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Pam Frampton: Muskrat Falls demands a public inquiry

["People gather for a rally and march to protest the Muskrat Falls project in St. John's Monday."]
["People gather for a rally and march to protest the Muskrat Falls project in St. John's Monday."]

Consumer advocate Dennis Browne is unequivocal. He says there must be a public inquiry into Muskrat Falls.

Pam Frampton

In a phone interview Wednesday, he explained why he was among those who have advised Premier Dwight Ball that a forensic audit is not the best option for determining just how the multi-headed hydra of a hydroelectric project has turned into a $12.7-billion beast.

And after hearing his argument, I agree.

“This is beyond forensic accounting,” he said. “This requires a full, open process that citizens can participate in. Anything less would be a disservice to the people of this province. The public needs to hear what went on here. I urge a full public inquiry presided over by a senior justice of our Supreme Court.”

Browne is clearly incensed about Muskrat Falls, which he feels was foisted upon a public largely unaware of the capricious presumptions used to justify it.

“This province has been dealt a major financial blow of unparalleled consequences by a small group of individuals who seem to have usurped the control of the government and our finances with a defective product that they refused to have scrutinized,” he said.

Browne contends the Public Inquiries Act is the only mechanism we have with enough teeth.

“A commissioner has the ability to subpoena records and documents, which a forensic auditor doesn’t. … We don’t need forensic auditors going in and looking at computers. We need (a process whereby) documents are brought forward and put before witnesses. That is the only way to go here. … We’re into legal issues. … A judge could make findings of misconduct.”

Browne says the business community should shoulder some responsibility for backing a project that will produce power at rates most people simply cannot afford.

When then premier Danny Williams announced Muskrat Falls was a go on Nov. 18, 2010, business leaders leapt onto the bandwagon.

“We’re very excited about this announcement,” said then St. John's Board of Trade chairman Derek Sullivan. “It’s a big day for the business community.”
Richard Alexander of the Newfoundland and Labrador Employers' Council was all for it, as well. “It’s going to create a lot of jobs in this province…,” he said.

Bradley George of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) — Newfoundland and Labrador was also bullish.
“This is good for (power) rate stabilization for small business, but more than that it’s just a great day for ... the business climate,” he said at the time.

(Two months ago, the CFIB issued a news release noting that pricey Muskrat Falls power is expected to cost small- and medium-sized businesses in the province $179 million more a year.)

Dennis Browne is right. A forensic audit could not get to the heart of the bill of goods we were sold versus what we are actually going to pay for.

The only question is how soon an inquiry could be called.

Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall sees an inquiry as inevitable and the best way to get at the facts, but he thinks it’s in the best interests of the province to wait until the project is done.

“My understanding of a forensic audit is that it won’t necessarily give you the answers that you want,” he said in an interview at Nalcor’s headquarters in St. John’s on Wednesday.

Marshall says, quite simply, Muskrat Falls was predicated on flawed assumptions — that prices for electricity and oil would never go down and that demand for electricity would continue to rise.

The question is, whose assumptions were they?

“No matter what the question is, Muskrat Falls was always the answer,” Marshall said.

In other words, once the project was agreed upon, there was no stopping it and — given that it was founded on shifting sands — cost overruns and delays were inevitable.

“When the project is done there will be time (for an inquiry),” he said, and added cryptically, “I don’t think all the answers you’re looking for are necessarily in this building.”

 

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

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