The province will strengthen referendum legislation so Manitobans will have a say before major decisions are made with regard to Manitoba Hydro, such as selling its natural gas operations, Premier Brian Pallister said Monday.
He made the pledge without offering any details at a press conference affirming the findings of former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall who conducted an economic review of the previous NDP government's handling of the construction of Manitoba Hydro's Keeyask generating station and Bipole III transmission line that ran billions of dollars over budget.
"Our government will take steps to make sure it never happens again," Pallister said, calling it the "scandal of the century" and the "largest and most significant mismanagement of taxpayer funds."
The $13.4-billion megaprojects — initially estimated to cost $9.7 billion — were built to export hydroelectricity without proper scrutiny or justification, Wall's economic review found. By the time the Public Utilities Board reviewed the project, "it was too late for them to pull back," Pallister said Monday.
Wall's 14,000-plus-page report released Friday recommended that Manitoba Hydro be mandated to focus on its core function of providing electricity to Manitobans, and selling or winding down any divisions that are counterproductive to its core mandate, and didn't exclude Centra Gas.
That recommendation and Wall's call for Manitoba Hydro to consider engaging in public-private partnerships had critics warning that his economic review's purpose was to pave the way for the PC government to begin privatizing the Crown corporation.
Provincial regulations already require a referendum on major tax increases or on the privatization of public utilities, including Manitoba Hydro and Manitoba Public Insurance. The 2019 Referendum Act set out rules for how a referendum is called, conducted and financed.
If Manitoba Hydro proposes selling its natural gas division, Pallister said there would be a referendum, and that existing referendum requirements would be strengthened.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew likened the premier’s promise to protect Manitoba Hydro from being privatized to a fox saying "they’re going to put a fence up around the chicken coop."
"It is clear that this government is in favour of privatization, and any attempt that they make to say that they’re not going to privatize part of Manitoba Hydro should not be believed," he said.
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont accused both the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives of political posturing over the future of the province’s largest Crown corporation.
"This is a political attempt on the part of the PCs to put the NDP on the defence," he said of the Wall report and the premier’s referendum promise.
— with files from Larry Kusch
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.