Manitoba auditor serves up meat for NDP, party war room spins cotton candy

Weeks to go before the formal start of Manitoba’s election campaign, the opposition New Democrats are sending mixed signals about their readiness to pounce upon the governing Progressive Conservatives.

Last Wednesday, when the auditor general issued three unflattering reports about the performance of the provincial government — effectively lobbing a trio of softballs into the political sphere — the NDP could not muster a single MLA to attempt to take a swing.

One audit chronicled Manitoba’s inability to investigate the abuse of seniors in personal care homes. The second report elaborated upon what was already known about Manitoba’s insufficient addictions-treatment resources. The third dealt with inefficient management of the court system.

Although it was a dark day for the PCs, House leader Kelvin Goertzen spoke to reporters for 50 minutes. All the NDP had to do to score political points was show up and repeat some of the key findings from the audits.

That’s not how Wednesday went down. Even though three very meaty audits were published in the morning, NDP MLAs declined to speak about them until Thursday.

Then on Friday, it only took NDP Leader Wab Kinew hours to fashion something of a campaign slogan out of a single bullet point from a morning PC policy announcement.

‘Surge pricing’

As part of a new “energy roadmap,” the Progressive Conservatives pledged to explore the idea of using so-called smart meters to improve energy efficiency among Manitoba Hydro consumers or industrial customers.

The meters could be used to charge different rates for electricity during periods of high or low demand, suggested Edward Kennedy, Hydro’s board chair.

“We will see in some way shape or form ways to encourage Manitobans to shave the peak,” Kennedy said at a news conference outside Hydro’s downtown Winnipeg headquarters.

“The affordability commitment is firm, but we also need incentives to save. Smart meters allows us to do that.”

Three hours later, Kinew labelled this plan a form of “surge pricing,” a term that evokes demand-driven services such as hotel-room bookings and Uber rides. Manitoba Hydro, he claimed, is planning to raise its rates during periods of high demand.

The NDP leader then held a second news conference on Monday to repeat this assertion.

“The PC surge-pricing plan is a tax on your energy when you need it most, on the coldest days and on the coldest nights — and it means Manitobans will pay even more to heat their homes if Heather Stefanson is re-elected,” Kinew said.

A man in a suit.
Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew has described the potential use of smart meters to allow Manitona Hydro to charge variable rates as “surge pricing.” (Warren Kay/CBC)

There is, however, no indication smart meters will be used in this manner in Manitoba. Kennedy said Hydro wants to encourage some consumers to turn on their appliances during off-peak hours.

That doesn’t have to be accomplished by charging a premium for electricity during peak hours. It could also be accomplished by offering discounts during off-peak hours — or by offering a number of rates that encompass both premiums and discounts.

‘We haven’t decided anything yet’: Hydro

Manitoba Hydro says it’s only starting to study this idea.

“To be clear, we haven’t decided anything yet. We’re performing research and analysis to determine whether there’s a business case,” Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen said on Monday.

“Any decision will be subject to customer and employee feedback and regulatory requirements. And any change to rates would need to be approved by the Public Utilities Board.”

Given the fuzzy nature of this plan, CBC News asked Kinew how he concluded Hydro would use a stick rather than a carrot to flatten out the peaks of electricity consumption.

He suggested no other conclusion could be reached.

“If they want to use this thing being advanced by Heather Stefanson and her handpicked board appointee to advance energy efficiency, that means charging higher energy prices, and that’s wrong,” said Kinew, referring to Kennedy.

“At a time of higher inflation,� it shows just how out of touch that Heather Stefanson and the people that she’s putting in charge of our most important Crown corporation are.”

Hydro, for its part, says there are other uses for smart meters. The devices could report power outages automatically, speeding up repair times, Owen said.

Customers could also get more accurate bills using the new meters, he added.

“Connected meters would automatically feed data to us, no longer requiring monthly meter readings, and they could also display the data to customers,” Owen said.

“Being able to see their own usage patterns and data means customers are likely to understand their billing better and see for themselves — almost in real time — how they use energy and what they can do to reduce it.”

A hydro tower against a blue sky.
Manitoba Hydro is only beginning to study the idea of smart meters and variable rates. (Travis Golby/CBC)

If you take Hydro at its word, the leader of Manitoba’s NDP is engaging in a similar form of rhetoric to the leader of the federal Conservative Party.

Both Wab Kinew and Pierre Poilievre have chosen to characterize something intended to reduce energy use as something that merely hampers affordability.

The irony is the federal Conservative leader regularly attacks a federal carbon tax that actually exists while the Manitoba NDP leader has started to sound alarm bells about “surge pricing” he extrapolated from an energy-policy aim to bring in smart meters.

In any case, Manitoba’s NDP has now devoted one entire news conference and part of a second one on a policy the PCs might bring in, should they be elected again. Three audits itemizing genuine failures by the PCs were relegated to a single media event held after most of the reporting about the audits was complete.

In the big picture, the auditor general served the NDP war room three substantial servings of meat to eviscerate. The party strategists chose to spin cotton candy instead.

It remains to be seen whether this was just a hiccup for the NDP during the doldrums of summer — or a glimpse of the campaign to come.