PAN the Muskrat Falls Debate…Unless

If you feel
a sense of hopeful anticipation about the impending House of Assembly debate on
the Muskrat Falls project, likely, you will be disappointed! 

You may well
ask, why?

If I suggested
that elected Members ought to be well briefed, in advance of voting, you
might agree.  
You also might
also think: government will soon have the so-called Decision Gate-3 numbers
(the latest cost estimates) and Manitoba Hydro International’s (MHI) latest comfort
letter; isn’t that all they need to get the debate underway?   

I don’t like
to answer a question with a question. 
But, don’t you think Members ought to intimately understand the key elements
of the Project and the government’s shifting rationale, first?  Then, the DG-3 numbers would be far more

If you thought
all the issues relating to Muskrat Falls had been mastered by your MHAs, think

The fact is your elected Members are
not ready for a debate on Muskrat Falls.

How might
they have been prepared?

By now, the
MHA’s of the three political parties should have spent considerable time
reading all the available material presented by Nalcor, the Joint Panel and the PUB and by other proponents
and opponents, too.   

should have been made available to assist them. 
Complex issues, such as electrical demand, deficiencies in Nalcor’s models,
the Water Management Agreement, Muskrat’s winter handicap, the financing
structure, PPA vs. COS pricing schemes, construction costs, the contract with SNC
Lavalin, the implications of cost overruns to the rate payer and to the
Treasury, myriad technical issues, the failure to plan for cheap Upper
Churchill power in 2041 and other alternatives to Muskrat Falls, all would be
part of the examination.  

If your
beloved MHAs had prepared themselves to deal with all these issues, they would still not be ready for the
   But, they would be prepared
to start asking the right questions!  Afterall, it is not a good idea for Members to
‘wing it’, as they stand to speak, on a public project originally priced at $6.2 billion and now likely higher.

What should have

come next?  

All summer
long, you ought to have been hearing about “The
Special Committee of the House of Assembly on the Muskrat Falls Project”

Such a Committee
would have had the power to obtain essential information, subpoena and cross
examine witnesses and hire experts.

By now, you
should have been fed up to the teeth with hearings of “The Special Committee”.  The
fact that you are not, serves as proof elected MHAs have not done their
homework.  Indeed, I think you would have
been pleased if your Members had worked all summer, with the singular goal of
protecting you from a bad public policy decision, at least enough of them to
form a Committee.   

It didn’t
happen. Why?   

It was the
Government’s job to propose the idea.  But
the government was not going to put to scrutiny what it had worked hard to
suppress.  When the government didn’t
offer “The Special Committee”, the
Opposition parties should have insisted. 

MHAs rightfully and very effectively made a big huff about Bill 29, the
government’s amendment to the “Access to Information Act”. They put up a
filibuster and made a fine show of the government’s determination to keep embarrassing
matters secret.  

They ought
to have huffed and puffed and filibustered, with even more gusto, on Muskrat
Falls.  Why didn’t they? You may ask and
you should.

Had “The Special Committee”, which would
have comprised both Government backbenchers and Opposition MHAs, spent the summer
poring over Nalcor’s Submissions, asking questions and arriving at a conclusion,
they would have been prepared for a real debate; one that found them informed
and able to inform you.  The Debate, this
fall, would have been intelligent and forceful. It would have been useful.    

They might
have succeeded in either bringing clarity to or condemning Muskrat Falls.  The fall debate might never have taken place,
at all!  

One final
question is proposed: “The Special
not having happened, can anything be salvaged now?

The answer
is, yes, though the opportunity is limited. 

Rather than
engage in a debate based upon gross generalities and partisan sniping, as a
condition precedent to joining in, the Opposition should obtain agreement from
the Government that, for a period of several days prior to the official debate,
the House will meet in ‘Committee of the Whole’.  The House, in Committee, affords Members more
flexible rules such as the right to repeatedly stand in debate and to request
information or suggest points for clarification. And, within that Committee structure, non-elected persons are permitted to appear (having been summoned) before
the ‘Bar’ of the House to be questioned by Honourable Members.  

The ‘Committee
of the Whole’ should be ‘visited’ by proponents and opponents of the Project,
as well as a list of ‘experts’, jointly agreed upon with the Opposition. 

Committee of the Whole’ is not nearly as effective an approach as the ‘Special
Committee’.  Among other things, it would
hear far fewer experts and the opportunity for cross examination on detailed
technical issues would be missing; but, that option, as I have stated, has been

If the
Government engages the Opposition and all three parties co-operate, something
can be salvaged in an effort to have MHA’s better informed and, consequently,
the Debate more useful.

The Muskrat
Falls project is multi-faceted, technical and complex. Understanding it is
fundamentally different than assessing a piece of legislation, like Bill
29.  It is on a completely different scale than the Vale Inco project, even if the Premier does not know the difference.  If ignorance is allowed to trump
knowledge, as this debate threatens, choosing form over substance is worse than
anti-democratic; it is an insult to our most important legislative institution:
The House of Assembly.  It is an affront to
a trusting citizenry.

If the
Debate proceeds anyway, without any of the preparation described, history will
record that it was graded for its rhetorical flourish rather than for its
insights and preoccupation with the public good.

You will not
be served.

Postscript: Because this Post was written prior to the Liberal’s Opposition’s policy statement on rules for the Muskrat Falls Debate,  it does not contain any reference it.  I will discuss that release, in the context, of a related issue, soon.

Des Sullivan


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.


If a Big Mac costs McDonalds $10 to produce and it is sold for $1.50, McDonalds will go out of business. They would not declare a profit!


Bill left public life shortly after the signing of the Atlantic Accord and became a member of the Court of Appeal until his retirement in 2003. During his time on the court he was involved in a number of successful appeals which overturned wrongful convictions, for which he was recognized by Innocence Canada. Bill had a special place in his heart for the underdog.

Churchill Falls Explainer (Coles Notes version)

If CFLCo is required to maximize its profit, then CFLCo should sell its electricity to the highest bidder(s) on the most advantageous terms available.


  1. Mr. Sullivan, I too have been disappointed in the waffling of the Opposition and their inability to find a stand opposed to the MF deal, despite the overwhelming lack of hard evidence to show a real need for power for the Island.

    The Liberals seem to be trying to get their act together but are still not strong enough in their opposition to please me. The NDP are simply waffling.

    Thanks again for helping me and other ordinary mortals gain a better understanding of what is admittedly a complex and complicated issue. Of course, it would have helped immensely if the the government and NALCOR had done their due diligence and examined all the options.

  2. "If ignorance is to trump knowledge" First principles requires reasonable certainity that we require this extra power. Kennedy said in the house that that is simple"we look into the crystal ball". Of course, he means look at the economic actavity. That is only one basis of assessment.Another is more technical, as MHI pointed out, Nalcor is NOT using best practises for end use modeling. Is there currently one MHA who can define power, electrical power as P=ExI where E is the voltage and I is the amps. MHAs will debate spending about 10 billion dollars whether we need more power, and yet none of then, I feel sure, can define it. Some one needs to break down the technical information so MHAs can reasonably debate the issues.We mostly need more winter electric heat,and that does not mean needing more electric power. Big and important difference. If the MHAs are not informed on some basic technical issues, then it is like asking me to decide the best and most cost effective heart surgery procedures, without a briefing on the technical merits of each procedure. To have a debate when MHAs are so uninformed,yes, it is chosing form over substance, and is worst than anti-democratic. Winston Adams