Every year at this time it’s always about the Quebec Energy Board. And every year it’s the same dance. Hydro-Quebec makes a request for a rate increase, the Board cuts it back and grants a lesser increase. But it never says no to something. And those somethings add up. Since 2012, the Energy Board has allowed increases that amount to a total of 17-18%, depending on which baseline is used. This year’s 1% rate allowance may sound low but it just adds to the costs. The combined rate increases of the past 6 years far outstrip the rate of inflation. And this for a utility that works with a cheap, renewable resource and has the lowest production costs in the continent. And there is another ritual in this annual show. When asked by reporters if Quebecers could look forward to some relief on their Hydro bills, Hydro officials always give the same response. “No.” It’s as if higher costs are something written in stone regardless of stagnant wages, growing poverty and no inflation.
They all retreat behind the usual statements about Quebec having the lowest electricity rates on the continent. But it is not about the rate. It is about Quebec being the coldest jurisdiction in North America with major population centres. It is about people having to use more electricity to heat longer than any other people on the continent. It is about heat being 50% of total annual electricity costs. It is about Quebecers being poorer than most North Americans. It is about the fact that Hydro is a state monopoly founded because people had to choose between heating and eating and as late as the 1960s people were dying in their beds because of the cold and their inability to afford heat in winter. And her we are in 21st century and we have found many people — including seniors on fixed incomes — having to choose between heating and eating again as they face $1000 bills for a 56 or 58 day cycle for a small two bedroom apartment. Hydro makes billions a year in profits. Is it so unreasonable that it cuts Quebecers some slack since a full 25% of its profits is now coming from foreign sales. Hydro also fails to inform taxpayers that energy costs, particularly in winter, are much more expensive in all-electric buildings than those on oil or gas. Not a bit more, but between 250-300% more. And why is it that high? Because Hydro can charge what it likes and the Energy Board has never ordered it to cut rates. It’s our own little OPEC-style cartel.
A public utility is a public trust. It is a tort to use it as a reserve bank to fund wasteful government spending. It is time to paraphrase René Levesque when he finished the nationalization of Hydro, as a member of the Lesage government, and say to the utility monopoly, “Ça suffit!”
So the PM’s former Principal Secretary Gerry Butts gave his testimony before the Justice Committee last Wednesday and Mr. Trudeau gave his “non-apology” press conference last Thursday. Neither staunched the continuing drop in Liberal poll numbers and neither convinced anyone that they were just “discussing options” and weren’t aware that Attorney-General Wilson-Raybould had “really” made up her mind when she delivered her message to that effect last September 17 to the Prime Minister. A CTV poll found that a remarkable 73% of Canadians believed the former Attorney-General after they heard the Butts testimony and Mr. Trudeau’s press conference. Neither criticized Wilson-Raybould nor disagreed with her facts of meetings and calls. But they both used the same line about “people having different understandings from the same event.”
But in what could only be termed as news from the“Must be fake news” department, the arrogant audacity of these two continued even in the face of “non-alternative” facts. Aside from the fact that Trudeau and Butts were legally wrong in thinking they could intervene with an Attorney-General after she had made her decision because a verdict hadn’t yet been rendered, they both stuck to the line that it was about jobs not politics. But both Butts and PCO Clerk Michael Wernick were tripped up in their testimonies when they were asked at the Justice Committee about where they got the potential job loss number of 9,000. Both tripped over their tongues with Butts muttering something about seeing a Finance Department memo. Adding to their embarrassment however was an interview with SNC last Wednesday where the engineering giant confirmed on CBC that it has billions in contracts through 2024; that it is bidding on more contracts and that its work around the world dwarfs Canadian revenues. This spurious excuse put up by Mr. Trudeau and his cohorts led many commentators to question why his government has not shown the same concern with the some 50,000 jobs lost in Alberta through the federal mishandling of the energy file over the past 18 months.
Another remarkable Hollywood-like BOOM moment came an hour after Mr. Trudeau’s press conference last Thursday when the Public Prosecution Service of Canada — a part of the federal justice establishment — took the extraordinary step of tweeting a caution to the Prime Minister and the country saying in part “our prosecutors must be.....free from improper influence, including political influence.” Mr. Trudeau had made a point of stating how much he understands the importance of judicial independence in his press conference. It would seem the prosecutorial service wanted to make sure that Mr. Trudeau saw it in black and white because it didn’t seem as if the service was convinced. They may also have been aiming the message at Mr. Butts who on Wednesday had legal jaws dropping when he said that, “I am not a lawyer but when jobs are at stake it stops being a matter of law and becomes a matter of policy.” They just don’t get it. It’s about the rule of law.