The Office
of the Consumer Advocate (CA) plays a useful role protecting the public from unsupported
or excessive charges by our regulated utilities, Newfoundland Power and
Newfoundland Hydro.

But, is an
advocate’s sole role one that is directed towards keeping our power bills lower
by a fractional percentage? 

I prefer to think
of an advocate as an ‘activist’, a persistent ‘promoter’ of his mission, an
ardent ‘defender’ of consumer interests; one who sees the big picture of change in the power industry, who is fearlessly determined not to let Government secrecy or bullying thwart him in the execution of his public duty.

This is not
the image or the record of the current Consumer Advocate, Tom Johnson.

No one has
challenged his competence in front of the PUB though the manner of his
appointment and whether he is conflicted has been raised.

Two former
senior public servants, David Vardy and Ron Penney, wrote the Minister of
Natural Resources recently seeking an alternative process of appointment. 

expressed concern that “there is an inherent conflict of interest in having a
consumer advocate appointed by government…” when the outfit being investigated
is a Crown Corporation.    

Blogger, Geoff Meeker, in a March, 2013 Post entitled “Consumer Advocate Endorses Muskrat Falls Project” also raised questions about the Advocate. 

“And what
about the party affiliations of key players? 
For example, consumer advocate Tom Johnson – who has endorsed Muskrat
Falls – was appointed by the PCs and practices law with Tom Williams, chief
fundraiser for the PC Party (and Danny’s brother).”

Anyone who takes
on the role of Consumer Advocate must be doubly vigilant, especially when the
appointment arrives courtesy of the Government, is of limited duration unlike
Judges, and is conducted without competition.

The issue of
conflict is important; but one that is borne out of that question is whether Johnson
failed to act when major issues regarding security of supply, financial risk, power
cost and changes to the Muskrat Falls rationale became increasingly evident.   

First, however,
Order-in-Council OC2013-268 appointing Mr. Johnson for a one year fixed term
demands explanation.  The Order reads:

Under the authority
of section 117 of the Public Utilities Act, the Lieutenant Governor in Council
is pleased to reappoint Mr. Thomas Johnson as Consumer Advocate for a one-year
term, effective August 12, 2013, to represent the interests of domestic and
general service consumers on terms acceptable to the Minister of Justice, in
addition to any other appointment the consumer advocate
may receive to
participate in specific hearings before the Public Utilities Board. (emphasis

This appointment is new to
many familiar with his Office. 
Traditionally, the CA is appointed on a case-by-case basis, usually when
Utilities seek approval for new rates that cover capital or operating costs.  I don’t know if 2013 was the first full year appointment;
prior Orders-in-Council are not available on the Government’s Web Site. 

The Consumer Advocate should
make public the “terms” of his employment. 
He needs to inform us how many hours per day he works for us and of the
limitations, if any, placed on his advocacy role.  We need to know how much he and his Law Office
are paid under the Order-in-Council, and his additional remuneration, if any,
for his intervention into on-going PUB Hearings.

Why should this change of
status of the Consumer Advocate (CA) matter?

First, I can find no
reference to a Press Release from either the Government or the Consumer
Advocate’s Office informing the public that the CA is available all year
to represent “the interests of domestic…consumers…”  One ought to be available.

Secondly, the record of the
Advocate’s work in 2013, suggests
 the Advocate had plenty of time to speak with consumers and publicly raise
other pressing issues during the year.

Indeed, we can go back to
2012 when many critics thought Johnson weak in his representations on the Muskrat
Falls Project.

The Telegram quoted
Johnson in March 2012: “I have concluded based on the evidence in the
review that the Muskrat Falls-Labrador Island Link represents the least cost option of the two alternatives examined”.

In contrast to Mr.
Johnson’s position, the PUB refused to endorse Muskrat Falls stating that
Nalcor’s evidence was preliminary and dated. 

Prior to the PUB’s
Decision, the Federal/Provincial Environmental Panel also refused to endorse
the Project.

One might ask: what
special insight did the Consumer Advocate possess?
 Weren’t the Joint Federal/Provincial Panel’s Decision
supported by the later PUB Decision a signal to Mr. Johnson to reconsider his
    Shouldn’t he have entertained input from
members of the public?

Johnson was not even in
possession of the Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) which contains critical cost
information, per KWh, ratepayers will pay for Muskrat power. 

To this day the PPA has still
not been made public.

Johnson noted concerns
about cost overruns but stated that good management practices should reduce the
  He did not examine Nalcor’s
management competence and experience or the sheer size of the cost overruns
being met on projects in this Province and on virtually every major mega
project in North America.

But, Johnson was quiet on
virtually all matters Muskrat after Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy
had rebuked him when he agreed with PUB Chairman Andy Wells that more time was needed to review Nalcor’s slow drip release of information on the Project.

One of the Dunderdale
Government’s key pieces of legislation was Bill 61. It stripped Johnson of any
role he might have had in challenging the Muskrat Falls power rate.
  Blogger Ed Hollett of the Sir Robert Bond Papers might have only slightly overstated the case when he noted that “…Tom is
now redundant”.
   Said he:

“Bill 61 passed the House
of Assembly…when it comes into effect the provincial cabinet will have the
power to direct the public utilities board – in effect – to set electricity
rates the way cabinet directs.”

Hollett correctly noted
that while Tom Johnson repeatedly fought the rate of return on capital employed
by Newfoundland Power, he was silent on Bill 61.

Let’s now turn to 2013 throughout
which Johnson was equally quiet even though an activist Consumer Advocate had
plenty of big issues over which to cause uproar.

The UARB of Nova Scotia held
two Hearings on the Maritime Link.  Following
the first, it refused sanction of the Maritime Link stating the Nalcor/Emera
deal was deficient by up to $1.433 billion. 

