Cathy Bennett, once a Muskrat Falls champion, now regrets her support

Cathy Bennett was a leading champion of Muskrat Falls when she believed it could be built for $6.2 billion.

But now that costs have soared by billions and she's more aware of how Nalcor Energy managed the project, she regrets being such a vocal supporter, she says.

"I supported a $6.2-billion project and that's not where we are today," Bennett testified during a three-hour appearance at the Muskrat Falls inquiry Tuesday.

And she says the province should avoid any more direct involvement in major projects, unless some serious institutional changes are made at Nalcor and inside government.

"We have a high risk of repeat of circumstances like we find ourselves in today, if the system of management of Crown corporations as well as internal operations inside the provincial departments as they relate to the department of finance and the premier's office," she said.

"If those circumstances don't evolve, I don't believe we should take on any large-scale projects on behalf of the people of the province."

Offering a unique perspective

Bennett, as a former Nalcor board member and former senior provincial politician, presented a unique viewpoint to an inquiry investigating why construction costs on a publicly funded hydroelectric project have grown to at least $10.1 billion ($12.7 billion when interest during construction is included), and first power has been delayed by at least two years.

Her comments at the inquiry reflect an evolving theme of a government-owned corporation stingily shielding important information, and a government bureaucracy and their political leaders failing to pull back the covers on Nalcor's fixation on secrecy.

Bennett joined the Nalcor board of directors in 2007, and became chair in September 2011. She resigned from the board in the spring of 2012, roughly six months before Muskrat was sanctioned, because of her business commitments and because she "didn't feel [she] was appropriately skilled" to lead the board through the sanction and construction process.

As a private citizen, she became involved with a pro-Muskrat group called I Believe in the Power of NL, and wrote opinion pieces and did interviews about her strong belief Muskrat was a "solid, strategic project" and how her support was steadfast.

Terry Roberts/CBC

But she quickly became a critic after entering politics and was appointed finance minister by newly elected Premier Dwight Ball in late 2015.

Bennett said it became clear that officials in the Department of Finance were marginalized, and the strong oversight she assumed existed at both Nalcor and government did not exist.

Risks not fully quantified

She said the risks associated with the project were not quantified enough and were not fully understood, and she testified about being increasingly frustrated by rising costs, and the difficulty of acquiring information from Nalcor at a time when the the Liberals were attempting to cope with a disastrous financial situation after taking over governance.

"When I was sworn in and I was briefed by finance officials, it became very clear very quickly that finance officials did not have a sense of confidence and comfort in the material and the information they had from Nalcor. There was a significant communication chasm that has been in place for a long time," she said.

Bennett said she was never satisfied the government was doing the proper oversight of Nalcor, and that an important lesson should be learned.

"Based on my experience over the last decade I would suggest that Newfoundland and Labrador never take on a capital project of this size ever again. I don't believe that it's in the best interests of the people of province, and it's certainly something that I regret supporting," she said.

When challenged about morphing from an outspoken supporter of Muskrat to a hard-charging critic, Bennett said, "There's been lots of information I've learned that I either wasn't aware of it, didn't know about."

Bennett was at the centre of the Muskrat firestorm of controversy in 2016, when she delivered a tough budget loaded with tax and fee increases, and record borrowing in order to pay the bills, and cover the province's massive equity contributions for Muskrat.

In her budget speech, she also criticized Nalcor, and this eventually led to a mass resignation of the board of directors, and the departure of embattled CEO Ed Martin.

She said her speech reflected her frustration with Nalcor at the time.

"I wasn't prepared not to be transparent and open," she said.

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