28 November 2016

The graveyard of ambition #nlpoli

Think of it as an inside joke.

James McLeod interviewed Premier Dwight Ball about the horror show that has been Ball's first year in office. "Ball also came under heavy fire,"  McLeod wrote, "for his handling of Nalcor Energy and perceived dishonesty about what he knew about outgoing CEO Ed Martin’s exorbitant severance package." McLeod quotes Ball:  "'I understand why people would suggest that, well, this guy, I can’t trust him, simply because of the HST or because of this or that.'"

This or that, of course, would be Ball's claim that he knew nothing of the plan to pay Ed Martin any form of severance although he'd quit as the head of Nalcor. That's the sort-of joke part. I can see, said Ball understatedly, how people might think I have some trouble telling them the straight story.  Subsequent evidence made it pretty clear Ball knew about severance payment Martin got, even if it was only to the extent he believed Martin was entitled to a severance payment under his employment contract and didn't know about the elaborate fraud perpetrated by the Tory-appointed Nalcor board.

Translating Dwight-Speak to English

Six months or so later, Ball is in another controversy over talks with Hydro-Quebec about further hydro-electric development along the whole river. "There has been no discussion with Quebec about the opening of the Upper Churchill contract or the Muskrat Falls Project or Gull Island," Ball told the House of Assembly on November 16 during Question Period.  

"There has been no discussion."  People talk that way when they want to hide things.  Like who wasn't talking about those things.  Or what they were not talking about. They were not talking about this thing *or*  that thing *or* something else denies a series of discrete individual events. Implicitly, they were talking about something else. Literally true:  no one talked about Churchill Falls or Gull Island or Muskrat Falls. Implicit: someone did talk about about Churchill *and* Gull *and* Muskrat all together. 

"This [idea about talks] came out in media reports out of Quebec yesterday,"  Ball said in the House.  This is literally true.  We will get to those statements in a second.  "I reached out to the premier's office in Quebec last night, ... to get clarification on where this is coming from."  Again, something that could be literally true.  Ball called Couillard to find out why his minister spoke about the talks  - that have been going on for months - not to find out why the guy talked about non-existent discussions.

Then we are back to the misdirection:  "I have talked to the premier about the agreement on internal trade, which has nothing to do with those contracts."  Ball admits something they did talk about, followed by "There are no negotiations ongoing with Premier Philippe Couillard in Quebec right now on the sale of assets of hydro or the Churchill Falls contract."  

The passive voice appears again along with the denial of two individual, discrete activities that would be literally true - not this or that - while at the same time not disclosing that the talks are about this *and* that or about some other subjects altogether. The sentence seems to say there are no ongoing negotiations.  But if that was true, Ball should have stopped there.  Instead, he adds qualifiers and that is where Ball raises all sorts of doubts about the idea nothing is going on.

You see, in writing, authors usually only give you the details you need.  Anything omitted is unnecessary. Details that are there, are important.  In another sense, we are talking about a phenomenon police will tell you about.  People telling the truth tell you simple, clean stories that are very lean on details.  That's why Ball's qualifiers flip every warning flag trigger there is.  There *are* talks. No ongoing negotiations "right now" - Couillard was out of the country at the time - but then a detail of what the talks aren't about, namely the sale of assets to Hydro-Quebec and the 1969 contract.  Your only sensible conclusion is that there are talks and they are about something other than selling assets to Hydro-Quebec, which is an idea no one even mentioned.  

To further the misdirection,  Ball then switched on his response to opposition leader Paul Davis' second question to discussions Davis had with Quebec Premier Couillard about Labrador hydro.  And off the discussion went with Davis on the defensive and Ball dancing away from a subject that clearly troubles him. 

What Quebec's Cabinet Minister Actually Said

To find out what has been going on,  you actually have to go back to the original statements, made by Quebec natural resources minister Pierre Arcand outside the Quebec National Assembly.  All elements are on the table,  Arcand told reporters.  Ball and Couillard have been talking for months about a deal that would encompass Gull Island and Muskrat Falls.  Quebec is prepared to put everything and anything on the table, according to Arcand, although Quebec cannot do anything about Churchill Falls as long as the thing is in the courts.

All of that is easy to reconcile with what Ball said that first day in the House. You can actually add in the 1969 power contract to what someone from this province is talking about with someone from that province.  The discussions wouldn't change that 1969 deal so much as they might be talking about add-ons.  Once things get to an appropriate point,  Ball and Couillard can either wait until the court case is finished or Ball can withdraw the appeal in favour of a new agreement.

Wobbly-words don't conceal the truth very well

Davis persisted and eventually Ball flatly denied he was the one talking to people in Quebec.  Davis noted that Siobhan Coady denied there were any talks at all. Ball didn't mention that at all, but frankly, there is every reason to believe Ball is directing the talks himself, without Coady.  At this point, though, Ball has said so much else that Ball's denial seems like a bald-faced lie.  He quickly switches back to what we could call wobbly-words,  ones that have varied meaning,  and thus we can be safe in disregarding Ball's flat assertions there are no talks.  Something is up. He is spending too much energy to get our attention off the talks.

