We need to keep Hydro One in public hands

Photo: flickr/ BriYYZ

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Undeniably, climate change is one of the greatest threats facing humanity. And nobody can dispute that Canada, once a leader in the fight to protect our environment, has become a global laughing stock to the ever-growing numbers of people around the world who understand action is needed.

We also know from poll after poll, that solving the climate crisis is a high priority for Canadians. So, why this rift between public will and political action?

The will of the people is being pushed aside by lobbying from Bay Street interests. Nothing demonstrates the problem better than the proposed sale of Hydro One by Ontario's Liberal government.

Quite simply, privatizing the public energy grid in Canada's largest province wipes out public control over decisions involving energy and the environment. It will drive up rates, drive away jobs and drive down conservation efforts.

At the end of the day, the hydro sell-off will also lose the government money, which will mean fewer resources for infrastructure in the long-term.

Loss of control

The Liberals just changed the laws to get rid of public oversight of Hydro One. The provincial ombudsman won't be able to do anything if there's a billing scandal. The auditor general won't be able to tell us if there are financial shenanigans. And you won't be able to find out any details of the sale.

Let's stop there for a moment. You won't know anything about this sell-off of something you own -- something our parents and grandparents spent their hard-earned dollars to build together. Why? Because the same set of legal changes remove Hydro One from coverage by freedom of information.

This is the same Liberal government that brought us costly privatization fiascos like Ornge, eHealth and the cancelled gas plants, so why would we think more privatization will be different?

How does this hurt our environment?

Conservation programs exist because of government influence and backing, not because of mythical corporate benevolence. The market will never be the way we solve the climate crisis. We have energy conservation programs through Hydro One and local distribution companies because governments have made them a priority, created funding within these public companies and provided financial incentives.

In a privatized Hydro One, profit will be the first priority, not the environment, community building, good jobs or protecting low-income Ontarians from skyrocketing rates. The government won't control the board of Hydro One and won't set the company's priorities. So, unless we stop hydro privatization, conservation efforts will require more public pressure than ever before, and more public subsidies.

Hydro privatization takes away a critical public tool in the fight against climate change.

Rates go up

The sale will result in higher hydro rates. Rates are already high because much of our power generation has been privatized. Why should we believe more of this wrong-headed approach will result in anything different?

Everywhere hydro has been privatized, rates have gone up. Adding in the corporate need for profit will do that, and the Liberals just changed the law so Hydro One can hire expensive lobbyists to push for even higher rates and more profits.

Think about what that will mean next time there's an ice storm. Will the private owners sacrifice profits to pay round-the-clock overtime to get your lights and heat restored as quickly as possible? Of course not.

There is a myth about "private sector discipline" leading to lower costs and better service. Ask yourself, how happy are you with your cable bills? How about your cellphone service?

Driving more cuts to public services

Hydro One provides the government with hundreds of millions a year in revenue. According to Douglas Peters, former TD Bank chief economist and secretary of state (finance) in the Chretien government, the sale will cost the government money.

And this isn't about infrastructure or transit either. With borrowing rates at record lows, we're better off borrowing money for infrastructure and keeping the hydro revenues. We make more off Hydro One than we'd pay in interest.

That means less money for already strapped environmental programs and public services like education and health care -- services that will be further hit by rising hydro rates.

When profit is paramount, workers suffer. We'll see a push to cut the number of workers, and as climate change increases the number of intense storms, you can bet that will mean longer wait times to get your lights and heat back on.

And more privatization

Simple truth: They don't need to sell Hydro One. In a $130-billion infrastructure package, the money from the hydro sale is three per cent of what is promised and won't make a difference. Except, that is, to the banks and brokers who will grab a few hundred million in fees for themselves.

They'll get more as the Liberals continue their privatization plan. The next step on the hydro file will be merging local distribution companies. How much control do you think you'll have locally when your utility merges with four or five others?

The privatization cycle won't stop with energy. In other countries it has continued with roads, hospitals, schools, and will go on and on. Each time it happens, we'll get worse service and higher costs. People in Northern Ontario know this well. Just look at what happened with winter road maintenance.

Kathleen Wynne may want us all to believe this is a done deal. It's not. Even with the passage of their omnibus bill, we still own 100 per cent of Hydro One. Working together in our communities, with strong opposition like we'll see on July 5 at the March for Jobs, Justice and the Climate, we can keep Hydro public.

 

Join the July 5 March for Jobs, Justice and the Climate at Queen's Park in Toronto.

Fred Hahn is president of CUPE Ontario.

This piece originally appeared on Our Times and is reprinted with permission.

Photo: flickr/ BriYYZ

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