A SERIOUS DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT IS EXPOSED

(The following Essay, is a companion piece to the last Post.  It was penned by Uncle Gnarley’s scribe and
first appeared in The Telegram, Monday, June 11, 2012.  It is re-produced here for continuity
purposes and for the benefit of Uncle Gnarley readers.)

The
unfolding of the Muskrat Falls issue, as it has, demands that we pause for a
moment.  The government and its proxy,
Nalcor, has managed how we view the project by parcelling out selected
information, steadfastly refusing the release of critical data, subverting the
public review process and pummelling legitimate critics. 

As members of
a democratic society, we need to consider how such behaviours have impacted our
rightful participation in this major public policy initiative.  Equally, we need to consider what we have
willfully acceded to the state given that many people have denied their
responsibility to assess the project and its risk to themselves and to our
economy; we also need to consider how we have enabled this process.

From the
very beginning, government was careful about the information it released,
ensuring that it was minimal.  When it
was forced to send the issue for review, after opposition protest, it framed a
very narrow reference question, and gave the PUB little time to conduct its enquiry. 

When the PUB
failed to provide the government the approval it had sought, its petulant
response was to inflict damage on the PUB’s credibility by publicly stating
that it had lost all confidence in the semi-judicial body.  Then, it unceremoniously circumvented the
PUB, going direct to the Board’s Consultant, Manitoba Hydro International, the
only group to have given government qualified approval for the scheme.

This
behaviour is not just reprehensible; it is unbecoming of a democratically
elected government.  It suggests government
has an exaggerated sense of its own omnipotence. 

The problems
of small economies and their attendant small populations are not limited to NL.  Indeed, it is communities like ours where democratic
deficits are magnified.  The reticence of
people to be publicly critical, for fear of retribution, is integral to this
issue.  That is why the onus rests on government
to set the tone of the debate and to demonstrate that it welcomes public
participation, and not take advantage of the very shortcomings that “smallness”
affords.

What is
equally disturbing is the ability of a Crown Agency like Nalcor to have a
disproportionate influence on government decision makers; hubris on its part
and weakness by the elected have allowed it to unduly influence decisions which
impact the very broad public interest not just for one generation but, in the
case of Muskrat Falls, for 50 years! 
Hydro Quebec is such a mega agency, already boasting the power that
Nalcor desires; except that Quebec has 5 million population, plenty of watch
dogs and a watchful media to control “la Regie”, as Quebecers not so
affectionately refer to
the
“state within a state” that is Hydro Quebec.    

There are
few watchdogs in this Province.  Nalcor’s
pursuit of Muskrat Falls, if successful, will give it, in a relative context, unparalleled
influence and, I fear, one that will come at great social and financial cost.  Government already finds itself deferring to
Nalcor even to conduct the most basic Q&A and other PR initiatives.  The politicians have a bare grasp of the
issues and choose to hide their evident intellectual deficit with aggressive
behaviour designed to close down essential and warranted opposition.

Muskrat
Falls evokes issues which go beyond the risks of a construction project.  Discussions about billions of dollars,
megawatts of power, peak demand, consumption curves, the isolated island
option, and other issues, challenge most clear thinking people.  Because the matter is complex, people feel challenged
by it; we should be fearful that they are deferring to those they perceive to ‘know
better’; the so-called ‘experts’.

In a
functioning democracy, citizens should not take for granted the participatory
aspect of the democratic principle. 
Indeed, people naturally expect that they will not be limited merely to
the act of voting every four or five years.

On the other
hand, citizens defer many public policy decisions to their government, for
obvious reasons. But our contract with the elected assumes that we, the people,
will be consulted on ‘matters of state’, essentially on any issue so important
that it has the potential to do our province grievous harm. 

You should
know that few issues fall into such a category. When the state fails to inform
us deliberately or otherwise, as it has on Muskrat Falls, it fails in the performance
of an essential part of the democratic contract; implicitly, it assumes that
the populace is too dumb to understand; that it alone has the authority to
act. 

No one is an
expert on everything.  Citizens need to
remember that.  In the assessment of
risk, the public is quite capable of performing a determination, but only when
the process of communication is completely transparent.  Transparency is not the same as an assurance
that our ‘best interests’ are being considered. Transparency is achieved when
all the information, critical to why government wishes to take a certain course,
is unreservedly laid before the public.  

Should
government always listen to the people? There may be times when it should not, such
as when, in its view, the arguments are compelling enough, or in a case of ‘a
clear and imminent danger’.  At a minimum,
the situation must be clearly and painstakingly explained.  Even then, the government ignores public
opinion, at its peril.

In such
circumstances, if the noble project fails, the government assumes not merely
the burden of having been imprudent, it suffers the cost of having acted
arrogantly.  These are not
characteristics that advance the cause of democracy. 

As some
would have us believe, the lights are not about to go out anywhere in this
Province.  There is no case of ‘clear and
imminent’ danger.

Nalcor’s submission to the PUB for assessment
of Muskrat Falls as the ‘lowest cost option’ is not the same as government
submitting the issue to the public.  You
have no contract with Nalcor or with the PUB, however well-intentioned they may
be.  A few sound bites by politicians on
the public media do not constitute informed comment either.  The issue cannot be summed up in a few
seconds or even a few minutes.  The point
remains, nevertheless, that government has so far failed to act prudently or
having regard to the essential requirements of democratic government.

This is not
a time to feel carefree!  It might be time
to look for a referendum.
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.

OPINION POLL OVER-RATES INEFFECTIVE TORY OPPOSITION

Having survived in spite of themselves, in Opposition the Tories have been lazy and uninspiring.  The fact that it is summer, and the House of Assembly is closed, admittedly makes their job tougher, except that the Party’s manifest weakness is not a seasonal problem.

REMEMBERING CABOT MARTIN (1944-2022)

He was an exceptional person. A gifted intellect for sure; irascible and argumentative, too. What endeared him to many was not just that he was analytical and insightful, but that he was honest and forthright. He was a public policy wonk; resource policy interested him most. He loved to travel and read; people, with something to say, were always important.

GNL RUSHING INTO ANOTHER “SCHEME”: CABOT MARTIN

I must say that after the Muskrat Falls fiasco, I thought our government had finally learnt its lesson and would not to rush into another such scheme where calling it “green” was enough to suspend all critical analysis.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Totally agree with the referendum concept. This project's costs are a serious impediment to our financial well-being, in my opinion, and consequently it is one of the few public issues I would demand the people be able to vote on. If we are foolhardy enough to vote for it, then it will be our own financial lunacy. Now, though, we will be able to absolve ourselves of responsibility if we let the weak politicians in the HOA do the voting! That is not good enough! We need to be the ones making the decision, one way or the other, as it is painfully obvious that the government is going to sanction it. On the other hand, if we, the people, vote for it…we cannot blame anyone else!