(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.)
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.
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.
behaviour is not just reprehensible; it is unbecoming of a democratically
elected government. It suggests government
has an exaggerated sense of its own omnipotence.
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”
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
would have us believe, the lights are not about to go out anywhere in this
Province. There is no case of ‘clear and
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.
a time to feel carefree! It might be time
to look for a referendum.