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Op-ed: Dr. Stephen Tomblin

Bad energy governance: Is Muskrat Falls only the tip of the iceberg?

Energy: A special feature examining Memorial University’s impact on resource management, human energy, social power, energy and society.

By Dr. Stephen Tomblin

For decades, I have been researching public policy with the view of improving our knowledge and engaging both the public and decision-makers on topics that matter.

In the past, my attention was on health-care governance. More recently, I have begun revisiting issues of energy as a result of the Muskrat Falls debacle.

Democratic deficit

I have been paying close attention to how executive capacity and autonomy has undermined good policy practice and created knowledge gaps, all the while contributing to a growing “democratic deficit” problem.

For example, Ottawa and the Outer Provinces offered a series of case-studies on border defence and how provincial governments exploited their power to build controversial and costly projects while ensuring the public were spectators only and kept in the dark.

Knowledge gaps, territorial-jurisdictional dustups, badly informed political decisions on infrastructural development persist. All three scenarios are very common across Canada, as are defensive expansion strategies designed to advance “place-first” competitive territorial energy visions and walls associated with province-building.

“Energy governance has suffered from silo-based competition . . . approaches that are not designed to promote evidence-informed decisions.”

Hydro development and other energy decisions in the country have focused more on what makes sense for Quebec, Manitoba, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, or British Columbia provincial state-building, as opposed to what makes sense for citizens and the planet.

These are themes that Charles Colgan and I explored in Regionalism in a Global Society: Persistance and Change in Atlantic Canada and New England. Energy governance has suffered from silo-based competition, whether America-first, or province-first approaches that are not designed to promote evidence-informed decisions.

Territorial conflicts and infrastructural development

My 1985 doctoral thesis at the University of British Columbia focused on “province-building” and “defensive expansionism,” as well as physical infrastructural development patterns of decision-making under Premier W.A.C. Bennett (1952-72).

The thesis was an attempt to provide critical insights and understanding on how territorial conflicts at the political executive level influenced physical infrastructural development (hydro, pipelines, highways, rail, ferries, ports, etc.) more than evidence-informed policy decision-making did.

“Canadians have not been well served by province-building.”

The fact the political executive was able to operate in a way that kept the public in the dark added much to a “democratic deficit” problem in that province. It is a theme that has impacted on much of my research at Memorial University and does not appear to be an isolated event.

Whether it’s B.C. and Alberta, or Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, rather than working together and focusing on which forms of energy production make the most sense for citizens or the planet, there has been a persistent pattern of political interference and domination by provincial premiers who possess much autonomy and capacity.

Canadians have not been well served by province-building and the dominant territorial-jurisdictional ideas, institutions and interests relied upon to define and resolve energy infrastructural challenges.

Political mischief and bad behaviour

To be sure, there is a growing need to better understand where power lies so that poorly informed political decisions can be avoided and/or reversed in the future.

Premiers dominate legislatures and control budgets. If this was not enough, provincial state ownership and controls over natural — including energy — resources gives premiers much power and opportunity for political mischief and bad behaviour.

As evidenced by Muskrat Falls, provincial state autonomy matters, as does the domination and power of the political executive and territorial-jurisdictional game that has reinforced poor energy governance and bad outcomes for citizens.

“In a climate of democratic deficit in N.L. and other provincial, national and Indigenous communities, there have been growing concerns and pleas to focus on past decision-making practices.”

Understanding where power lies, why bad decisions are made, tracing the roots of critical knowledge gaps — it matters to the public.

Increasingly over time, in a climate of democratic deficit in Newfoundland and Labrador and other provincial, national and Indigenous communities, there have been growing concerns and pleas to focus on past decision-making practices, to trace these bad roots to better understand where power lies so an effort can be made to rein in inappropriate political behaviour.

However, relying on the political executive to fix the problem, deciding if, or when, to hold an inquiry, what the terms of reference will be, controlling how knowledge is constructed and what is focused upon, is not the best solution — since the problem of executive capacity and autonomy continues to be ignored — and is itself a critical underlying problem.

Function vs. form

Functional, policy-informed decision-making versus more territorially, bilateral, political forms of decision-making, is not new and goes back generations both in North America and Europe.

However, particularly with the rise of Trump, Brexit and other threats to supporters of functional integration, ideas about reining in bad political decisions through good policy practice, and so on, there is growing pressure to support and encourage policy-informed discussions while understanding the risks associated with more political, silo-based forms of territorial pluralism that builds walls and divides communities.

In light of Brexit, Trump’s stronger America — or the Newfoundland and Labrador-first approach to energy management-infrastructural development in this province — it has become more and more apparent that territorial-pluralist forces have deeply embedded roots and forms of dependency that need to be taken seriously, mapped out, reformed or contested before any new forms of policy innovation and state-society relations can emerge.

My research and the network that I have been involved with over the decades is very much designed to engage the public, identify the constraints working against good governance and how the system would need to be transformed to change direction and improve outcomes based on good policy practice rather than highlighting territorial or partisan differences.

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