Manitoba government says $3M Hydro review focused on efficiency, calls NDP's privatization warning 'baseless'

The Opposition NDP says a $3-million review of Manitoba Hydro's marketing and customer service department is the start of an effort to privatize part of the Crown corporation. The government says that's not in the works.

Review to look at customer service; NDP says it will 'pave the path toward privatization'

A consultant will be hired to 'review and optimize' Manitoba Hydro's marketing and customer service department. The Opposition NDP warns that's a step toward privatization of the Crown corporation — a claim the government says is 'fearmongering.' (CBC)

Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government says a $3-million review of Manitoba Hydro's marketing and customer service unit is an exercise in promoting efficiency — but the Opposition NDP warns it's the beginning of privatization.

On Friday, the NDP released a copy of Manitoba Hydro's request for proposals to do the work. The RFP was issued by the Crown corporation at the beginning of November.

"It's another huge contract that is being awarded to a consultant," said NDP Leader Wab Kinew.

"Particularly, it looks like what they are trying to do here is pave the path toward privatizing part of the office, and part of the back-end functions of Manitoba Hydro to a private company."

A written statement from Crown Services Minister Colleen Mayer calls the NDP's assertions "fearmongering" that is "baseless," and congratulated management at Hydro for launching the review.

"This was a move they initiated without government direction, and something we commend them for," Mayer said in an email.

A statement from Crown Services Minister Colleen Mayer praised the Crown corporation for initiating the customer service review. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The statement did not, however, specifically say that the government has no plans to privatize all or part of Hydro. 

"If that weren't [Premier Brian Pallister's] plan … why wouldn't he explicitly answer the question, 'Do you plan to keep all parts of Manitoba Hydro public?'" Kinew asked during a press conference Friday.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Hydro was emphatic. Hydro initiated plans to review customer service procedures and standards several months ago and the RFP is part of that effort.

"To stress, this review is not driven by government — we will look at any measure that improves customer service as that's what our customer's expect and deserve," wrote Hydro's Bruce Owen in a statement.

NDP accuses premier of dodging question

The RFP issued by Hydro makes note of the large reduction of staff at the utility through its voluntary departure program.

"It is now imperative that Manitoba Hydro ensure current levels of the customer's experience are enhanced, that resource effectiveness is optimized, that the workforce remains engaged and that the organization has overall stability going forward," the request for proposals says.

Earlier this year, the PC government awarded former British Columbia premier Gordon Campbell a $2-million contract to review two Manitoba Hydro megaprojects — the Keeyask dam and Bipole III transmission line.

The NDP says Campbell's involvement is another indication the PC government is planning to sell off parts of the Crown corporation.

B.C. Hydro outsourced much of its customer service and business functions in 2003. It returned the work to the Crown corporation in 2018, after paying business services company Accenture nearly $2 billion over the life of the contract.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew says Premier Brian Pallister must be specific and pledge not to privatize any part of Manitoba Hydro. (CBC News)

The NDP has raised the spectre of a Tory plan to privatize Hydro for years, making it a theme in election campaigns, despite a lack of evidence of such a plan and consistent denials from PC leaders of the intention to implement one.

Hydro faces tough times ahead as it struggles with a debt load set to exceed $20 billion and uncertainties over interest rates, a potential drought and difficulty securing a return for its electricity above the cost of production.

Since the PCs took office in 2016 there have been three different ministers in charge of the Crown corporation and nearly its entire board quit en masse following a dispute with Premier Pallister.

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