28 June 2016

Friends and enemies #nlpoli

Craig Westcott tells a story from his short stint as communications director for the Liberals in opposition in the last days of Danny Williams and the early days of his handpicked successor, Kathy Dunderdale.

"I kept after the very small caucus we had to keep asking questions,"  Westcott said in an email to SRBP, "hoping that even if the media ignored us, some of the folks watching at home would cotton on to how bad the deal was.  That might generate some heat. It kept the flame of criticism and skepticism alive."

"We looked at everything from the lack of documentation to support Nalcor's demand projections, to the big question of water rights, the actual usage of Holyrood as part of the island's power supply for the previous 20 or so years, the free power to Nova Scotia, the privatization of the Labrador to Island transmission line to give [Emera] a cut,  the free block of power to Nova Scotia, the likely cost of Muskrat Falls-generated power, which early on we pegged at over 20 cents per kWh, and on and on. The deal was so flawed it was difficult to find anything positive in it."

One major problem Westcott ran into was that the local media weren't interested. "[CBC's David] Cochrane tired pretty quickly of the Opposition asking questions on Muskrat," Westcott said.  "He complained several times that we weren't asking anything new. Some days he walked out of the legislature after Question Period and made a point [of saying] that he wasn't going to scrum our guys because we were still on Muskrat. The other legislative reporters would follow him out."

Wakeham's Imaginary World

It's that sort of story that makes you do a double-take when someone like Bob Wakeham tells you that the local reporters are chasing a great scandal in the Ed Martin affair. "It is a delight to observe the media doing its job,"  Wakeham told us all in early June,  "helped along by assorted bloggers and social media addicts, making Dwight Ball and his cohorts accountable for their regular dose of screwups: the broken promises, the budget from hell and, this latest fiasco, the Ed Martin severance shambles."

Wakeham used to write news for the Telegram and later produced CBC's supper hour news.  But either the old fellow is getting a bit dotty or he's turning his hand to writing Bill Rowe-like fiction. You see, on the whole Lower Churchill story, the local media has been anything but a news hound digging into the story and rooting up the truth-truffles buried in the muck.

On Monday your humble e-scribbler was wandering around Duckworth Street enjoying the holiday sun. At Afterwords bookstore,  they had a copy of the Danny Williams hagiography rushed hastily to print when the Old Man retired.  In light of Friday's revelations, there something quaint  - at best and chilling at worst  - reading the way Russell Wangersky described Williams' career at the end of its public phase.  There was the Williams of legend,  wrestling with evil Quebec,  righting the wrong of 1969, and then, at the end announcing at least a working deal to put a line through Nova Scotia to end forever Quebec's stranglehold on hydro-electric development in Labrador.

It's easy to forget that Williams sold Muskrat Falls to us originally using precisely that rationale.  "Lower Churchill Project to become a reality"  the news release headline said.  "This is a day of great historic significance to Newfoundland and Labrador as we move forward with development of the Lower Churchill project,"  the quote from Williams reads, "on our own terms and free of the geographic stranglehold of Quebec which has for too long determined the fate of the most attractive clean energy project in North America."

The thing about that claim and Wangersky's faithful reproduction of it is that the whole story is not only false but people knew at the time it wasn't true.  American electricity trade regulations from the 1990s meant that any jurisdiction selling to the United States had to allow for competitive transmission of electricity.  In April 2009,  Williams himself had pronounced the Quebec stranglehold dead.  Nalcor was wheeling electricity into the United States through Quebec.  

The Imaginary War with Quebec

There isn't a news outlet in the province - bar none - that challenged Williams' claims through the latter part of 2009 and into 2010 that Hydro-Quebec was blocking electricity sales from Labrador even though what Williams said was obviously false.  Indeed, the local media as well as the national media repeated Danny Williams' claims about a conflict with Quebec without subjecting any of them to any scrutiny.  In the case of a series of complaints by Nalcor filed with the Quebec energy regulator,  Williams claimed that "Quebec" was blocking access to its grid.

As SRBP noted in August 2010,  none "of the decisions prevented NALCOR from proceeding with acquiring space on the Quebec grid. The Regie did not, at any time, refuse to grant, decide not to grant or dismiss NALCOR’s bid for access to the grid.

"As it appears, NALCOR opted for its appeals because it did not have a project and power to transmit, nor did it have a prospect of developing it within the time frames originally proposed.  It opted instead for administrative delay tactics. 

"In June 2010, Danny Williams told the House of Assembly that NALCOR did not pursue other contracts for transmission at the time  'because we did not have any power to sell.'  Earlier that same month, Williams confirmed that the Lower Churchill is up in the air indefinitely.  The Telegram buried the comment  - a nugget of hard news - at the end of another story."  Even in 2013, local media had some difficulty getting the Regie story right.  

Old Ways Die Hard

To be fair to the folks in the local newsrooms, times are significantly different now than they were even five years ago.  You can see the old way of life in the email exchange that James McLeod at the Telegram got from Nalcor last week,  all 256 pages of  members of the board and senior officials at Nalcor getting themselves into a rage over a few words Cathy Bennett included in the budget speech a few months ago.

256 pages.  That's a staggering number. Astounding number, in itself.

