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Pam Frampton: Hallelujah — Muskrat Falls inquiry’s a go

Premier Dwight Ball talks to reporters as the federal Liberal cabinet meets in St. John’s Tuesday.
Premier Dwight Ball talks to reporters as the federal Liberal cabinet meets in St. John’s Tuesday.

Well, bring it on. Premier Dwight Ball says an inquiry into the $12.7-billion Muskrat Falls fiasco will be called this fall. Time to get out the whetstone and hone some sharp and pointy questions, eh?

Pam Frampton

It’s a change in tune for the premier, who had been intent on waiting for the project to be finished before taking any action.

But we’re seeing a decidedly more action-oriented Dwight Ball these days.

I don’t know if it’s because he’s feeling pressure halfway through his mandate or he’s come to the realization that he’d ending up wearing Muskrat Falls if the public doesn’t get some answers soon; whatever the reason, it’s a welcome change.

It’s the second assertive move recently from the normally understated premier. The first was his demand for answers from Nalcor’s board of directors this month about its use of so-called “embedded” contractors.

As James McLeod reported in The Telegram Sept. 9, about 90 per cent of the Muskrat Falls project management team is comprised of non-Nalcor employees — independent contractors who have billed for nearly 4.6 million hours so far.

Nalcor has refused to disclose their rates of pay, citing commercial sensitivity. The Telegram is appealing that decision.

Paul Davis

And the premier has come out swinging, reminding Nalcor’s board of its “fiduciary obligation” to its shareholders, the people of the province.

He’s asked the board of directors if it can demonstrate that the contracted-out management structure represents the best value for tax dollars.

I’m thinking “no.”

A Nalcor spokeswoman told me this week a response from the board is coming. My follow-up email asking when was met by silence. But whether Ball gets the information or not, it’s a practice that should never have been allowed.

Was Nalcor so pressed to get the ball rolling that it had to hire people ad hoc, with no leverage in terms of rates of pay? Did a whole lot of people see a lucrative opportunity to set themselves up as corporations and hire themselves out to Nalcor as independent contractors while collecting a finder’s fee for recruiting themselves? Was Muskrat Falls seen by some as nothing but a whopping-big publicly funded pie?

And we’re not talking about just specialized positions, either. Some of the embedded contractors are working in accounting and human resources. How much money could have been saved if Nalcor had just hired these people?

And what happens when the job is done and the contractors move on? There’ll be a huge black hole where Nalcor’s Muskrat Falls expertise and corporate memory should be.

I don’t blame Nalcor’s current board of directors for the high-priced shadow workforce. But I do expect the current board to act responsibly and be accountable to the people of this province, commercial sensitivity be damned.

When you’re gambling with public money, you should expect the public to want to see your cards.

Meanwhile, it was with incredulity, while on vacation this month, that I heard about the latest Corporate Research Associates poll that pegged Paul Davis as the preferred leader in Newfoundland and Labrador politics.

Granted, the Liberals received the most support, but Davis — Progressive Conservative party leader and a former unelected premier — polled at 29 per cent (down from 36 per cent in May).

That the most popular party leader only attracts 29 per cent support is bad enough, but the fact that anyone would want Davis at the helm at this point would be laughable if it wasn’t so dumbfounding.

This is the same Paul Davis who, as recently as 2015, was referring to the spectacularly past-due and over-budget Muskrat Falls as “one of the most exciting new initiatives in green energy on the continent” and as “a project that’s going to provide great value for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.”

Quick — someone tell him about the double and triple electricity rates it will generate for ratepayers. Oh, and the staggering debt bit, too.

Remember, Muskrat Falls cost overruns continued unabated on his watch.

All I can figure is that the 29 per cent who support Davis are the same misguided lot still waiting for Danny Williams to return as our one true messiah.

 

Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email pframpton@thetelegram.com. Twitter: pam_frampton

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