Manitoba Hydro's finances have been "shrouded in secrecy" by the province, which has systematically dismantled the regulatory system and choked off public access to information, a coalition of consumer and anti-poverty groups have told the Public Utilities Board.

The Consumers Coalition — which includes the Consumers' Association of Canada (Manitoba), Harvest Manitoba and the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg — has taken the extraordinary step of appealing directly to the PUB to hold a special hearing on electricity rates in response to an unprecedented effort on the part of the provincial government to suppress all financial information about Hydro's current and future operations.

The PUB has not held a Hydro rate hearing since fall 2018 and the Crown utility has no plans to make a rate application in the near future.

In its application, a copy of which was obtained by the Free Press, the coalition argues Premier Brian Pallister and his Progressive Conservative government's efforts to systematically close down avenues of public insight and oversight means the "long-term health of Manitoba Hydro is fundamentally unclear."

As evidence, the coalition cited the recent revelation of a $5-billion power sale to Saskatchewan — a deal that was downplayed in provincial news releases and all but ignored in the recent review of Hydro capital projects by former Saskatchewan Tory premier Brad Wall.

Sources told the Free Press the province downplayed the Saskatchewan sales to avoid undermining the political narrative of Wall's report, which harshly criticized the former NDP government for its decision to build the Keeyask generating station and Bipole III transmission line.

"The public interest is not well served when fundamental aspects of Manitoba Hydro’s rate making process are either not undertaken or shrouded in secrecy," the coalition application states.

Much of the concern is focused on Bill 35, a proposed law before the legislature that dramatically reduces regulatory oversight of electricity rates. The bill, if passed, would require Hydro to submit full general rate applications to the PUB only once every five years, allowing cabinet to set rates in the interim.

The coalition raises other concerns about the province's failure to approve and publish annual business plans, Hydro's refusal to produce annual integrated financial forecasts that detail the future state of revenues and expenditures and its inability to provide a timeline for publication of a new, multi-year strategic plan that it has been working on for two years.

The NDP opposition has also lodged a formal complaint about lack of access to Hydro executives at the standing committee on Crown services. The meetings often provide an opportunity to dig into Hydro's finances.

An NDP spokesperson said that there have been only three meetings of the committee with Hydro officials since Pallister became premier in 2016.

Others who have been following Bill 35 and the dwindling public access to information about Hydro believe that what is happening here is part of a pattern exhibited by the Pallister government.

"There is a persistent pattern of behaviour here... that is disturbing," said Paul Thomas, a political scientist who has written extensively on government accountability.

It has become a hallmark of this government to get heavily involved in the business of a Crown corporation to somehow protect itself against adverse publicity.

Thomas noted that while the NDP government also intervened directly in the business affairs of supposedly arms-length Crown corporations, it was much better at publicly disclosing its involvement.

Pallister's government, Thomas said, prefers to use "more submerged methods of persuasion," issuing directives that are well outside channels of public scrutiny.

This behaviour contradicts the usual rhetoric of the Progressive Conservative party that Crown corporations should operate in a businesslike and efficient manner, free of political interference.

Hydro denied any concerted effort to shut down access to information.

Spokesperson Bruce Owen said the utility stopped drafting integrated financial forecasts several years ago because it had undertaken a broad operational review called Strategy 2040 that has been approved by the board of directors. There is no timetable right now for when that will be made public, he added.

Owen said the forecasts could be produced again in the future, but only after additional work is done on the development of something called the "integrated resource plan."

He also said Hydro's annual business plan was submitted to Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton last March and is waiting on approval. A spokesperson for Wharton's office said it was delayed by the pandemic but that an updated document for 2021-22 will be approved and released shortly.

Pallister refused an interview request but his office issued a written statement.

These allegations are completely false," it said. "Despite a co-ordinated effort by the NDP and their friends to suggest otherwise, our government has been committed to moving Hydro’s financial and operational information from the dark — where it lived for years under the former government — into the light where it belongs so that Manitobans can have a full and true picture of what is happening with Manitoba’s largest and most important Crown corporation.

Some financial information is available through Hydro's annual and quarterly reports and through the provincial budget and public accounts. However, it's very general and often does not present a clear picture of what's going on inside the utility.

Typically, that baseline of information has been augmented in the public hearings that accompany the PUB rate hearings process.

It has been two years since Hydro appeared before the PUB in any context, and 2 1/2 years since it underwent a full general rate application hearing.

The future of Bill 35 is also complicating matters. First introduced last year, it has been designated for fall debate and voting by the opposition NDP, which is allowed to identify up to five bills that can be delayed in the spring session of the legislature.

That delay means the Pallister government may once again have to use its budget implementation bill to set a Hydro rate increase without any detailed oversight or public hearings.