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Who really wants to privatize Manitoba Hydro?

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The NDP keeps warning the people of Manitoba that Brian Pallister and his Conservatives would privatize Manitoba Hydro. I doubt that the Conservative party in government would be so stupid as to take such a step. One is reminded of what Ross Thatcher, who became premier of Saskatchewan by defeating the CCF government of Woodrow Lloyd, told the insurance industry when they urged him to undo the Saskatchewan public automobile insurance program and let private enterprise take over. The Liberal premier answered them: "I'm not a socialist, neither am I a fool." For political leaders of whatever political stripe, ideology breaks down when they are faced with incontrovertible practical facts.

Thatcher saw that a public monopoly was the most effective, efficient and fairest method of handling automobile insurance. In an added advantage, it gave the province and its people access to the "float" of insurance dollars that premiums provided and was a luxury hitherto enjoyed by the private sector.

But if Pallister is so inclined, and was so ideologically hidebound as to wish to privatize the public corporation, the NDP has given him carte blanche to go ahead and do so.

Let us suppose a Conservative government was to embark on a major Hydro project and offered a one-third interest in the project to Investors Syndicate. There would be screams of agony from the NDP, which would immediately accuse the government of privatizing the utility by relinquishing its 100 per cent public ownership. The NDP would allege that Hydro was being privatized because one-third of the shares of a major component was removed from public and transferred to private ownership. The private owners have a greater share of the corporate dividends than would accrue to the rest us. But the NDP has already taken this path and announces it will do more of the same in the future. Several years ago, when Hydro embarked on the Wuskwatim dam project, it offered an aboriginal reserve in the area the right to purchase a one-third share in the project. The purchase price would be loaned to the reserve by Hydro and the one-third share would entitle the band to a third of the profits earned by the dam. It hasn't exactly worked out that way and the operation is apparently losing money rather than making a profit. But the principle has been established. Manitoba Hydro privatized a one-third interest to one group of citizens to the exclusion of all others. In other words, it privatized an interest in Manitoba Hydro, something it accuses the Conservatives of planning to do.

One may well ask why the NDP would be willing to depart from its professed ironclad principle of retaining public ownership of this public utility. The answer appears to be that the government believes that in giving the Indians a right to participate as a shareholder in the project, it can silence the criticism which in the past has been a feature of Hydro development in northern Manitoba. In believing it can buy off criticism by aboriginal people by this expedience, the government is hopelessly misguided. The problems associated with the aboriginals cannot be alleviated by having Hydro profits poured into one of the reserves. In the long run, the problems will only be exacerbated. Until aboriginal people find their way to the position that their children have the same rights and opportunities for self-realization that are available to the rest of the population, the problems will continue and resentment of the aboriginal people of the rest of society will not abate.

Ideology aside, the government policy of permitting a reserve to have a participating share in a Hydro project is fundamentally wrong for the following reasons, among others:

1. It sets a precedent and gives credibility to the suggestion that aboriginal peoples have a special interest in the water resources of our province. This is a fallacy. The water resources of Manitoba belong to the public generally, with each citizen having an equal interest.

2. It suggests that when the water resources of the province are to be utilized for the public benefit, a special dispensation is required from any aboriginal community adjacent to the resource before a public program can be implemented. This is also a fallacy. As with other property not publicly owned, the state is entitled to expropriate aboriginal property and provide adequate compensation, just as is frequently done with property held by private persons which is needed for public purposes. If no property is required, but damages result from the implementation of the program, compensation is an adequate remedy.

3. It would mean any aboriginal community that happened to be in the proximity of a Hydro project would suddenly be enriched while other aboriginal communities not so fortunately situated would continue to be impoverished. The north would be divided between the relatively wealthy aboriginal communities and the poor communities. I do not know what philosophical justification there is for this kind of disparity, but I do know it is not socialism.

There is excellent reason for maintaining public ownership in Manitoba Hydro. The benefits of the system accrue equally to all citizens of our province. The Progressive Conservatives have been in power on several occasions. They have never dared to privatize Manitoba Hydro. The same cannot be said for the NDP.

 

Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer and former NDP cabinet minister.

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