In­quiry ques­tion­ing goes off-track

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - EDITORIAL - Pam Framp­ton Pam Framp­ton is a colum­nist whose work is pub­lished in The Western Star

If you ever sit back and won­der how it was that the Muskrat Falls project hap­pened, you need only look to the present.

Tes­ti­mony given at the pub­lic in­quiry so far is re­flect­ing in mi­cro­cosm what played out in macro­cosm be­tween the time Muskrat Falls was pro­posed to the point of sanc­tion and in the years im­me­di­ately af­ter­ward when costs spiked cat­a­stroph­i­cally.

Former premier Danny Wil­liams gave im­pas­sioned tes­ti­mony last week about how, at the time the Muskrat Falls project was con­cep­tu­al­ized, he felt Que­bec was con­stantly erect­ing road­blocks to this province’s en­ergy plans and was fed up and frus­trated.

This week, wit­nesses David Vardy and Ron Pen­ney of the Muskrat Falls Con­cerned Cit­i­zens Coali­tion were pep­pered with ques­tions from lawyers for the Tory govern­ment mem­bers who saw Muskrat Falls through, in an at­tempt to show that they lacked the expertise re­quired to crit­i­cize the project or of­fer al­ter­na­tives — or that they had been pre­dis­posed to ar­gue against it from the start.

It was an “us” ver­sus “them” mo­ment, The Tele­gram’s Ash­ley Fitz­patrick re­ported. Those for and against Muskrat Falls were — and still are — po­lar­ized.

It’s a sit­u­a­tion that oc­curs of­ten with pub­lic megapro­jects, Bent Flyvb­jerg notes in “Megapro­jects and Risk,” be­cause or­di­nary cit­i­zens are shut out of the process and politi­cians wield all the power.

Con­cerned cit­i­zens in New­found­land and Labrador could ob­ject all they wanted, but they were in no po­si­tion to change any­thing.

Even now, former premier Wil­liams dis­misses crit­ics of the project as “bot­tom-feed­ers.”

And even though Vardy and Pen­ney both have con­sid­er­able se­nior-level ex­pe­ri­ence in the pub­lic ser­vice and knowl­edge of the work­ings of govern­ment, Wil­liams told re­porters the in­quiry com­mis­sioner should give lit­tle weight to their tes­ti­mony, call­ing it “ba­si­cally in­signif­i­cant.”

“They’re crit­i­ciz­ing for the sake of crit­i­ciz­ing, and no­body is safe from that,” he said.

Vardy and Pen­ney were given stand­ing at the in­quiry in order to out­line why they op­posed Muskrat Falls — op­po­si­tion they shared with other cred­i­ble and ar­tic­u­late mem­bers of the pub­lic, just as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of in­dige­nous and en­vi­ron­men­tal groups in Labrador ex­pressed their con­cerns about the project’s ram­i­fi­ca­tions for the land, and an­i­mal and hu­man health.

And yet Vardy and Pen­ney were grilled like burg­ers at a bar­be­cue fundraiser; it was sug­gested that they were a bit long in the tooth to be of­fer­ing any mean­ing­ful crit­i­cism. Pen­ney was ques­tioned doggedly about his con­nec­tions to former Pub­lic Util­i­ties Board com­mis­sioner Andy Wells — who now calls Muskrat Falls “a mis­take” — and to former premier Brian Peck­ford, who called for a foren­sic au­dit of the project.

The ques­tion­ing seemed un­duly harsh at times.

Now, it’s easy to get caught up in the drama and dis­par­age­ment. But let’s pull our­selves back for a mo­ment and con­sider the in­quiry’s terms of ref­er­ence.

Jus­tice Richard Le­blanc has been asked to es­sen­tially de­ter­mine:

• Whether Nal­cor con­sid­ered all pos­si­ble op­tions and al­ter­na­tives to Muskrat Falls.

• How the cost of the project went from roughly $6.1 bil­lion to $12.7 bil­lion.

• Whether ex­empt­ing the project from the over­sight of the Pub­lic Util­i­ties Board was rea­son­able or detri­men­tal.

• Whether the govern­ment was fully in­formed and aware of the risks.

Nowhere in those terms of ref­er­ence does it say the in­quiry is meant to prove any and all crit­i­cism of the project was base­less. Nor is it meant to pro­vide a fo­rum for chastis­ing cit­i­zens who were brave enough to stand up in front of the Muskrat Falls ma­chine that was bar­relling towards us all and say, “Wait a minute. What if…?”

Was some of the crit­i­cism un­founded? We’ll have to wait and see. No one in a de­ci­sion­mak­ing po­si­tion seemed to give it any weight any­way.

But we live in a democ­racy, which means peo­ple who care enough about the pub­lic good to ask ques­tions and chal­lenge as­sump­tions are to be ap­plauded, not torn down.

Dis­miss­ing con­cerned cit­i­zens as be­ing past their prime or as bot­tom-feed­ers is in­sult­ing and dis­tracts from the in­quiry’s true man­date.

So, ig­nore the smoke and mir­rors. Don’t be dis­tracted. Keep your eyes and ears open. There’s plenty more to come.

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