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BRIAN JONES: Stan Marshall drinks Dwight Ball’s Kool-Aid

Nalcor Energy CEO and president Stan Marshall at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry in St. John’s on Wednesday.
Nalcor Energy CEO and president Stan Marshall at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry in St. John’s. - Joe Gibbons

Stan Marshall has turned out to be a big disappointment.

When Marshall was appointed CEO and president of Nalcor Energy in the spring of 2016, hopeful but naïve Newfoundlanders — and I was among them — thought the former Fortis boss would use his years of experience and know-how in all things electrical to shut down the disastrous Muskrat Falls project. After all, Fortis had declined to get involved with it.

Instead, Marshall described the province-busting megaproject as a “boondoggle” but carried on.

Equally disappointing is Marshall’s willingness to be a shill for Premier Dwight Ball, and spout the Liberal line about everything Muskrat.

The latest, and most egregious, was Marshall’s repeating of the Liberals’ mantra since their election in 2015 that it was too late — circa 2016 — to stop, cancel, end or abandon the boondoggle.

Keep this in mind now and into the future: whenever anyone says it was “too late” to stop the Muskrat Falls project, they are talking politics.

It was indeed “too late” politically to stop Muskrat Falls. When Newfoundland voters threw out the Progressive Conservatives in 2015, the victorious Liberals faced a fateful decision.

They could do what was best for the province and cancel the Muskrat Falls project, or they could do what was best for the Liberal party and let the project continue, and then point the finger of blame at the PCs.

Muskrat Falls was clearly a waste of billions of dollars — more if it continued, fewer if it were cancelled — and the electorate would be livid once they realized it. Inevitably, they would be angry at the PCs for starting it, or angry at the Liberals for stopping it, even if the latter was the wiser decision.

Predictably, the Liberals chose what was best for their party over what was best for the people of the province.

Any hopes anyone had that Marshall would talk them out of it in early 2016 were smashed like so much Labrador rock.

The project had advanced too far, some said. Actually, many said. It is a logical fallacy. If something is a mistake, it is irrational to continue it just because much has already been done or spent (see: sunk costs).

The argument that Muskrat Falls could not legally be stopped includes the outlandish corollary that Newfoundland had a legal obligation to continue the project to the brink of bankruptcy.

Think of it in personal terms. You are building a house. Halfway through, you are informed the foundation is faulty, the cost estimate has doubled and the mortgage payments will likely ruin you, and leave you with an expensive structure that is essentially worthless in terms of resale value.

If you are Ball or Marshall, you declare it is “too late” to change your mind and stop construction. If you are a rational person, you yell, “Stop!”

In physical terms, cancelling a project requires only the decisiveness to do it.

“Stop hammering,” you would say.

“Stop pouring cement,” Ball could have said.

Yes, you would likely hear from your contractor’s lawyer.

“You are legally obligated to finish this house,” he or she might say, probably in writing, in triplicate, with a lot of wherefores.

“I don’t care what the contract says,” you would rightfully reply, “I’m not carrying this through to my going bankrupt.”

The argument that Muskrat Falls could not legally be stopped includes the outlandish corollary that Newfoundland had a legal obligation to continue the project to the brink of bankruptcy. Surely, there must be a few good lawyers on Duckworth Street who would argue on the province’s behalf.

The Italian government was obviously worried that the province would cancel the project. Italy’s ambassador to Canada requested a meeting in March 2016 with Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady to discuss Astaldi Canada, which was far behind schedule and way over budget in its work at Muskrat Falls.

Astaldi Canada’s parent company based in Rome, Astaldi SpA, was on the verge of bankruptcy, a situation that would be worsened if Muskrat Falls were cancelled.

Did Astaldi’s lawyers advise, “Don’t worry. The Newfoundland government is legally bound to complete Muskrat Falls and can’t get out of it”?

Probably not. If they had, there would have been no need for Italy’s ambassador to come to Newfoundland to pressure Coady.

Too late? No. Never.

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


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