QUEBEC — The three opposition parties teamed up Saturday to denounce the Legault government’s hydro rate bill, describing it as a cash grab that plays into the hands of Hydro-Québec while gutting the powers of the independent energy board.
But Premier François Legault insisted the legislation, Bill 34, is in the interests of Quebecers because it will mean stable powers rates that do not exceed the inflation rate for years to come.
“The legislation we are going to debate today is a gift for Hydro-Québec and represents a considerable loss for consumers,” interim Liberal leader Pierre Arcand told reporters.
“It’s clear Hydro-Québec will be making money on the backs of consumers. It’s another clear example of François Legault’s pigheadedness, to not listen to all the voices opposed to this bill. Mr. Legault considers Hydro-Québec a cash machine.”
“There is one word to describe what we are experiencing, bullshit,” added Parti Québécois energy critic Sylvain Gaudreault. “It’s bullshit to say they are refunding $1.5 billion because in the end they are increasing rates and altering the powers of an independent institution.”
“Quebecers will pay more to Hydro-Québec,” said Québec solidaire energy critic Ruba Ghazal. “This is what I call a lie. The government lied to us and lied to Quebecers.”
The comments set the tone for what is expected to be a rough-and-tumble day at the National Assembly, which is sitting on a Saturday, a rare event.
One day after the fall sitting was supposed to have recessed for the holidays, MNAs were hauled back in to work by the government, which insists Bill 34 is essential.
Putting the opposition in an even worse mood, the Coalition Avenir Québec government is using closure to bulldoze the bill into law. Closure is a legislative procedure which suspends the normal rules of the house to fast track a bill.
This is the third time the Legault government has invoked closure to push through legislation since it took power about 14 months ago. It used closure to adopt two other controversial laws last June, Bill 9 reforming the immigration system and Bill 21 on state secularism.
Bill 34 is a different sort of bill. In theory, it acts on a CAQ election promise to refund consumers for over-charging by Hydro-Québec. It will refund $500 million to consumers, freeze rates for 2020 and then limit increases to the rate of inflation for the next five years starting in 2021.
The government claims the bill will result in a $1.5 billion refund, but the opposition parties, backed by lobby, business and consumer groups, said the bill in reality does nothing of the sort.
The Liberals, for example, note that Hydro-Québec’s increases were lower than the inflation rate in seven of the last 10 years. Pegging future increases to the rate of inflation will wind up meaning increases.
The PQ’s research team has calculated Quebecers will be paying a total of $600 million more in the coming years as a result of the bill.
The bill also squeezes the Régie de l’énergie out of the picture when it comes to ruling on Hydro-Québec’s rates. Instead of reviewing rate increases annually, Bill 34 will see the energy board only do it once every five years.
CAQ Energy Minister Jonatan Julien and Legault have defended the bill and the use of closure saying the government, faced with opposition obstruction, had no choice.
They says after 100 hours of discussion at the committee level, one article of the bill had been adopted.
On Friday, they released a video highlighting what they see as Liberal obstruction tactics.”
On his way into the legislature Saturday, Julien insisted the bill is a good deal and will represent on average $60 more in the pockets of all Quebec ratepayers.
“The opposition parties oppose and the government takes decisions,” Legault told reporters arriving for the marathon sitting. “I am not ashamed of our decision (on Bill 34). I am proud.”
He contested the figures of the opposition, noting that in the past there were rate increases as high as 5 per cent a year.
“I don’t see how they get the idea we are siphoning money,” Legault said.
The debate is expected to drag late into the night. Given the CAQ’s majority, the bill is expected to pass.