Dr. Wade Locke is an economist who has conducted considerable research into the failed Hebron project. He says the precise benefits from the development, had it proceeded, would be hard to measure, due to the various factors involved (such as oil prices) and the lack of precise information on the deal that was almost reached. But he does feel that there are consequences associated with the failure of Hebron.
“The significance of it being gone forever are different from the significance of it being delayed for a period of time,” Dr. Locke said in an interview. “If it’s delayed a year or two that has consequences but not as severe as if it’s delayed indefinitely.”
I probed Dr. Locke on a subject that he rarely discusses: public perceptions, and the role media play in shaping them. Dr. Locke agreed that the true significance of the loss of Hebron, and its potential benefits, is lost on some people. Part of the problem was timing, he said.
“The first time we rolled out anything of any significance was during the NOIA conference (of 2006). Some interesting numbers came out at that point in time. But what happened at the same time was, the spending scandal started… and the Minister of Natural Resources resigned. So (our message) got lost in the pandemonium and excitement.”
While he has no specific complaints with media coverage in the ensuing months, Dr. Locke is concerned about the level of emotion that has entered the public debate.
“The perspective that somehow we’re having somebody stand up for us because we’ve been done wrong all these years has good currency in this particular province,” he said. “The unfortunate part of this stuff is that we go on emotion, so emotion dictates how we react to stuff. If we sat back and thought about the logic or what’s the incremental benefit versus the incremental cost to these kinds of things, we might not behave in certain kinds of ways. We’re all emotional beings. Emotion is a good thing; it defines our character as people. There is nothing wrong with that. But sometimes you want to step back from emotion and say ‘Is this really what I want to be doing? Is it really in my interests to do that?” And that I think is the step that we’ve missed here.”
Locke said that the real issue is the need to create an environment that encourages growth and development in the oil and gas industry. “We want the companies here, we want success, and we want (projects) going forward… I don’t think we have that now, in part because of what happened with Hebron and the ongoing disputes between the provincial government and oil and gas sector. Those are not positive in terms of creating an environment for enhancing economic development.”
Locke said no one disputes the need to develop the industry, and that it is in the best interest of all parties – the government, oil companies and people of Newfoundland and Labrador – to make it happen. However, he says that clearer heads must prevail.
“To me, at this point in time, it’s not clear that we’ve sat down and done the calculus; for example, to figure out exactly what’s in our interest. I know we’ve done the emotional calculations. So we’re happy enough that we are standing up for our rights and all these patriotic kinds of things. I’m not sure we’ve sat down and done the real economic calculations to find out what’s in our interest. That to me is unfortunate… So I think it may not be fully appreciated, the significance or the consequence of our particular position on oil and gas. And that may turn out to have long term consequence for us in terms of how fast the industry progresses, and whether or not it progresses to its full potential. But that’s the unfortunate part about this stuff.”
Locke is talking specifically about Hebron, but I think the emotion to which he refers is connected intrinsically to the anger and outrage that surrounds the equalization issue. I don’t think anyone will disagree that this anger is fueled more by a collective, cumulative sense of victimhood, and less by fact and rational thought. A great number of people are spouting arguments that are red-hot with rage but cool on facts (for an extreme example, see Wallace Ryan’s comments in the Westcott speech post). I think this is cause for concern. A bit of information is good, but a lot of information is better. And cooler heads should always prevail when important decisions must be made (on equalization, Hebron and any other major issue).
Are people getting that information? As noted above, they are certainly getting some. But I do think the media have contributed, mostly in a benign way, to the near hysterical tone to which public debate has risen. (As noted, strong reporting is also happening, such as David Cochrane's Hebron anniversary piece, which you can view here.)
Firstly, I think media need to work a little harder. As I explained in an archived post, all news stories are driven by conflict (yes, there are other elements to a story, but conflict is the essential binding agent). It is easy, then, for a reporter to compile a story that contains comment from both sides – charged with rhetoric and bombast – and consider it a balanced piece. And on the surface it is.
But reporters need to think a little deeper and work a little harder; to not pull up short when they’ve bagged the hot quote. Above all, they should push more aggressively in their questioning. For example, I would like to see a story that says: “When pushed, the premier did agree that…” The keyword is pushed. If he bridges from a tough question about impacts over to the “no more giveaways” line, pull him back. Keep asking the question, even if the giveaway stuff makes for a great quote (they should use that too, of course, it being part of the story).
Secondly, reporting on the premier’s ongoing battles has been linear and narrow. Media have been diligently reporting on the day’s events in Newfoundland, Ottawa and elsewhere, repeating what was said, gathering the obligatory reaction quotes, and so on. They should also be taking time out as often as possible to explore new angles and bring in new perspectives. They could start simply by bringing more voices into the mix; seeking out feedback from the wider strata of Newfoundland and Labrador society. This would extend beyond the occasional quote from a political scientist at MUN, to include economists (such as Dr. Locke), historians, union leaders, business people, Newfoundland nationalists, students, artists and other ‘opinion leaders’ (as well as the person in the street).
For example, an intrepid reporter could start by parsing Liam O’Brien's contention (in comments section to part 1 of this post) that Stephen Harper did not lie about equalization. Liam has studied a lot of documents and is adamant about this, and has posted numerous links to support his argument. (While it may be that the promise can’t be found if you mine into speeches, policy and platform documents, I still find it difficult to get past the ‘No small print. No excuses. No caps.’ line. Still, Liam’s position warrants closer scrutiny. If my emotional reaction to that line is actually unfounded, I want to know this.)
Finally, there are a number of soft and hard nationalists among the local media community, just as there are among the general public. They have every right to their opinion, but I would hope that this bias does not creep into the editorial decision-making process. We, the public, can’t make good decisions unless the information is presented fully and without bias.
UPDATE: An editorial in today's Telegram (Saturday) attempts to explain the equalization issue in simple terms and still finds Harper guilty of deception. I congratulate the paper on taking this initiative, and wonder what Liam O'Brien thinks of its conclusions.