The Energy Access
Agreement (EAA) was negotiated to satisfy the UARB, and commits to Nova Scotia more
than half of the equivalent power from Muskrat Falls.  

Following that Deal with
Nalcor and a second open Hearing the UARB approved the Link.

Did Johnson demand a Hearing,
in this Province, as to how that $1.433 billion figure was bridged and whether
the EAA might impact this Province’s ability to satisfy local demand?  There was no such call, even though the Deal
was not part of Nalcor’s original Submission to the PUB.

Was he not concerned that
the EAA had effectively joined the Nova Scotia power system with Newfoundland’s,
that the direct relationship with the Maritime Link and Muskrat Falls was obliterated,
that our Island power capacity was substantially committed, too, and that local
consumers were not consulted?

Did Mr. Johnson complain
when Nalcor removed the request for approval of the Capital Budget for the transmission
upgrade from the Avalon to Central Newfoundland from the PUB agenda?

These are huge issues any
Consumer Advocate should feel obligated to bring to the public’s attention.
  He was employed on a full-time basis.  His mandate to protect “…the interests of
domestic and general service consumers…” does not seem restrictive.

When did Tom Johnson raise
his head?  Not until every member of the
public raised theirs, following the power black-outs in early January, 2014.  

Mr. Johnson wrote a brief letter to the PUB asking that it investigate what had occurred. 

Did Johnson demand a
public hearing by the PUB in which Nalcor and Hydro officials could be
cross-examined under oath?  No.   He requested an “investigation”.  The words “public hearing” are not found in
his correspondence. 

Did he demand that the
scope of the investigation should be as wide as possible?  No.

Mr. Johnson had noted Manitoba
Hydro International’s concern regarding the proposed inadequate standard of the
Labrador Island Link, in his 2011 Submission to the PUB. 

Shouldn’t he have raised
that issue once again, now that the “black-outs” gave it a real life context
and in advance of the Labrador Island Link being constructed? 

Shouldn’t he have also
demanded review by the PUB, or at least went public, over the threat to the
Water Management Agreement as a consequence of the challenge by Hydro Quebec in
the Quebec Superior Court? 

Let’s return to the

Did Mr. Johnson voice
protest when Government announced that it would also conduct its own
“independent” hearing regarding the power “black-outs”?

Did he state that the
“independence” of any such Inquiry is inherently compromised if Government
controls drafting of the “Terms of Reference” and the selection of the

Did he demand that
Government ask a Justice of the Supreme Court to preside over the Panel and
oversee the selection of the other Members? 

Not a word was heard from
Advocate Johnson on those issues.    

Can anyone say those
actions are not within the purview of the Consumer Advocate?  Are they not reasonable and appropriate
initiatives of an Advocate?

An ‘activist’ Consumer
Advocate would have led the charge not only for the purpose of challenging a
secretive and arrogant government, on behalf of consumers; he would have made
abundantly clear whose side he is on.

An ‘activist’ Advocate would have raised the issue of compensation to consumers who suffered financial loss during the ‘black-outs’ recognizing that the root cause related to management issues and not to ‘acts of God’. 

Too many critical issues
have escaped his attention.  Efforts to
save a cent or two on our powers bills are welcomed but they do not compensate
for the profound nature of the issues he has ignored.

In short, I find no cause
to regard this Consumer Advocate an activist, a promoter or an ardent defender
of the public interest. 

Whatever arguments may be
made for the process that appointed him or whether questions of conflict are legitimate, our Advocate has a record of being timid.  

In the current environment in Newfoundland and Labrador, silence and acquiescence from an important Office Holder as the Consumer Advocate, is simply unacceptable. 

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.


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.


This is the most important set of negotiations we have engaged in since the Atlantic Accord and Hibernia. Despite being a small jurisdiction we proved to be smart and nimble enough to negotiate good deals on both. They have stood the test of time and have resulted in billions of dollars in royalties and created an industry which represents over a quarter of our economy. Will we prove to be smart and nimble enough to do the same with the Upper Churchill?


  1. People should read the consumer advocates report from the Muskrat Falls hearings.

    Try to find independant thought.

    Try to find any view of the 28 consumers who presented to the hearings. There was no recap of what the consumers presented.

    Is there a reference to the many RFI's which were not answered by Nalcor as they were deemed outside the terms of reference.

    The Muskrat Falls affair will be analyzed by historians, as to how the interest of Nalcor, consumers, and tax payers were considered by the government of the day to be one in the same.

    They are not.

    The result is that the largest tax grab in our history has been implemented through the Muskrat Falls project. We will be taxed through our electricity rates.

    Who will mind the gate keepers.

  2. All this position will challenge, under current political circumstances, is minor issues that are smokescreens rather than real independence of the government's wishes. It is a joke that such an appointment ever occurred and speaks to the feudal nature of Newfoundland and Labrador politics. Mr. Sullivan, we need a people's Magna Carta…one that enshrines the rights of ordinary people over the resources that rightfully belong to all.

    This position is but one more example of of how the ruling class…the St. John's elite…call them what you will…have hijacked the economic output of this province and placed it in the manipulating hands of the few. Mr. Johnson does not represent the ordinary person…he is a puppet of these power brokers and will not advocate for regular people.

    I am more disgusted, on daily basis, that these leeches are sucking the lifeblood out of this economy…all in the name of self-aggrandizement and to build personal wealth for themselves and their privileged friends. It is not a secret society, to be sure, but the outcome is tantamount to there being a secret society that controls every fabric of the economy. It is there for all to see and ordinary people are just letting it happen through sheer apathy.

    Thank you again for your continued crusade and efforts to confront the nepotism in our government. Defying oppressive regimes is never easy, especially when the repression is cloaked in the guise of democracy.