October 19, 2020

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Winnipeg Free Press



Current confusion has even Pallister puzzled


The premier, it seems, is perplexed.

Just days after the Free Press ran a series of stories revealing efforts to curtail the business activities of a Manitoba Hydro subsidiary and concerns among staff members about the future of the enterprise, Premier Brian Pallister counted himself among the many who are confounded by what’s going on at Manitoba Hydro International.

"I want some clarity on it, too," Mr. Pallister said Monday from Ottawa, where he currently is on an extended trip whose agenda and return date remain somewhat fluid. "I’m concerned, because I believe Manitoba Hydro belongs to all Manitobans... I think Manitobans deserve more clarity... on what it is they’re after here."

More clarity, indeed. What has been revealed to date regarding recent goings-on at the Crown utility and its suddenly slowed-down subsidiary has left employees, ratepayers and, apparently, politicians alike scratching their heads and itching for an explanation.

Interest in MHI’s current and future fortunes came into focus last week after the Free Press obtained internal emails in which staff were told "not to aggressively pursue new work" and "not to actively pursue new bids or seek out new customers."

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister </p>


Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister

The email also stated that any potential new work would require a senior management sign-off and must have an end date of Dec. 31, 2021, or earlier.

While not offering a clear explanation for the slowdown, a Manitoba Hydro spokesman said MHI’s operations are included in a larger-scale review being conducted as part of the Crown utility’s long-term strategic planning process and, as such, its activities have been "moved into a non-aggressive approach for new business development to allow the review to continue without complication."

MHI, which has been an offshoot of Manitoba Hydro for nearly three decades, provides consulting services in various electricity-related fields to more than 120 countries abroad, and is also the parent company of Manitoba Hydro Telecom. Over the past two years, MHI has generated $109 million in revenue and contributed almost $16 million to Hydro’s balance sheet.

It was also reported last week that the Pallister government discouraged Manitoba Hydro Telecom from bidding on a lucrative contract to provide interoffice data connectivity to more than 600 provincial offices (the request for proposals was ultimately never issued as the province opted to extend its existing agreement for the services).

MHI employees expressed concerns to the Free Press that Hydro is in the process of winding down the moderately profitable subsidiary’s operations, for reasons that remain unclear, and some staffers have reported being advised to look for employment opportunities elsewhere. Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton, for his part, maintains the province is not looking to privatize MHI.

Mr. Wharton also dismissed as "baseless" NDP speculation that the MHI slowdown is part of a larger effort that might lead to the privatization of Manitoba Hydro.

Questions abound. Answers, to date, have not been forthcoming.

The premier and Wab Kinew tend not to agree on many things, but it seems Mr. Pallister is in lockstep with the NDP leader when he says clarity is needed regarding the future of Manitoba Hydro and its subsidiaries.

It goes without saying that ratepayers agree. And since Mr. Pallister leads the government to which all Crown corporations are answerable, it logically falls to him to replace his recently expressed perplexity with a detailed public pronouncement that will, once and for all, lay this highly charged issue to rest.

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