17 November 2016

Ego and folly #nlpoli

“When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong–these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.” 
Winston Churchill,  Hansard, 02 May 1935

"If there's a deal to be had that will benefit Newfoundlanders and Labradorians,"  Premier Dwight Ball in the House of Assembly on Wednesday, "the responsible thing to do is not ... [to] let our past inhibit and restrict where we could be in the future."

That's actually a clean version of the quote.  In the heat of the moment in the House, Ball injected another phrase - "we learned from our history" - in the bit taken up by the ellipsis (three dots).

Ball's performance in the House on Wednesday,  indeed the way he has approached rumours of talks that have been abundant since last spring, make plain that Ball is very much inhibited, bound, and restricted by the history of the Lower Churchill.  He is extremely sensitive about the politics and the history.  That is the only reason he would really be quite so ridiculous as to claim there are no discussions and then at the same time talk as though there are talks underway.

There's enough information floating around to get a picture of the plan.  Ball has set Stan Marshall to work cutting some sort of deal to develop Gull Island.  The main partner in the talks is Hydro-Quebec.  The federal government is acting, at the very least, as some sort of broker cum matchmaker.  The hope would be to make enough profit by selling Gull Island to outsider buyers - Quebec and maybe Ontario - that the modest profit from the transaction would help to hold down the rates that taxpayers in Newfoundland and Labrador must bear alone in order to pay for Danny Williams' miserably small erection.

Sophisticated readers will appreciate the way Ball's new scheme confirms magnitude of the disaster that is Muskrat Falls by itself.  The project has spiralled now to the point where the only feasible way to lessen the burden on domestic ratepayers is to go even further in debt and cut what will inevitably be a sweetheart deal to export electricity merely in order cover the Muskrat Falls disaster. What was once supposed to be a source of enormous profit will now earn a paltry sum to try and help taxpayers choke down the consequences of folly and ego.

A perfect idea imperfectly executed by politicians

To appreciate the extent to which Ball is trapped in the past,  you must understand that, from the first time officials at Nalcor gave him a briefing, Dwight Ball has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Muskrat Falls project. He has only been critical of the way the provincial Conservatives who followed behind Danny Williams executed Williams' dream.   

Muskrat Falls is a great project,  to Ball's way of thinking, threatened by political incompetence. This is precisely the view he took in 2012 as the House of Assembly debated the project.   Now that he is Premier,  the sole threat to success is gone.  Ball will manage the project correctly.  This is his message to anyone who will listen.  The project born of folly and ego remains one of ego.

Folly is not far away,  Ball has maintained his unshakeable commitment to the project and to the people who built it even as the evidence has mounted of their blunders and, in some instances, outright lies. When Ed Martin told Ball that he wanted to quit,  Ball's first instinct was to get the man chiefly responsible for the disaster and a litany of falsehoods to remain as head of the corporation. 

Dwight Ball still believes in Muskrat Falls. If you look at the way he has consistently said the same things, you know that Ball's continued optimism about the project is not just the position of someone who has no choice but see a bad thing through. he is not just mouthing lines to satisfy creditors. Ball remains an original member of the Muskrateer club. 

Quebec:  the eternal enemy

The popular belief is that the government of Quebec and its hydro-electric corporation are enemies of Newfoundland. The two covet Labrador and its riches. They scheme to take them over and to frustrate attempts by politicians in this province to develop Labrador resources. The centrepiece of this tale of oppression is the 1969 power contract by which Hydro-Quebec buys all the electricity from Churchill Falls for a fraction of one cent per kilowatt hour and resells it at enormous profits.

There's no evidence to support any of these beliefs.   That hasn't stopped people from believing them and acting on them.  Williams relied heavily on the unshakeable belief in the conspiracy to excuse his own failure to develop the Lower Churchill up to 2010, for example.  And certainly Williams, Ball and others firmly believe the stories themselves.  Their actions are rooted in the belief that there is some historical struggle between the two provinces.

That utterly false belief  about Quebec's past treachery, about its deep-seated hatred of Newfoundland is what Dwight Ball was talking about in the House when he said we should not let history bind us.  Dwight was promising that he will not be influenced by the past.  he is open to a good deal, as long as it is in the best interests of the province.

Danny Williams said the same sort of thing. He had learned the lessons of the past so he would not repeat the mistakes.  No one would get one over on him. There'd be no more give-aways. There'd be no deal on the Lower Churchill,  Williams said in the months before the 2003 election, without redress for 1969.

In the end,  Williams signed a development agreement for the Lower Churchill that was entirely political.  His deal delivered the costs for the  project to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and the benefits of the project - profits,  as well as free and heavily discounted electricity - to people outside the province.  That's because Williams pursued a political project in Muskrat Falls the same as BRINCO and Joe Smallwood had pursued what was essentially a political project in 1969.

Ball said on Wednesday that Nova Scotia wants to get in on future developments.  He said it as if that were a good thing. The provincial is in the weakest position it has been in since 2010.  At that point Nova Scotia scored a commitment to free electricity.  They subsequently wrangled another block of discounted electricity. No wonder they want more of that, potentially from Gull Island.  Newfoundland and Labrador's position has not gotten any better in the meantime.

On the other side, Paul Davis and the Conservatives warned of Quebec's perfidy.  "For 40 years, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have been at the short end of the stick, at the hands of Quebec.  ...[E]ffort, after effort, after effort — by previous governments from all stripes ... to try to resolve the differences [with] Quebec, they held us at our knees."

This is the inevitable argument against Ball, even if it is wrong. We are not on our knees. We are in a quagmire.  We are there because we allow politicians to insist that they alone can pursue precisely the same course as everyone before them and produce victory where others failed.

The real argument against whatever scheme Dwight Ball has hatched would be the experience of the past,  the legacy of ego and folly that Ball would now have us ignore, yet again.  Dwight Ball is not looking to the future and doing things differently.  He is doing precisely what Premiers before him have done for precisely the same reason.

We ignore our history at our peril.