Barring Alberta having to deal with Fort McMurray burning down, there is probably no government in Canada having a worse month than Dwight Ball and the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberals. At least Rachel Notley can do her job.
The NFLD Liberals have had their hands full trying to put out the funeral pyre they set for themselves in April's budget. But now, Premier Ball also finds himself at the centre of a massive political scandal involving the exorbitant severance paid to the ex-CEO of Nalcor, the province's crown energy company. It's enough to make you feel bad for the guy—or it would be, if he wasn't going so far out of the way to dig to his own grave.
It gets a little confusing. So let's backtrack.
Ed Martin was the CEO of Nalcor Energy, appointed to the position in the glory days of Danny Williams, Not First of His Name, Attempted Prime Minister Stephen Harper Slayer. Nalcor is in charge of Muskrat Falls, a hydroelectric megaproject on Labrador's Churchill River, that has been the obsessive focus of every provincial administration going back to 2010 (two parties and/or five premiers, depending how you keep track).
By all accounts, Muskrat Falls is a clusterfuck. Behind schedule, over budget, potentially devastating to the environment and local Indigenous communities, haunted by a sketchy approval process, its ultimate purpose, function, and value in question, it was a big gamble even when the province was flush with cash. Now that we're broke, it feels more like an albatross.
There are so many problems with the project that the Italian prime minister raised his concerns about it to Justin Trudeau at the recent G7 meeting in Tokyo. Oh, yes: Muskrat Falls is also underwritten by a federal loan guarantee to the tune of $6.4 billion, so all you mainlanders are on the hook too if this project goes tits up. Thanks, Stephen Harper!
Anyway, as CEO, the buck has stopped with Martin for all this, and there are few people left in the province who are convinced he was doing a good job—including the new Liberal government. One of the few popular things Finance Minister Cathy Bennett did on Budget Day 2016 was slam Nalcor's executive for mucking everything up. The b'ys apparently got the message, because Martin was gone as CEO less than a week afterwards and the Nalcor board, feeling that they had lost the confidence of government, resigned en masse in an act of crony capitalist hari-kari.
At the time, it was reported that Martin had resigned voluntarily for family reasons. This is also what Premier Dwight Ball told the House of Assembly on April 21. Good riddance to bad rubbish. The shakeup at Nalcor was complete and everyone on the Iron Island lived happily ever after.
Except not really. As it turns out, Martin did more than just resign. After stepping down, he was "terminated without cause" by the board, which triggered a (very, very) lucrative severance package—$1.4 million over two years, plus his public sector pension, plus an additional lump sum of $4.7 million. For those of you keeping score at home, that's a hell of a lot more money than the government is saving by closing all those libraries.
A Good Guillotine Is Hard to Find
As you can imagine, all hell broke loose. The provincial state is bleeding to death and the bureaucrat responsible for mismanaging one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the province's history was just handed a golden parachute on the public dime by his buddies on the Nalcor board.
People are understandably, ah, agitated.
In such manner as he is wont to do, Dwight Ball bungled the situation from the start. The media reported on May 4 that Martin would be receiving the $1.4 million severance, and according to the premier, that news story was the first he heard of it. Which is fucking weird, yes? Especially when the man appointed on April 22 to be the new chair of Nalcor (John Green) is the lawyer who drafted Martin's severance agreement. But hey! Maybe it just never came up. Maybe it's not the premier's job to keep tabs on what happens at the top levels of the government's biggest crown corp as it handles the largest single project in the province right now. Seems like a lot of work.
Things got progressively weirder as the story unraveled. Ball was very emphatic at first that because the severance was part of Martin's contract (finalized in 2009), it was out of his hands. To his credit, he did eventually acknowledge that maybe some of this was a little sketchy (now that you mention it, public servants firing each other in the pursuit of cash money does seem weird!) and had the the Department of Justice look into it. They too agreed that, yes, this is weird, and it probably warrants an independent investigation. So Ball diligently dispatched the Auditor General. This was on May 29.
The next day, in perhaps the greatest troll ever undertaken by a civil servant in Newfoundland history, Ed Martin issued a press release stating that not only did the premier know about his post-resignation severance package, but that it was Dwight Ball's idea. He did this while the premier was in question period, so that he wouldn't be able to respond to the situation until after the media feeding frenzy. It was also the six-month anniversary of the Liberals' election victory. The tricky motherfucker may have Littlefingered the public for a cool six million, but credit to Martin where credit is due.
Needless to say, Ball transformed into the Mad Premier. Losing his shit at a scrum on May 31, he denied Martin's version of events and dared him to release the details of the severance agreement. Which Martin immediately did, and the "severance agreement," dated April 20, states that "the board of directors of Nalcor has been advised by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador that in all circumstances it has agreed that [Martin] is entitled to his severance." Meanwhile, Leo Abbass, one of the board members involved, also came forward to corroborate Martin's story.
Then, finally, came the real bombshells: on June 1, Ken Marshall, the ex-chair of Nalcor, claimed that not only did Ball (and Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady) know about the severance agreement in April, but that he had a paper trail to prove it. Later that day—while Ball was in Toronto—the Premier's Office released emails from Marshall confirming that both Coady and Ball had received an email on April 20 confirming that Martin was being terminated and that he would get his severance package. Wherever he was at that moment, we can only assume Ball's pants immediately burst into dragonfire.
This is all very byzantine and a little bonkers, so let's reel it in. There are two separate but closely related issues here.
The first is trust. Dwight Ball is fundamentally untrustworthy. He has shown such a repeated recklessness for the truth in his brief time in office that you have to wonder if it's pathological. He (unnecessarily) campaigned on a platform of no job cuts and no HST hike and then immediately delivered both. He raised a religious (and homophobic) flag at Confederation Building and justified it by saying there was no flag policy in place when documents later showed that this was false. Now we have a pretty strong indication that he has been lying about what he knew about Ed Martin's severance, and when he knew it. He got an email about it on April 20 and spent the previous days in meetings with the CEO. It is profoundly unlikely the first Ball heard of this was May 5. Ball may not have been involved to the extent Martin claims, but it is also basically impossible to trust anything the premier says about it at this point.
Why did he lie about this? There is no reason. In fact, had he been telling the truth, it would have arguably been worse: it would reveal that he actually has no idea what is happening around him, even in one of the province's biggest portfolios.
This leads us to the second issue: incompetence. No one expects politicians to keep their campaign promises, or even be particularly truthful while in office. But these aren't even good lies. They are absurd, pointless, and easily disproved.
This is a weak and desperate government helmed by a mad premier. Ball can't even oust a widely reviled, overpaid mismanager appointed by a previous administration without it blowing up in his face. What is the guy going to do when he has an actual problem? Do you feel good about the guy at the wheel of Newfoundland's ship of state?
It's only been six months, but the pattern is established. The premier has no idea what he's doing, and you couldn't trust him even if he did. Dwight Ball should do the honourable thing and exile himself to the Night's Watch.
There is always the chance that whoever replaces him could be worse. But he can't stay. Someone. Anyone. Please. As a local bard so eloquently put it, we gotta get Ball sacked.
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