A backbench Tory MLA and former federal cabinet minister has broken ranks with the Pallister government by voicing his opposition to a government bill.
Steven Fletcher (Assiniboia) questions the need for the creation of a standalone Crown corporation to operate energy efficiency programs currently carried out by Manitoba Hydro, citing the cost of establishing the new entity and other concerns.
The Progressive Conservatives promised to create the standalone agency during the 2016 election campaign. Earlier this year, the government introduced Bill 19 to carry out that pledge.
At a recent evening public hearing on the bill, after the half-dozen scheduled speakers had concluded their remarks, Fletcher commandeered the event, engaging in a four-hour filibuster that prevented a committee of MLAs from completing clause-by-clause approval of the bill.
Although NDP MLAs occasionally spelled him off — and the chair repeatedly broke in to say his time was up — Fletcher spoke almost continuously between 8 p.m. and midnight, when, by previous agreement, the meeting was to end. It had begun at 6 p.m.
Under the rules, Fletcher was able to resume speaking simply by posing more questions. Because of his constant questioning, MLAs never got past the first clause of the bill.
"We have to look at the big picture," Fletcher told the meeting at one point, according to the Hansard transcript. "We heard from every single witness tonight — very learned individuals, professional engineers, union leaders, individual citizens — that the stated purpose of this act and the reality of its provisions do not match and that there won’t be any savings for Manitobans."
In an interview Friday, Fletcher said he is troubled by the notion of spending scarce dollars to establish a new Crown corporation to improve energy conservation at a time when Manitoba has a glut of hydroelectric power.
"It’s an astonishing situation when you have a monopoly, your supply far exceeds your demand, and your price is going up. Like, where does that happen?" he said, blaming the former NDP government for creating the situation.
Fletcher said he was surprised to see no representatives from Manitoba Hydro’s board or management, or their designates, at the public hearing. The proposed legislation would remove the Power Smart program from Hydro and transfer it to a new entity called Efficiency Manitoba.
Fletcher said he couldn’t recall an occasion when he was a federal cabinet minister, where senior Crown corporation officials failed to attend a legislative committee hearing that directly affected them.
Asked to respond, Manitoba Hydro spokesman Scott Powell said in a statement that Hydro made its views known to government "prior to and during the development of Bill 19." He didn’t elaborate on what was said.
"We felt it would be inappropriate for us to appear at a public committee when there would be other parties wanting to provide their views on the legislation," Powell said in explaining the corporation’s absence from the hearing.
While he opposes the bill and wants the government to justify the creation of a new Crown, Fletcher is not prepared to vote against the government.
On second reading, Fletcher was outside the chamber meeting with "a prominent politician" when the vote occurred. He also plans to be absent on third reading.
The Standing Committee on Legislative Affairs will resume its work on Bill 19 on Tuesday evening. Fletcher plans to ask more questions. But he won’t be able to stall the bill much longer. According to house rules, Tuesday is the last day by which bills specified to be passed by June 1 can be debated in committee.
Crown Services Minister Ron Schuler, who is in charge of shepherding Bill 19 through the legislature, was unavailable for comment on Friday.
A government spokeswoman was asked if Fletcher would be disciplined for delaying committee approval of the bill and criticizing it publicly.
In response, Government House Leader Andrew Micklefield issued a statement that said: "It is the right of any Member of the Legislative Assembly to attend committee and put their comments and opinions on the record."