Public outrage against soaring hydro rates continues to rise throughout Ontario. The shock of energy bills doubling or tripling from last summer hasn't worn off; hardworking families and individuals are still buried in anxiety and debt. Just this January, newspapers across Ontario covered Kathy Katula’s $1200 monthly hydro bill -- significantly larger than even her mortgage payment. The hardworking but overwhelmed rural Ontario mother lives in poverty induced by high energy costs despite making $50,000 a year, and hundreds of thousands of Ontarians share Kathy’s daily pains. Every hydro bill we get cuts into rent, groceries, and household essentials; Wynne and her Liberals have once again proved clueless to the needs of the working class. Hydro One was privatized against the mandate of provincial voters, and while the Liberals and their banking buddies on Bay Street are lining their pockets with profits, many Canadians endure harsh winters without heating because they can’t afford their astronomical energy bills. Wynne’s corrupt shenanigans have made her the least popular premier in Canada with over 80% of Ontarians thinking she should resign. Her government’s legacy will be the phenomenon of energy poverty, where working and poor families across the province struggle to make ends meet because of skyrocketing energy bills.
Ontarians can’t be blamed for rising hydro costs; they’ve actually lowered their overall energy consumption in the last ten years. Blame corrupt politicians -- they’ve been selling Hydro One piecemeal to rich shareholders and investors, who cynically churn a profit off everyone’s huge bills. By handing out Hydro One stocks at an 8% return on investment, Wynne has enriched bankers and caused energy rates to surge. This rise has been a particular shock to rural Ontarian families and businesses, who typically pay more for hydro. Despite the promise that a privatized Hydro One will be well-managed and innovative, generating government investment in infrastructure, the only real changes after the sell-off involve outrageous executive payouts subsidized by criminally high hydro rates. Wynne’s new pet CEO is earning a base pay of $1.36 million plus incentives and pensions! That comes directly from jacking up electricity bills. After Conservative premier Mike Harris left Ontarians with a highly bureaucratized and inefficient system that regularly overcharges consumers at double the intended rate of their hydro, Wynne greatly exacerbated the problem with her scorched-earth attitude to common resources. Last year alone 60,000 homes were denied heat and light due to inability to make payments, with a total of $172.5 million in outstanding bills across the province.
Amidst a public-opinion backlash against rising hydro rates, the premier stood in front of 850 Liberal delegates (not working-class Ontarians) to admit her “government made a mistake.” These crocodile tears won't save her from the ignominy of being Canada’s least popular premier; more importantly, it won’t change the reality that thousands of Ontarians are drowning in unaffordable energy bills. The province is riddled with nightmares of the working poor having to work two or three jobs and relying on food banks to get by in the face of skyrocketing hydro costs.
Shamelessly gunning for popularity ratings, Wynne and her ministers promised to increase funding for subsidy programs like the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP) and Ontario Electricity Support Program (OESP). Eligibility for these programs is means-tested; it only includes those at and below the poverty line, ignoring tens of thousands of families and individuals that still need extra support. The Liberals made their incompetence clear by injecting $12 million into funding the OESP, but spending $9 million of it on media consultants and advertising just to get the word out about the program. Despite all this costly PR, the OESP has seen no significant increase in applications. They also flirted with writing off the 8% HST to help alleviate the costs of hydro -- a tax the Liberals introduced themselves! Eliminating HST will save average families about $11 a month, truly meager compared to the outrageous increases in hydro rates. The supposed savings don’t add up when you consider that on January 1st, the Liberals introduced a carbon tax scheme costing families an additional $13 a month. Wynne also aims to reduce rates by shouldering the cost of electricity with $1.3 billion in cap-and-trade revenues, but as always, the costs of solely market-based reforms will be passed down to the consumers, disproportionately hurting the most vulnerable in society. It’s all about protecting the profits of the big energy companies. In a system based on private ownership and profit, it’s always the workers and youth who foot the bill -- at the end of the day you can’t control what you don’t own!
Ontario’s Political Polarization
A recent polling puts the Liberals at third party status provincially, with a predicted majority for the Conservatives and a quarter of the ballot for the NDP. Hydro rates and lack of government trust were top concerns for half the voters. Conservative leader Patrick Brown has taken a crowd-pleasing tone, railing against the Hydro One sell-off and Wynne’s cap and trade deal. He’s turned some heads by calling out her austerity policies, but the conservatives are no friends of the working class and they must not be permitted to make Wynne’s incompetence a wedge issue. The Conservatives and the Liberals are both defenders of capitalism; of the interests of the bankers and bosses. Wynne and Trudeau have taken their thrones during Canada’s worst capitalist crisis since the 1930s. Compelled by the blind logic of the capitalist system, they can do nothing but wage austerity and promote cutbacks.
Recently, the NDP released a proposal for the re-nationalization of Hydro One under the Pay Less Own More slogan. They aim to cut hydro bills by 30 percent and put Hydro One back into public ownership. This is to be welcomed after a long period of the NDP offering no clear solutions on this issue. Hopefully the NDP’s demand of re-nationalization and rate cuts will be taken up by the unions and help to build a mass movement around this issue. However, we have to point out that the devil is in the detail. The NDP plan to reimburse the corporate profiteers at market rates for their Hydro One shares. We do not believe that these parasites deserve to make an extra dime off the backs of Ontarians suffering from energy poverty. They shouldn’t be given a penny more than their original investment, after any tax breaks, profiteering, and unearned benefits, have been deducted. The long-term contracts gifted to these corporations by the Liberals and Conservatives are in effect a criminal form of corporate welfare and they deserve no extra compensation.
Which Way Forward?
The Canadian Union of Public Employees has sued Kathleen Wynne, aiming to halt the sell-off. This has drawn public attention to the illegal attempt at privatization and galvanized opposition. The NDP’s solution of re-nationalizing Hydro One should be supported, but it must go further. Place Hydro One under the democratic ownership and workers’ control. Workers and community members would have democratic oversight, ensuring efficient and environmentally-safe generation and distribution of energy. We can only ensure an enterprise is being run in the working class’ interest if we own and control it. The wealth generated would benefit everyone who produces it, instead of accumulating with a handful of executives and shareholders who don’t contribute productively and driving cost increases for the rest of us. We say, why stop there? By nationalizing the other major corporations and banks through a socialist plan of production, we can do more than just lower energy costs: we can provide universal and fully publicly funded post-secondary education, childcare, public transit, pharmacare, dental and eyecare, and more! A planned economy with the vital organ of workers democratic control also stands as the only way to genuinely address the environmental crisis. As long as private profit motivates production, future generations and the natural world will come in last. In a province of vast wealth and natural resources there is simply no reason for anyone to have a poor standard of living.
Affordable utilities for all!
Nationalize Hydro One under Workers Control!