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Pam Frampton: Muskrat Falls Inquiry exhibit suggests tail wagged dog

Finance Minister Tom Marshall is seen with Premier Kathy Dunderdale after she announced this morning that she will be resigining Friday and Marshall will replace her as interim premier. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram
Then finance minister Tom Marshall replaced Kathy Dunderdale as interim premier after she announced she was resigning, two years after the Muskrat Falls project was sanctioned. — Telegram file photo

It’s bad enough that Muskrat Falls inquiry testimony this week revealed that a credible warning about potential project cost overruns was more or less ignored. But further revelations show that Nalcor essentially issued a primer for the provincial government on how to sell the project to the province.

Let’s start with the warning.

A briefing note prepared in January 2012 by bureaucrats in the Finance Department — W. Tymchak, K. Hicks and M. O’Reilly — suggested the government “delay a decision on Muskrat Falls for one to two years to allow a full assessment of alternatives and a complete analysis of the potential burden to taxpayers if development of Muskrat Falls has substantial overruns.”

Former finance minister Tom Marshall acknowledged in his inquiry testimony Tuesday he had seen that document but didn’t agree with all of it. He also said the province was under pressure at the time to come up with alternatives to the oil-guzzling generating plant at Holyrood, with increased demand on the electrical system expected in the near future.

As we know, the forecasted spike in demand did not materialize — and a good thing, too, since Muskrat Falls is now at least three years behind its target for coming onstream. So, a year or two of further study and consideration might well have been prudent.

(As an aside, I reached W. Tymchak — Wade Tymchak — who now works for the Government of Alberta in economic forecasting and analysis, and he stands by the information and analysis provided in that briefing note.)

And then there was Exhibit P-00926 D3 Alignment Session, helpfully prepared by Nalcor Energy, labelled “Draft confidential” — basically a how-to guide for politicians to win approval from the masses for Muskrat Falls.

“Alignment on message is critical as we move towards House debate,” it says.

Now, given that Crown corporations are supposed to operate at arm’s length from the governments that create them, it’s hard to square this document as being in any way acceptable.

A Crown corporation in charge of overseeing a mega-project, telling the government what sort of messages to deliver during House of Assembly debates? “World class experts” turning their hands to producing talking points?

So much for openness, transparency and accountability. Just who was accountable to whom in the government/Nalcor relationship?

A Crown corporation in charge of overseeing a mega-project, telling the government what sort of messages to deliver during House of Assembly debates? “World class experts” turning their hands to producing talking points?

Here are some of the “sample messages” Nalcor put together for the government “hit squad” during question period:

“The Liberals have no credibility when it comes to the Lower Churchill, and neither do the NDP. They are just interested in opposing it for the sake of opposing it.”

“This project puts the interests of N.L. before all others.”

Other themes include the greatest hits we heard from Premier Kathy Dunderdale and members of her caucus in the days and weeks that followed: “Why we need to circumvent Quebec,” “Developing the energy warehouse” and “The big picture benefits of Muskrat Falls.”

That a Crown corporation owned by the people of this province and supposedly created for their benefit felt the need to get directly involved in the politics of promoting the project is disturbing.

Frankly, if I was one of the politicians who received that primer, I would have taken exception to Nalcor’s offer to put words in my mouth.

But if Dunderdale’s and Marshall’s messaging on the project were anything to go by, not everyone had a problem with it.

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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