For most of the last two years of the Muskrat Falls debate the business community has stayed relatively quiet, and on the sidelines. Then things started to change. First off was former Premier Danny Williams, and the company he serves Alderon Iron Ore Corp. coming out and stating Muskrat Falls power was necessary for Labrador mining. In fact, Williams said "alot" of Muskrat Falls power was going to that particular purpose. Then, despite a few tempests throughout the summer, Premeir Dunderdale disappeared for about three months. Speculation was ongoing. "Where is the Premier" many asked. Then last month at the St. John's Board of Trade lunch, Dean MacDonald kicked off the counter attack by stating: "I don't think we should be ashamed of ourselves in any way, shape or form, to be advocates for what we believe in".
That was the beginning of the businesss community's Muskrat Falls counter attack - in a sense. While the Premier was off chilling out, and recuperating from being brutalized during the spring legisative sitting, a company called MT&L opened an office in St. John's. In fact, the Nova Scotia headquartered company registered with the corporations branch on April 3, 2012, as an extraprovincial registrant. Enter Nancy O'Connor. She had been spending most of 2011 with M5 Marketing. Some of her work included:
i) listed as Nalcor media contact for the response to Nunatukavut complaints over lack of consultation on the Lower Churchill project;
ii) Listed as Nalcor media contact for panel hearings on the Lower Churchill development;
iii)Listed as media contact for OCI for the redfish application - 4 June 2011;
iv) Listed as media contact for OCI for the flatfish application - 17 March 2011;
v) Listed as media contact for Rona - 29 June 2011;
vi) Eastern Waste Management; and
vii) KPMG April, 2012.
Nancy was even given her own email address at Nalcor: email@example.com.
Then there is Sarah Sullivan, who was responsible for the Lower Churchill public relations at Nalcor for four years. The niece of recently disgraced politician Loyola Sullivan, joined the firm in the summer of 2012. In a recent twitter exchange I had with her, a one tweet exchange, where I asked her about the contractual relationships MT&L had with the government and/or Nalcor, she had this to say:
Rock Solid Politics@BradCabana @sullivansarahj Does your firm ML&T have any contracts with the Newfoundland Government or Nalcor? #nlpoli
11:28 AM - 10 Oct 12 · Details
10 OctSarah Sullivan@sullivansarahj
@BradCabana No & yes (respectively). @MTandL fortunate to have clients we're proud of- nalcor, emera, mf coalition and many, many others
Follow up questions to MT&L, Nalcor, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador went unanswered. Ms. Sullivan herself went completely silent, and refused to answer any further questions.
On October 3, 2012, the St. John's Board of Trade endorsed Muskrat Falls after a hate filled anti-Quebec speech by the Premier - her official come back to work day. One day later a pro-Muskrat Falls business group announced they had formed. Some of it's members admitted they could have direct benefit from the project, but were suppoting it because it would be good for the province.
The pro Muskrat Falls Group launched a website, registered to MT&L in Nova Scotia, and named a spokesperson, Nancy O'Connor of MT&L. Individuals belonging to the group are also running ads on VOCM running down the people against the project as "naysayers".
Interestingly, MT&L is just fresh from a controversy in Nova Scotia. They were hired without tender, on an emergency basis, by the Nova Scotia government to promote a national ship building contract for the province - the bill was over $300,000.00. Many people in Nova Scotia seem unhappy with the untendered "emergency" basis nature of the contract, and have even publicly stated it was used to get around the normal tendering process as public relations does not meet the requirements of an "emergency situation".
That being said, and the fiasco still unfolding there, I thought it was right to bring what's going on in the province to the public's attention.
That earned me the title of "dangerous zealot" from local radio host Paddy Daly. He even promised to ban me from the show. Said it was none of my business how private companies spent money. When I brought it to his attention that Nalcor is a public company, and MT&L has a contract with them, according to their staff, Daly told me they didn't have to answer to me or anyone else. Naturally I found that defensive attitude interesting.
On a related note, local PR Firm The Idea Factory announced it was also supporting the corporate pro Muskrat Falls campaign. I asked President Kevin Casey if his firm was being paid to do contract work for the pro Muskrat Falls group. His response was:
"The Idea Factory helping this independent coalition - 100% donation of services as needed. No contracts. No fees. No small print."
