By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
Inside the Unifor Local 222 headquarters, the applause is loud, the shouts clear: keep our hydro system public.
A group of nearly 100 people gathered for a town hall meeting organized by the Public Power Action Coalition to listen to a panel of experts and politicians speaking out against Premier Kathleen Wynne’s plan to sell a massive chunk of public ownership in Hydro One to the private sector.
The panel, mediated by Sid Ryan, the former president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, included Oshawa MPP Jennifer French, CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn, former NDP by-election candidate and Unifor lawyer Niki Lundquist, and journalist Linda McQuaig.
“It reverses a great people’s triumph, a great people’s victory in the history of Ontario,” McQuaig said of the sale, pointing to the historic fight Ontario citizens endured, led by Sir. Adam Beck, to win the hydro system from the powerful private interests of the day.
So far, 30 per cent of Hydro One has already been sold on the stock market. It was divvied out in two large chunks – 15 per cent in November 2015 and another 15 per cent this past April. In total, the provincial government plans to sell 60 per cent of the entity to private interests. According to the Liberal government, the sale will broaden the ownership of the utility and bring in much needed dollars that will be used to improve aging infrastructure and improve transit.
However, according to Hahn, Ontarians are not buying it.
“People did not buy their crap,” he said.
“There is no broader ownership than everyone in Ontario.”
The following day, CUPE Ontario announced it would be filing a lawsuit against the provincial government to halt any further sale of Hydro One, claiming the Liberals inappropriately mixed government and party business when they hosted expensive fundraisers attended by bankers who profited from the sale of Hydro One.
For Oshawa’s provincial rep, it is a “lose-lose scenario”.
“What we have is a publicly-owned asset that is revenue generating and that revenue goes into our strong services. That revenue goes into strong public healthcare, goes into the education system, and to cut off that revenue stream, what does that mean?”
In an attempt to convince the premier that selling off Hydro One will only increase residents’ power bills, bills many say are already out of control, French has been collecting copies of residents’ bills to give to the premier.
Down at the local level
For residents in Oshawa, any talk of hydro privatization at the provincial level is tied into the current ongoing discussions for Oshawa’s local utility to merge with the Whitby Hydro Electric company and the Veridian Corporation. Talks on a merger were officially announced in April.
Ivanno Labricciossa, the Oshawa Power and Utilities Corporation’s (OPUC) interim CEO, was in attendance at the town hall meeting and says it gave him a new perspective on the issue.
“It was good for me to be there,” he tells The Oshawa Express.
“I learned a couple things that were takeaways.”
Labricciosa notes that the issues with the sale of Hydro One are automatically lumped in with any talks of a merger at the local level. He says it is a problem when this happens, especially when the belief that the merger is actually window dressing to hide a potential sale comes into the picture.
“I don’t have a mandate to sell, I’ve said that all along,” he says.
He also addressed the issue of Oshawa’s rates, which many fear will skyrocket following any potential merger.
“There has to be something in it for the ratepayer,” he says.
“It can not be ‘rates are going up because of the merger.’ There has to be some return back to the ratepayer.”
However, many fear that the merger of local utilities is part of a larger provincial plan to eventually sell the local companies to the private sector.
“They become a much bigger piece of the pie,” Hahn explains.
“Which will be much more attractive to the private sector and much easier to sell, that’s why they (the province) want them to merge.”
Labricciosa admits that the province, in recent years, has been pressuring local distribution companies into merging, either by making regulations stricter which in turn makes it harder for smaller companies to operate, or by offering incentives for smaller companies to merge together.
Moving forward, the OPUC has plans to present its findings on a potential merger to city council, although a date has not been set. According to the Memorandum of Understanding between the three companies, any potential merger agreement is slated to be entered into prior to the end of 2016.