Montreal

CAQ passes bill on Hydro-Québec rates by invoking closure

Members of the National Assembly spent their Saturday debating Bill 34, which will freeze Hydro-Québec electricity rates in 2020 and raise them to meet the inflation rate for the four years after that. 

Opposition parties united against the bill, saying it won't save customers money

Energy Minister Jonatan Julien responds to the opposition during question period, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. For the third time since taking power last year, the Legault government used closure to push a law through the National Assembly. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

The Coalition Avenir Québec government has fast-tracked the adoption of Bill 34, which will set Hydro-Québec's rates for the next five years.

Members of the National Assembly spent their Saturday debating the bill, which will freeze Hydro rates in 2020 and raise them to meet the inflation rate for the four years after that. 

The bill passed just after midnight Sunday. The CAQ invoked closure, which allows the government to suspend certain parliamentary rules in order to limit debate, to pass the controversial legislation.

Energy Minister Jonatan Julien says the goal is to save Hydro customers $500 million — down from the $1.5 billion his government initially promised when discussing the proposed law. 

Julien said the savings will mean about $60 per residential Hydro bill for 2020.

But Liberal Opposition Leader Pierre Arcand says consumers will end up spending more in the long run because until now Hydro rates have only been raised through an artificial inflation rate of less than two per cent. 

In October, Quebec's three opposition parties voted against the bill. They say the bill was poorly thought-out and will have the opposite effect of saving customers' money. 

Arcand and other members of the three opposition parties also argue the bill isn't necessary to reimburse customers, and believe the government sees an advantage in increasing Hydro rates to finance other government sectors. 

"The government is doing about the opposite of what it promised," Arcand said. 

'The opposite of what it promised'

The bill will also end the yearly evaluation the province's energy board conducted on rates. Instead, the board will assess rates every five years. 

The opposition parties say the energy board was already doing the job of controlling the rates and that the new mechanism for measuring them will increase them more than before. 

The CAQ government invoked closure to pass a controversial Hydro-Québec bill some say will have the effect of increasing rates faster in the long run. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

The parties, as well as a number of interest groups and businesses who've spoken out against Bill 34, also say moving the energy board's rate evaluation to every five years reduces its power and subjects Hydro-Québec to less oversight.

The CAQ presented the bill, saying Hydro customers had paid $1.5 billion more than they should have between 2008 and 2016. It said Bill 34 would make things even. 

Arcand says that's false and that the government hasn't been clear about the reason for the change in amounts, from $1.5 billion to $500 million in savings it is now promising.

Premier François Legault says the rest of the money is being invested in other programs, such as reducing daycare rates and school taxes, and increasing family benefits.

Liberal Opposition Leader Pierre Arcand says Bill 34 won't save customers money like the CAQ government promised. (Radio-Canada)

The CAQ has invoked closure twice before — to pass Bill 9, intended to reduce delays in Quebec's immigration system, and Bill 21, the religious symbols law. 

Legault defended invoking closure once again, saying the parties have already debated on Bill 34 for about 100 cumulative hours in the National Assembly. 

"One hundred hours, it's enough," he said. "How much is democracy? One thousand hours? Two thousand hours? I think after 100 hours, the people around the table have said what they have to say."

Next up for the premier is a four-day economic mission in California, where he will discuss the carbon market and try to attract other investments.

With files from Cathy Senay and Radio-Canada

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