Monday November 24, 2014

Smart meter scandal looming for Wall


What constitutes a political scandal is often in the eyes of the beholder.

Certainly, it’s not always about the money. By government spending standards, former Alberta premier Alison Redford’s flights of fancy at taxpayers’ expenses were hardly overwhelming. While extravagant and likely unnecessary, even Redford’s $45,000 trip to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral was not justification for her resignation.

Moreover, all politicians gild the lily a bit when it comes to the necessity of their travel. This seemed to be the case with the Saskatchewan Party government justifications for former social service minister June Draude’s trips last year to London and Ghana. To this day, Premier Brad Wall struggles to explain the value of the trip to Saskatchewan taxpayers.

But Redford’s travel did become scandalous — and worthy of her resignation as an MLA and an RCMP probe — when the elements of personal gain and deceit came into play.

Maybe Alberta taxpayers would have forgiven her, were this story simply about a political executive wrongly using a taxpayer-owned aircraft to taxi around her young daughter so that the two could be together. But the combination of the abuse and the deceit — falsifying passenger lists so that she could fly alone and, essentially — was too much to bear.

That said, personal gain for a politician is hardly the whole measure of scandal, either.

No Saskatchewan NDP politician really benefitted from the $36-million failed foray into the potato business. Nevertheless, the magnitude of the public dollars loss combined with the deceit involved in suggesting this was a public-private partnership when it really wasn’t truly made Spudco a scandal.

In fact, one might argue the Spudco was the scandal that cost the NDP government power, given that its defeat came at a time when the economy was starting to boom and Saskatchewan just surpassed the million-person barrier.

However, as seems to have been the case with Redford and the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, an increasingly unpopular government suffered greatly by what has been termed a scandal.

Of course, it would be wrong — or at least, premature — to suggest Wall and his Saskatchewan Party government have been scandalized by the $47-million cost of installing and uninstalling SaskPower smart meters after about nine have caught on fire.

There is certainly no evidence of anyone’s personal gain. And while there is ample reason to question the competency of this decision, it`s so far not clear that any politician is to blame.

In fact, credit Wall and SaskPower Bill Boyd for the tough decision to pull out the new smart meters — a costly exercise, but likely a prudent decision.

Wall has even eagerly suggested that his government will try to recoup the cost from the manufacturer, although the manufacturer has quickly shot back that the problem isn’t with the product but its installation.

But the old adage of “where there’s smoke there`s fire” has never been quite so appropriate in what could be better described as a looming scandal for the Wall government.

Make no mistake that the $47-million pricetag for this exercise is scandalous. And, like Spudco, it is the politicians who we are ultimately responsible for the choices and decisions their appointees have made here.

Someone in SaskPower authorized the contract to have an American-based company — one that did not necessarily use certified electricians — for this project.

All decisions would have been submitted to senior SaskPower officials hired by government. And all such expenditures would have had to have been approved by the Crown utility`s board of directors who are all government appointees.

So whether the installers or the manufacturers are the source of this now costly problem, it comes down to decisions made by those representing the government.

Maybe we aren’t quite there yet, but this Smart meter mess sure has scandal potential.

Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.



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