Hardly at arm’s length
He may not have meant it to sound the way it did, but Robert Thompson gave an answer on the stand at the Muskrat Falls inquiry last Wednesday that defines the overriding theme of the inquiry so far.
Asked about whether certain projects risks were properly outlined to the provincial government by Nalcor, the former clerk of the Executive Council replied, “I don’t know and I can’t recall.”
Those seven words, in some ways, represent a common refrain at the inquiry.
Not to say that what Thompson did recall wasn’t interesting.
For example, up until 2011, he kept his own notes on the issues he dealt with in government, notes he still has and that were provided to the commission of inquiry. After 2011, for the remaining years until he left the civil service in 2013, those same notes were held by the provincial government, and no longer seem to be available. That’s certainly interesting.
That the provincial government didn’t doublecheck Nalcor’s numbers for the cost of the project, or even read independent reports that the energy giant told the province that it had had done? That’s interesting as well.
But the biggest thing that became clear from Thompson’s testimony?
Perhaps it’s that Nalcor and the provincial government saw themselves as working hand-in-glove to move Muskrat Falls forwards - consulting back and forth on the contents of news releases, on the contents of letters required by government, even on the terms of reference for a review of the project and that no one was casting a critical eye over the project as a whole.
When it came to getting an independent review done of the project, the provincial government not only asked Nalcor what its views were on the terms of reference for the review, but even who should be doing it. The government also clearly kept in mind that any independent review shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with Nalcor’s already established schedule and time line for the project.
In other words, review or not, the project was going ahead.
The interconnectedness between government and Nalcor - and how obviously accepted that symbiotic (or perhaps parasitic) relationship was is truly alarming.
So where does that leave us, the people who will end up picking up the tab for this project?
Well, if the provincial government truly saw itself first as a partner in Nalcor’s Muskrat Falls project, as part of a team aligned with the project’s goals, then you have to ask who was looking out for the interests of the province’s taxpayers and ratepayers.
Surely the successive administrations that launched the project understood that their first responsibility was as representatives of the people, not as partners in a megaproject.
If they didn’t, they clearly abdicated their fiduciary and governmental responsibilities.