National Post (National Edition) - - ISSUES & IDEAS - Kelly mcparland Twit­ter.com/kel­lym­c­par­land

Kath­leen Wynne is in a pickle. As On­tario premier for five years and a se­nior cab­i­net mem­ber be­fore that, she’s obliged to de­fend the gov­ern­ment’s record. But, vot­ers hav­ing al­ready as­sessed that record and de­cided it stinks, she is forced to ac­knowl­edge their judg­ment and pledge to do bet­ter.

It’s not an easy act to bal­ance, es­pe­cially faced with peo­ple like the ex­ec­u­tive and di­rec­tors of Hy­dro One, the for­mer Crown corporation that Wynne chose to pri­va­tize in re­turn for some quick cash and a lot of bad blood.

It is Lib­eral prac­tice to paint all con­ser­va­tives as un­ques­tion­ing lack­eys of cor­po­rate over­lords, but given the Lib­er­als’ ties to Hy­dro One, and the gov­ern­ment’s re­main­ing 47 per cent share of the new en­tity, it’s Wynne who finds her­self tarred with ev­ery un­pop­u­lar act it gets up to.

And, hoo-boy, are there a lot of un­pop­u­lar acts. It’s prob­a­bly not fair to blame the cur­rent ex­ec­u­tive team for the painful power bills that have so many vot­ers up in arms. On­tario’s rates are the re­sult of pre­vi­ous Lib­eral de­ci­sions to “in­vest” in the util­ity’s in­fra­struc­ture and shut down the coal-fired power plants blamed for hin­der­ing the gov­ern­ment’s cli­mate change as­pi­ra­tions. Stuff like that costs money, and the costs were passed on to con­sumers — at least until those con­sumers got mighty an­gry and Lib­eral elec­toral for­tunes be­gan look­ing bleak, where­upon Wynne un­veiled a plan to “re­duce” house­hold bills by bor­row­ing bil­lions of dol­lars and push­ing the costs into the fu­ture for other gen­er­a­tions to pay.

It’s safe to say that didn’t go down well. But the last thing Wynne and her team of thinkers must have an­tic­i­pated was that — even as they sought to ex­tin­guish the ex­ist­ing fires of out­rage — the board they ap­pointed would start pour­ing gaso­line over the is­sue and wav­ing around a blow­torch.

Pre­sum­ably the eight men and five women di­rec­tors, not to men­tion chief ex­ec­u­tive Mayo Sch­midt, are bright enough in their own way. Their grasp of po­lit­i­cal op­tics, how­ever, make Don­ald Trump look like the apogee of so­phis­ti­ca­tion. When Sch­midt hap­pily ac­cepted a com­pen­sa­tion pack­age that now to­tals $6.2 mil­lion — af­ter a $1.7-mil­lion raise — he handed Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive leader Doug Ford one of the key pledges of his campaign. Ford has been tour­ing the prov­ince pledg­ing to fire “the $6 mil­lion man” for weeks now, adding that he’d sack the en­tire board as well, just for good mea­sure.

Ford’s abil­ity to carry out his prom­ise may not be as easy as he sug­gests, but it hardly mat­ters. It goes down well with an­gry vot­ers, who dis­like watch­ing ex­ec­u­tives get rich while they strug­gle to pay their bills just as much as they dis­liked be­ing soaked by pre­vi­ous ap­pointees on gov­ern­ment salaries.

Wynne ini­tially re­acted to Ford’s charges with ill-con­sid­ered de­ri­sion, dis­miss­ing it as “slo­ga­neer­ing and blus- ter” while ar­gu­ing Sch­midt’s salary was com­pa­ra­ble to other ex­ec­u­tives. That’s de­bat­able when Eric Mar­tel, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Hy­droQue­bec, is listed as earn­ing $560,000 this year, but it’s no ex­cuse in any case. Telling vot­ers they have to pay one cor­po­rate big­wig a small for­tune be­cause that’s what other cor­po­rate big­wigs earn is rarely a di­rect route to their sym­pa­thy and sup­port. Ford in­sists he’d have no trou­ble re­plac­ing Sch­midt at a much more mod­est salary, and vot­ers seem happy to let him­givei­ta­try.

As if Sch­midt’s ex­ist­ing pay scheme wasn’t enough, re­ports emerged in­di­cat­ing the board had agreed to award him a pro­tec­tive shield, ap­prov­ing sev­er­ance of up to $10.7 mil­lion should he be fired. En­ergy Min­is­ter Glenn Thibeault ad­mit­ted he only found out about the change in March, months af­ter it had been ap­proved. The rev­e­la­tion was enough to make Wynne start hedg­ing her bets, as­sur­ing vot­ers she was less than pleased with the news and would be keep­ing a sharp eye on the fu­ture.

Then came Tues­day, when the CBC re­ported that — right in the face of the pub­lic hul­la­baloo — board mem­bers had voted them­selves a $25,000 raise, and $70,000 for chair­man David Deni­son. Deni­son will now take home $330,000, while reg­u­lar mem­bers earn $185,000 for their part-time po­si­tions.

Wynne was on the road, try­ing to sell her pie-in-thesky plan for a high-speed rail line to Wind­sor — just what On­tario needs when it can’t even af­ford ba­sic tran­sit up­grades in its big­gest city — when she was asked about the raises. To her credit, she man­aged not to scream. “We’ve made it very clear that the com­pen­sa­tion pack­age was un­ac­cept­able,” she as­serted. “So, that is ex­actly why the review is hap­pen­ing. We forced that review to hap­pen. We made it clear and the review is hap­pen­ing.”

Un­for­tu­nately, a review doesn’t come close to match­ing what her com­pe­ti­tion has in mind for Deni­son, Sch­midt and their thick­wal­leted col­leagues. Even as the pay hikes were quickly ap­proved at Hy­dro’s an­nual gen­eral meet­ing, Ford was out­side at a rally warn­ing he’d have all their heads on a plat­ter once the elec­tion is over. Hor­wath has gone even fur­ther, pledg­ing to re­turn Hy­dro One to full pub­lic own­er­ship, never mind the cost.

To say the Hy­dro mess has be­come a lit­mus test for the Lib­er­als’ record af­ter 15 years in power is an un­der­state­ment. Each rev­e­la­tion makes it harder for the gov­ern­ment to claim its re­main­ing 46 per cent share of Hy­dro One en­sures a con­tin­ued strict over­sight, with the pub­lic in mind. Even be­fore Hy­dro’s board made the premier look fool­ish, vote pro­jec­tions sug­gested her Lib­er­als could win as few as two seats on June 7.

While the premier ful­mi­nated, Sch­midt of­fered a dis­play of near-re­gal de­tach­ment. “We don’t get in­volved in pol­i­tics day to day,” he said. “The ac­tiv­i­ties around the po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment will quiet them­selves af­ter June 7.”

I wouldn’t be so sure of that, given the threats be­ing bandied about by the two most likely pre­miers. Of course, when get­ting fired comes with a $10.7 mil­lion pay­day, what’s to worry?


Can Doug Ford carry out his prom­ise to fire the “$6 mil­lion man”? Does it mat­ter? asks Kelly Mcparland.

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