Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether the government’s “Fair Hydro Plan” will actually work (we’ll come back to it, don’t worry). The idea, formally presented by Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault at Queen’s Park on Thursday, is to have Ontario Power Generation take on an enormous amount of debt to give residential ratepayers a 17 per cent discount on their electricity bills. The government needed to find some way to cut costs to homeowners while making power producers — who have binding contracts — whole.
All that debt will have to be paid back, plus interest, in the future. Thibeault predicted it would be gone by 2047. Children born this year will be having children of their own before then. Given there are billions at stake, decades to plan for, and acknowledgement from the Liberals that this debt will tie the hands of future governments, MPPs need ample time to double-check the government’s work.
Well, tough luck. The Liberals have given the opposition just eight days to scrutinize the bill. That’s four days next week — after which MPPs return to their constituencies for a week — then four more days before the house adjourns for the summer recess. During that time, the government’s bill will be debated in the house, sent to committee for public comment, potentially amended, and sent back to the house again for final debate before passage.
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NDP energy critic Peter Tabuns knows his file backward and forward; he’s been studying Ontario’s hydro file longer than Thibeault has been an MPP, much less a minister. He says there’s no way the opposition can do its job properly in eight days.
“It’s outrageous. It’s bad for us, but in a much bigger sense, the people of Ontario are not going to be able to delve into this,” Tabuns said at Queen’s Park on Thursday. “Manufacturers, the commercial sector, all kinds of people are going to want to look at this closely and be consulted. You don’t do that in eight sessional days.”
He added: “They want to get this out of the way so they can campaign on other issues.”
Predictably, Thibeault denied the government was playing games with the timing of its legislation; he said the Liberals had, in fact, indulged the opposition by providing a full technical briefing from ministry staff. That’s like the chef at an expensive restaurant boasting that he washed his hands before cooking your meal: the bare minimum you deserve, and far less than you have the right to expect.
Granted, none of this is illegal, unconstitutional, or even unprecedented. It’s just that the precedents for this kind of behaviour are everything the Liberals used to rail against.
Take, for example, the sale of the 407 toll highway in 1998. For years the Liberals blasted the Tory government of the day for ramming through the privatization effort, which cost the province billions in lost revenues for a one-time boost to the government’s bottom line just before an election year.
Like the sale of the 407 — which itself was debated over the course of just a few days — the Liberals’ hydro plan will bind the hands of any government that follows. Like the sale of the 407, it’s going to cost Ontarians billions of dollars for short-term gain (in this case, a four-year guarantee that hydro prices will rise in lockstep with inflation and no faster).
And like the sale of the 407, it’s mostly about boosting the government’s electoral chances the year before an election. That, more than anything, explains the rush to get this bill passed and signed. The Liberals promised Ontarians their hydro bills would go down starting July 1 — just in time for air-conditioning season, and coincidentally for summer barbeque fundraisers.
Not to mention the Liberal plan might not even work, at least not for long. The Tories released a leaked document on Thursday showing that, once the first four years of the plan are up, Ontario’s average hydro prices will increase leaps and bounds. By 2024 they’ll be higher than today’s prices — and they’ll stay higher than they would have been until the 2040s.
That means the government of the 2020s will have to deal with another round of hydro cost increases, about as steep as those the Liberals have suffered through over the past few years. Does anyone think that whoever occupies the Premier’s Office then will have an easier time of things than Kathleen Wynne has?
Of course, Wynne won’t be there when the bill comes due. While she herself used to lament the role of “tacticians” in the Premier’s Office manipulating policies for partisan advantage, well, that was then and this is now — and now there’s an election to be won. The Liberals will settle up with their principles after the votes are counted.
(Full disclosure: The author has family members who work in the Minister of Energy’s office and for the ministry itself. TVO readers can judge for themselves whether those ties have bought the government any unearned sympathy.)