There’s a lot of buzz about electricity lately, with two simultaneous events showing the highly emotional relationship Manitobans have with their Hydro utility.
The first unit at the Keeyask Generating Station in northern Manitoba went into commercial service last week. It should have been cause for celebration that, after six years of construction, the station is transforming the current in the Nelson River into electrical current.
MTS comparison raises spectre of Hydro privatizationClick to Expand
Posted: 7:00 PM Feb. 18, 2021
A recording of the head of Manitoba Hydro telling employees the Crown corporation is about to undergo major changes — like those seen "when Bell or MTS was a monopoly" — has stoked fears about privatization.
In comments to Manitoba Hydro International staff, who are being absorbed into the main company as its consultancy is wound down, chief operating officer Jay Grewal said to prepare for "exciting times" and "huge opportunities."
But many Manitobans were more inclined to hand-wringing than high-fives because the start-up of the Keeyask unit happened just as Manitoba Hydro was again beset by concerns for the future of the Crown corporation.
The latest incident to spark suspicion of privatization was an unauthorized recording of Hydro chief operating officer Jay Grewal telling employees the Crown corporation is about to undergo major changes. "The degree of change in our business as Manitoba Hydro we have never experienced," she said, "and it will be similar to the changes that have occurred in telecom from when Bell or MTS was a monopoly to the markets it operates in today."
When the recording of her comments was leaked to the Opposition NDP, and subsequently made public, the reaction was predictable. In the same way victims of trauma can later be triggered by similar scenarios, the reference to MTS prompted many Manitobans to recall the sense of betrayal they experienced in 1997 when the Progressive Conservative government of Gary Filmon reversed his campaign promise and privatized the Manitoba Telephone System.
In the wake of Ms. Grewal’s comments, Hydro communications staff were quick to say she was not referring to privatization; rather, she was noting the changes in telecommunication technologies undergone by MTS. Hydro answered the outcry with the same assurance it and the provincial government have given repeatedly: Hydro will remain a Crown corporation.
Still, there’s notion of "once bitten, twice shy." Many Manitobans remember it was a PC government that went back on its word about MTS. As anyone who has been deceived in a relationship can attest, it’s not easy to trust again.
Restoring trust in the matter of Crown privatization will require actions, not just words. Unfortunately, recent actions by the provincial government show little indication it recognizes that in the term "public utility," the paramount word is "public."
For example, the province was secretive about a directive that prevented a Hydro subsidiary from taking on new work. And it seemed too disdainful of public accountability when it bypassed the Public Utilities Board rate-setting process and boosted electricity rates by 2.9 per cent.
If it wants to demonstrate transparency regarding Hydro, the province can publicly release a report by former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall into the building of the Keeyask generating station and the Bipole lll line, which cost billions more than budgeted. Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton has said the report "is currently being finalized."
Meanwhile, any Manitobans who are losing sleep over the possibility of Hydro privatization might find helpful bedtime reading in the Manitoba Hydro Amendment Act.
It could induce slumber because it’s written in the dense language of legislation, but what makes it worth perusing is that it outlines a definite prohibition against any Manitoba government unilaterally privatizing Hydro or its subsidiaries. It was passed into law by the NDP government in 2001 and clearly states Hydro can’t be privatized without the consent of the majority of Manitobans in a referendum.
In other words, the public, not the government, should decide whether this utility remains public. That’s as it should be.