Manitoba Hydro should remain a public utility

By Wab Kinew, published in the Winnipeg Free Press March 29, 2018

Manitoba Hydro is at a crossroads. People in our province expect Manitoba Hydro to be reliable. When our families flip a switch, we expect the lights to come on, and when our families open our bills, we expect them to be affordable. Hydro is a long-term investment we make so our children and grandchildren will have clean, affordable and abundant electricity to power the economy for the next century.

Yet, what we have seen this week is a premier who has put it all at risk simply because of his own mismanagement and inability to work with others. I am concerned about the future of our “crown jewel.”

The former Hydro board chairman is a longtime Tory and one of Winnipeg’s business leaders. The outgoing board represents the brain trust of Winnipeg’s business community. If the premier cannot work with them, who exactly can he work with? Brian Pallister has tried to use many excuses for his failure to manage our largest Crown corporation, but Sanford Riley has refuted each one.

Riley and the board’s mass resignation is a result of Pallister’s inability to engage with issues critical to Hydro’s future, including refusing to meet since October 2016. Riley has gone on to say the premier’s attempt to blow the dog-whistle and blame an Indigenous issue for this failure is “cynical, offensive and wrong.” He could rightly add the premier’s bungling is now putting our low rates at risk.

If Manitoba Hydro delays or cancels export agreements as a result of this chaotic period, it could cost us billions. If there are additional costs as a result of unnecessary legal battles, it will be Manitobans who foot the bill. Our neighbours across the country and south of the border are watching. With so much at stake, they would be right to be concerned.

Beyond ever-increasing Hydro bills, there is another threat on the horizon which could make life even less affordable in our province — the privatization of Manitoba Hydro.

The privatization of Crown corporations in Manitoba by Progressive Conservative governments follows a familiar script: deny, mismanage, create controversy and then sell it off. It happened in the 1990s under premier Gary Filmon with MTS, and recent events with Hydro are now starting to resemble a familiar pattern.

Pallister denies he intends to privatize, just like Filmon did. The most serious managerial mistakes so far are, of course, the premier’s inability to work with others, lack of communication and refusal to engage with the serious issues facing Hydro, including the most important one of all — keeping rates low. The board walkout underlines this.

Pallister has made other mistakes, including breaking off the PowerSmart program into a separate Crown corporation without having a board or a budget for the new entity. One consequence is that if Hydro were ever privatized, a future for-profit corporation would not need to be responsible for public energy efficiency initiatives. Now the premier is facing calls, including in op-ed pieces in this paper, to break off the natural-gas division of Manitoba Hydro.

All of this has me wondering whether the next step is for this Progressive Conservative government to try and sell off our public utility. Manitobans need an ironclad commitment that Manitoba Hydro will always remain in the hands of the people of Manitoba. They also need an ironclad commitment that rates will stay affordable for our economy today and for our children tomorrow.

Privatization would be wrong. It would mean higher rates for all of us, while only a few elite investors would benefit. We know from Ontario’s experience that privatization leads to massive rate increases and economic instability.

Questions of affordable rates, export sales and economic investment are the issues we should be debating when it comes to Hydro, not just the mismanagement of the premier or the spectre of privatization. It is time for us to return to an approach in which the oversight and governance of our largest Crown utility is not about the power of one man. After all, Manitoba Hydro is about power for everyone in our province.

Manitoba Hydro belongs the people Manitoba, and it should stay that way.

Wab Kinew is leader of the Manitoba New Democratic Party.

Read more by Wab Kinew.