Published in the Winnipeg Sun, August 10, 2018
Also published in the Vancouver Province August 10, 2018:
Brian Pallister’s recent appointment of Colleen Mayer to the post of Minister for Crown Services should raise major concerns for all Hydro customers. New to cabinet and with no known experience dealing with a large, complex and troubled Crown corporation, Minister Mayer should have taken a pass.
Hydro provides critical electricity and natural gas services to virtually every residence, business and institution in Manitoba. The importance of Hydro is magnified exponentially because it is a mandatory monopoly (we cannot do without the services and have no choice but be served by it). Hydro is in the throes of a highly questionable expansion that is on track to drive up electricity rates 50% or more by its conclusion. Manitoba’s Advantage – cheap power – is no more .
Why would Pallister appoint a new person to cabinet to oversee Hydro? There is a pattern here. First of all, Mayer, like other ministerial appointments to persons lacking portfolio specific knowledge and experience, has no prior experience with Hydro and, by her own admission, little knowledge of it’s workings. And, she is the third Minister for Hydro since the PCs assumed power in 2016.
The first appointee, Ron Schuler, had been the Hydro Critic while in Opposition, but Pallister had stripped that responsibility from him well ahead of the election. Surprisingly, he was appointed as Minister for Hydro in May 2016 with, being fair here, only spotty and out-of-date knowledge of the situation. His performance as Hydro Minister was abysmal.
During his watch came the ill-fated decision to abandon Pallister’s campaign promise to halt construction and conduct a full-fledged review of Hydro. The result: two unneeded projects, Bipole III and Keeyask, continue towards completion at a cost to ratepayers exceeding $15 billion. It was also during Schuler’s ‘reign of error’ that legislation for the illogical separation of Power Smart from Hydro was conceived.
Pallister’s second appointee, Cliff Cullen, maintained the pattern of having no experience in Hydro matters. It was during his term that the ill-founded crown corporation Efficiency Manitoba was launched. (It now languishes, no progress since it was created 15 months ago.) Also during Cullen’s short term, what was a strong Hydro Board (led by Sandy Riley) resigned en masse, replaced with a cadre of inexperienced and likely yes-men and yes-women. The recent appointment of Vince Warden (retired Hydro VP of Finance who was deeply involved in the planning of Bipole-Keeyask) to the Board legitimized someone who was part of the problem and not likely part of any good solution.
Add to this, the imminent court case with the Manitoba Metis Federation, precipitated by actions taken during the Cullen term, and the blurry picture becomes more complete. Conclusion: Pallister has no inkling of the seriousness of Hydro’s financial situation and wants to ensure that the Minister responsible for Hydro is easily malleable, putty in his hands. That way, Hydro issues can be dealt by him personally, towards keeping the cap on the boiling kettle. Apparently, new and very inexperienced Hydro Minister is a card-carrying member of the Manitoba Metis Federation. It will be interesting to watch if that too becomes a factor in the court case. Hydro has many difficult days ahead.