28 August 2012

The Muskrat Falls Debate (on Twitter) #nlpoli

Over at the Telegram, you’ll find two blog posts that are well worth your time if you want to get more insights into the ongoing discussion about Muskrat Falls.

Political reporter James McLeod goes through the tone of the public discussion about the project.  Geoff Meeker has a post featuring some observations by former premier Roger Grimes.

The two posts wind up complimenting each other and both raise some worthwhile issues.

On the tone of public discussion, McLeod is pretty much spot on, at least as far as the online version of the discussion goes.  It’s been nasty at times, and needlessly so. 

If there’s a problem with McLeod’s observations, it is because it seems to focus on the Twitter-based discussion and doesn’t accurately or adequately reflect the wider discussion about Muskrat Falls that has been going on.

This paragraph – an aside – is a particularly sharp example of that:
(By the way, when you really think about what a lot of the anti-Muskrat Falls folks are saying, you'd be astounded how many of their arguments are predicated on the idea that Nalcor and Martin are somehow cooking the books and fudging the numbers. That is an absolutely monumental accusation that neither the PUB, Manitoba Hydro International, Navigant or the Joint Review Panel have found any evidence to support.)
The gang who hang out at #nlpoli on Twitter and pretty much nowhere else might be making those kinds of arguments.  But if you look at the substantive critiques offered by the likes of Dave Vardy, Cabot Martin, Jim Feehan, and Tom Adams “cooking the books” or “fudging the numbers” is about as far from the truth as you can get.

Each of these individuals  - there are others - has presented well-reasoned and detailed critiques of different aspects of the proposal and the information Nalcor has presented. They’ve explained why the Nalcor claims aren’t supported by the evidence Nalcor presents. They have done so based on their personal knowledge and experience with the issues.

If you want a hefty example of the kinds of reasoned and informed critiques the Muskrat Falls opponents have been putting out, take a look at the presentation to the Public Utilities Board by “JM”.

What’s more, in at least one case, Nalcor has confirmed the critique.  last winter, energy analyst Tom Adams concluded that Muskrat Falls itself would not be able to produce enough electricity to meet the Newfoundland and Nova Scotia demands during the winter.  Adams came to his conclusion based on Nalcor’s own information. Nalcor boss Ed Martin insisted that Adams was wrong.  He demanded an apology from Adams.

As it turns out, Adams was right.  Martin didn’t say so directly, but as Martin told reporters last week, Nalcor plans to meet its Nova Scotia and other commitments from whatever source is available. The reason is obvious:  as Adams and others have pointed out, the water flows through Muskrat Falls won’t be enough to meet the energy demands in the heavy-use months.  What Nalcor claimed and what turned out to be the case are two quite different things.

At this point, you should realise that the public utilities board and Navigant or MHI didn’t find any evidence to support claims of cooking the books because they were asked to look at something else.  That isn’t to say they wouldn't find number fudging if they looked: it’s merely to note that the meaningful discussion of Muskrat Falls isn’t happening on Twitter or in the rackets among the three political parties.  It's happening among the folks like Grimes, Vardy, Feehan and the rest of the 2041 group.

McLeod posed three questions about the Muskrat Falls “debate”, but that will have to wait for another post.   In the meantime, though,  while McLeod was taking some observers to task for their comments on each other during Muskrat Fall, Roger Grimes had some sharp (and accurate) criticism of his own for some of the local media coverage. This is a long quote, but it’s worth looking at in its entirety.  Grimes said:
“I think some of the media have been co-opted a bit. It’s unusual for open line hosts, editorial boards and others to go in and have a session with Ed Martin, and let him indoctrinate them or influence their thinking, by taking Nalcor’s spiel. 

My thought always was that the media should reflect what’s available to the public at large that is reading your content or following it on the newscast. Because they (the public) don’t have all this other detailed information. There is only so much available in the public realm, so that’s what the ordinary person has to base their opinion on, what’s available publicly. 

But you’ve got all these others … who have actually had their private sessions with Ed Martin – and we don’t know what they’ve said. We don’t know what the questions have been or what the detail was.”
Actually, it’s not unusual at all.  On major issues, government or industry would normally look to brief the media in detail.  They should do so in order for the news media to do their part and accurately report the information. 

Some of the sharpest critics in the media have had their fill of official briefings. It didn’t co-opt them.
Part of the problem Grimes is really getting at is actually a fundamental imbalance in resources and organization.  Nalcor has its in-house communications people plus the services of an advertising agency.  It’s also got the entire provincial government and its communications apparatus.

The critics have pretty much nothing of their own.  They are individuals who are, in pretty well every case doing their thing on their own.

The other political parties  - Liberals and New Democrats - have some resources but they simply didn’t quite know what to make of Muskrat Falls until more recently.  The New Democrats have shifted their position from support to opposition. Unfortunately for most of the past 18 months, they have been either backing the project or neutral.  As such they haven’t emerged as the main political voice against the project.

The Liberals don’t know whether they are punched or bored on most issues.  On this one, they’ve got different messages in public depending on which of the leading lights you talk to.

The substantive opposition, therefore, has been coming from some individuals and, more recently, from a group of lawyers.  For their troubles, the lawyers got the savaging McLeod wrote about.  That should be a clue about what is really going on here, at least as far as we are talking about how the provincial government apparently perceives those lawyers. 

That’s right:  they are a threat.

When you start looking at things that way, the whole notion of a debate and what people want out of it takes on a bunch of different meanings.

We’ll get to that in another post.