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PAM FRAMPTON: Muskrat Falls — let’s have some accountability

Muskrat Falls Construction Site – Powerhouse and Spillway - August 2014
The Muskrat Falls construction site, back when it was expected to cost half the price it is now. — Telegram file photo

There have been 50 days of public hearings and 54 witnesses over four months.

And as the Muskrat Falls inquiry seeks to determine how a $6.2-billion dam more than doubled in cost to become a financial deadweight for a measly 530,000 people, the score as of this writing is:

The People: still $12.7 billion owing.

Accountability: nil.

Of course, Phase 1 of the inquiry is not even complete and there’s a whole other phase to come, which will focus on cost increases after the project was sanctioned, so let’s not jump the gun.

But what is it, exactly, that we expect the inquiry to achieve?

We’ve already established that its role is to get at the truth and not to lay blame.

Justice John H. Gomery, who headed the sponsorship scandal inquiry in Canada earlier this decade, once said the three functions of an inquiry are “to investigate, to educate and to inform.”

He went on to add: “To these benefits should be added the benefits deriving from recommendations for change designed to prevent a recurrence in the future of the errors or faults being investigated. Such recommendations, coming from an independent and impartial source, free from political bias, will not only assist the government in taking remedial action but will tend to restore public confidence in the industry or process being reviewed.”

Now, I can’t see how this province will be embarking on a recurrence of anything resembling the scope of the Muskrat Falls project in my lifetime, given its financial state.

But there are recommendations that can be made to avoid the kind of cursed alignment of stars that happened with Muskrat Falls, with both the government and its Crown corporation pushing the project more as proponents than as careful guardians of the public purse.

I hope that whatever reckoning is made once the inquiry is done includes a recommendation that Nalcor — and all other Crown corporations — be made more accountable to the public.

So far at the inquiry we’ve heard that politicians of the day assumed due diligence was being done whether it actually was or not.

We’ve heard that the government and Nalcor teamed up on a highly partisan communications strategy to sell the project to the public, even though project lead Gilbert Bennett acknowledged this week that Nalcor should have been absolutely non-partisan (though he had no problem with messaging that stirred up anti-Quebec sentiment).

We’ve also heard suggestions the cost of the project was low-balled to get it past key hurdles, and then we heard former Nalcor CEO Ed Martin say that was not the case.

What we have not heard yet is anyone acknowledging that they made mistakes that would have huge financial consequences for the people of this province, many of whom are finding it hard enough now to pay their electricity bills.

I hope that whatever reckoning is made once the inquiry is done includes a recommendation that Nalcor — and all other Crown corporations — be made more accountable to the public.

Canadian guidelines for governing Crown corporations clearly state what’s expected, including:

“The corporation should communicate effectively with the Crown, with the other stakeholders and with the public. These communications should focus both on plans and on progress in fulfilling them.”

Nalcor Energy certainly isn’t shy about communicating its progress. It issues monthly reports listing milestones and pointing out the project’s employment and economic benefits — albeit two months after the fact.

But the guidelines state that Crown corporations’ communications “should also encompass the risks and challenges facing the corporation in fulfilling its mandate.”

And that surely was not communicated in a way that let any of us imagine the price tag could double and the project drag on years past its deadline.

Even as recently as 2015, Nalcor and the provincial government were slow to come clean about cost overruns — and even then, just three years ago, the project was expected to cost a mere $7.65 billion.

So, what happened here? Did someone fail to communicate the very real risks of Muskrat Falls going off the rails as spectacularly as it has, or did they not see it coming?

The answer to either question is enough to make you shudder.

Recent columns by this author

PAM FRAMPTON: Let's call it precisely what it is

PAM FRAMPTON: Matching messages on Muskrat Falls

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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