Earlier this month, 41 Manitobans presented the standing committee on Social and Economic Development with a unanimous message — throw out Bill 36. Adding to these voices, more than 600 letters have been sent to MLAs and ministers, echoing their writers’ unease with this proposed legislation.

Bill 36 is bad news for Manitobans, and it is not just about increasing Hydro bills. Included in the bill are several changes to the Public Utilities Board (PUB) Act. The PUB is a long-standing, arm’s-length, quasi-judicial administrative board that supervises Manitoba’s Crown corporations (publicly owned and government operated) and “is a crucial entity for ensuring neutral, objective analysis of proposed rates” as stated by the board itself.

Bill 36 appears to be an attempt to all but relieve the PUB of its power to independently review and set the course for future public utility projects and, at the same time, prevent the public from participating. Concentrated power in the hands of the government, regardless of who is in power, is not what this province needs, or is asking for.

If ever there was a time to protect independent oversight, it is now. Two new provisions found in Bill 36 threaten this protection.

The first is a provision that prohibits the PUB from inquiring or making statements questioning the validity of regulations established by the government, or about any directive issued under the Crown Corporations Governance and Accountability Act or the Financial Administration Act.

Maybe you’re asking why this matters. The answer is accountability. In 2019, the Manitoba government passed a regulation relating to MPI that was beyond its legislative competence. It attempted to set financial targets for rate-setting purposes for MPI, impacting MPI rates. The PUB was asked to determine whether this was unlawful by the Consumers Association of Canada’s Manitoba branch, which it did.

In a statement released in December of that year, the PUB determined “the authority to do so must be set out in statute, thus the regulation is found to be invalid.”

If you need another example, in 2020 the PUB caught and required removal of an additional 0.13 per cent incremental increase embedded into the general Hydro rate. Though originally installed to compensate for loss of income, that loss of income was eliminated, yet Manitoba Hydro did not voluntarily remove the 0.13 per cent. It had to be told.

Other than the PUB, who else would be watching for such missteps and have the authority to require change?

The second provision is in Sec. 15.3 which allows for closed-door meetings if discussing “commercially sensitive information.” Currently, the act states that all meetings are open to the public, with no stipulations. In addition to this, Sec. 24 removes the requirement of oral hearings, allowing for written hearings only, thereby distancing the public from the process.

These provisions do not serve the public, but rather appear to serve a political agenda.

What considerations and provisions will be in place to prevent the abuse of these options? Does Manitoba want increasingly private procedures that remove their voices from being heard? According to Manitobans, the answer is no. The results of a recent public opinion poll are clear — Manitobans want an independent arm’s-length board overseeing the rate-setting process and new proposed projects.

A Probe Research report found that out of 1017 Manitobans surveyed, more than seven in 10 want an independent commission or board to set their rates.

As Dale Friesen, the representative for the Manitoba Industrial Power Users Group, stated in his presentation to the standing committee, “This bill will allow any current and future government to create new rules … on how electricity rates are set, without having to justify it before the legislative assembly. What is the point of a censored PUB?”

Amanda Leighton is a member of the Protect the Public Utilities Board Coalition. protectpub@gmail.com