Under the cover of a deadly pandemic that has thoroughly disrupted the world’s economy, Brian Pallister’s government tried to move forward its Bill 44. While delayed in the legislature by the pandemic, the devious legislation would destroy the value of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) to the detriment of utility ratepayers and taxpayers.
Not just a “quasi-independent” overseer of Manitoba Hydro (Hydro), Manitoba Public Insurance (MPI) and E!ciency Manitoba (Crown corporations with monopolies over electricity, natural gas and vehicle insurance), PUB has also been a protector of the customers of municipal water utilities and of those poor Manitobans that fall into the arms of payday loan companies.
If Pallister pulls the teeth of this 107-year-old consumers protection agency, Manitoba’s Crown corporations might as well be recognized as just a few more government departments. Pallister already controls his ministers’ departments — which have significant influence over public sector operations such as school divisions, universities and colleges, hospitals and other health and social agencies.
With Bill 44 passed and proclaimed, Pallister then might as well be addressed as King Brian, with most of the economy under his dominion in one way or another.
Let’s be open and honest. PUB has never been the best it could have been. Both NDP and PC governments have always kept it on a short leash. Through an act of the legislature that enables PUB, provincial governments appoint PUB’s chair and its members — opposition parties are not involved. The government also sets the terms of engagement, tenure and the compensation of PUB members.
While PUB have sets the rates for Hydro — both electricity and natural gas — and MPI’s basic motor vehicle premiums, it could neither order, start nor stop their services and capital expenditures. PUB’s primary value had been holding public processes allowing interveners — consumer and industry groups — engage expert witnesses and express views as to the rates and operations of the corporations. While far from being a perfect approach, at least PUB’s hearings brought transparency.
PUB was serving the interests of Manitobans since 1913. Through their reports and rate applications to PUB, Hydro and MPI operated more or less as self-supporting entities for the benefit of consumers. At each hearing of a rate application before PUB, the public was able to assess the appropriateness of its utility bills and be aware of the charges and taxes the provincial government levies on the crowns.
If Bill 44 eventually passes, Pallister will set Hydro’s rate changes for the next four years — without any review, even one by a strippeddown PUB. It’s not hard to guess why. Could it be that Hydro is in trouble, its debts soaring because of a foolish expansion driven by the provincial government? Bill 44 would also strangle PUB’s future ability to set MPI premiums. After the COVID-19 rebate, MPI’s reserves would be for the convenience of government. Hydro and MPI would be just two more government departments.
It is ironic that the Pallister government, which pledged not to interfere in the actions and decisions of the boards of directors of Crown corporations when coming into power, now has these corporations as nothing more than government departments.
— Grraham Lane, a retired CPA CA, was PUB’’s Chaiir from 2004-20112.