Now things are getting nasty

Russell Wangersky
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Two caveats: first, Telegram columnist Brian Jones is a big boy, and he is perfectly capable of fighting his own battles. Second, I may be reading far too much into a single line in a letter to the editor from Finance Minister Tom Marshall, who wrote last Saturday to complain about a column by Jones on Muskrat Falls.

But as we head into the upcoming debate about whether Muskrat Falls will proceed — a debate that may well be moot, given the positions taken by individual cabinet members — it’s interesting to look at the tone of the debate, and the way it is being reframed as we head into the next phase.

Tom Marshall is usually one of the province’s more moderate ministers. He doesn’t boil over in House of Assembly debates or question period, and when he’s faced with something that he views to be inaccurate, he will usually find a plain and almost soft-spoken way to correct the record.

And that’s what makes his response to Jones stick out.

Now, he may not have even written it — it may have been written by his communications staff for his signature, but he certainly read it and agreed with its contents before it dropped into the email box.

The part of the letter that was, to me, of most concern?

Well, after first maintaining that the Muskrat Falls debate should use accurate facts and not suspicions or suppositions, Marshall did a little suspecting of his own in a section that starts like this: “I suspect Mr. Jones is not really interested in seeing Newfoundland and Labrador reach its true potential by moving forward with large-scale energy developments that are clearly in the best interests of this province.”

Baseless, factless and a lovely little dark smear, that simple out-of-character line made me wonder if we’re about to see a sea change in how the Tories are going to address opponents to the project, or even those who question it.

Plenty at stake

This is a massive project with huge implications, not just the obvious financial ones. The two-kilometre-wide power line reserve — not the actual cut area where the power lines will run, but the strip of land that Nalcor wants set aside to run the lines around specific land features — covers an area equal to one-third of the total land mass of the province of Prince Edward Island.

The project is big enough that some observers have suggested that even before shovels are really in

the ground, a price increase of $2 billion is not out of the realm of possibility.

And $2 billion is, well, equal to an additional $4,000 from every single man, woman and child in the entire province.

So there are pressing public policy reasons for have a clear, open and informed debate, right back to the simple question of whether or not we actually need the power —  whether, for example, historically inaccurate power-needs modelling is now magically more accurate.

Marshall’s attack is not without precedent — in fact, it’s a model that other governments have tried to use for a number of years, with varied success.

It echoes former U.S. president George W. Bush’s position on the war in Iraq, loosely paraphrased as “Either you support our troops, or else you hate America.”

Another, less successful model? Federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, with his now-legendary (or infamous) argument about the Tories’ failed Internet spying legislation, “you either stand with us, or you stand with the child pornographers.”

We need a lot of things in this province — we need to find new sources of revenue to replace oil if we are to continue to spend like drunken sailors, and that might even include needing more electrical power, albeit expensive power that ordinary citizens will pay full price for, while industry is almost certain to get its electricity at much, much lower prices. (Industry, you see, has to have competitive prices or it will go elsewhere. Since ordinary citizens in this province are not able to move as easily, we are a captive market, and we will pay for that.)

The fact is that you can question the Muskrat Falls project and still have the best interests of the province and its people at heart. The government does not hold some kind of monopoly on caring for this place, and if you question the direction we’re taking, that doesn’t mean you hate the province or want it to fail.

That argument is simply ludicrous, and it’s the sort of desperate salvo that makes you think the proponents don’t have anything better to use.

If the government is going to take this debate down into the “you just want this province to fail” dirt, it is going the wrong way.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, U.S., Prince Edward Island.The Iraq

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Recent comments

  • Denise Hennebury
    September 04, 2012 - 12:36

    Thanks for this Russell. It is exhausting trying to keep up on the Muskrat Falls debate. Back online after a two week hiatus, I have read a few articles this morning including hearing the CBC article about the "Pre-Project Development" already levelling the land ... It feels like we are watching a train wreck. No matter how much we wave our arms and scream we seem powerless to stop it. WHY is that even possible? Even the people who are suppose to be the watchdogs (journalists and environmental organizations) are being, essentially silenced. No one in "power" can seem to answer a direct question and we are simply being asked to put on our blindfold, walk with them to the edge and trust that they know what they are doing.

  • john mullaly
    August 20, 2012 - 17:37

    I have a suggestion to finally end the debate of Quebec's seperation. Newfoundland and Labrador trade the section of land known as Labrador to Quebec and Quebec trade the section of land from the eastern part of the st.Lawrence to Newfoundland. There is a land bridge between eastern and western Canada, we still own the st.Lawrence seaway, Quebec gets its seperation, Newfoundland is out of a bad deal with the church hill falls hydro project, Quebecers who do not want to seperate can move to the new-Newfoundland section and still maintain their french Culture. I wonder if we really do need the PM's ok on this? maybe Quebec and Newfoundland can work out the details without Ottawa's interference, cause look at all the mess Brian caused with all that meech lake bullshit. let us know what you think R.O.C.K.(rest of Canada) why shouldn'd we find a deal that works for Quebec and the rest of us, I'd still go to Quebec for a visit would you? and NO MORE whining about Canada pissing on poor Quebec.

  • Jay Person
    August 18, 2012 - 08:52

    You think it's nasty now, just wait until the people figure out how badly they've been screwed.