N.L. needs a permanent inquiry department to catch cock-ups in real time
Writer Edward Riche says Muskrat Falls inquiry better than expected, so why end it?
We were all leery when the Muskrat Falls inquiry was called that it might be nothing more than a gaggle of townie lawyers billing hours in order to learn what we already knew: that a conspiracy of unscrupulous engineers and MBAs used an inadequately considered megaproject to raid the provincial treasury.
But it appears to be going well, better than skeptics expected. In Phase 1, commission lawyers Barry Learmonth and Kate O'Brien asked the tough questions the public wanted.
They showed no deference to any witness's presumed station.
O'Brien's grilling of the obfuscating Gilbert Bennett and the arrogant Ed Martin gave her a fleeting moment of folk hero status of the sort that Sam Ervin enjoyed during the United States Senate's Watergate Inquiry.
(Our Watergate is, of course, "Decisiongate" and the central question isn't, "What did the president know and when did he know it?" but "What didn't the premier/minister of natural resources/deputy minister of finance know and why, in the name of Christ, didn't they know it?")
During the second phase, I daresay we will be as appalled by the conduct of many of the contractors as we were disappointed by our political and corporate leaders during the first phase. We await the final report and blame being laid on the blame-shifters. We want blood; want to see senior bunglers, bullshit artists and swindlers punished.
At the very least, we want the biggest cock-ups sacked for cause.
We know we aren't getting the satisfaction. The best we can hope for is to learn from our mistakes so as not to repeat them.
Mistake after mistake
Thing is, we always do. We never learn. We've been replicating our mistakes since colonization. Sir Richard Squires was a corruption machine. The collapse of responsible government was our existential scandal.
With Smallwood ensconced in the Confederation Building, we moved on to the sordid business with Alfred Valdmanis, the Upper Churchill, John C. Doyle's various scams (a racket that started with a development company created by Valdmanis called, and you can't make this stuff up, "NALCO"), John Shaheen and the fishy financing of the Come By Chance refinery.
There was more recently Sprung Greenhouse, the impulsive expropriation of a century's worth of Abitibi's toxic waste and the MHA spending scandal.
It is probable that we will hear Eddie Joyce in the first person cross-examine Eddie Joyce in the third person.
We have a problem and, looking at our history, we see it's akin to a national bipolar disorder. Newfoundland gets on a manic high, becomes delusional, goes on a spending spree with the credit card, gets more credit cards, there's an intervention, the crash, and then months depressed on the couch with the head turned to the wall.
We get back on our feet and repeat.
It's a cycle.
We know we are going to do it again, that there likely will be, sometime in the future: a call for an inquiry into the mass release of farmed frankenfish into Placentia Bay, into the tax deal struck with the cannabis multinational and their land-lease scheme, into the oil spill, into how the repatriated Beothuk bones were mislaid at Goobies, into the suspicious circumstances surrounding the hasty awarding of the 2024 contract to tunnel under the Strait of Belle Isle after we lost our final air route off the island, into that time we ran out of food.
We fully expect to hear Gerry Byrne testifying that he had no reason not to believe Grieg Aquaculture, and Siobhan Coady that she had no reason not to believe Husky Energy.
It is probable that, at some time in the future, we will hear Eddie Joyce in the first person cross-examine Eddie Joyce in the third person.
So rather than forever responding to the crisis we know is coming and another shocking auditor general's report or the spectacle of another public inquiry, let's be proactive and initiate an inquiry into institutional blunders in real time, as they happen, with a permanent Office of the Newfoundland and Labrador Inquisition.
Let's keep the inquiry working
The Muskrat Falls inquiry has an infrastructure, and clearly has hard-working and astute staff; why dismantle it only to re-establish it again in the future? Let's keep it working for us.
An Office of the Newfoundland and Labrador Inquisition could detect nascent problems and nip them in the bud. Rather than asking, "What exactly did you do?" they could ask, "What are you doing?" and then, "Put that down. Step away from your desk." Its agents could be there to say, "Minister Mitchelmore, hire a professional actor."
They would have to operate in secret to catch wrongdoers and incompetents unawares, a "Nobody expects the Newfoundland and Labrador Inquisition!" tactic.
If that's the equivalent of having "spies" from some High Auditor operating covertly within public institutions so be it. How much better would be our understanding of events if Danny Williams or Kathy Dunderdale had a system to surreptitiously record conversations held in the premier's office? Imagine the insights that would have come from bugged lamps on selected tables at the Guv'nor Pub, site of "power" lunches for Nalcor executives.
Target B: unintelligible
Target A: Did you say, "P75"?
Target B: No, b'y, I said "pea soup". I'm having pea soup.
Knowing the Inquisitors were skulking around the corridors would make our decision-makers self-conscious, an unpleasant but perhaps necessary alternative to being unconscious.
How urgent is the matter?
Consider that some are suggesting MUN can build a law school and it will magically cost us nothing, that Premier Dwight Ball and Quebec Premier François Legault recently held unstructured exploratory discussions about energy and mining prospects in Labrador, and that with climate change causing more frequent extreme weather events the government is insisting on building a new mental hospital on a flood plain…
…and that the project involves the construction of a dam.
More with Edward Riche
If you've enjoyed this column, you may enjoy his take on why it's no biggie that St. John's isn't the oldest city in North America.
He also imagined, with tongue squarely in cheek, what the Liberal government would look like if they branded MHAs as different pot strains.