Ball never denied that Stan Marshall or someone else from Nalcor is involved in talks that have been rumoured to be underway since last summer.  Any time the issue came up of precisely who was talking, Ball just pivoted to his willing to cut a deal for the good of the province.   "When you have an opportunity to pursue something that will benefit Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, our job is explore the opportunities,"  Ball told the House of Assembly. "I am prepared to have discussions as long as it is a right deal and Newfoundlanders and Labradorians benefit from that."

By the end of the question period on November 16,  Ball had added the federal government to the talks. " As I said, Mr. Speaker, we are not having discussions with Quebec... the CEO of Nalcor or this government right now.  At some point – if we ever get to the point where there are discussions that are ongoing with any province, if it's Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, Quebec or with the federal government, Mr. Speaker, we hope that we can bring back benefits to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians."  [emphasis added]

Some people will say this affirms Ball's earlier comment that there are no talks at all.  Not so fast. Ball used "we" and "I" interchangeably in the answers to a string of questions.  In other words, here is is talking about himself.  He is not having discussion.  Maybe not even Marshall.  Possibly the talks are in the hands of someone else at Nalcor or an unidentified third party.  Then Ball is offering the idea that when he gets into the matter he will bring back benefits.

Perdition's flames

Davis was right to ask up front why it is that people in this province must learn about events from someone other than our own leaders.  There is no sensible reason for it. Never has been. What we do know, though, is that Ball is merely following the same pattern of behaviour Davis and his people used to follow.  They seldom told what was going on about Labrador hydro developments and on more than one occasion they preferred bald-faced lies to the simple truth.

Dwight Ball set his goal to develop Gull Island before he took power last December.  Ball gave his natural resources minister development of Gull Island as one of her tasks, but truth be told Ball has kept the electricity part of Siobhan Coady's portfolio as his own personal domain.  Since Brian Tobin started us down this path in the late 1990s,  every Premier has run the Lower Churchill project out of his office. It remains under Dwight Ball as much the bastard child of ego and ambition as it was under Danny Williams.

Ball has extra incentive, though.  Another megaproject at Gull Island will halt the economic slowdown that must come in 2020 as work on Muskrat Falls finishes. The fact that we cannot afford it or that there is no real market for the power is irrelevant.  Ball is desperate and, as Danny Williams' showed in 2010, desperate men will do insanely desperate things if it suits their purposes.  Ball is in a worse financial mess than Williams ever was,  all thanks to Williams.

But Ball lacks the political will to do anything but continue the strategic course to disaster Williams and his acolytes set in 2006. Now Ball is charging down the same road to build Gull Island just as he set his cap to finish Muskrat Falls. Look at anything Dwight Ball has ever said about Muskrat Falls.  It will be great.  The only failure has been the people - lesser business minds than his, implicitly - who could not manage it properly.  Ball will manage the thing into submission.  His love of Muskrat Falls is why Ball was desperate to keep Ed Martin in April and why he wanted to keep Danny's team intact.

The latest rumblings from the mainland are that the deal could be a few weeks away.  Ball sees this deal with Hydro-Quebec as the light at the end of a very black tunnel.  Lots of cash.  Another make-work project to keep people going after Muskrat.  Like Danny, Dwight believes he alone will succeed where others failed. His own brilliance will overcome any problems. Ball continues on the path, dismissing out of hand the contrary opinions of anyone about whatever he decided on, without evidence, just to show everyone who knows better.

Dwight and Danny are haunted by similar ghosts.  But where Danny was aggressive, Dwight is passive aggressive. The difference between Dwight Ball and Danny Williams is that Danny needed the love and adoration and so he chased it relentlessly.  Dwight does not care about the polls. The more people disagree with him, the more stubborn Dwight will insist that he is right.

Like Danny, though, Ball's desperation makes him vulnerable and blind.  Danny wanted to get out of politics so desperately with a Lower Churchill announcement that Emera only had to keep stalling as Williams threw more and more freebies on the table.  Dwight Ball may fancy himself better and smarter than anyone else, but in the end,  he is in a worse spot with Hydro-Quebec. They know from insiders about the wreck of Muskrat Falls, of Nalcor's weaknesses, and of Ball's many vulnerabilities.  They will simply be smarter about this and , in the end,  Hydro-Quebec will get whatever it wants while giving little or nothing of substance.

The light Dwight Ball sees out of the gloom is not the end of the blackness but Perdition's flames beckoning him onward.  Politician after politician in this province has been lured by Labrador's big river as the fulfilment of their glorious destiny. And like Joe Smallwood and Danny Williams before him,  Dwight Ball will find that that the Lower Churchill is not so much Paradise as the graveyard of ambition.