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Bob Wakeham: Muskrat Falls masquerade

Some of the key personnel associated with the Muskrat Falls Nalcor Energy project shown at Soldiers Pond during the tour on Wednesday morning. (From left) Walter Parsons, vice-president Transmission and Community Affairs, John McIsaac, executive vice-president Power Supply, Stan Marshall, CEO, Sean Lee, Health and Safety Lead, HVDC (high voltage direct current) Group, Soldiers Pond/Muskrat Falls/Churchill Falls, Ray Butler, construction superintendent, Soldiers Pond and Brendan Paddick, chair of the board of directors for Nalco Energy.
Some of the key personnel associated with the Muskrat Falls Nalcor Energy project shown at Soldiers Pond during the tour June 27. (From left) Walter Parsons, vice-president Transmission and Community Affairs, John McIsaac, executive vice-president Power Supply, Stan Marshall, CEO, Sean Lee, Health and Safety Lead, HVDC (high voltage direct current) Group, Soldiers Pond/Muskrat Falls/Churchill Falls, Ray Butler, construction superintendent, Soldiers Pond and Brendan Paddick, chair of the board of directors for Nalco Energy. — Telegram file photo

Whichever public relations types were assigned the job of promoting the arrival of the first sparks of Muskrat Falls power on the island last week as a celebratory “milestone” should be given an international spin-doctoring award of the year, if not the decade.

Talk about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

The video and photographs taken of the ceremonies at Soldiers Pond, the first port of call of Muskrat Falls electricity, showed plenty of smiling faces, way too many for my liking (and, I would suggest, thousands of other Newfoundlanders), those not hoodwinked by Nalcor’s PR apparatus, and the Crown corporation’s increasing efforts to convince us that this financial disaster of a project — arguably and potentially the worst fiscal fiasco this province has had to endure (in a place that has had an inordinate share of developmental blarney) — is not quite as bad as we might have all thought; that it may have, if you believe pigs can fly, turned a corner.

Even Stan Marshall, the sheriff of Muskrat, Sheriff Marshall if you will, brought in on his white stallion two years ago to clean up what he agreed was a boondoggle, one that should have never, ever have been given the go-ahead in the first place, seems to be taking the odd sip of some of the Kool-Aid concocted by Danny Williams and stirred by Kathy Dunderdale and Ed Martin, among other believers in the contaminated brew.

“We’ve reached an important step to enhance reliability and create new opportunities for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador,” was at least part of the official statement issued by Marshall’s handlers on his behalf. Williams would be proud. The Muskrat Falls architect couldn’t have said it any better.

Notwithstanding that public relations line, Sheriff Marshall is still keeping some of his powder dry, and may not yet be comfortable firing off his metaphorical six-shooters in the air in honour of Muskrat Falls; but there he was last week, one of the smiling faces at Soldiers Pond, doing his best not to rain on the power grid parade being staged for the Newfoundland media.

It reminded me of that great old hit from The Temptations in the early ’70s:

Smiling faces sometimes

pretend to be your friend.

Beware the handshake.

Had everyone at that little affair last week conveniently forgotten that this debacle, lacking in oversight from the beginning, benefiting from the handcuffs placed by Williams and company on the Public Utilities Board, ignoring the warnings of immensely credible observers, has seen its costs escalate from $6-billion-plus to $12-billion-plus?

Were all those smiling faces at the show and tell oblivious to the fact that electrical rates in a couple of years will double as a direct result of Muskrat Falls and will be a kick in the groin for the great percentage of Newfoundlanders already struggling to pay to heat their homes, some having to decide whether to buy groceries or put a few bucks down on their electricity bill?

I wouldn’t say Marshall or Williams or Martin will be worrying about their monthly light and power bills down the road. Others will, with lower incomes and middle incomes alike.

Marshall tried to defend the showcase, the ceremonies at Soldiers Pond, as a way to show appreciation for Muskrat Falls employees, the men and women of the lunch-bucket brigade, most of whom worked hard and long hours, I’m sure, to get the project to this point.

But I’d bet the Muskrat Falls workers have seen plenty of recognition in their paycheques; have been rewarded quite handsomely from the project, and don’t require a slap on the back from Sheriff Marshall. Not that I begrudge them one single cent. I have good friends who’ve made a bundle up North, and I say more power (so to speak) to them.

There was just something disingenuous and phony about that media event last week, that dog-and-pony show, where the elephant in the room was decidedly white; it should prove to be grand fodder for Donna Butt’s Rising Tide Revue later this year, or perhaps the “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” crowd will have a satirical field day with the showmanship, the hypocrisy.

The Temptations come to mind again:

Smiling faces,

Beware, beware of the handshake.

I’m telling you beware of the pat on the back.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com

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