Hydro One sale is not in our collective best interests

Our society has a well-worn maxim that declares, “the private sector can do the job more efficiently” that is almost always directed at ventures in which government, at any level, is involved.

Sometimes this is true, sometimes it isn’t.

Just now, the Ontario government is again floating the idea of selling off parts of what used to be known collectively as Ontario Hydro but which previous governments have divided into three separate functions: the production of electrical energy, the delivery of electrical energy and the maintenance of the delivery infrastructure.

This parting out of Ontario Hydro was undertaken 20 years ago by the Mike Harris/Ernie Eaves Conservative governments and there was a great deal of ballyhoo at the time that when the distribution and maintenance functions were to be put on the market (as that government had pledged to do) that this would be Canada’s largest-ever IPO (initial public offering).

There was enormous pushback from both the public and the Ontario Hydro employee unions and so the IPO was withdrawn in the interest of political expediency.

And now we’re looking at doing it again.

There doesn’t appear to be the same level of public pushback against the concept this time, perhaps because the magnitude of surging delivery costs and debt retirement costs that take up much of our hydro bills, together with the issues many consumers have had with the “smart metering” system where malfunctions in some of these units have resulted in impossibly high charges or, as happened last year, no bills being sent at all.

Many people may feel, in fact, that any other operating company could not possibly do a worse job and the public utility may have itself eliminated most of the argument against privatization through the mixture of high charges and incompetent technology that seems to some extent to have come to define the way we receive our electrical energy from the province of Ontario in recent years.

It’s almost a perfect storm in favour of selling off parts of the complex system with much less strident opposition.

We must, however, be mindful about throwing the baby out with the bath water.

When we release the province from major responsibility in delivering the service and maintaining its infrastructure, we are also depoliticizing the process.

This means, quite simply, that when (or if) we continue to have significant concerns about the costs of energy, about the smart metering system, about maintenance issues, we will not be able to take up the matter with our local MPP or, collectively, with the Ontario legislature.

If parts of this essential service are privatized, our complaints and concerns about this complicated system will simply be directed to the complaint department in what would be a large company whose objective would be to supply the service as cost-efficiently as possible in order to guarantee its shareholders a profitable return on their investment.

As consumers of electrical energy, we must not underestimate the usefulness of being able to take our concerns to Queen’s Park where the minister responsible can only deny for so long that an ongoing litany of complaints about the same issue from thousands of energy users is without merit.

It may very well be that Ontario is keen just now to hive off responsibility for the most contentious of its public electrical energy services just for this reason: so it will be able to absolve itself of future responsibility for consumer complaints (and, hence, voter dissatisfaction) and will instead be able to simply point to the new business responsible and say “call those guys.”

On a national level, we have a model. In the days when Canada Post was directly responsible to the House of Commons in Ottawa where it had a minister responsible, consumers and certainly industries that felt they were not being dealt with fairly and/or efficiently by the postal service could take up the issue directly with the government of the day and individual MPs could (and did) make their own public observations about Canada Post in Parliament when they had the opportunity to speak about local concerns, based on what had been demonstrated to them by their constituents.

When Canada Post was given corporate status, with only the vaguest direct connection and responsibility to the House of Commons, that political thumb was immediately lifted from Canada Post, leaving industries that have no option other than to deal with this monopoly no recourse except to address their frustrations to the complaint department of the very organization they’re complaining about.

The consequence of the privatization of this national service is very plain: depoliticizing a monopolistic, essential service is fraught with peril for the consumer who is left, essentially, to accept the way things are.

It’s predictable that moving major functions of Ontario’s electrical power service away from Queen’s Park will have precisely the same result.

The costs for the service will not go down, for how can they; the service will still be (largely) a monopoly; and, worst of all, Ontarians will be left without a political complaint mechanism, or at least one whose teeth would be effectively pulled by such a privatization of services.

The Canada Post experience should be enough of a warning that this is a route we take at our peril, all of the other current concerns about the production and delivery of electrical energy notwithstanding.