Hydro-Québec for sale? No thanks

Posted 03.23.15

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | Ontario's recent experience with its 'new' government privatizing public hydro should worry us. Not that Ontario will do anything affecting our own electrical network, but we also have a new Liberal government which seems more committed to a neo-conservative austerity program than to traditional Liberal values. That does not bode well for those of us outside the corporate world.

Hydro-Québec may have its occasional scandal, fraud, or embarrassment, but it is a model across the continent for efficient delivery of energy under even the most extreme conditions. We can see how often Ottawa consumers are hit with black-outs and interruptions of service; we should be proud of Hydro Quebec's record.

H-Q is seen, rightly, as a symbol of what Quebec can do in the world of high-tech, energy transmission, and green energy technologies, all the while providing reasonable and constant service, even to its rural clients. This is in part a result of major infrastructure investments made after the infamous ice storm brought the system down.

There are today business forces in Quebec promoting the privatisation of Hydro-Québec. The Fraser Institute's local shop in Montreal is constantly yelling for a sell-off of Hydro-Québec shares. These business interests argue that selling “only a part” of Hydro-Quebec will generate large sums for other things and yet keep the company somewhat in public hands.

We ought to be alert to these pressures, and assume that they are powerful, especially outside public and media attention (ie, in the back rooms). Hydro-Québec is a model. Why would we sell it off? Wouldn't it be better to use it as a model (and as an argument) for expanding public ownership to other public goods and services?

We are constantly told that government cannot manage anything very well. There are well-known horror stories of bureaucracies gone wild (or which have crashed). We know all about them, and about the forces which destroyed them. Hydro-Québec is the opposite. Here is the bright light in government-managed services. It should be an encouragement and a model for us to do more – not less.

How often have we seen a government asset sold off to private bidders who slowly destroy the asset because they have no commitment to public service? History shows us many cases of privatized public utilities which are sucked dry - - and then re-purchased by the government of the day in order to maintain that service! Street-car lines, public water systems, health care services, steel companies, airlines, etc – privatization looks for profit, not for improving service. They are very often in conflict.

If it isn't broken, why break it? Sure, improvement is good; expansion may even be better. Apply what we've learned here to other services - - railroads, for example, or even resource extraction. The point is we have a success story in Hydro-Québec. Why would we sell it someone else and then get Ontario's nightmare? Keeping what works well requires our undivided attention.


Copyright © 2016 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/03.16