It's not too late. We can still bail out. The project has not yet begun and there is no urgency to get it started.
There has never been a clearer issue and one that the public will have no difficulty understanding. Our publicly owned hydroelectric company apparently needs another transmission line from the northern part of the province, where the power is generated, to our southern border, where the customers are.
Manitoba Hydro has on its staff numerous hydroelectric experts who examined the possibilities and came to the virtually unanimous conclusion that the most advantageous and cost-efficient route would be on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.
Advised of this recommendation, the provincial cabinet, headed by a former union leader and consisting of people none of whom had any qualifications relating to hydroelectricity, decided they knew better and directed, not recommended, the board of Manitoba Hydro to build the transmission line on the west side of Lake Winnipeg.
The additional cost of this route would be about $1 billion. The government suggests environmental and aboriginal concerns make the west side more attractive, notwithstanding the additional cost and more complicated route.
One of the reasons advanced for the government directive is the hope that if the east side is avoided, there is a chance UNESCO would declare the area a World Heritage site.
It is a relevant question to ask the people of Manitoba whether they are willing to pay $1 billion for such a designation.
Historically, former Liberal cabinet minister C.D. Howe is said to have contributed to his government's defeat by sloughing off an expenditure with the scoff, "What's a million?"
The NDP government seems to be going Howe one better by scoffing, "What's a billion?"
Indeed, it is difficult for the average Manitoban to contemplate $1 billion. Putting it in a different way will make it easier. It is one thousand million dollars. To make it more graphic and easier to picture, it is $1,000 for every man, woman and child in Manitoba. For a family of five, that's $5,000.
I think this figure is a luxury that most Manitobans would say they can't afford.
Another government objection to the east side appears to have been the possible objections of First Nations and the possibility the government would be subject to high compensation claims.
But there are First Nations on the west side as well, and there are Manitoba farmers to be a reckoned with who are just as entitled as aboriginals to make compensation claims.
One should not overemphasize the objections of First Nations to projects of this kind. They welcome the projects for the employment opportunities they provide and the possibilities that are opened up for them to make compensation claims.
Under the Northern Flood Agreement, which my government refused to sign but which was signed by our Conservative successors, First Nations have already received hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation from the federal and provincial governments.
I recall that the most effective bargaining statement, which I made to a legal representative of the Northern Flood Committee, was to the effect that we would cancel the program.
His response was: "Don't to that. Let's negotiate."
The First Nations on the east side might object overtly to the transmission line, but down deep they would welcome it.
The government, however, has what appears to be an unanswerable position. The east-side/west-side controversy was an issue in the last election, and they won. It is true the opposition gained votes and the government lost votes, but the bottom line is they won.
After the election, it seemed the issue would go away and the debate was over. But then something unexpected happened. A licence had to be obtained from an independent body, the Clean Environment Commission.
Now Hydro hearings are taking place before the Public Utilities Board. Despite the fact the mandate of these bodies would not normally extend to adjudicating on the project itself, it is often the case that bodies of this kind broaden their scope and they certainly provide a forum for people to sound off.
Well, people are sounding off, the commission is listening and the government is reacting.
This whole exercise may be a blessing in disguise for the government. There are those among them who must realize the imprudence of proceeding on the west side.
They are now being given an opportunity for reflection without losing face. They are not being threatened with electoral defeat. They are not being forced to make a change by their political opponents.
They have the luxury of being able to do the right thing with no political damage and, in fact, to their own credit. There is still time. They can still bail out.
Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer
and former NDP cabinet minister.