I followed up with a question asking if the Idea Factory intended to write off these donations, as a gift in kind, on their taxes. He would not respond. MT&L gave a similar respones to Ed Hollett, a local blogger, who asked if MT&L is being paid for its services or is volunteering them: "@edhollett A little of both. @MTandL is volunteering in kind services and also being compensated for hard costs".
If the PR firms are being subsidized by the taxpayers to work on the promotion of the Muskrat Falls project it raises a number of questions. Is it a corporate donation to an essentially political movement. Are larger contracts with entities like Nalcor and/or the provincial government, that have an obvious stake in Muskrat Falls, subsidizing this political activity. These are critical issues.
Then, earlier this week the Newfoundland and Labrador Environmental Industry Association (NEIA) issued a release supporting the Muskrat Falls development. VOCM reported it with a headline suggesting this was an environmental group. The Board of NEIA is made up of corporate actors, including three from Altius (mining company), one from Nalcor, one from Husky Oil, one from the Labrador Chamber of Commerce, and one from the Pennecon Group. That is about 90% of the Board. The reality is NEIA is a corporate/industry group - not an environmental group. The VOCM headline was very deceptive, and was subsequently changed once scrutiny was placed upon it by opponents of the project. It should be noted that VOCM owner, John Steele, is a founding member of the pro Muskrat Falls business group.
That brings us to the highlight of the week. Yesterday the PC government shuffled the Cabinet and created, of all things, an Office of Public Participation. The Telegram put it this way: "The premier also announced the establishment of a new Office of Public Engagement within Executive Council, which will include the Rural Secretariat, the Voluntary and Non-Profit Secretariat, the Youth Engagement office, the Strategic Partnership Initiative, and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Office.
Dunderdale said the new mandate of this office will ensure every department can launch effective, targeted and interactive public consultations,"including social media and rich information resources."
Significantly, the Office is controlled directly by the Executive Council - in other words the Cabinet. The restrictions placed by Bill 29 to the Access to Information Office means this new "Office" is wide open to manipulation by the government with no real checks or balances. Some corporate descriptions of Public Engagement functions of their senior staff include:
" ... the Deputy Director is in charge of the communications program and of the public engagement program (campaign, advocacy and education), with the objective of raising awareness about the mission"
"The PEAC Officer shall -
- design and implement in collaboration with partners, allies and Oxfam colleagues a public education, campaign and advocacy program focused on Oxfam Canada's priority theme of women's rights and gender equality;
- work with Communications team members to publicize the work of Oxfam Canada by initiating media engagement and supporting and training volunteers to actively engage local media in promoting Oxfam Canada campaigns and advocacy initiatives"
In other words, this Office, as the Opposition nicknamed it almost immediately, as an "Office of Propoganda". With little or no scrutiny to the awarding of private contracts to public relations firms, especially in the context of the current Muskrat Falls debate, the similarities to the Ship Building Scandal in Nova Scotia jump off the page.
Speaking of propoganda, former Premier Danny Williams is giving a speech on Monday at the St. John's Board of Trade. Apparently, Muskrat Falls will be high on his agenda as well.
Suffice it to say, the business crowd in St. John's have started their full court press. The provincial government seems ready to start theirs. Is Nalcor funding indirectly, or directly, public relations firms to work on trying to sway public opinion? How much are these contract worth? What are the terms? We don't know, because they aren't responding to questions. Are we seeing a Nova Scotia type situation unfolding? Is the contract this time with Nalcor as opposed to the provincial government in Nova Scotia last time? Will they be with the "Office of Public Engagement"? Is it because Nalcor doesn't have to release these, or almost any, documents? All hard questions. The obvious truth is that business and government in this province are far too close, and eventually that combination comes back to haunt. All of these questions aren't being answered by those responsible for the Newfoundland and Labrador Inc. counter-attack.
Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the
round pegs in the square holes... the ones who see things differently -- they're
not fond of rules... You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify
them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change
things... they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the
crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that
they can change the world, are the ones who do.
US computer engineer & industrialist (1955 - 2011)