Culture Minister Christopher Mitchelmore says it was a simple mistake that led The Rooms to say it would disqualify candidates for a marketing contract if they oppose Muskrat Falls.
The bungle has resulted in a complaint to the Human Rights Commission from Progressive Conservative party leadership hopeful Ches Crosbie.
The Rooms recently awarded the contract to the Idea Factory, helmed by Kevin Casey, who is also working as a marketing consultant for the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corp.
In the request for proposals (RFP), The Rooms stated it would be a conflict of interest for applicants to work with groups that oppose the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.
Rooms CEO Dean Brinton later apologized for the specific reference to opposition to Muskrat Falls as a disqualifying factor in getting a contract with The Rooms, calling it a “misleading example.”
Both Brinton and Mitchelmore distanced the government from the decision, but in different ways. In his apology, Brinton explained,
“As a Crown corporation, The Rooms Corporation has been established at ‘arm’s length’ from government and has a significant degree of flexibility and autonomy,” Brinton said in a statement issued Monday.
Mitchelmore says despite the Technology, Culture, Industry and Innovation Department having two seats on The Rooms board of directors — for a deputy minister and an assistant deputy minister — the wording of the request for proposals was solely an operational matter.
“As a Crown corporation, it is the management of The Rooms that issued an RFP for marketing and communications,” Mitchelmore said Monday.
“In doing so, government, myself as minister, or anybody in core government, had no hands-on approach in directing this RFP.”
Crosbie isn’t buying it.
“This would affect the political opinions expressed not by people who bid on public contracts, but it would potentially disable them from bidding on the contract if they had a client who voiced an opinion that the government didn’t like. It’s a complete outrage,” Crosbie said.
“I don’t think The Rooms put that in as a condition of their RFP on their own motion. They didn’t dream this up. They had to be instructed by government to do this.”
Crosbie has filed a complaint to the Human Rights Commission for what he says is a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, because The Rooms infringed upon freedom of opinion.
“It’s the law of the province that this can’t happen. We need a definitive statement from an adjudicator to that affect. We need the government to retreat from its position,” he said.
Crosbie says he has been given no timeline on when his complaint will be investigated.
“I’m skeptical of their freedom from guilt on this because that means they’re saying The Rooms has gone rogue. I don’t think that’s the nature of The Rooms, to go rogue on something like this,” he said.
Despite the Liberal government being critical of Muskrat Falls on many occasions, with Premier Dwight Ball on Monday expressing his displeasure with the project during question period, Crosbie says it’s believable that the Liberals would want to stifle negative opinion about Muskrat Falls.
“I don’t see much clear thinking from the Liberal government, that’s all I’ll say about that.”