When The Telegram contacted some recognizable voices in the Muskrat Falls debates to talk about the political state of affairs in Newfoundland and Labrador, there was little in the way of partisan shots.
Instead, a universal call came for a new level of honesty around landmark economic and political threats.
Everyone offered predictions for the end of the province as we know it, in one way or another. There is a desire to have public discussion begin as soon as possible.
“Everybody knows that there is a day of reckoning to come,” said former Liberal premier Roger Grimes, who said the reduction of government spending under the current administration has been only to the point where the province is still borrowing about $2 million a day, for servicing fewer than 550,000 people. It was borrowing over $4 million a day.
“The thing is everybody, including the current administration now with Premier (Dwight) Ball and his group, seem to be going around with their fingers crossed, hoping that something good or fortuitous is going to happen,” he said of the finances, “instead of taking the bull by the horns and saying we really are living, say, 20 to 25 per cent beyond our means and we must do something about it.”
His prediction is that debate will continue, muted and partisan, until the financial institutions or the federal government steps in.
His hope is that the government will instead begin to dig deeper in response to financial realities in 2018.
Grimes said he won’t be running for public office again. And he imagines it will be particularly difficult to attract community leaders to the 2019 race when the province is so challenged — by Muskrat Falls debt, changing fisheries, demographic issues, infrastructure, the declining population — and politicians a target for outrage over expected power bill hikes.
Tracking the progress of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, Uncle Gnarley blogger Des Sullivan said he sees the last decade of provincial political history about having “a great big party” and not really noticing or addressing the consequences.
“I don’t think that the public has experienced the real outfall from that 10 years of partying. And when they do, people will start to reflect that there are larger issues in the province that require enormous leadership. I think at that time, more people will step up to the plate,” he said of political recruitment in 2019.
“Unfortunately, we needed them five years ago, we needed them 10 years ago, we need them now. And in some respects, if they step up five years from now it’s going to be a little late in the day for certain things,” he said.
He said the province needs educated and strong leaders going forward and to be mindful of aggressive “saviours” coming with big promises sure to cost plenty down the line.
But he feels the public at large has turned inward, away from the essential discussions of provincial politics or Muskrat Falls debt, and Newfoundland and Labrador needs to work to renew the desire for political participation.
NDP president Mark Gruchy said, personally, he thinks it’s past time Newfoundland and Labrador consider its pattern — a tendency to look to the megaproject and the one, powerful figure with all the plans and answers for the provincial economy.
“The thing that concerns me, is that there doesn’t seem to be a tremendous amount of public discourse concerning how Muskrat links with the history of the island, because this is an old story. This has happened so many times in Newfoundland and Labrador, some variant of it,” he said.
When Gruchy looks to 2019, he said he thinks the realities of Muskrat Falls could actually drive more people to get involved, as opposed to the opposite. But he expects a repeat of a pattern, particularly if the Muskrat falls inquiry doesn’t address the political forces in the interim.
“Focusing on the now to an extreme degree, as if this is something that’s never happened before, is a mistake,” he said.
From his view, businessman and former Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Bill Barry has watched project spending pile up, adding to an already tough climb for Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Muskrat will end up being the absolute worst public policy decision of any provincial government in the history of Canada,” he said, in an emailed response to questions.
He doesn’t separate the economics from the politics.
“Politicians of any stripe have a daunting task in this environment,” he said. “I wish them well.”
Former Liberal government member and an intervener at the Public Utilities Board proceedings Danny Dumaresque said he expects the ballot box question for 2019 to be who has the best plan to address general finances and the fallout of the immense increase in Muskrat Falls costs.
“I believe if a concrete plan is not put in place, I believe the bond market will step in and say you’re not going to be able to borrow anywhere near the kind of money we’ve been borrowing in recent years. Therefore, the cabinet of the day will have to decide which services are going to be reduced,” he said.
Former New Democrat member for St. John’s East George Murphy said a place to start right now for everyone, even to find new voices, is in defining affordability for people. For example, what power prices could be afforded in rural and urban communities, particularly with 2020 in mind?
And that conversation needs to be public, he said.
He also wants government’s options for reducing power costs for people opened up for debate.
“The failure to explore those options might be the biggest failure of all,” he said.
“Nobody’s going to come off scent-free in this whole thing,” said former radio host and a recent unsuccessful candidate in the Bonavista-Burin-Trinity byelection, Pete Soucy.
Soucy was being asked about political fallout. He thinks all parties are bound to be challenged yet by Muskrat Falls, but there’s more to it.
“I think really the legacy of Muskrat Falls is going to be what it’s going to cost us, not just individually but as a province. I think our sovereignty, our very sovereignty, is at play here and I think there are, perhaps down the road, many solutions, if you want to call them that,” he said, “but there are going to be ramifications for ending up in this position and they can take many forms. Something akin to Commission of Government is not outrageous, and blending Newfoundland politically with other provinces or regions of the country is not out of the question either.”
Tim Powers of Summa Strategies — Conservative by stripe and a popular fill-in host for VOCM’s “Open Line” — sees hope yet for a reasonable future, given practical decisions.
Asked about winners and losers politically, Powers said there’s no benefit of partisan politics for the province right now and he doesn’t think the public will be favourable to anyone going in that direction through to the next election.
It doesn’t mean no competition between parties, he says to be clear — just no room for unreasonable answers, mindless positions devoid of real possibility.
Powers noted the many passionate people in the province at work in the political system behind the scenes and says he sees more potential solutions being brought forward on a variety of fronts.
“We have to have a discussion about: what does a modern Newfoundland (and Labrador) look like?” he asked.
Heading into the next two budgets and the work of the promised all-party committee on democratic reform, alongside the Muskrat falls inquiry, there is certainly still room for bold political moves before the next election.
“We shouldn’t be afraid to put anything on the table,” he said.
Memorial University of Newfoundland political science professor Stephen Tomblin said everyone should expect to see a new level of frustration and anger amongst the population as we get closer to power rate hikes.
And he predicts increasing cynicism from the public, the feeling of a lack of political power or influence.
“It’s orchestrated where the citizens have to pay for the mistakes of Muskrat Falls, which they had little information on and they were sold a package and it was a really defective package,” he said.
It’s going to be hard to pull focus from that to talk more broadly about democratic reform and future political decisions, but Tomblin is still hoping to see the developing inquiry include in its work some means of considering the powers of the executive branch of government, and whether or not some of those powers should be diluted.
“If people feel they have no choice, they have no meaning, they have no power, that’s not a very healthy environment. So Newfoundland and Labrador, I think, is very troubling, or is troubling because there is this kind of sense of well, it doesn’t matter anyway. Why should I vote because they’re all basically the same,” he said.
“It could become even worse if (the inquiry commissioner and co-counsel) are doing things which are basically more about a dog-and-pony show as opposed to doing things which really matter, to help convince people participating that those in positions of power are basically working on their behalf.”