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Politics Ontario Speaker rules Liberals not in contempt for Hydro One offer

Newly elected Speaker of the Ontario Legislature Liberal MPP Dave Levac is congratulated by fellow MPP's at Queen's Park Nov. 21 2011.

Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Speaker Dave Levac has ruled Ontario's Liberal government is not in contempt of parliament for offering shares in soon-to-be-privatized Hydro One to power workers as part of a labour settlement.

NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson had asked Mr. Levac on Tuesday to find the government in contempt, a move supported by the Progressive Conservatives. Mr. Levac reserved his decision, delivering it Thursday before the daily Question Period.

Mr. Bisson had argued that the government was in no place to give Ontario Power Generation and Hydro One employees shares in Hydro One, because its privatization has not yet been voted on by the legislature. The Liberals want to sell 60 per cent of Hydro One on the stock market, but must first get legislation passed to make it happen.

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But Mr. Levac found there was no evidence the labour deal pre-empts the power of the legislature; if the legislature voted against privatization, he said, the agreement offering shares to the power workers simply would not go ahead.

He said that the government is allowed to pre-emptively plan for future changes, such as the privatization of Hydro One, before the actual privatization has taken place.

"I simply have not been presented with any document or communication authored by the government that inarguably presents the arrangements complained about as a fait accompli. These arrangements described appear to be in the nature of normal planning affected organizations would be expected to engage in," he said. "Presumably, if the legislation does not pass, these arrangements will not be implemented."

Mr. Levac also found there was no evidence any member's personal privilege, such as their right to speak out on the privatization, had been affected.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she was "disappointed" the ruling did not go against the government.

"The government is willing to make promises, make commitments based on things the legislature hasn't even had a chance to review," she said. "It shows that the Liberals are extremely arrogant with their majority government and they have no interest in going through the democratic process that's required to put legislation through this house."

Interim PC leader Jim Wilson said the Liberals were "way off base" to offer the shares before the legislation passed.

"They're moving forward without any sort of legislative foundation whatsoever, without any permission from the people of Ontario, without any debate here in the legislature," he said.

The three-year deals between government and the Power Workers' Union have been kept secret, as they have not yet been ratified. But The Globe and Mail obtained internal PWU memos that summarize key details.

Power workers will receive 3-per-cent raises, lump sum payments equal to 3 per cent of workers' salaries and Hydro One stock worth between 2.7 per cent and 2.75 per cent of annual pay, handed out every year for the next 12 to 15 years. In exchange, the power workers agreed to contribute more towards their pensions. If the privatization of Hydro One does not start by Dec. 31, the contracts say, power workers will receive a pension increase and the contract will be renegotiated next year.

The deals have raised eyebrows. Sources in labour and industry have said the contracts appear to be a move to ensure the PWU does not fight the government over privatization, and ensure labour peace before the initial public offering.

Mr. Bisson's contempt move was largely symbolic: the Liberals are expected to use their majority in the legislature to push privatization through. Even if Mr. Levac had ruled in Mr. Bisson's favour, the Liberals would likely have voted down any attempt to impose a punishment on them.

However, a finding of contempt would have represented a slap on the wrist and an embarrassment for government. It would also have tied up the legislature by triggering a debate on contempt, giving the NDP a platform to hammer the Liberals on Hydro One and the Power Workers' deal.

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Mr. Levac is a Liberal, but he has not been afraid to rule against the government in the past. In the fall of 2012, at the height of the gas plant scandal, he ruled that there may have been contempt of parliament by the Liberals. The decision sent then-premier Dalton McGuinty's staff into fits of pique. It also set the stage for a legislative committee to investigate the government.

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