I want a referendum on the Muskrat Falls project. This thing is so big, with so many potential benefits and pitfalls, that we all deserve a direct say in whether it goes ahead.
As I’ve said for the past two weeks, my mind isn’t made up. I’m as confused as the next person, and wouldn’t want to have to cast my ballot tomorrow. We need some direction to this debate, and I’m hoping giving us all a vote will do just that.
I can hear the catcalls already — we elected the government to act on our behalf and a referendum will be a waste of time and money. Experts tell us the project is the way to go, and if that’s the best advice, we should proceed.
I can accept those responses on many issues, but this one is a lot different. We did not give the Dunderdale administration a mandate in the last election to proceed with Muskrat Falls. It wasn’t on my ballot. I voted for the candidate and the ideals he represented. It was not a yes or no on Muskrat Falls; otherwise my vote might have been different.
The coming debate in the legislature is the next step, and I encourage a focused back-and-forth on the pros and cons of the project. I expect at least one member will make the case for a plebiscite. Others will call for another review by the Public Utilities Board.
We’ve had our share of referendums but they have only been used when necessary. We joined Confederation with such a ballot; we changed our education system that way, and there were two votes to do that. I was on the wrong side of that one, but I admit the referendums made sure people had the information they needed on the issue.
I think that’s what would happen in this case. Those in favour of the project, likely the government and business organizations, will take one position; opposing groups — and that may not be the Liberals or New Democrats — will mount their own campaigns. Admittedly, one of the problems is that those opposed to Muskrat Falls will never have the financial resources to study other alternatives or assumptions. They will, however, contribute to the debate.
Given that the voter casts the ballot, issues have to be explained and discussed in common-sense language. If people don’t understand it, they probably won’t vote for it. Everyone has an opinion on Muskrat Falls but we need a clear and strong consensus.
Let’s look to Prince Edward Island and the Confederation Bridge.
The idea of a fixed link was a lively discussion in that province for decades. There was talk of a tunnel or causeway. Some feared such a bridge would hurt the island’s charm as a stand-alone place, and attract more crime from the mainland.
A pro-link group made the case that more reliable transportation would bring improvements for exporters and tourism. A 1988 referendum gave the project the thumbs-up by just under 60 per cent and a 13-kilometre bridge now connects the island to the mainland. It cost more than a billion dollars.
I agree there can’t be a referendum every time the province faces a tough decision. I acknowledge we elect MHAs to weigh the information, speak on our behalf and cast their votes accordingly. If we don’t like their decisions, we can vote them out the next time around.
But Muskrat Falls is a multibillion-dollar, publicly funded energy expenditure that will affect us for many years to come. A plebiscite will cost us several million dollars, but that’s the price for taking democracy that extra step, and making sure we can all register our voices on this undertaking. Let the legislature debate take place, but give the voters the final say.
All we need is a simple question — are you in favour of the government proceeding with the Muskrat Falls proposal as outlined by Nalcor: yes or no?
I’m still undecided and still asking questions.
Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster.
He can be reached