Pallister promises referendums on future megaprojects

Manitobans will have a say over big Manitoba Hydro infrastructure projects in the future through referendums or public reviews, Premier Brian Pallister promised on Thursday.

Legislation would apply to major hydro projects and possibly government-run casinos

The Keeyask dam and Bipole III projects pushed Manitoba Hydro deep into debt. The Crown corporation's debt tripled over the 15 years they were being built to more than $23 billion. (Manitoba Hydro)

Manitobans will have a say over big Manitoba Hydro infrastructure projects in the future through referendums or public reviews, Premier Brian Pallister promised on Thursday.

"We're committed to fixing Manitoba Hydro, and you can trust we will, with your help," he said.

He intends to introduce legislation that would require a public vote before big-ticket items — projects with an estimated cost of at least $200 million — such as hydroelectric dams could be built.

"Manitoba Hydro does, naturally, like to build dams. If they want to build another one, then they have to ask you," Pallister said.

"We're not trying to stop Hydro from running its day-to-day operations, that's isn't the nature of this. But we never again want to see a situation where a megaproject goes ahead and Manitobans haven't even had a chance to weigh in."

WATCH | New bill brings 'more light, less darkness' to Manitoba Hydro operations:

Premier Brian Pallister says new bill will bring 'more light, less darkness' to Manitoba Hydro operations

2 years ago
Duration 1:31
Premier Brian Pallister said Thursday he will introduce new legislation that will require a public vote before Manitoba Hydro proceeds with projects estimated to cost $200 million or more.

The pledge to provide more transparency around future projects of significance comes two weeks after an independent review said failings in government oversight played a role in costly overruns on the Keeyask Generating Station and the Bipole III transmission line.

The report, written by former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall and released Feb. 26, found "no evidence of interest or proactive outreach on the part of the former [NDP] elected government of Manitoba to provide oversight, accountability and overall leadership on the Keeyask and Bipole III projects."

The Keeyask generating station, which started producing electricity last month after nearly seven years of construction, was originally projected to cost $6.5 billion and expected to be in service by November 2019.

In March 2017, Hydro revised the cost estimate to $8.7 billion.

The Bipole III transmission line was completed in 2018. The cost for the project was pegged at $2.2 billion in 2007. In its 2018 annual report, Hydro said the total estimated cost was $5.04 billion.

Manitobans were kept in the dark through the evaluation process of those projects, which were directed by the NDP government, Pallister said.

"We're bringing Manitoba Hydro back into the light after years of it being shrouded in secrecy," he said.

"More light, less darkness."

The exact details of the legislation have not been worked out but the idea could also apply to non-energy projects such as new government-run casinos , Pallister said.

"The idea is to empower Manitobans to have a say," he said.

He was then asked if something like the Red River Floodway would have been built if Manitobans had been asked to weigh in. At the time, it was seen as a costly and unpopular project.

It has since prevented more than $40 billion in cumulative flood damage, according to the province.

Pallister called that an exercise in speculation but noted that referendums are used all over the world for important matters.

'Silly ideas'

NDP Leader Wab Kinew was asked for his thoughts on the referendum proposal but deflected that topic to instead talk about a strike that began Tuesday by about 2,300 hydro workers represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

He blamed government interference for leaving workers with no other option but did not elaborate.

"This [referendum] just seems like the premier trying to turn the page away from that," Kinew said.

"I have a tough time engaging with every one of Mr. Pallister's silly ideas because it's all about trying to distract from the mismanagement that's happening to Manitoba Hydro right now."

Kinew then questioned Pallister's sincerity on transparency.

The NDP leader once again raised the topic of the government's proposed legislation, Bill 35, which would allow Hydro rates to be set by cabinet decree rather than determined by the Public Utilities Board.

The Wall report, Kinew noted, expresses support for Bill 35. If it wasn't for the PUB, Manitobans could have faced a 7.9 per cent increase in their Hydro rates, which is what the Crown corporation was seeking "under Mr. Pallister's mandate."

"The PUB stood up for Manitobans."

There are 69 recommendations in the Wall report, all of which Pallister said will be responded to and brought to the all-party standing committee on Crown corporations, where the public will be able to register and participate.

"We're committed to restoring Manitoba Hydro to the Crown jewel it once was," he said, calling the Bipole III line "a plan to help Americans get cheap hydro while Manitobans ended up paying the bill."

Hydro will become stronger by Manitobans being empowered to have a greater say, Pallister insisted.

"Never again will we see a disrespectful process that keeps Manitobans in the dark result in this type of scandal," he said.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from The Canadian Press