Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton announced Friday that the province is responding to all 51 of the recommendations in former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall's economic review of Manitoba Hydro projects.
Among them is a mandate for the utility to focus on its core function of "providing electricity to Manitobans," and selling or winding down any divisions counter to it.
"I don't want to prejudge the outcome," Wharton said at a news conference Friday, during which he refused to rule out the sale of Centra Gas.
We know Manitoba Hydro is positioning itself for the future.... It's important to sustain the core function.
Critics warn that Manitoba Hydro Telecom, export sales of electricity and Hydro customer service could all be considered outside its core function and privatized.
Wharton announced the appointment of an "external, expert panel to provide direction and guidance for future Manitoba Hydro decisions," one of the recommendations in Wall's 14,000-page report.
Wall, who led the centre-right Saskatchewan Party to power and served as premier between 2007 and 2018, was commissioned by the Progressive Conservative government to conduct an economic review of the previous NDP government's handling of the construction of Manitoba Hydro's Keeyask generating station and Bipole III transmission line.
The $13.4-billion megaprojects — initially estimated to cost $9.7 billion — were built to export hydroelectricity without proper scrutiny or justification, Wall concluded in his report, released in late February.
He recommended Hydro be allowed to explore the option of considering public-private partnerships for major projects and have flexibility in construction labour.
Agreements that forced the hiring of workers from select unions may have resulted in higher project costs, Wall said.
Under the Crowns Corporations Governance and Accountability Act, Hydro has been directed to support implementation of the province’s response to the 51 recommendations.
Wharton maintained Friday that there is no plan to privatize Hydro.
"It's not for sale," he said.
Provincial regulations require a referendum on major tax increases or the privatization of public utilities. In March, Premier Brian Pallister vowed there will be a referendum if Hydro proposes selling Centra, natural gas division.
That hasn't reassured critics, who fear the utility will be carved up and sold off, leaving only its core — delivering electricity to Manitobans.
"The recommendations that they've committed to enacting today were written by a friend and political ally, Brad Wall," said Adrien Sala, the NDP critic for Manitoba Hydro.
"We know that report was produced with the express purpose of providing a foundation for allowing them to move forward with a plan to privatize aspects of Manitoba Hydro and raise (power) rates on Manitobans," he said.
The report by Brad Wall states very clear, in black and white, that they should divest of Hydro of non-core assets. (Does that mean) sell off Centra Gas? Manitoba Hydro Telecom? The communication service function of Hydro? What's it going to be?
Wharton's lack of clarity on those questions is a cause for alarm, Sala said.
Manitobans have a right to be concerned about what this government plans to do with this incredibly valuable asset that we need to maintain.
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the Pallister government paid Wall to produce a report that said what it wanted to hear.
If export sales of electricity — which Saskatchewan has purchased from Manitoba for $5 billion — aren't among Wall's recommended core functions for Manitoba Hydro, then it, too, could be privatized, Lamont said.