The Pallister Conservative threat to Manitoba Hydro

Photo by John Woods/CP

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister called a snap election for September 10, over a year before required under the province’s fixed election law. Undoubtedly this was done before Manitobans fully digested the dire consequences of the Conservatives’ austerity campaign.

During their short term in office, the Conservatives have enacted devastating cuts to Manitoba’s healthcare, setbacks to labour relations, housing and social supports, education, and matters dealing with climate and the environment. All these issues are dealt with at length in a recent article by James Wilt on the Canadian Dimension website.

In addition to this, I would like to discuss a matter that is certain to be on the agenda for the Conservatives, should they get re-elected.

Over a period of many years the insiders in the upper echelons of the Conservative Party have always wanted to privatize Manitoba Hydro. Should they get re-elected, with Pallister at the helm, the privatization of Hydro may become a cause célèbre for them.

Even with public disapproval, a Crown corporation can be privatized – just witness what happened to the publicly owned Manitoba Telephone System (MTS) in 1997. In the preceding election, the Filmon Conservatives assured the public that they had no intention of privatizing MTS, but within a year they did so, giving no notice up to the day they introduced the privatization legislation. Once privatized, MTS costs went up, service deteriorated, and profits from the operations went to American and other foreign owners. The same can happen to Manitoba Hydro.

During their current term in office the Pallister Conservatives have tried in various ways to discredit Hydro, but this was not an easy matter to do. Manitoba Hydro’s electricity is produced totally by large efficient hydropower stations, mainly in the north of the province; because of this, together with the fact that the system is publicly owned, Manitobans enjoy the lowest cost electricity, not only in Canada, but in all of North America. It is certain that many people are unaware of this significant fact.

By being publicly owned, electricity in Manitoba is sold at the cost of production plus prorated funds that are needed for future expansion. If Manitoba Hydro were privatized, the cost of electricity would increase significantly because profits for the private owners (probably American) would have to be added to the overall cost. This is an absolute certainty.

There are a number of examples of what happened in Canada when publicly owned electricity companies were privatized. In Alberta, as a result of the privatization of its hydro system, in 2000 the price of electricity rose from 5 cents per kilowatt hour to 25 cents. In Ontario it was even worse. Shortly after the privatization of its hydro system, in 2002 the price of electricity rose dramatically from 5.2 cents per kilowatt hour to $1.03 per kilowatt hour.

If the Conservatives get re-elected and they follow through with their secret age-old plans to privatize Manitoba Hydro, this is exactly what may happen here. And so instead of Manitobans having the lowest electricity prices in North America, we may face what happened in Alberta and Ontario.

It is high time for Manitobans to become aware of what the Pallister regime may have in store for them.

John Ryan, Ph.D., is a retired professor of geography and a senior scholar at the University of Winnipeg.

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