Stanton Hospital: Deh Cho Bridge Deja Vu?

Does this new hospital look like a bridge to you? Because it does to us. | Illustration courtesy GNWT

EDGE Political Opinion

Just over eight years ago, little more than a month away from a territorial election, outgoing-premier Joe Handley was in Fort Providence, shoveling ceremonial gravel marking the start of Deh Cho Bridge construction.

And while the optics of approving the then largest-ever public infrastructure project in Northwest Territories history on his way out of office were poor, they were nothing in comparison to the coming realities of cost overruns, lengthy delays and eventual government bailout that would forever taint Public-Private Partnerships in the NWT.

Now I don’t assume P3s — in the Stanton Hospital case, government contracting the private sector to finance, design, build and operate a piece of public infrastructure — are necessarily, inherently bad. Pitting cash-poor governments against a growing list of expensive-to-replace assets requires a new model to make things work.

Even so, as with the bridge, the Stanton project is off to a less-than-awesome optical start. Originally sold as an expensive renovation, many people wondered ‘why spend $300 million on an aging asset?’ Still, we trusted the GNWT had done the math and this provided the greatest public value.

In the legislative assembly last week, Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger officially confirmed the $350-million price of the new hospital. He also did an amusing interview with Ollie Williams of My Yellowknife Now, in which he says discussions about the idea of an entirely new hospital started about a year ago.

In selling the territorial government a new hospital, RFP winner Boreal Health Partnership made a classic comparative sales pitch. Why renovate your old place when spending a bit more (I’ll get to this in a second) will get you something way more amazing? And by all accounts, the new hospital will be far superior to a renovation in terms of size and service capacity.

Though Miltenberger and the cabinet gang may have known about the new build plan, the public, and many MLAs, were caught off guard. Plus, what has surfaced is $50 million more than the original estimate. More worrying than the now-expected communications bungling, this money doesn’t appear in the 2016-2017 Capital Estimates (published Tuesday, but not voted on AKA approved in the assembly) or as a request for additional funding through a supplementary appropriation.

Under the GNWT’s typically murky financial presentation method, it’s tough for a member of the public, even one who’s taken a few accounting courses, to tell exactly what’s being spent on what in its 2016-2017 Capital Estimates. Similar to last year, the project is still listed as the hilariously opaque “Stanton Renewal Project” with a description of “Stanton Territorial Hospital improvements and expansion,” and no specific line-item dollar amount attached.

Visiting the Stanton Renewal website gives no clearer idea of project costs, most likely contained on a spreadsheet tucked away on a GNWT server. This is the definition of transparency trouble, though we should expect no less from a government that voted to extend its term in office by a year before lighting more than $50 million on fire to pay your power bill while making next-to-no progress on renewable energy, even after spending millions on two lengthy meetings and numerous studies.

This government doesn’t respect the public’s right to know just about anything. Blaming the consensus system, which leaves voters with little recourse to rid themselves of decision makers they’re dissatisfied with, seems too simplistic. Perhaps it’s the fact the GNWT’s spending federal Monopoly money on these projects, and has never had to execute anything resembling a real plan to cut its ever-growing spending.

Whatever the reason, over the past 11 years, I’ve watched — as a journalist, employee (briefly) and consultant — as this culture of secrecy and disregard for public opinion and perception metastasized itself across all levels of the organization.

As a minor-but-telling example, last week EDGE Online couldn’t confirm the purchase price of the recently sold Dettah Road Treatment Centre. Instead of an email request and timely response, we spoke with two government representatives who couldn’t provide the price. It’s situations like this, where it’s assumed information can’t be shared (and implied the public can’t be trusted) that makes the GNWT’s operating style feel closer to the developing than developed world, and I’ve lived in both.

And so, this afternoon, the media will capture Premier Bob McLeod, just as they did Joe Handley, breaking ground on the territory’s new largest-ever public infrastructure project less than two months before November’s territorial election. So much of the lead up to these two scenes feels the same with one key difference. McLeod’s running for re-election. Will anyone make him defend the process behind this and other decisions during the upcoming campaign?

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