HOW SHOULD THE GOVERNMENT INFORM ITS CITIZENS ON MUSKRAT FALLS?

The Government
of Newfoundland and Labrador has failed in its obligation to provide transparency on the Muskrat Falls issue;
as a result, it has allowed a serious democratic deficit to occur.  Government has an obligation, as part of the
democratic contract, to explain the complexities of Muskrat Falls; citizens
should be engaged in the issue in order to assess the risks of the project themselves;
they should not defer to the so-called experts. 
It is the people, ultimately, who must take responsibility for critical
matters of state. 

These are
issues to be explored in another posting. 
Let’s set the stage for that discussion by first dealing with this most
basic question:  how should the
government inform its citizens about the Muskrat Falls project? 

___________________________________________________________________

The Online
Newspaper, “Mashable” reported these comments, after its Reporter interviewed
the Icelandic President:

“Overall,
the Internet has played a big role in modern day Iceland. The government
recently asked citizens to post online comments and feedback about what they
thought of its new constitution proposal.”

“Iceland’s
progressiveness in embracing modern technology is astounding. In fact,
Iceland’s 2011 Constitutional Council crowdsourced its constitution, turning to
social media sites to make the process transparent and to collect input from
the public.”

“Since
Iceland is a small society, transparency here probably has a different meaning
than larger societies where a bureaucratic state is in place,” says (Icelandic
President) Grímsson. “It’s never been the case in Iceland. But like many other
countries right now, we have a lot of activism created with the help of the
Internet and social media.”

_________________________________________________________________________

Iceland, a
small island nation of 300,000 people, provides a perfect backdrop to demonstrate
how citizen engagement and transparency is not only desirable, it is achievable
and affordable.

With the
proliferation of information technology, in our hands, as easily as in our
houses, we have been left with no excuse for any citizen to be left out of an
important debate. Some might think that Muskrat Falls is too complex for
ordinary people.  That would not be true.
Some might agree that a country’s new constitutional document is more complex than
a hydro deal.  Don’t forget Iceland.

Are we so
much larger than that island country? Not much. 
Is our internet or are our social media sites deficient relative to
Iceland’s? Definitely not.  Only our
government’s attitude to transparency is different.

What should we do in this
Province?  I suggest government should start
with a series of public information sessions; they should be scheduled in all
the major population centers of the province. 
Both politicians and senior Nalcor representatives should be on hand to
give these presentations and to deal with questions from the audience. The
sessions should be widely advertised to attract the maximum public
participation.  They should be broadcast
on the public media.  If the broadcast
media do not agree to carry them, the broadcast facilities of the House of
Assembly ought to be employed to permit verbatim telecast on television and over
the internet.

The government’s web site
should be used, not just to link the public to a number of technical

documents; it should be a
means of explaining these documents.  In
this age of instant

communications networks,
citizens should be able to write questions to government and have

them answered in a timely
manner; these questions and answers can be available to all

members of the public.

A special
web site should be constructed geared solely to the Muskrat Falls issue.
Research, dealing with the myriad issues of this project, should be available
for immediate public access.  Such
information should be updated as a consequence of the questions and experience
coming out of the public information sessions.
In addition, the Manitoba Hydro International (MHI)
Report, the PUB Report as well as the Report of the Consumer Advocate noted a
number of issues which required further study and assessment.  The answers to these questions should be
among the first  supplied.

Then there
are the general media, who likely would follow these public meetings, and cover
the most interesting sound bites. 

We cannot
rely on the private or public media outlets to inform the public about Muskrat
Falls.  Indeed, some local media have already
executed their responsibilities poorly. That is a story for another day.  For now, let me just say, the government’s
responsibility is to make sure you are informed; the process is not entirely a
decision for the CBC, VOCM, The Telegram or some other media outlet to
decide. 

What can
citizens do if government does not respond? 
You can take to the public media; write your newspaper, call Open Line
Shows, place comments on the Opinion Sites of all the major media.  Snail mail/email the Premier.  Engage all of the social media tools.  The success of these tools has been
demonstrated in many places, including Iceland.

What else should
you do? Demand that the government justify the expenditure of the large financial
commitment required for Muskrat Falls.  Insist
that the true cost of the electricity be made public. Require that a full
accounting of the subsidies necessary in the early years of transmission be
disclosed; ask government to justify Nalcor’s demand numbers and why they are
not in sync with government’s own growth expectations, demand that the
alternatives to Muskrat Falls are examined fully and transparently. Indeed, a
host of questions remain unanswered.

When that
job is completed by your government, and when you are fully informed, then and
only then will we be able to decide, as a people, whether we should change
course or whether we willingly are prepared to ‘risk the shop’ on this single
project.   

In conclusion,
I would offer this warning: When the Royal Commission of Inquiry on the Muskrat
Falls fiasco is completed, likely around 2018, it will deal with the question
of why the public were left out of the debate. It might also ask why a new Constitution
could be assessed by citizens in Iceland, but not a hydro project in NL. 

But then, it will be too late.  You will already be on the hook for the
project and for the cost overruns. Now is when you need to be counted!

Des Sullivan
Des Sullivan
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada Uncle Gnarley is hosted by Des Sullivan, of St. John's. He is a businessman engaged over three decades in real estate management and development companies and in retail. He is currently a Director of Dorset Investments Limited and Donovan Holdings Limited. During his early career he served as Executive Assistant to Premier's Frank D. Moores (1975-1979) and Brian Peckford (1979-1985). He also served as a Part-Time Board Member on the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB). Uncle Gnarley appears on the masthead representing serious and unambiguous positions on NL politics and public policy. Uncle Gnarley is a fiscal conservative possessing distinctly liberal values and a non-partisan persusasion. Those values and opinions underlie this writer's views on NL's politics, economy and society. Uncle Gnarley publishes Monday mornings and more often when events warrant.

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