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 email@example.com.