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BRIAN JONES: Muskrat Falls Inquiry could prove naysayers wrong

The Muskrat Falls Inquiry is about to hold its first hearing. — Telegram file photo
— Telegram file photo - SaltWire Network

The naysayers among us — and I was one — who initially claimed the Muskrat Falls Inquiry would be a waste of $33 million are on the verge of having to admit we were wrong.

Ed Martin and his Nalcor crew have uniformly put in stellar performances to prove the $33 million will be well spent.

It’s as if they held a huddle and Martin gave an inspired pep talk before they hit the hearings: “Guys, we totally blew it on the Muskrat Falls project, but let’s go out there and ace it at the inquiry.”

Martin’s testimony has been worth at least $6 million of the $33-million price tag.

He said it hadn’t been necessary for him to inform the provincial government in 2013 when the Muskrat Falls project’s estimated cost rose to $7 billion from $6.2 billion, because the number often changed.

Indeed it did. It was going up.

You might think — incorrectly, as the inquiry revealed — a guy making $685,000 per year would realize a crucial aspect of his responsibilities as president and CEO of Nalcor Energy was to keep the provincial cabinet and premier informed about every important detail of the project.

Did it matter that the estimated cost of the project had risen by $800 million? Apparently not. At least, not enough for Martin to pick up the phone.

This must be unfathomable to a goodly portion of the citizenry who are paying attention to the ongoing inquiry. And yet, this instance is consistent with much of the proceedings, which have done much to reveal the operational mindset of political players and provincial apparatchiks.

“I can’t recall.”

“I don’t remember.”

“Nobody told me.”

And so on.

One solution to such weak memories is to write things down. Written records are essential to the good-governance cliché of “accountability and transparency,” which is touted during election campaigns but put into storage afterward.

The number of missing notebooks among former premiers and high-ranking bureaucrats must sound familiar to primary schoolteachers. “Now children, take out your … what do you mean you can’t find yours, Kathy?”

This is what we are paying for. Not the $33 million, but our collective taxes to run the government and the province. People who can’t even keep track of who was at which meeting are also entrusted with little things like solving the provincial debt dilemma and figuring out how to deliver affordable health care.

People who can’t even keep track of who was at which meeting are also entrusted with little things like solving the provincial debt dilemma and figuring out how to deliver affordable health care.

It was worth at least a million bucks to hear that Martin and Premier Dwight Ball both knew in late 2015 and early 2016 that Astaldi Canada’s parent company in Italy was likely on the verge of bankruptcy.

As I’ve said many times before, and will say again for free, that was the exact time the Muskrat Falls project should have been cancelled.

Granted, the recent revelations at the inquiry were mainly about who would lead the negotiations with Astaldi Canada, i.e., Martin or not Martin, but a more important bit of information was that the main contractor was going bust. It was an opportune time to give Astaldi a push, and save the taxpayers billions.

Why wasn’t it done? Ball is due on the witness stand in a couple of weeks. Let’s hope he doesn’t forget his notebooks.

Inquiry naysayers should heed the adage of horseracing fans: “Hang on to your tickets until the results are final.”

It is too early to declare definitively the inquiry naysayers were wrong. It’s a long shot, but they just might be proven right, because the second aspect of the critique of spending $33 million was that it is all merely a political exercise. This aspect of the argument is picking up speed in the home stretch.

You can’t ignore the horrifying possibility that the main accomplishment of the inquiry will be to exonerate those who should not be exonerated — the politicians who pushed and approved the Muskrat Falls project, but who now largely claim to have been misled and not kept informed about the risks and costs.

If that is what the $33 million ends up buying, then yes, it will have been money very badly spent.

Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached at brian.jones@thetelegram.com.


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