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Pam Frampton: Inquiring minds want to know

Construction at the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam site, 2014.
Construction at the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam site, 2014.

“Power is not sufficient evidence of truth.” — Samuel Johnson   There are still people in this province insisting that the $12.7-billion Muskrat Falls project be shut down. It’s not going to happen.

Pam Frampton

While it should never have been started, the hydroelectric project is way beyond the point of no return. With more than 80 per cent of the work finished, the province can’t afford — financially, legally or practically — to stop now.

There are also people in this province who are dismissing the idea of an inquiry into Muskrat Falls as so much meaningless political puffery — a means of quelling an easily mollified public — before the terms of reference are even set.

But surely there are enough people paying attention now that we will accept nothing less than an independent, exacting probe of events.

Let’s be clear: no inquiry into Muskrat Falls is going to result in a parade of former politicians being hauled away in shackles, satisfying as that might be.

None of the money squandered will be paid back.

If we accept those basic facts, then what is it we want an inquiry to accomplish?

We can certainly look to other jurisdictions for ideas.

In Western Australia, a large-scale Commission of Inquiry was struck on May 15 to probe 26 state government programs carried out from 2008-2017. A final report is due by mid-November. That’s just six months.

The eight main thrusts of that inquiry centre on governance and decision-making, and they could apply here. They are (and I’m paraphrasing):

1) The financial consequences, including ongoing liabilities and obligations and whether those undertakings represented value for money.

 2) Adequacy of the decision-making processes leading to the awarding of contracts, including supporting business cases and assessments of risks to taxpayer funds.

3) Adequacy of the procurement processes.

4) Whether decisions have led to reasonable value for money.

5) The validity of the use of “commercial sensitivity” reasons to justify not disclosing contract and pay scale information to the public, and whether that justification was valid and in taxpayers’ interest.

6) A clear explanation of the key motivations and/or failures in the decision-making processes, particularly where significant costs have resulted, leading to the state’s operating deficits and an untenable debt position.

7) Lessons learned.

8) Any measures that should be introduced by the government to ensure greater rigour and transparency in decision-making and procurement processes to ensure the highest value for money for government programs, projects and contracts.

These are reasonable questions I’d like to hear answered.

Some people say we already know who the key Muskrat Falls players were, and what their motivations were, and that a forensic audit is the best option.

I believe that a commission of inquiry, which can encompass a forensic audit, is what this province needs.

An inquiry can subpoena witnesses and compel testimony. And surely there’s real benefit in the electorate seeing and hearing directly from the people who conceived of Muskrat Falls; aggressively sold it to us or were eagerly enlisted to do so for the right price; misled us about cost overruns and delays; trivialized concerns about health and safety, particularly with the people of Labrador; showed disregard for people’s and the province’s fiscal realities; made decisions for personal, professional and/or political gain; made long-term assumptions based on short-term, unstable grounds; and downplayed the real costs to us all.

It shouldn’t be a witch-hunt. But those responsible — particularly those who were elected to govern on our behalf — should have to be accountable rather than fade into the woodwork and pretend they were never involved.

In Western Australia, the terms of reference state: “The overriding principle of the inquiry is to make a difference.”

I hope an inquiry into Muskrat Falls makes a difference, too.

Not only in terms of how the government can ensure a financial fiasco of this magnitude never happens again — that is, if this province can even recover from it.

But also in terms of how we, the public, have allowed ourselves to be governed. If we learned nothing from the Upper Churchill, let’s hope to God we’re learning something from this.

Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email Twitter: pam_frampton

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