ve gone from a huge project at the Lower Churchill that was expected to export power into the North American grid at a profit, to a much smaller project that will essentially import power to the island part of the province and earn any profits (especially in the first 35 years) primarily on the backs of electricity consumers on the island.
We’ve gone from the grand scheme of being an energy warehouse for the continent’s needs to being an energy grocery and convenience store for ourselves.
Some export possibilities
Sure, there will be capacity to send some power through a powerline that Nova Scotia’s Emera is building in exchange for free power — and, 35 years down the line, we’ll own the power line, at least as far as the coast of Cape Breton.
But 35 years is a lot of power bills away.
Somewhere along the line, there has to be a clear explanation just exactly why and how a 2,800-megawatt project was forecast to cost $3.3 billion in 2005, became a $6 billion to $9 billion project by 2006, and finally turned out to be a $6.2-billion deal for a first phase of the Lower Churchill, one that would generate just 824 megawatts of power.
To put that all into perspective, take a step back and consider what the cost would be per megawatt of power.
We were originally looking at selling power to North America, and paying close to $1.2 million per megawatt to build the twin generation facilities. Now, five years later, we’re looking at selling power to ourselves, and paying more than $7.5 million per megawatt to build the much-smaller facility and transmission lines.
And don’t forget, we’d be collecting the interest and capital primarily from our own population instead of other customers.
Someone has to explain, clearly and concisely, just in what universe that will be a good thing. The new natural resources minister, Shawn Skinner, made an attempt earlier this week — but the attempt was short on hard numbers, and long on “trust us, we know what we’re doing.”
We need a real explanation — and that explanation has been promised before.
“I can personally assure the people of the province that this process will be more open and more transparent than any process by any administration in the past,” Williams said about the Lower Churchill in 2007.
Like real access to information laws and whistleblower legislation, that assurance has simply gone by the wayside.
Maybe the new Tories can be different: maybe they could be transparent. And accountable.
What a concept.
Russell Wangersky is the editorial page
editor of The Telegram. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.