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Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty holds a press conference before signing a green power agreement on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010, in Toronto.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty holds a press conference before signing a green power agreement on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010, in Toronto.

Adam Radwanski

Rising energy bills are Ontario Liberals' 'sleeper issue' Add to ...

Earlier this month, the Ontario Energy Board announced the latest round of price increases and the opposition Conservatives showed some fleeting interest in the province's soaring hydro bills.

As next year's provincial election draws closer, Tim Hudak's party will surely return to the issue with more force and focus.

As one Conservative strategist puts it, energy bills are a "sleeper issue" - one that could see growing anger directed toward the government of the day. And because of the risky way they've handled the file, Dalton McGuinty's Liberals could be especially vulnerable.

No question, energy prices had to go up. That's the cost of upgrading aging infrastructure that the province long neglected. And in some instances, declining commercial usage following the economic downturn has pushed the cost of those upgrades disproportionately onto individual consumers.

Adding to those costs is the transition away from coal toward cleaner forms of power such as natural gas - another direction most governments would be going in, albeit perhaps at a slightly slower pace.

But on top of those inevitabilities, the Liberals have made a series of decisions that could be seen as rubbing Ontarians' noses in their higher bills.

For starters, there's the new harmonized sales tax, which will start being collected in July. For all of harmonization's economic benefits, and income tax cuts that will serve as a counterbalance, there could hardly be a worse time to add an extra 8 per cent to energy prices than when they're already going up by double-digit percentages.

Then there's the appearance of bloated bureaucracy, courtesy of the Ontario Power Authority - the central planning agency set up by Mr. McGuinty's government shortly after it took office. It's here that Mr. Hudak has recently directed most of his energy-related attention, pointing out that the OPA has gone from 15 staff to more than 300, of whom 75 make more than $100,000 a year. That staffing is still a pretty marginal contributor to overall costs, but makes a convenient target at a time when there seems to be a growing backlash against well-paid public servants.

Third, there's a conservation strategy that remains very much a work in progress. If Ontarians are able to save significant amounts of money by gearing power usage toward off-peak hours, the smart meters installed in their homes should prove popular. But if savings are minimal, which seems to be the case so far, the meters could wind up as in-your-face symbols of government intrusion.

Finally, most broadly and perhaps most significantly, there's the Liberals' green energy strategy.

Most of the costs incurred by paying premium rates to encourage alternative power generation won't turn up on bills until after the next election, which is a daunting prospect that opposition politicians might be able to exploit. But because green energy has been central to the Liberals' message - the idea being that, for the good of both environment and the economy, we all have to make sacrifices - there's a wide perception that it's already the main cost driver.

The Liberals seem to think that's a good thing. But if they've overestimated Ontarians' enthusiasm for environmentalism and for job-creation schemes, Mr. McGuinty's airy tone will make him look unsympathetic to everyday pocketbook issues.

The Tories, for now, are mostly holding fire on green energy - criticizing specifics, notably the province's $7-billion deal with the Samsung Group, but not the basic principles.

It's a somewhat delicate matter for Mr. Hudak to criticize the fundamentals of hydro policy at all, because the Liberals are able to point out that the previous Conservative government left the province's energy sector in a total shambles.

But memories are short, and the Liberals will have been in office eight years by the next election. If voters are angry about their energy bills, Mr. McGuinty might have done enough to make himself a scapegoat.

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Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

 

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