It’s been testy since the start: as the government and opposition parties wrestled about the rules for a legislative debate on the Muskrat Falls project, it’s been clear that the sides have been far apart.
It’s not just the distance that separated the two — there’s the hectoring tone that has characterized even the discussion of a debate, a tone that has said from the start that neither side was that keen on giving ground.
“If you have evidence to contradict what Nalcor and others have said, it is incumbent on you, in the interest of public debate, to release that information,” Government House Leader Darin King wrote to the NDP, in a letter obtained by the CBC.
“To this point, all arguments against the project have been refuted by experts with their conclusions based on facts and empirical evidence.”
It’s not the kind of language that speaks to compromise. And Tuesday, there was no compromise, with the debate being called off.
You can easily understand why the government doesn’t want an out-of-bounds free-for-all in the House of Assembly.
Already having had to change their style of answering Muskrat questions — and already
having suffered significant damage to their own credibility — the last thing the government wants is a daily parade of witnesses (witnesses who might be more credible than ordinary MHAs or cabinet ministers) muddying the waters. More than anything else, allowing outside witnesses could allow the debate to take on a life of its own, outside the tightly controlled world of messaging that Canadian governments seem to love more and more.
The government clearly wants the debate to be short and sweet — a kind of “we’ll all read our talking points and then the public can decide who to believe” debate that would, in all likelihood, leave the Tories in a better light than the opposition parties. Obviously, that’s not the kind of debate the opposition parties want and, seeing as how there has to be unanimity on the procedural rules for the event, it’s in the opposition’s best interests to sink the debate. (It’s hard not to agree that a witnessless debate would be a waste of time. Having to watch a group of politicians with no specific large-project expertise trundle through the same arguments they’ve been making for the last year or so would make watching paint dry sound like an attractive and exciting diversion.)
The problem for the Tories?
Saying that you don’t want to hear expert witnesses testify makes it sound a lot like you have already made up your mind — or, more frighteningly, that there are things you simply don’t want discussed.
The Dunderdale government may well have valid reasons for not wanting a Muskrat dog-and-pony show.
But locking out witnesses can’t help but make the ordinary observer wonder what those witnesses might have to say — and to quote Darin King, “it is incumbent on you, in the interest of public debate” to make that information available.