“NAYSAYERS” AND “BOTTOM FEEDERS”: OUR DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT NEEDS REMEDY (Part II)

Guest Post by Ron Penney

The following segment is the third of three containing speaking notes from my presentation to the Wessex Society on October 14, 2020. The presentation is available at the Wessex Society of Newfoundland, wessexsociety.ca – Ron Penney

The
Democratic Deficit

While
the Commissioner declined to get into the broader issues which we urged him to
consider he did have a short chapter titled “Dealing with Opposition to the
Project” which focused on the reaction of project proponents to the critics and
naysayers, or, as my brother Neil, described us – the Muskrateers!
 

The
Commissioner described the project proponents response to the critics as “at
times unbalanced and disproportionate to the commentary.”
 

In
particular he referenced Mr. Williams characterization of us as “bottom
feeders”.
 

I’m a
great fan of Kevin Tobin’s cartoons and have purchase a number of them. My
favorite is the one below.

 The  Commissioner referenced Mr. Williams’s
comments about the concerns that Dave Vardy and I had about the management of
the project in January of 2012 in which Mr. Williams called those concerns
“garbage” and “nonsense”. The Commissioner rightly described those kinds of
comments as “unbalanced and disproportionate to the commentary.”

 In his
testimony at the Inquiry quoted by the Commissioner, Mr. Williams said of those
opposing the project: “You can’t have people out freelancing unanswered,
unaccountable, not elected, just coming out and throwing out conjecture and
disparaging reputations for no reason at all.”

 This
from a man who had just called us “bottom feeders!”
 

The
Commissioned correctly said that “This kind of extreme and derogatory language
does not serve to advance reasoned public debate.”
 

Jerome
Kennedy accused Dave Vardy of advocating the closure of the Corner Brook mill.
This was untrue and was particularly egregious, as Dave chaired the committee
which found a new owner of the mill, Kruger. He refused to withdraw those
untruthful and hurtful comments at the time but did agree at the hearings that
those allegations were inappropriate.
 

And
even the Clerk of the Executive Council during the Dunderdale administration,
Robert Thompson, described us in an email to the Premier as “detractors
pursuing narrow and petty agendas.”
 

The
Commissioner made a number of points about citizen involvement:
 

“Private
citizens have much to contribute to policy discussions.”
 

“Government
should at least start from the perspective of recognizing and respecting
citizens’ right to criticize their policies and action.”
 

“Governments
should assess comments solely on their merits rather than on the speaker’s real
or imagined affiliations or biases.”
 

“Governments
should not assume that their critics’ motives are partisan or ill-founded.”
 

He
then went on to thank those of us “who have spent considerable time and effort
speaking about the Project in a spirit of civic duty.”
 

For
some of us those kinds of ad hominem attacks were relatively easy to withstand
but for many, if not most citizens, it is very intimidating, and naturally that
was one more reason why others declined to enter into the fray.
 

As I
pointed out earlier, in our first letter to the editor on Muskrat Falls, Dave
Vardy and I urged those who had expressed their concerns to us privately to
make those concerns public. None of them did and given what we had to put up
with who can really blame them. But had they, it may have made a difference. We
will never know.
 

The
most notable absence was Newfoundland Power and its parent company, Fortis,
which is headquartered in St. John’s. Newfoundland Power is a tiny part of its
holdings but for most of us it is the retailer of electricity. So when we get our
bill for Muskrat Falls it’s won’t come from Nalcor or Hydro, it will come from
Newfoundland Power.
 

I
previously mentioned the reference to the PUB. Dave Vardy and I made a
presentation to the PUB but Newfoundland Power didn’t even participate in the Reference,
even though we know that the present CEO of Hydro, Stan Marshall, who was then
CEO of Fortis, had serious concerns about the project.

Fortis
is a very large company with revenues over $8 billion, almost as much as the
Province, so they have nothing to fear from the Government, and I think they
had a duty to protect their customers. They said nothing and failed to do what
they should have done.
 

If
they had made their private concerns public it may have made a difference, but,
again, we will never know.

Ron Penney

This
is also true of informed private citizens who expressed their concerns
privately but would not enter the fray.
 

So the
first thing that needs to happen is a change in our culture. Dissent should not
only be tolerated it should be welcomed and encouraged. And informed citizens
need to be braver.
 

We
also have a cultural problem. Most people don’t want to rock the boat. We are
deferential to authority, which may be a good thing in a pandemic, but is
certainly a bad thing in making billion dollar decisions.
 

And
those who express private concerns need to have the courage the next time we
are faced with such a big public policy issue to state them publicly.
 

Why is
it that in other jurisdictions like Manitoba and British Columbia, many ex
senior officials and retired Hydro CEO’s were publicly critical of similar
“boondoggles”?
 

