Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister is promising taxpayers a referendum to be held if another ultra-expensive public project comes under consideration.

Yes, the current hydro-expansion is a boondoggle, and, yes, steps should be taken to avoid another one. But, whether a public referendum would prevent another boondoggle or not is an open question. Governments always have ways to talk taxpayers into pretty much anything. And, while bodies like the Public Utilities Board could be weaponized to ferret out the wisdom of potential large future public financial adventures, it would have to be strengthened and be truly independent to be useful.

As for Manitoba Hydro, given the recent experience of the Conawapa Dam project, which was started, then put aside twice, wasting about $400 million along the way, the likelihood of even considering building another giant dam is low. Knowing this, Pallister offers referendum ‘protection’ for taxpayer, all in his effort to pin the Hydro boondoggle on the NDP while trying to avoid his party’s role in the fiasco.

The record is clear, Pallister, on becoming premier in the 2016 election, had the opportunity to halt the construction of both the Bipole III transmission line and Keeyask Dam, but he didn’t. Before the election he promised to halt these projects. Now, five years later and an extra $10 billion spent on his watch, he promises to give Manitobans a say over any new big infrastructure project.

Sorry, Mr. Premier, the damage has already been done.

Never mind, Pallister is now cynically taking an opportunity to make him and his party look good in comparison of the NDP opposition. One of his efforts is former Saskatchewan premier Brad Walls’ restricted review of part of Manitoba Hydro’s ill-fated expansion. Wall gave a pass to Pallister. After spending about $2.5 million on Wall’s views, Pallister rushes to say that his government would protect citizens by allowing Manitobans a referendum on any future major MH hydroelectric projects.

Very simple on paper, Mr. Premier. Certainly resolving complex capital investment decisions by referendum opens the door to more citizen democracy on other equally complex decisions. Going down that road, how about subjecting public sector pay increases and pensions to referendum next?

Mr. Wall’s expensive, secretive and ‘reliable’ review was restricted to only two of Hydro’s multi-billion expansions. Left out was the costly Wuskwatim Dam, the Pointe du Bois Dam’ spillway, Conawapa and new transmission lines to utility customers’ Minnesota and Saskatchewan. Neither external forensic audits of the billions in expenditures, nor the assistance of Manitoba’s Auditor General ever happened.

During the 20 years involving these boondoggle expansions, there has been no lack of participating bodies. The Hydro boondoggle involves two political parties (NDP and PC), three premiers, four Hydro CEOs, four Hydro board chairs, four Hydro Finance VPs, four PUB chairs, and members of the Clean Environment Commission, no end of external consultants, and many government ministers’ responsible.

Don’t be fooled by Pallister’s bone of future referendums to protect rate and taxpayers. Like Wall’s limited review, which leaves Manitobans to be the victim of faulty NDP decisions, there is much more to the story. Think Pallister as your hydro bills jump in future years.

Graham Lane, a retired CPA CA, had a lengthy career in both the public and private sectors. He was PUB’s chair from 2004-12.