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EDITORIAL: Pride and pragmatism

Former Nalcor board of directors member Cathy Bennett.
Former Finance minister Cathy Bennett. — Telegram file photo

A former minister of Finance testified Tuesday that provincial government officials had difficulty getting the straight goods from Nalcor, that she had difficulty getting straight answers from Nalcor, and that she felt the provincial government shouldn’t undertake a major project like Muskrat Falls again.

Let that sink in.

That was Cathy Bennett, giving sworn testimony at the Muskrat Falls inquiry.

It’s sometimes possible to believe that the details coming out about the project, about its lengthy delays and huge increases in budget, just couldn’t surprise anyone anymore. We’ve heard so much that it’s tempting to believe there’s nothing more to hear — and then all at once, there is.

But think about it: the minister of Finance is the last line of financial responsibility for the province. Money doesn’t get budgeted or spent until the minister says so — and not only did she point out the difficulties in trying to get information about the financial details of the project, but pointedly said that the provincial government and its Crown corporations are incapable of successfully delivering a project like Muskrat Falls.

She didn’t say it in so many words. What she said was that Newfoundland and Labrador shouldn’t attempt a capital project of the size and complexity of Muskrat Falls again. It’s a little bit more polite, but it’s fundamentally the same.

It’s a harsh message, and clearly not one that she has always believed to be the case.

Bennett was a board member at Nalcor for a period of time, after all, and a booster for the project even after she had left the board — but a booster, she points out, when the price tag was $6.2 billion.

She didn’t say it in so many words. What she said was that Newfoundland and Labrador shouldn’t attempt a capital project of the size and complexity of Muskrat Falls again. It’s a little bit more polite, but it’s fundamentally the same.

We’re not alone in our inability to plan and deliver a project the size of Muskrat Falls on time and on budget. Manitoba’s electrical utility (which helped, by the way, to make the case for going ahead with Muskrat Falls) is running into the same issues on its hydro and transmission projects. They are also running over budget and off schedule — and, in fact, were both overbudget and off schedule even before Muskrat Falls was fully sanctioned.

So what can we take from this not-completely-unexpected and discouraging news?

That’s it’s not simply enough to declare something a world-class project being delivered by a world-class energy warehouse staffed with world-class experts. That’s just wishful thinking.

Pride is a great thing — but pragmatism has its place as well. It’s hard to forget that the pragmatists who dared to suggest that Muskrat Falls had clear risks, both at this newspaper and in the general public, were roundly dismissed as naysayers.

But every day, it looks more and more like Muskrat Falls had too much horsepower and not nearly enough in the way of brakes.

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