27 October 2020

The importance of what we talk about #nlpoli

Nalcor will have to replace about 350 fibreglass beams used in the Labrador-Island Link because of a fault in their manufacture.

Nalcor discovered the fault during two incidents at Soldier’s Pond in August that caused the link to shut down on both occasions.

The public found out about the two incidents last week in a news report by allNewfoundlandLabrador.com on 21 October 2020.  They discovered the information in a report by Liberty Consulting to the Public Utilities Board filed 28 September 2020.

Nalcor chief Executive Stan Marshall - knowing about Liberty’s disclosure – held a news conference the same day to announce that the company had successfully generated power from the first turbine at Muskrat Falls. The news release, that is the thing most reporters relied on for their subsequent stories, Nalcor talked up the achievement of first power.

In his slide presentation, Marshall told reporters that there was no capital cost allowance for “replacement of fiberglass beams at SOP/MF (GE Grid’s responsibility)” along with three other items. 

But there was no context.

And so conventional media – like NTV – never mentioned the spectacular story.

So, you’d expect that a story about another management problem at Muskrat Falls combined with the failure of Nalcor to disclose it would give politicians something to talk about.

Opposition leader Ches Crosbie’s first question in the House of Assembly that day was about a young man who had gone missing in Vancouver.  His father is Crosbie’s constituent.

“Concerns have been raised, Crosbie began with the wonderful passive sentence that says nothing about who is raising concerns, “that the search was called off too soon and that clues have surfaced” about the young man’s disappearance.

 “I’d ask the minister if he’s spoken to his colleague in British Columbia to make the case for resumption of the search?”

 His second question was about pushing the government to bail out the West White Rose project.

The only time Muskrat Falls came up was when Crosbie and natural resources minister Andrew Parsons fell into a childish dispute about which of their political parties was most responsible for the mess of Muskrat Falls.

In the process, Crosbie used a creative fiction – that the project was great but poorly managed – that would have given him a good excuse to hammer at the Liberals over the latest Nalcor cock-up.  After all, the company’s quality control had failed yet again to the point that, as with the transmission cables themselves, Nalcor had accepted and installed faulty hardware.  In this case, the faulty fibreglass beams accounted for more than 90% of the total installed.

But he didn’t.  Instead, Crosbie used his first question of the last Question Period before the weekend to ask what the government in Newfoundland and Labrador was going to do about a missing person in Vancouver.

Then the justice minister said that either he or his officials had “spoken to the Department of Public Safety [ in British Columbia] and, subsequently, the emergency services division in British Columbia. We did have an update as of about half an hour ago, and we’re extremely hopefully that the search will be restarted.”

You might think that this was a case of the politicians thinking about individuals in distress. Or maybe that the opposition parties just talked about what was in the local news media.

Then you’d check Hansard to see if there was any mention on that same day of a young man found on a street in the central part of St. John’s with his head caved in.  The story was well covered by local media from the day before.

Not a peep in the House of Assembly.

The next day, the opposition justice critic made a passing reference to a “frightening incident” in her reply to a statement from the justice minister about a new support dog the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary had purchased recently.  Somewhere on social media there was even a picture of the new Premier posing with the dog.

But not a word about a violent assault on a street a block or so away from police headquarters.

When a municipal enforcement officer in Goose Bay arrested an Inuk man, opposition member Lela Evans did ask about it in the House of Assembly.

But after it turned up in the local media.  Her first question was about whether the arrest had been handed over to the special investigations team.  She made no effort to explain why that should happen.

Her second question tied the arrest to homeless among Indigenous people.  The minister’s reply - evidently written by someone with a limited understanding of the issues - was about money given to the Nunatsiavut government to deal with homelessness within Nunatsiavut.  Goose Bay is outside it.  Homelessness affecting Indigenous people (Evans question) is an issue across the province.

And that’s where the whole issued vanished, until Perry Trimper made comments that became the focus of everyone’s attention from there on.  Attacking Trimper, even after he apologised, continued until the Premier disowned him and Trimper resigned.

Each of these incidents is reminiscent of the events last fall when a young many died in the streets of St. John’s.  Politicians failed to deal with it as the hallmark of a serious social problem in the province in the same way that they avoided homelessness, violence in St. John’s and yet more mismanagement at Nalcor this year. In last November’s post about the murder,  your humble e-scribbler linked that episode with a series of other episodes to show how politicians and other opinion leaders avoided the core point of an issue in favour of superficiality.

This fall, we know these are not isolated incidents.

What’s troublesome about the most recent episode is that if you read what Perry Trimper actually said – in contrast to the way some people took it – he touched on the widespread problem of homelessness and the impact it has both on addicts and the communities in which they live. 

People with addictions “because of many complicated problems” don’t use the many supports that are available and instead continue in the grip of their addictions. It is a problem for the people with addictions and it puts others in jeopardy as well. 

What’s more troublesome is that in all of the attention some people got by taking issue with Trimper’s word choice just continues the pattern of not confronting major social issues - in this case homelessness - that affect people in communities across our province.

If the pictures of this arrest, itself dubious, hadn’t appeared in the media, there’d be no reference to it in the House of Assembly.  And when it did turn up, no one pursued the issue in the House, choosing instead to focus on what some people decided was more important:  Trimper’s words.  Here’s a news flash for you.  Perry Trimper was never that important that he deserved so much attention, so much media coverage and public comment.

Unless we understand that Perry was a very important way for a lot of people to avoid talking about something that is important.

No one in a position to do anything has a voice for the homeless.  Instead, we collectively choose to give voice to other things. 

No one wants to talk about Muskrat Falls.

So we change the subject. 

Or at other times, through confrontation, we reinforce barriers within communities that are trying to deal with issues like homelessness or violence or poverty when the only real way to address the issues is to break down those barriers.  

We talk about what or who we think is important.

It is that simple.

And this week we found out how very important issues that affect people of Newfoundland and Labrador everyday were not important enough for our community leaders to bother with.