Does the sale of Hydro One assets add up? – by Martin Regg Cohn (Toronto Star – March 30, 2015)

The Toronto Star has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on federal and Ontario politics as well as shaping public opinion.

If cabinet opts to sell off part of the Hydro One transmission network, it will be a live wire.

With cabinet set to huddle soon over privatization, here’s a cheat sheet for ministers listening on the inside. And the rest of us watching from the outside.

All the buzz about booze has drowned out the static over privatizing our publicly owned electricity system. If cabinet opts to sell off part of the Hydro One transmission network, it will be a live wire.

A cabinet decision on expanded beer sales will be easier to swallow: The government is merely liberalizing — not privatizing — the Beer Store, because that quasi-monopoly is already privately owned. That’s why the debate over booze will be largely sociological, not ideological.

But when it comes to electricity, ideology is always an undercurrent. Remember the old Ontario Hydro? In 1906, the Progressive Conservatives had the vision to set up Ontario Hydro as a publicly owned enterprise. A century later, a more myopic PC party dismembered and disowned it, with no discernible benefits.

Driven by ideology, the Tories split it into Ontario Power Generation and Hydro One as a prelude to privatization. The PCs backed down ahead of the 2003 election, and politicians have been picking up the pieces — and putting them in the window — ever since.

Now, all these years later, Kathleen Wynne has put Hydro One back on the block. Where the Harris privatization play was motivated mostly by ideology — a belief that the private sector could outperform public ownership — Wynne’s play is more fiscal than political. It’s not that she wants to get government out of electricity, she just wants to squeeze more money out of it — to pay for other public works.

A year ago, just ahead of the 2014 spring election, Wynne appointed an expert panel headed by former TD Bank CEO Ed Clark to look at maximizing its main assets, with one caveat: “The council will give preference to owning rather than selling core assets.”

What changed? Everything and nothing.

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