Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Electricity reform: Ontario conservatives return to the fight

Ontario Hydro—when all its public assets were working—rivaled the Tennessee Valley Authority, Quebec Hydro, and Electricity de France. After more than 100 years of electrifying Ontario, the Ontario government is still its principal shareholder. Dalton McGuinty, the teacher premier of a service economy, is the principal operator of a gigantic, sprawling, technically proud, and politically powerful electricity industry.

Under his enthusiastic leadership, Ontario’s electricity industry has become only more complicated and, again, more expensive. In the name of innovation, he has bought the spin of mature public corporations worldwide: government leaders can be rigorously commercial as well as businesslike; government can secure more for the taxpayer, the consumer, and the environment by running the whole show as the sole proprietor.

This embrace of inertia over experience has guided his policies and stimulated numerous initiatives.

Conservatives who nearly broke the status quo a decade ago have been silent for a long time. Their reluctance to breathe another word about the alternative—privatization, with public regulation—has not been rewarded.

Timidity can work for a government, but isn’t much use in opposition.

Despite the predictable risks of offering significant policy ideas in a minority legislature, the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, Tim Hudak, has reopened the issue. In a white paper called "Paths to Prosperity, Affordable Energy,” Hudak insists that government is too involved in the energy business and that in order to be able to be less involved, it should, in steps, sell its operating assets to the private sector.

When conservatives stop thinking intelligently about economics, they’re usually branded as bigots. However, when they do start thinking out loud, they’re as freely labeled as “ideologues.”

The reactions to Hudak’s paper by the Liberal government and the New Democrats were identical.

McGuinty's latest Minister of Energy Chris Bentley scoffed: 

“Who has brought these ideas that didn’t work in 2002 … when the Tories tried them then? Who brought them back? Are the same people in charge? I guess the answer might be yes.”

New Democrat leader Andrea Horwath complained:

“But rehashing or bringing back the same old ideas that haven’t gotten us anywhere already is really not very helpful.”

If anything in this exchange could be called “ideological”—in the most pejorative sense of being a mental invention—it’s the characterization of what Hudak is proposing as a failed experiment.

Ontario came no closer to privatizing its electricity sector in 2002 than North Korea came this year to successfully launching a nuclear missile.

What is truly ideological is Ontario liberalism’s reluctance to question a proposition that is neither liberal nor progressive: that once in public hands, giant state energy enterprises must remain in public hands.

The status quo in Ontario clings to a fixed idea: public ownership can beat the market in generating innovation, economic growth, and revenues to government. And it calls those who wonder whether that’s true “ideologues.”

The Ontario government promises growth and austerity. Hudak has put his political capital behind an idea that would both reduce the burden of government and help revive business activity in Ontario.

It is controversial, but he should persist. It’s big idea and it makes his opponents look small.


  1. Well said Les.

    The point missing from the media coverage is that the goal of infusing private capital in this government owned electricity sector is a hope (founded?) that government will keep its paws off.

    That message needs to get out otherwise electrity privatization could be Hudak's "private school funding" downfall in the next election.

    Jim MacDougall

  2. Bring back the Clitheroes and their taxpayer- funded limos!