Manitoba Last Leadership

by Graham Lane,

Published in the Winnipeg Sun, May 18, 2018

To become premier of a province, it helps to have a tired-out and incompetent sitting government and an opposition political party that thinks you could lead them to election victory.

To be the leader of any political party, you need active supporters, followers and the ‘ear’ of the media. You’ve won a leadership competition involving others identified with your party. While you need a polished resume and contacts with senior backroom party members, you don’t need extensive experience in either the public or private realm, nor do you need to hold impressive educational or policy credentials.

But, if you won the leadership of a party which ends up taking government, particularly with a majority government, you, regardless of your abilities, get to select a cabinet and begin navigating through the ups and downs of the economy and events. Your ability to name election colleagues to cabinet, and to change your appointments during the term of ‘your’ government, represents significant power. This power keeps your cabinet mates in line; to oppose a leader’s policies risks removal from cabinet, if not from the government.

Manitoba PC caucus members expected to improve Manitoba’s economy and help its citizens and residents ahead of their taking power in April 2016. The majority of the electorate were ready for a change in government, with the 17-year old NDP government, then-led by Greg Selinger, exhausted and needing time out of office to rejuvenate ahead of trying again to gain power.

Who would have expected that only two years into its first mandate the PCs would be staggering and under pressure from a disorganized NDP? It all ties back to the PCs stubborn leader, Brian Pallister, whose dysfunctional and egocentric top-down “all about him” management style has bottlenecked and paralyzed desperately needed real reform.

He is still blowing opportunity after opportunity to renew Hydro towards holding down long term rates.

Despite public sector costs being far above the Canadian average (call it Manitoba Last), his easy default has been to seek ever more revenue. Witness outrageous $500 traffic fines, for example, and his politically toxic carbon dioxide tax. Yes, there has been some restraint and a few good moves, but mainly we see insignificant and unsophisticated ‘Yes Minister’ type freezes and cuts.

Fortunately for him, his colleagues in the PC caucus are unwilling to ‘take him on’, so far,. Why risk the perks and power that come from being in the Cabinet: all-expense paid trips, public attention, and a good salary (unfortunately for most of them), and a guaranteed pension.  There are penalties for not towing the Pallister line.  Witness the guillotining of Steven Fletcher, the principled policy savvy traditional conservative who was executed for observing that real conservatives everywhere oppose carbon dioxide taxes.

With an NDP-style disdain of hard-working taxpayers, Pallister decreed that if his government achieves a balanced budget within a two-mandate PC government (a pathetically low bar), his toothless balanced budget law, which now reduces his cabinet ministers’ salaries, would restore the cuts to them.

We now have a Manitoba Last leader, with neither an aggressive nor a serious plan forward. His government is NDP-lite, with a ‘made in Manitoba’ carbon tax.

Its time to pursue changing Manitoba Last to Manitoba First.

Pinning the Tail on the Donkey

by Graham Lane

Published in the Winnipeg Sun, May 11, 2018

Wab Kinew is playing the child’s game ‘pin the tail on the donkey’. For Kinew and his weakened group of NDP big-government advocates, the ‘tail’ he wants to pin is Manitoba Hydro. Kinew’s candidate for the donkey is Brian Pallister’s government.

Kinew is right to have Hydro as the tail in the story, but he should share who deserves to be the donkey. Only the donkey’s hind-end should be assigned to the PCs, they appeared in the farmyard after the NDP embarked on a path that has done so much damage. The head and main body of the beast belongs to Kinew’s troubled, but barely breathing, NDP. Luckily for Wab, had Pallister honoured his election promise to halt Hydro’s expansion and hold a comprehensive review, the ‘tail’ to this donkey would be pinned 100% to the NDP for it’s foolish and incredibly expensive Hydro boondoggle.

Wab was not known as a member of any political party before Selinger’s Hydro and PST antics destroyed the NDP’s chance to hold on to power. Kinew’s latest fundraising letter to his party’s faithful is handicapped, perhaps innocently, in its ignorance of not knowing just how far the Doer-Selinger regimes drove Hydro into the ground.  Witness unneeded dams; a grossly over-budget office palace for Hydro executives; ignoring market changes; failing to secure profitable export sales before starting construction; forcing Bipole III to follow a circuitous over-lengthy route; and, awarding sole source contracts – many on a cost plus basis.

