A representative of the premier’s office wrote a note after my column last week about Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s new reticence to answer questions, asking for a correction and saying that reporters were not told she was at the MacMorran Centre as an MHA rather than as a premier — instead, what they “were told is that the premier would have some time for questions but was on a very tight schedule that day, especially given the many people — her constituents — at the event who wished to speak with her.”
Fair enough — even if the complaint completely ignores the issue of Dunderdale choosing to dodge questions.
You could say that the premier’s office is hung up on the minutiae, while ignoring the larger issue.
But that’s far from unique in government. Focus on the small, while the larger issues go by the boards.
Take the House of Assembly.
It was refreshing to see the premier not only answering questions last week, but being cornered into answering questions that she had refused to come out of the House of Assembly to answer only a week earlier. Sad, then, that the House of Assembly closed this past week, and from now on, appearances will be closer and closer to the fall election, and events will more and more carefully staged with every passing day.
The House closing was lauded by Government House Leader Joan Burke, who issued a press release saying “significant accomplishments were made during this session, including some much-needed updates and amendments to
various pieces of legislation. The Fourth Session of the 46th General Assembly resulted in 31 pieces of legislation and two resolutions being passed.”
Of those, two warranted mention by Burke: an update to legislation concerning vulnerable adults, and a new act governing doctors.
Of those 31, 29 passed without
a single amendment, and many passed with next to no debate whatsoever.
Dig deeper, and the legislative load gets even lighter: Bill 6 moved the time the clocks move ahead or fall back from midnight to 2 a.m., bringing us into line with, well, the rest of North America. Bill 11 increases the maximum amount of a claim in Small Claims Court from $5,000 to $25,000. Bill 8 got rid of the province’s Law Reform Commission.
And so on and so forth: out of 31 Bills considered in the House this session, 18 consisted of only a single page of legislation. Another five were three pages long or less, meaning that some 23 bills out of 31 came to a whopping 32 pages of legislation, or less to consider than one issue of Maclean’s.
Meanwhile, big things have been happening in the province: the provincial government has signed a term sheet to develop Muskrat Falls and, as we speak, the whole thing looks pretty much like a done deal.
Dunderdale has said the project is undergoing a third independent review (she’s also suggested Nalcor “might” release the first two reviews), but the government has already said that the review “will show” that the project will provide the lowest-cost power available to the province.
(It’s one thing to be confident — it’s another, slightly different thing to be able to pronounce what the results of an independent study will be before the contract for that study has even been signed.)
Then, there’s the hiring. SNC-Lavalin, a main contractor for the project-that-isn’t-yet, has been recruiting scores of engineers — dam-and-slope geotechnical engineers and transmission line design electrical engineers — for weeks now. They have ads out for construction managers, construction supervisors, contract managers and labour relations managers. That work started in March.
Here’s a snippet of the press release SNC-Lavalin put out at the time, saying it had signed a contract with Nalcor Energy to deliver Phase 1 of the Muskrat Falls project: “Phase 1 of the Lower Churchill project will consist of the Muskrat Falls generating facility with a capacity of 824 MW. The transmission system project will include 1,200 km of high voltage direct current overhead transmission lines crossing from Labrador to the island of Newfoundland via subsea cables and associated converter stations, as well as high voltage alternating current overhead transmission lines interconnecting the Muskrat Falls facility to the Churchill Falls Generating Station. Services will begin immediately.”
Yet at this point, there hasn’t been a stain of legislation in the House of Assembly to even come close to moving the project forward, let alone legislative approval for the billions of dollars we’d have to borrow to finance the venture.
Now, big projects have big lead-times, and the time frame here is tight. The term sheet signed by the government was only good for a year, meaning it will expire on Nov. 18, 2011.
Meanwhile, there’s a provincial election on Oct. 11, so there won’t be a session of the House before the next vote.
If the Tories win — as they are likely to, given the sorry state of the opposition — expect them to say they’ve been given a mandate to go ahead with the project, even if that’s a huge reach of logic.
When the deal does finally go through the House, it’s going to go through in a rush. In all likelihood, the final deal will have to be approved (if it even goes to the House, because newly elected governments have regularly cancelled the fall session of the House of Assembly) in a handful of days, at best.
If the House were to go back in session the day after the election (it won’t) there would be a maximum of 22 days to consider the final deal.
What does it look like? Fait accompli.
Is there any value, at this point, in pointing out that haste makes waste?
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.