But leveraging Quebec-N.L. debate was fair game, Gilbert Bennett says
Leading the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project for Nalcor Energy, Gilbert Bennett says he doesn’t think the Crown corporation should have been involved in any discussion of possible partisan, political attacks to help get the project approved.
A collection of presentation slides from August 2012 were added to the public evidence at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry earlier this month. They are Nalcor Energy slides, but set out “key messages” for a political debate in the House of Assembly on the project, happening later that year. They include notes on potential attacks on Liberals and the NDP — opposition to the then-governing Progressive Conservatives. The slides reference a political “hit squad” who could use the talking points in support of the project’s approval.
“I don’t know how it ended up on our letterhead, or on our presentation template. This is political messaging and that’s not the lane I have worked in,” Bennett said Wednesday on the stand at the inquiry.
Tom Marshall was the finance minister during the Muskrat Falls debate at the end of 2012 and previously testified he doesn’t recall the presentation, and wouldn’t have paid much attention to it.
Nalcor Energy lawyer Dan Simmons has suggested in questioning the slides were from a joint “communications committee.”
Bennett testified he’d expect there would be some public messaging shared between the provincial government and Crown corporation, but partisan talking points would be going too far. He said the public service should “absolutely” remain non-partisan.
However, he testified the “general political landscape” would not necessarily be outside of what Nalcor Energy’s communications staff might consider in their work.
Taken to another Nalcor Energy document, one referencing the idea to “leverage Quebec versus N.L. debate” to gain public support, Bennett didn’t object.
“I think that’s OK. But like I said, it better not be the principle message, and it better not be the only message, and it better not be the only way we’re communicating information,” he said.
Bennett was asked other questions — by inquiry co-counsel Kate O’Brien and then other lawyers for the parties with standing — tied to the perception of the project pre-construction.
There were questions on the various “cold eyes” reviews completed for the project and the reports coming out of those reviews.
Asked about changes proposed by project director Paul Harrington to the report from an Independent Project Review (IPR) team, he issued his disapproval.
“I wasn’t aware of these particular situations,” he said, testifying it was common, normal, for Nalcor Energy’s project team to receive draft reports for a variety of reasons, including assuring the consultant has made use of accurate information. But he disagreed with the specific edits proposed being within the accepted norms.
“I don’t think this was appropriate,” he said, pressed on the suggested edits.
They were ultimately rejected.
Meanwhile, Bennett was also asked why he did not personally communicate certain consultant recommendations related to the project cost, risk and schedule to Nalcor Energy’s board of directors and to provincial government representatives to assure they understood what the project team was being told.
He said then-president and CEO Ed Martin received “cold eyes” reports and he believed key information, such as a recommendation on schedule reserve, was for Martin to convey.
Bennett will continue under cross-examination at the inquiry on Thursday. Friday has been reserved for an in camera session about the issue of water management on the Churchill River.
The Muskrat Falls Inquiry