And it is breathtaking when one considers what Bennett said.  Most of you likely have no idea what Cathy Bennett could possibly have said that put these folks into the fits.  Well, here it is, in total:
As the province’s energy corporation, Nalcor belongs to every citizen of Newfoundland and Labrador
Since its creation in 2007, taxpayers have invested over $2.25 billion yet have received no dividends. For all corporations and their shareholders, this would be unacceptable. 
The previous administration allowed Nalcor’s organizational structure, compensation and benefits packages to grow beyond what taxpayers would consider reasonable, particularly given our current fiscal and economic circumstances. 
Through Budget 2016, initial steps have been taken to identify operational savings at Nalcor approximating $6.7 million. 
However, due to prior year commitments by the former administration, the required equity the province will need to invest in Nalcor this year is $1.3 billion, bringing the total investment by the people of the province to $3.6 billion. 
Further actions will be taken to maximize the return on investments made by our province. 
Like government departments and public entities, Nalcor will be expected to take a zero based budget approach to their administration and operations effective with Budget 2017. 
The Nalcor Board will be directed to review their operational structure to achieve efficiencies and develop a plan to bring their compensation, benefits, and gender equity policies more in line with similar positions in other public sector bodies. 
Work at the Muskrat Falls Powerhouse is significantly behind schedule. 
Faced with these schedule delays and expected cost increases on the project - a concern to all of us - government is doing and will continue to do everything possible to help get this project back on track.
In other words:  Nalcor belongs to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. Those people have given Nalcor more than $2.0 billion in transfer from the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. Nalcor has paid the people of Newfoundland and Labrador precisely nothing in financial dividends since 2003. The people who own the company will have to give Nalcor another $1.3 billion. Just like everyone else in government, Nalcor is going to be expected to trim its spending. Meanwhile,  the government is going to do everything it can to get Muskrat Falls back on track.

Every single word of what Bennett said is true.  Simple.  Plain.  Factual.  True.  None of it demeans or disparages anyone at Nalcor.

In response, Ed Martin sent a letter to people at Nalcor moaning about the supposed "attack." The board started hunting for information to mount a political attack against the finance minister and the government.  Ultimately,  Ed Martin stormed out and the folks on the board voted Martin a gigantic golden handshake as he left.  They also handed out a raft of bonuses to the senior executive at nalcor before the board - too - resigned en masse.

Telegram columnist Pam Frampton focused her attention last Saturday on the comments among the emails that attacked James McLeod.  People don't want to return his calls, Nalcor's communications manager replied to board chair Ken Marshall. McLeod was only doing his job and Frampton made a good point in noting that these officials of a publicly owned company had a duty to act maturely and professionally with reporters.

The episode is a reminder of the way Danny Williams and his cronies ran the province between 2003 and 2015.  Friends in the media got information, often leaked in advance.  Others got cut off from any contact entirely. The Williams Conservatives talked about accountability and transparency but - in truth - the ran one of the most notoriously secretive regimes in the province's history since Confederation.

In this case, McLeod was chasing a leak  - evidently from Marshall - to a friend of his at VOCM. There's no sign McLeod ever played the game of ignoring stories in exchange for favourable treatment. That's likely why the Williams-era crowd at Nalcor didn't like him last going off.  The fact he'd earlier been reporting favourably about Muskrat Falls didn't seem to carry any weight with them.  He wasn't friendly and so they stone-walled him.

Friends and Enemies

The Williams era was marked by a division of the world into friends and enemies. It doesn't matter whether you look at the relationship between Williams and his associates on the one hand and individual reporters on the other or the way Williams framed issues as a struggle between the province and its foreign enemies.  What helped the Williams Conservatives dominate the political landscape was the willingness of others to accept such a premise. In the case of political mythology about "Quebec", for example, it was easy to get people to accept the premise Williams offered. They were used to thinking about the world that way and reflexively accepted the frame Williams applied to the story despite the evidence in front of their faces.

The same sort of thing, the same sort of bias happened across our society either with individuals or whole groups.  There's no accident, for example, that someone like Wade Locke supported Williams enthusiastically and - as his endorsement of Muskrat Falls in 2012 showed  - was prepared to ignore evidence contrary to his pre-determined conclusion.  Their shared love of ethnic identity arguments in preference to facts and reason is an excellent example of their shared philosophy.  

When Locke told the Telegram's James McLeod on Monday that the sanctioning decision on Muskrat Falls involved the best information available,  Locke is simply wrong. He's just doing more of the selective reasoning he's been famous for over the past 15 years.  His own assessment of Muskrat Falls in 2012 is an excellent example of how Locke was prepared to omit key information.  He left out the cost of transmission, the result being that he made Muskrat Falls appear cheaper than it was.

Locke also used the occasion to engage in a partisan political attack on his colleague Jim Feehan, who had provided a lower-cost alternative to Muskrat Falls to meet demand and peak load issues. Locke's arguments mirrored Ed Martin's at the time and it is significant since - evidently - neither Locke nor anyone at Nalcor had done a comparison to demonstrate that Muskrat Falls was the cheapest way of meeting domestic needs.  Throughout the Conservative period Locke was a partisan activist as often as not and it remains a fundamental problem with public debate in the Williams period that the media presented Locke as an impartial commentator when he clearly never was.

Then again, given the extent to which the story of Danny Williams' time in politics is about the gap between reality and fairy tales told about him, it's hard to imagine how they would have done any different.