Pam Framp­ton:

No time like the present for an in­quiry

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - FRONT PAGE - Pam Framp­ton Pam Framp­ton is a colum­nist whose work is pub­lished in The Western Star and The Telegram. Email pamela.framp­[email protected]­gram.com. Twit­ter: pam_framp­ton

“In­quiries are cre­ated in ex­cep­tional cir­cum­stances: where there has typ­i­cally been a to­tal fail­ure to prop­erly ad­dress the is­sue at hand.”

— Sarah Chaster, Cana­dian lawyer

Stan Mar­shall sum­moned a spec­tre this week: that the in­quiry into the $12.7-bil­lion hy­dro­elec­tric de­vel­op­ment at Muskrat Falls might wind up com­pound­ing pro­ject costs.

The CEO of Nal­cor was re­spond­ing to a West­ney Con­sult­ing re­port that says the in­quiry could boost the ex­pense to the Crown cor­po­ra­tion by any­where from $45 mil­lion to $165 mil­lion — costs ul­ti­mately borne by tax­pay­ers.

Mar­shall said he wor­ries his staff could be dis­tracted or de­mor­al­ized by the pres­sures and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of the in­quiry, lead­ing to pro­ject de­lays. Or that sen­si­tive fi­nan­cial in­for­ma­tion could be di­vulged that might al­low con­trac­tors to see the ac­tual size of the pie.

Of course, Mar­shall has al­ways said he thought any pub­lic in­quiry into Muskrat Falls should have waited un­til the pro­ject was com­plete, for those very rea­sons. So those con­cerns are not new, and they have some va­lid­ity, to be sure.

(Mar­shall’s can­dour about the things that could go wrong makes a re­fresh­ing change to the pos­i­tive spin cy­cle we were locked into dur­ing Ed Martin’s ten­ure at Nal­cor, when we were con­stantly told that ev­ery­thing was go­ing swim­m­ingly.)

But I’d ar­gue that the cost of wait­ing to hold the in­quiry would have been even greater — not nec­es­sar­ily in terms of dol­lars and cents, but in terms of the pub­lic psy­che.

The key role of pub­lic in­quiries, af­ter all, is pri­mar­ily to in­form the pub­lic.

As for­mer Supreme Court of Canada Jus­tice Peter Cory has said, “In times of pub­lic ques­tion­ing, stress and con­cern, they pro­vide the means for Cana­di­ans to be ap­prised of the con­di­tions per­tain­ing to a wor­ri­some com­mu­nity prob­lem and to be a part of the rec­om­men­da­tions that are aimed at re­solv­ing the prob­lem.”

Muskrat Falls is in­deed a wor­ri­some com­mu­nity prob­lem, and par­tic­u­larly so to thou­sands of peo­ple in this prov­ince for whom it rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant safety, en­vi­ron­men­tal and/or fi­nan­cial threat.

For any­one who doesn’t re­ally have to worry about the po­ten­tial for methylmer­curycon­tam­i­nated food sup­plies, land­slides or de­bil­i­tat­ing elec­tri­cal rate hikes, I can see how there’d be no sense of ur­gency. For ev­ery­one else, there is. Once the peo­ple of the prov­ince learned that Muskrat Falls had gone grossly over­bud­get and was run­ning a cou­ple of years past its com­ple­tion date, they wanted an­swers and were in no mood to wait.

And we de­serve an­swers now, not once the dust has set­tled and the key play­ers can no longer re­call per­ti­nent de­tails, or vi­tal doc­u­men­ta­tion has gone astray.

In an es­say on pub­lic in­quiries, Bri­tish lawyer Vic­to­ria But­ler-cole noted that they can bring about three ma­jor ben­e­fits: cathar­sis, con­fi­dence and knowl­edge.

We need all three — cathar­sis af­ter all the mis­trust gen­er­ated by how the Muskrat Falls pro­ject was sold to us and then ex­e­cuted. Re­stored con­fi­dence in gov­ern­ment and its en­ti­ties or, bet­ter yet, in our­selves — the con­fi­dence that we can de­mand and de­serve ac­count­abil­ity from elected of­fi­cials. And a knowl­edge of what went wrong in or­der to pre­vent us from go­ing down this path again.

The West­ney Con­sult­ing re­port warns that when projects are in­ves­ti­gated ex­ter­nally, it can be stress­ful to the peo­ple car­ry­ing out the work, caus­ing malaise and de­creased mo­ti­va­tion, and lead­ing to res­ig­na­tions and turnover.

Per­haps, but Muskrat Falls and its crip­pling fi­nan­cial bur­den will cause far greater stress for far more peo­ple.

Mar­shall said he’s wor­ried that when fi­nan­cial data comes to light in Phase 2 of the in­quiry it could lead to con­trac­tors re­fus­ing to set­tle claims or to stake new ones.

But the added scru­tiny might also sig­nal to com­pa­nies seek­ing to cash in on the pro­ject that the money trail is be­ing fol­lowed more closely now.

All I know is, if there had been greater trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity dur­ing the sanc­tion­ing and early con­struc­tion phases of this pro­ject, there’d be no need for an in­quiry — pe­riod.

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