In the 2011 Manitoba election, there has been a lot of talk about the possible privatization of Manitoba Hydro. Too often privatization is presented as an all or nothing issue. When asked if he would sell off Manitoba Hydro as Gary Filmon did MTS, Progressive Conservative Hugh McFadyen steadfastly denies that he would.
The problem with this question and with McFadyen’s response is that it assumes an all or nothing approach to privatization. In many cases, privatization occurs piecemeal. There are many ways to skin a crown corporation, beyond its sale outright.
Sociologist Gordon Laxer lists some of the many ways in which privatization can occur:
- Selling the whole crown corporation by public share issue
- Selling or giving it to the workforce
- Contracting out the service to private business
- Charging for the service
- Repealing monopolies
- Use of vouchers
- State withdrawal from the activity
- The Trojan Horse: Alberta and the Future of Canada, co-edited with Trevor Harrison [Black Rose Books, 1995]
All these methods have the effect of minimizing the public service aspect of the public corporation and treating its product more as a commodity.
BC Hydro, for example, remains publicly owned, but since 2001, new power generation is created by the private sector and key administrative functions have been contracted out. As a result of this creeping privatization, electricity rates increased in BC by 8 percent in 2011, four times the rate increase of Manitoba, and significant increases are expected in the coming years.
The logic of commodification of energy in British Columbia is based largely on ideology according to public policy and energy expert, John Calvert. “[The BC government] has embarked on a comprehensive restructuring of B.C.’s electricity system in order to eliminate the dominant role of the public sector …. The government’s policies are based on the view that B.C.’s future energy supplies – and the prices paid by British Columbians – should no longer be based on the actual cost of producing publicly owned energy. Rather they should be determined though the operation of an energy market in which new supplies of electricity will come almost entirely from private power producers.”
The provision of electricity is an essential service, with widespread effects on health, welfare, the economy and the environment. Setting free Manitoba’s energy policy to the whims of the market is a recipe for disaster.
In Winnipeg, the recent Veolia deal marks the beginning of the privatization of waste water treatment. We know that privatization of core services can occur here. We also know that when citizens stand up, they can resist privatization of key services.
In the final days of the campaign, I would like to see all the parties affirm support for not selling Manitoba’s most valuable public corporation, but also commit to protect its value by keeping all of its components whole and under public control for the benefit of all Manitobans. After Tuesday’s vote, it will continue to be critical that Manitoba citizens remain on alert to hold whoever is elected to those commitments.