Originally published on the Uncle Gnarley blog
Guest Post by David Vardy
Will the Coalition make a difference?
One of those invited to join the Muskrat Falls Concerned Citizens’ Coalition (MFCCC) asked the following questions:
Thank you for the invitation to join your Coalition. I have two questions, answers to which will have an impact on my decision as to whether or not to join:
David Vardy responded as follows:
I am taking the liberty to offer my own feeble attempt to answer your questions. At the same time I am inviting my MFCCC colleagues to challenge me or to build upon what I have said. I am only one person and these are my views only.
I believe the Commission has demonstrated its willingness to listen to the public and that it has acted on advice given to it. On December 11, 2017 a panel discussion took place at Memorial University to bring forward ideas to make the Inquiry successful. The panel seized on the need for the Commission to begin by identifying the questions that need to be asked and they wrote to the Commissioner. He responded by inviting the public to participate and to identify important questions and the authority of the Inquiry to deal with them. On the basis of this input he wrote his Interpretation, which to my thinking, went as far as he could go to broaden the Inquiry within the scope of the terms of reference within which he was working.
At an early stage the Commission engaged Grant Thornton to undertake a forensic audit. It is difficult to imagine how such a step would have been taken if not for the fact that the “anonymous engineer” spoke out on the Uncle Gnarley Blog and on the CBC Morning Show. The Commissioner showed a sensitivity and awareness of the concerns which were raised, not only with the competence of those carrying out the project but also with their integrity. Missing from the terms of reference was the relationship between government and Nalcor. The Commissioner has seen fit to include this important missing component through his broad interpretation.
Particularly encouraging was his paragraph 41 which reads as follow:
"While there is some overlap between the issues to be considered under terms 4(a) and 4(b), matters for consideration under 4(b) will include such things as Nalcor's ability to oversee and manage a project of the magnitude of the Muskrat Falls Project, whether construction scheduling for the Project was reasonable, whether the contractual arrangements with contractors, subcontractors, consultants and others, including embedded contractors, were appropriately entered into in accordance with industry best practice, whether any reports or risk assessments were obtained by Nalcor, who they were shared with and how they were responded to by Nalcor. One such report will be the SNC Lavalin Report dated April 23, 2013 which will merit particular attention by the Commission. As well, I must consider whether appropriate or proper consideration was given and actions taken regarding potential risk to the environment, human safety and property related to the stability of the North Spur and methylmercury contamination. How these reports or assessments were received by Nalcor and whether they were made available to the Board of Nalcor as well as the Government will also be a part of the investigation to be conducted."
The sentences in bold refer to the SNC Lavalin report on risk and how the risk report entered into the complex relationship between Nalcor and government. Through the language marked in bold the Commissioner has acknowledged the important role of environmental risks, along with human safety related to the North Spur and methyl mercury contamination. Without listening to the voices from the community he would have found it difficult to include these matters within his mandate.
These are examples of how the Commission is listening to the public. They encourage us to believe that we can make a difference if we can organize a strong Coalition to bring forward evidence and ideas that will help the Commission.
The first guiding principle enunciated by the Commissioner in his Interpretation of his Terms of Reference was Independence. Independence is vital so that the Commission is not held prisoner by the expertise and resources of Nalcor and of government. It will be a real challenge for the Commission to find credible experts to present testimony critical of these entities which wield so much power in our community. That is where the Coalition can contribute enormously if it can attract the input of people like you, people who know the energy business and how megaprojects are managed effectively.
The Commission can identify what actions led to the present fiasco and put forward norms of behaviour which were violated and which must be corrected if we as a society are to avoid such egregious mistakes in the future. It can identify the failings in our governance and in our expectations of what governments can do by taking risks on our behalf without weighing the potential for inflicting great harm. The Commission can inform us of the changes that need to be made in order to avoid such mistakes.
Your question focuses on what the Coalition can do. As you know its effectiveness depends upon how much respect the Commission has for its expertise and judgement and on what resources the Coalition can mobilize. There is a lot of expertise in our community and the Coalition provides a mechanism to harness it. We also have to recognize the limitations in our local capacity and reach out to the international expertise which is so vital to the success of a project like Muskrat Falls.
The Coalition can identify witnesses that need to be called and can bring before the Commission its views on best practices in policy making and in project management. It can help the Commission to challenge Nalcor, which has virtually unlimited resources and which can overwhelm the Commission with information and defences of its actions. The Coalition has access to expertise which can support the Commission and enhance its ability to challenge Nalcor. The Muskrat Falls project is highly complex and difficult for a Commissioner to understand in a relatively short span of time and without prior knowledge. One of our main contributions must surely be to highlight departures from best practice and identify people both locally and globally who can provide a diagnosis and a sound prescription. We as a Coalition can focus on a template of best practice against which the actions of government and Nalcor can be measured.
We look upon the Inquiry as a forum whereby the community can engage in a meaningful debate on the failure of our institutions and practices, a debate which many have attempted to prompt without success. So many local institutions have been unable to lay aside their own parochial self-interest to advance the common good and that includes our University which has failed us in this time of need.
The terms of reference for the Inquiry have limited scope to address the shortcomings in our democratic system. The Coalition can urge the Commission to go beyond the deficits in project management and policy formulation and delve into the roots of our democratic system. We have to acknowledge that the terms of reference limit the Commission’s ability to deal with the fundamental democratic deficits which you have identified. Yet the Commission can identify the democratic deficit as being at the core of the problem and point to the directions from which a solution can be found. It can confirm that democratic reform is the key issue and urge citizens and their governments to make reform an overriding priority.
The Commission must examine the failure of government and Nalcor to examine all energy options both on the demand and the supply side. It must determine why the joint environmental panel and the PUB were ignored or overruled. It must assess the projections and assumptions which led to the sanctioning of Muskrat Falls. But it must go even further into the basic decision-making process and into how government works or does not work.
Nature abhors a vacuum but there is a vacuum in public policy dialogue and in understanding of public affairs. The Commission creates a virtual “think tank” or laboratory for dissecting the failure of democracy. If other key institutions in our society were more effective the Commission would not have been necessary. The fundamental point is that the Commission is in many ways the only recourse, the only forum within which we can evaluate future options based on a full understanding as to how we got into this fiasco.
Our democracy is in thrall to three toxic factors: fear, acceptance and silence. Government is too powerful and pervasive in this province and has too much power, especially when the government in power has a majority in the provincial parliament. Too many people depend upon government for employment. There is fear of retribution when people speak out. There is too much acceptance of the status quo: government by impulse rather than government by rational planning and analysis. The most toxic of the trinity which disables our democracy is silence. The Commission provides a forum to empower those who have the courage to speak up. If they do not seize the opportunity then the Coalition will be just as impotent as the Commission itself.
One might throw up one’s hands in despair at our ability to make a difference. That would be a terrible mistake. To remain silent in the face of evil is itself a form of evil, as Bonhoeffer said. To embrace this forum and participate is the best way we know to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men and women to do nothing. The burden of proof is upon those who reject the Commission to light an alternative pathway, one which will propose reforms to prevent future majority governments from inflicting great harm upon our small province through fear, acceptance and silence.