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PAM FRAMPTON: Dunderdale — still running on faith

Former premier Kathy Dunderdale answers questions at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry in St. John's, Dec. 20. —
Former premier Kathy Dunderdale answers questions at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry in St. John's, Dec. 20. — Screen capture

“Blind faith, no matter how passionately expressed, will not suffice.” — E.O. Wilson, American biologist

Wednesday delivered a brilliant piece of legal theatre that illuminated a defining moment of the Muskrat Falls Inquiry.

In the lulling tones that have marked his questioning throughout, Nalcor lawyer Dan Simmons walked Kathy Dunderdale through documents that outlined the provincial government’s responsibility for oversight of the Muskrat Falls project.

It was the shareholder, he explained — the government — who was ultimately responsible for the project and for ensuring that the cost of it was something the public purse could bear.

Dunderdale affirmed the statements, acknowledging it was government that had been steering the ship, not Nalcor.

It was like watching an unsuspecting lamb led to slaughter, except there will be no slaughter here, just rueful “what ifs,” now that the financial damage has been done.

Simmons was serene on the outside, as unruffled as if he had just asked the former premier about the weather.

You had to wonder if, on the inside, he was silently fist-pumping “yes!”

Dunderdale smiled pleasantly throughout, perhaps heartened by the knowledge that she was being questioned by the legal representative for Nalcor — “the company we had built together,” as she has characterized the Crown corporation.

Dunderdale, who was premier when the project was given the green light, seemed as baffled as everybody else. “Something went astray,” she acknowledged, in an understatement as colossal as the boondoggle itself.

But there’s a reason why Dunderdale, other former government representatives and Nalcor all have their own legal counsel: it’s because each party has its own interests to protect, and they don’t always overlap.

Simmons was doing what he was hired to do, deflecting any whiff of blame from his client.

But the inquiry has not been commissioned to find blame, but the truth.

How does a hydroelectric megaproject start out costing $6.2 billion at sanction — with the expectation that it could eventually cost $6.7 billion with cost overruns or schedule delays — and wind up six years later costing roughly twice that and counting, when financing costs are factored in?

Dunderdale, who was premier when the project was given the green light, seemed as baffled as everybody else.

“Something went astray,” she acknowledged, in an understatement as colossal as the boondoggle itself.

Throughout her testimony, Dunderdale was unflaggingly loyal to Nalcor — then and now — and showed a frequent inclination to rely on blind faith. Faith that her bureaucrats were briefing her accurately and thoroughly; faith that all the so-called expert reports were comprehensive and balanced; faith that there were no hidden agendas; and faith that the cost-estimate number she was given was a “good number,” which gave her comfort.

When asked by Concerned Citizens Coalition lawyer Geoff Budden about the type of characteristics she looked for in prospective members of Nalcor’s board of directors, Dunderdale said she valued “character and good sense.”

When Budden suggested it might have been more prudent to appoint directors with large-scale project expertise, she said she was assured the directors would have access to experts within Nalcor, which is hardly one and the same — since Nalcor, too, was forging ahead with a massive project of a type it had little experience building.

Dunderdale has often said no undertaking in the province has ever generated so many reports and reviews and sparked so much debate.

When asked by John Hogan, lawyer for the Consumer Advocate, how government can possibly mitigate electricity rates now when the project was constructed in such a way to ensure that ratepayers alone are firmly on the hook for the multi-billion-dollar bill, Dunderdale was sanguine in her response.

“There are a lot of things government can do…,” she said, and then reached again for her Muskrat Falls missal.

“There has never been a project in this province that has had the level of scrutiny and discussion—”

Hogan cut her response short.

Dunderdale still doesn’t seem to realize that it’s not the number of eyes on a project that makes it sound — it’s whose eyes, looking through which lens.

When it comes to our political leaders, I hope we’ve learned we must demand keen, non-partisan oversight and critical thinking.

Particularly when our future is in their hands.

Related links

PAM FRAMPTON: Muskrat Falls Inquiry — arrogance takes the stand

KATHY DUNDERDALE'S speaking notes for the Muskrat Falls sanction celebration

Pam Frampton is a columnist whose work is published in The Western Star and The Telegram. Email pamela.frampton@thetelegram.com. Twitter: pam_frampton

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