Doug Ford supporters held a little protest Tuesday morning outside the annual general meeting of Hydro One, the giant Ontario power utility. They chanted slogans and waved handmade signs. Then the man himself emerged from a big black car to deliver his standard attack on Hydro executives for “feathering their nest” and “gouging the taxpayers.”
Mr. Ford had made Hydro One the centrepiece of his campaign to unseat Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne in Ontario’s June 7 election. The Progressive Conservative Leader has vowed to fire Hydro One’s chief executive, calling him the “six-million-dollar man” because of his generous salary. “Kick the fat cat,” said one of the signs at his rally. “Clean up the Hydro mess,” said another.
It’s obvious why Mr. Ford is making such a fuss about Hydro One. Electricity prices have become a big issue in Ontario, and they should be. The province’s prosperity depends on having a safe, reliable and affordable source of power. The electricity system has been woefully mismanaged for years. Climbing costs hurt business and annoyed consumers. An election campaign is just the time to talk about the Hydro mess and what to do about it. Sadly, the solutions being bandied about by the major parties in this campaign of bad options are poor.
Start with Ms. Wynne’s Liberals. Although the roots of the Hydro One mess go back decades, her party bears a heavy responsibility for today’s state of affairs. The push by a Liberal government to promote renewable-energy production cost billions more than it should have. A craven decision to cancel two controversial natural-gas electricity plants added to the tab.
Electricity bills went way up. Facing a voter revolt, the Liberals tried to save themselves by slashing power charges and piling the costs on future ratepayers. They will pay more so current ratepayers can pay less. It is an outrageous stunt and, if the opinion polls are any indication, voters are seeing right through it.
It is pleasing to think that Mr. Ford might set things straight. He is a businessman who says he would run government with a view to efficiency and a sharp eye on the bottom line. And yet his hydro program is an exercise in knee-jerk populism. Although the Liberals sold a majority stake in Hydro One to the private sector – a decision that, curiously, private-sector guy Mr. Ford condemns – he proposes to fire its respected CEO Mayo Schmidt. It is the ugliest kind of scapegoating. Kicking the fat cat will do no good. Mr. Schmidt’s salary is a drop in the bucket of Hydro One spending. It has nothing to do with the run-up in electricity rates. Nor does the tone-deaf decision of Hydro One board members to vote themselves a nice raise, as wrong as it may be.
Mr. Ford would make matters worse by cutting electricity rates 12 per cent. Charging less for power than it takes to produce is hardly the way to put the hydro system back on a sound footing.
The NDP’s solution is worse still. It would cut hydro rates by 30 per cent – exactly how, heaven knows – end the “oversupply of power” and aggressively renegotiate “overpriced contracts that line the pockets of rich corporations.” To ice the cake, it would spend billions buying back the share of Hydro One that the Liberals sold off. Given recent history, putting government back in charge doesn’t seem to be the best way to get the power system sorted out.
What Ontarians need is an intelligent plan to bring some sense to what should be a straightforward enterprise – delivering electrical power through wires to homes and industries. Instead, they must choose among three awful options. One party offers a pointless witch hunt against Hydro One leaders, another offers an equally pointless blame-the-rich program of nationalization and cheap power for the masses, and the third caused the whole train wreck in the first place. The choice in this vote is not getting any easier.