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PAM FRAMPTON: Muskrat Falls inquiry — no time like the present

['Stan Marshall']
Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall. — file photo

“Inquiries are created in exceptional circumstances: where there has typically been a total failure to properly address the issue at hand.” — Sarah Chaster, Canadian lawyer

Stan Marshall summoned a spectre this week: that the inquiry into the $12.7-billion hydroelectric development at Muskrat Falls might wind up compounding project costs.

The CEO of Nalcor was responding to a Westney Consulting report that says the inquiry could boost the expense to the Crown corporation by anywhere from $45 million to $165 million — costs ultimately borne by taxpayers.

Marshall said he worries his staff could be distracted or demoralized by the pressures and responsibilities of the inquiry, leading to project delays. Or that sensitive financial information could be divulged that might allow contractors to see the actual size of the pie.

Of course, Marshall has always said he thought any public inquiry into Muskrat Falls should have waited until the project was complete, for those very reasons. So those concerns are not new, and they have some validity, to be sure.

(Marshall’s candour about the things that could go wrong makes a refreshing change to the positive spin cycle we were locked into during Ed Martin’s tenure at Nalcor, when we were constantly told that everything was going swimmingly.)

But I’d argue that the cost of waiting to hold the inquiry would have been even greater — not necessarily in terms of dollars and cents, but in terms of the public psyche.

The key role of public inquiries, after all, is primarily to inform the public.

As former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Peter Cory has said, “In times of public questioning, stress and concern, they provide the means for Canadians to be apprised of the conditions pertaining to a worrisome community problem and to be a part of the recommendations that are aimed at resolving the problem.”

Once the people of the province learned that Muskrat Falls had gone grossly overbudget and was running a couple of years past its completion date, they wanted answers and were in no mood to wait.

Muskrat Falls is indeed a worrisome community problem, and particularly so to thousands of people in this province for whom it represents a significant safety, environmental and/or financial threat.

For anyone who doesn’t really have to worry about the potential for methylmercury-contaminated food supplies, landslides or debilitating electrical rate hikes, I can see how there’d be no sense of urgency.

For everyone else, there is.

Inquiry Commissioner Richard LeBlanc
Inquiry Commissioner Richard LeBlanc

Once the people of the province learned that Muskrat Falls had gone grossly overbudget and was running a couple of years past its completion date, they wanted answers and were in no mood to wait.

And we deserve answers now, not once the dust has settled and the key players can no longer recall pertinent details, or vital documentation has gone astray.

In an essay on public inquiries, British lawyer Victoria Butler-Cole noted that they can bring about three major benefits: catharsis, confidence and knowledge.

We need all three — catharsis after all the mistrust generated by how the Muskrat Falls project was sold to us and then executed. Restored confidence in government and its entities or, better yet, in ourselves — the confidence that we can demand and deserve accountability from elected officials. And a knowledge of what went wrong in order to prevent us from going down this path again.

The Westney Consulting report warns that when projects are investigated externally, it can be stressful to the people carrying out the work, causing malaise and decreased motivation, and leading to resignations and turnover.

Perhaps, but Muskrat Falls and its crippling financial burden will cause far greater stress for far more people.

Marshall said he’s worried that when financial data comes to light in Phase 2 of the inquiry it could lead to contractors refusing to settle claims or to stake new ones.

But the added scrutiny might also signal to companies seeking to cash in on the project that the money trail is being followed more closely now.

All I know is, if there had been greater transparency and accountability during the sanctioning and early construction phases of this project, there’d be no need for an inquiry — period.

Recent columns by this author

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PAM FRAMPTON: Madly off in all directions

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

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