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Muskrat Falls inquiry reveals many unsettling truths
There was plenty of discouraging testimony by former premier Kathy Dunderdale at the Muskrat Falls inquiry last week. More than plenty.
There was the fact that she remembers little or nothing about how she received information. Asked about discussions with then Nalcor boss Ed Martin, she said, at one point that she couldn’t remember any of them: “These meetings were hours long, and there were many of them.”
There was the fact that she consistently downplayed her own ability to understand the issues involved, pointing out she was trained as a social worker and had no major project experience.
(Her testimony included the release of an earlier interview with inquiry counsel where she said, “You know, I haven’t been involved in major projects or any kind of a big construction project. I mean, the biggest project that I’ve ever been engaged in, in my personal life, is the building of our home – which, again, was over budget.”)
There was her argument that, at the top of the provincial government, her office was merely a small “secretariat” with no resources or ability to independently review or examine anything — rather than an office able to collar the resources of an entire provincial government, if, as premier, Dunderdale had wanted to.
There was her continued mantra that Muskrat Falls was the most completely examined project in the province’s history, subjected to the most complete oversight possible. Embarrassing.
But the worst part was hearing her tacitly admit that the partisan political bubblefest that is the House of Assembly can’t effectively and properly govern this province.
That it is, effectively, useless.
If we’re going to hire a fully independent officer of the House of Assembly to essentially make all the hard decisions, what’s the rest of it for?
Here’s what she pointed out as a way to avoid future Muskrat Falls-style failures: “I’m not sure what form it should take … but as the auditor general is absolutely independent of the functions in government and absolutely independent from politicians … I think, somehow in government, and not just for megaprojects — projects, period — that if we can find a mechanism something like that, an office something like that, where somebody completely independent, who has the funds to bring the resources to inform them in areas that they don’t have expertise in, and has full and open access to all the information with regard to projects… I’m saying a setup similar to the auditor general that’s within government but is outside government. It’s not open to influence from public officials …”
The independent analyzer would then report to the House of Assembly.
You can understand why it would be attractive. Imagine if, when then-premier Danny Williams was waxing poetic about the need for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to be masters of their own house, how valuable it would have been to have someone he trusted point out, “Premier, even masters of their own houses have to be able to afford to pay their electric bill.”
But parse that idea a little; if we’re going to hire a fully independent officer of the House of Assembly to essentially make all the hard decisions, what’s the rest of it for?
Why do we need a Speaker of the house and members of the House and the banging on desks and the millions upon millions of dollars it costs every year to put on that performance art?
Doesn’t it all become window dressing?
If this province’s leaders are too politicized to properly examine issues raised by the opposition and too incompetent to effectively govern by themselves, why the heck are we paying any of them?
We are paying for government, not the for the regular scoring of cheap political points. Aren’t we?
Appointing experts to show us the best route out of a fiscal calamity that our elected government can’t figure out how to handle? It’s not without precedent. We had that once already.
It was called commission of government.
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Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at email@example.com — Twitter: @wangersky.