Along with five other nerds in the province, I sometimes spend quiet Fridays skimming the transcripts of legislative committee hearings. More often than not, I read Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen doing his courtroom drama thing and questioning a senior official like the head of Elections Manitoba. Often, I wonder what the hell the guy is on about. Then, a few weeks or months later, I figure it out, and the questions and answers become extremely useful.
Case in point: The transcript of last fall's Crown corporations committee. I read it a couple of weeks ago. At the time, I was most interested in Liberal leader Jon Gerrard's timely questions about the underwater power line option, but much of the meeting was dominated by McFadyen pressing Hydro CEO Bob Brennan on the bipole.
McFadyen asked no fewer than 53 questions about the cost of Bipole III: Whether it had gone up to $4 billion as rumour had it, whether Finance Minister Rosann Wowchuk had been briefed on the possible cost escalation and whether any numbers had gone to the Hydro board.
It's a fascinating, extremely repetitive and sometimes funny read. McFadyen kept refining his basic question over and over, hoping to strike on one that would get him a juicy answer. It's like Waiting for Godot meets the McCarthy hearings.
Here's my favourite (too long) bit, an exchange with Hydro board chairman and former cabinet minister Vic Schroeder, a formidable man to face across the table:
Mr. McFadyen: I certainly understand that there's a new review process that's been initiated, but the question is whether there's already been a review done and a number presented.
Mr. Schroeder: There has not been a number presented. I thought I'd made that clear earlier.
Mr. McFadyen: And to be clear, you're saying there has not been a number formally presented to the board. Has there been a number that's been brought forward and discussed informally that precipitated the request for a second review of the estimate?
Mr. Schroeder: I have heard no changed number from the 2.247 billion. There have been suggestions that, as Mr. Brennan has indicated, that the expectation currently is that the transmission line will be somewhere around what was originally estimated, and the area where there is concern--and he has indicated to me that it could be upward or downward--is in the area of the switching stations and the equipment, the cost of that.
Mr. McFadyen: And so from what you're saying, then, you have had numbers presented, then, in connection with the line and the converter stations.
Mr. Schroeder: I don't know in how many different ways I can say there have been no numbers presented.
Mr. McFadyen: I appreciate that there are some distinctions here. I just want to ask whether informally--just one more time--informally has there been a revised estimate for Bipole III discussed with you, Mr. Schroeder?
Mr. Schroeder: There have been no changes. There have been no numbers that I can recall discussed with me. There have been indications that the transmission line itself is roughly on target and that there are concerns about the switching station equipment both up and down, both upwards and downwards.
I don't have--have not been given a number.
Mr. McFadyen: Now, when you say concerns about both upward and downward, why would you have a concern about a downward movement in the cost of the conversion equipment?
Mr. Schroeder: Well, we would like to record the accurate number when it has been determined.
Mr. McFadyen: I wonder if you would be prepared to give permission to the relevant vice-presidents to address the issue of the current cost estimates on this project.
Mr. Schroeder: We have a process in place and I think it's an appropriate process. I'm not prepared to, just at 9 o'clock one Monday evening, decide to change the manner in which the Hydro-Electric Board governs Manitoba Hydro.
A few days after the hearing, the Freep's Bruce Owen boiled it all down in a story about the power line possibly doubling in cost.
And yesterday, that story got heftier thanks to a document leaked to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation that shows Hydro does indeed have internal cost estimates that put the Bipole at $4.1 billion.
All this makes McFadyen's question look a lot less like badgering and fishing and a lot more like setting the table.