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PAM FRAMPTON: Muskrat Falls — any lessons learned?

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
Tom Marshall (then finance minister) with Premier Kathy Dunderdale on Jan. 22, 2014, when she announced she was resigning. Marshall went on to replace her as interim premier. — Telegram file photo

It was a moment recorded in Hansard that succinctly captures the arrogance and bravado of the government of the day.

That day was March 21, 2013, and the NDP’s Lorraine Michael was attempting to find out whether Premier Kathy Dunderdale had access to the findings of the independent engineer brought in to review the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project as part of the federal government’s conditions for providing a loan guarantee.

At the time, Muskrat Falls was expected to cost $6.2 billion.

Michael’s question was straightforward: “Does the federal government allow her access to the independent engineer’s reports?”

Natural Resources Minister Tom Marshall’s response sounded reassuring, but it didn’t answer the question:

“Mr. Speaker, the loan guarantee does call for the provision of an independent engineer,” he said. “The independent engineer will be paid for by Nalcor. The independent engineer will make sure on behalf of the people of the province and on behalf of the government of the province that this project proceeds in a robust, fair, economically feasible, and fiscally feasible manner.”

As we now know from testimony at the Muskrat Falls inquiry, Marshall’s answer was dead wrong.

The independent engineer, Nik Agirov, was not working on behalf of the people of the province, but the federal government. Agirov has testified he had no interactions with anyone from the provincial government before the project reached financial close in November 2013.

Before the Liberals get too full of themselves, they should ask themselves this: have they learned any lessons from Muskrat Falls? Would they have been any more diligent?

So, all Michael got in response to her question was political pap, and then a swipe at her party by Premier Dunderdale, who added that day in the House:

“We have been completely open and transparent about this project. We will continue to do so because it is right for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. It creates the lowest rates for ratepayers. It creates thousands of jobs for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, something the NDP clearly does not support.”

The point of revisiting this chapter is simple: it illustrates clearly how ill-informed the government was and how it misinformed the public. It also reveals how any attempts to get information on a project whose price tag would balloon grotesquely to $12.7 billion was met with scorn and derision.

And so I ask you: is this the type of governance you want or deserve?

The provincial Liberals are likely gleeful as revelations spill out of the inquiry, but they have no right to be smug. It was a Tory government then but could have just as easily been Liberal. Red, blue — it’s the type of governance this province has traditionally been plagued with; more about winning votes and scoring points and keeping power, and less about vigilance over the public purse and good stewardship.

Before the Liberals get too full of themselves, they should ask themselves this: have they learned any lessons from Muskrat Falls? Would they have been any more diligent?

As a reporter commented to me after seeing a hotel ballroom full of Liberals clapping like trained seals Monday evening at the Atlantic Accord announcement: wouldn’t you love to know how many of them had actually read the document? How many actually knew what they were clapping for?

I read Thursday’s throne speech with a tired sense of déjà vu.

It contained the usual clichés about our tenacity as people, clinging as we are to the ragged sides of barren cliffs in a rugged land where people of less fortitude could never prosper. It’s a self-styled myth that, in my opinion, gives governments an out.

“While our province faces challenges at times, it is through determination, hard work, and perseverance that we succeed and prosper,” it said.

Perhaps a more truthful version would have been this: while our province faces challenges at times, often through bad governance and mismanagement, we somehow manage to hang on, and hope — despite Muskrat Falls — we can keep roofs over our heads.

The speech ends with a benediction to members the House of Assembly: “I invoke God’s blessing upon you as you commence this new Session. May Divine Providence guide you in your deliberation.”

In other words, God help us.

Recent columns by this author

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PAM FRAMPTON: 'Muskrat, The Musical’

Pam Frampton is a columnist whose work is published in The Western Star and The Telegram. Email Twitter: pam_frampton

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