What do you call a government using a global pandemic to push through legislation that takes away the right to public consultation and impartial oversight on water, electricity, hydro rates and other important services?
Unfortunately, there is no punchline to this. Using the COVID-19 pandemic to push through legislation that guts a public oversight is exactly what the Pallister government in Manitoba is doing with Bill 44 – the so-called Public Utilities Ratepayer Protection and Regulatory Reform Act.
The bill's name seems to be trying to soothe Manitobans into a false sense of security that the Pallister government has their best interests at heart. Ironically, the government is looking to push the bill through as early as this October without public input, despite the fact that it would dramatically impact public participation in rate setting, gut the Public Utilities Board, and have a serious financial impact for Manitobans.
Say goodbye to transparency
Rate setting might seem like a dry subject, but it can have a serious impact on household finances. In 2017, the Public Utilities Board received thousands of comments about a proposed 7.9 per cent electricity rate increase. In response to the extensive feedback, Manitobans didn't see a massive rate increase when they paid their electric bills.
However, with the proposed changes in Bill 44, the Public Utilities Board would not be able to provide impartial oversight in the setting of rates that directly impact people in Manitoba. Instead, Cabinet would have unfettered control over bodies like Manitoba Hydro, Efficiency Manitoba, Manitoba Public Insurance, and payday lending organizations. Allowing Cabinet to set rates without impartial oversight means that private corporations would suddenly have a lot more say in deciding how rates are set. Politicizing how these rates are set would become an easy, almost inevitable step – and it is the most vulnerable Manitobans that would pay the price.
Bill 44 would also eliminate the transparent process of public hearings on things like rate changes. The Public Utility Board's public hearings provide an opportunity for Manitobans to get clear and accurate information about various goods and services, as well as their impacts on communities and individuals. The Winnipeg Chapter of the Council of Canadians has participated before in these hearings to push for clarity and fairness, and to emphasize the importance of considering the climate crisis in decisions made around energy, especially natural gas.
This relates closely to another process Bill 44 threatens – citizen participation and feedback in the decisions regarding rate changes. We would lose our ability to provide public input. A democratic process to engage in decisions around rate changes would not exist under this bill.
Having a way to provide public input is important. It levels the playing field in terms of whose voices are heard. Without public hearings people would no longer have a voice on the impacts of setting new rates in Manitoba.
As we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and work to address the ongoing climate crisis, pushing through a bill that would impact Manitobans who are already struggling with job, income and wellness losses is unconscionable.
Demand democracy and impartial oversight now!
Bill 44 is undemocratic and not in the best interests of people in Manitoba. The Pallister government is acting in the best interests of corporations that provide utilities to Manitobans rather than the people. It is increasingly likely that this Bill will be pushed through without public consultation early in this fall session of the legislature, which begins on October 7.
The urgency with which the government is pushing ahead with Bill 44, under cover of a pandemic, clearly demonstrates that they're hoping to get this through without alerting the public. However, organizations like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Manitoba, the Consumer's Association of Canada, Manitoba Envirocollective, and the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition have been raising the alarm and encouraging Manitobans to take action.
This legislation will almost definitely increase costs for Manitobans under the cover of a global pandemic. It is undemocratic and wrong.
The Council of Canadians is also joining the campaign and encourages you to raise your voices too! Please check out the following local tool to express to your MLA that passing Bill 44 without public consultation is unacceptable.