It
ought not to have been the case that the only former senior public officials to
have publicly expressed concerns about the project were Dave Vardy and I. We
felt very lonely but we felt we had a civic obligation to make our concerns
public and to relentlessly pursue them. I said to Dave Vardy early on that what
were doing was the most important thing we had ever done, eclipsing the other
highlights in our long careers.

Unfortunately
we failed.
 

The
only former CEO of Hydro to express even private concerns was Vic Young, whose
emails to Ed Martin came to light during the inquiry.
 

I
would like to contrast this with the opposition to the attempt by then Premier
Wells to privatize Hydro.

A
large and diverse group of citizens, led by the late Cyril Abery, one of the
giants of our post Confederation public service, and a past CEO of Hydro,
opposed this policy. Hydro was then the jewel of our crown corporations and we
felt privatizing it was fundamentally wrong. I and the then Mayor of St.
John’s, joined that coalition and we were successful at the time.
 

I have
now come to realize that our opposition may have been a mistake in hindsight,
as a private company would have never undertaken the Muskrat Falls project!
 

The
difference was at that time private citizens and even those of us were working
in the public sector did not feel intimidated. Even though I was City Manager
at the time I, and the Mayor, didn’t feel that the interests of the City would
be adversely effected by our dissent.
 

I also
recall my own experience at the end of the Smallwood era when there was
tremendous public dissent and people felt free to participate. In my own case
when I was at Memorial in the mid sixties, I was part of that as the first
President of the PC club. Prior to that political clubs were banned on campus!
The late sixties and early seventies in Newfoundland and Labrador were a time
of strong dissent lead in large part by our University.
 

Things
have certainly changed for the worse.
 

Now,
one of the big differences between the opposition to propose privatization of
Hydro and Muskrat Falls is that we were unsuccessful in creating a large
coalition against the project and Muskrat Falls was very popular and had the
support of much of the business community.
 

The
other practical thing that Government can do is to bring in what is called
“anti SLAP” legislation.
 

SLAP
is an acronym for strategic lawsuit against public participation, which are
lawsuits intended to end public criticism by forcing dissenters to defend
themselves against the threat of legal action.
 

We do
have litigious people in Newfoundland as I found out. For most people the
concern that they may be sued is another disincentive to speaking out.
 

Anti
SLAPP legislation is in force in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia. For
example, Ontario’s legislation is called the Protection of Public Participation
Act and allows defendants to have an action dealt with in a summary manner in
an expedient and inexpensive manner.

I have
asked government to consider enacting such legislation through a Minister of
the Crown but have been ignored as usual!
 

Changing
the culture, so people feel free to dissent is one thing. The other is to
provide a forum for dissent, which is where our university comes in.
 

We do
have an organization which has in the past provided a forum for informed public
debate, drawing on the wide expertise of the University and the wider
community. That organization is the Harris Centre.
 

Unfortunately
the University has in recent years become very skittish about dealing with
sensitive public policy issues.
 

The
University is highly dependent on government, and with a few notable
exceptions, faculty members, particularly those who don’t have tenure, stay
away from talking about controversial public policy issues.
 

This
needs to change. The Harris Centre needs to have long term funding, supported
by the private sector, to take on a wider public policy role.
 

I was
initially pleased to see a recent initiative of the Harris Centre called
“Forecast NL: Charting a course for our climate, economy and society”, but when
I looked at the website, the idea is to create a citizen’s assembly of 45
citizens which, over a period of 18 months will examine those issues.
 

I hate
to say this, but in 18 months time the hard decisions will have been long been
made, so this initiative won’t help.
 

One
would have thought that the Harris Centre would have immediately started public
engagement on the Inquiry Report right after it was released but sadly that
hasn’t been the case.
 

The
only professor who I know of who has been systematically examining the project
is from the Business School, who uses the project as a case study and has asked
me to be a resource for the presentations on his students case study.
 

You
would have thought that the Political Science Department, with whom I am
affiliated as an Adjunct Professor, would have been all over the report but not
a peep from them.
 

We
will have Dame Moya Greens’ report this winter so any debate needs to happen
now.
 

The
next budget will have to be a tough one. We have avoided making the difficult
choices for many years. The combination of billion dollar deficits, the costs
of the pandemic and rate mitigation are all coming to the fore next year. And
in order to convince the Government of Canada and the people of Canada to give
us help, we have to demonstrate that we are doing our part.
 

I
should also note a group called CARE, which is an acronym for the Collaborative
Applied Research in Economics, which is housed in the Memorial Department of
Economics. It’s mandate is to to promote applied economic research within
province, the Maritimes and Canada. They do some public programming and in
particular, had a conference last February on our fiscal situation. But their
focus is more narrow than what I envisage.
 

We
also need to change the way our House of Assembly works, by creating a robust
committee system, to examine the big public policy issues and new legislation
and provide a forum for private citizens to provide their views on the issues
of the day.
 

The
House of Assembly has established a select committee on democratic reform,
which is a good thing, but so far there has been no opportunity for public
participation on issues such as election finance reform.

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.