In four terms, sixteen years, the NDP managed to ruin Hydro’s finances and reputation. Gone is the Manitoba Advantage; gone are 900 jobs  – not needed in the first place; gone are two Presidents, three boards, and virtually all Hydro’s executive suite. Gone is an asset to entice new industry and hold existing plants. Calculated fairly, between the NDP and Pallister’s PC government, the overall value of Hydro is down $7 billion – enough for 30 Bomber stadiums, 50 Bell Place arenas, rapid bus in ‘every’ direction times 3, a massive income tax cut, a PST at 5% not 8% or 7%. You get the idea, we, Manitobans, have been skinned by incompetent governments.

Unfortunate for Kinew and his party, political parties are no longer funded by the taxpayers for every vote they get in an election. Thus, Pallister, from Kinew’s view, is a ‘villain’, robbing much of the NDP’s past revenue base. Kinew is left to try to sell his party’s obsolete platform and ideology to voters. Good luck!

Kinew’s recent plea included the outrageously comedic claim that only his party can “protect Manitoba Hydro from Pallister’s agenda of privatization” and  “protect Hydro affordability for all Manitobans”.

First thing, Hydro as it is with giant debts and stranded assets, has little financial value left, so don’t hold your breath waiting for someone to buy it. To the NDP deniers, yearning for the days of expensive corded government-owned telephones, most power companies in the U.S. and Europe are now investor owned.  Pallister, meanwhile, still lacks the policy chops to properly stop the bleeding.

Kinew’s party ruined Manitoba Hydro and Pallister didn’t help. His musings about taking a look at what and why is not enough. Let the chips fall with a comprehensive forensic inquiry.

PUB, Handmaiden to Pallister?

by Graham Lane

Published in the Winnipeg Sun, May 4, 2018

After a lengthy deliberation following a complex and very expensive hearing, the Public Utilities Board (PUB) ignored Hydro’s and the wishes of the quite reputable and recently departed board of directors, and approved a 3.6% rate increase for most of Manitoba Hydro’s grid electricity customers.

The rate increase is it for this year, though the monopoly utility was calling PUB for 7.9% annual jumps for six years – Hydro’s President actually suggested rate hikes twice the that rate. By approving a much lower rate change for 2018 than sought by the utility, PUB leaves doubt as to ‘what happens’ for 2019 and on.

‘Punting the ball down the field’ through deferring costs, accounting moves, slicing back energy efficiency measures, and hoping for massive cost cuts and a better export future, while massively naïve, serves the government well by, maybe, temporarily delaying negative credit ratings and inevitable rates hikes to come. The PUB’s ruling may look good to ratepayers now, but pushing out rate pain and welcoming even more risk is the most cowardly route to take.

Brian Pallister’s government set the table with a 2018-19 provincial budget that provided no relief to Hydro ratepayers, neither relief from excess provincial levies nor from rate pressures from the massive expansion costs brought about by errors of commission and omission by the previous NDP government. And, through that public budget, PUB learned that there was to be no rate relief for ratepayers coming from the Pallister government. The surprise resignation of Riley and his Hydro board could well have cemented that view for PUB.

Pallister chose not to deal with this festering crisis. If rate relief was to come, it could only come from PUB.

With a low Hydro rate hike, based on highly questionably reasoning by PUB, Pallister’s first term goal of cutting 1% of the PST becomes more likely. Particularly with the electorally toxic  carbon dioxide tax, which will vacuum in enough new tax money itself to fulfill the PST promise. With luck, increased federal transfer payments, restraining civil servant salaries, providing low grant increases to agencies, and trousering growing levies on Hydro, Pallister just might get a balanced provincial budget in sight as the 2020 election looms.

Pallister, and now PUB, have rejected the pleas of departed Hydro board chair Sanford Riley and his experienced board colleagues. Riley had suggested that government take on some of the rate load ‘coming’ (he thought) to ratepayers by either cutting provincial levies on Hydro (at a cost to Pallister’s budget), or to infuse capital into Hydro by shifting a portion of the company’s stranded debt on to the provincial ledger.

In the absence of real leadership and reform, Pallister knew that his taking rate pressure off ratepayers could nix cutting the PST and frustrate promises to balance  government’s books. PUB’s surprise of a ‘low’ rate hike is politically convenient for Pallister’s next election campaign. Whatever happens to Hydro’s finances, don’t expect another PUB Hydro oral rate hearing before the 2020 election.

The same government that controls Hydro sets PUB’s mandate and names its members – no public process involved. Neither of the boards’ memberships – Hydro or PUB – come about through a public selection process.

Ratepayers shouldn’t celebrate the PUB decision, this only delays and compounds the coming pain.