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Utility sales never a good idea. 

New Brunswickers successfully forced their government to do an about-face on the sale of NB Power to Hydro Quebec, giving Nova Scotians a lesson about people power.

Maybe Nova Scotians could learn a lesson from the public outcry in New Brunswick over plans for the sale of NB Power to Hydro Quebec. The uproar began last fall when John Ritter lookalike Shawn Graham announced the sale of NB Power's transmission and distribution system, as well as its power plants, for $4.8 billion. By January, public opposition forced the NB premier to backtrack: NB Power would hold onto its transmission and distribution system and sell the generating plants for $3.2 billion. That didn't mollify angry New Brunswickers, who continued to protest. In Fredericton, 1,000 people gathered outside the NB legislature to call on the politicians not to sell "our power corporation." A few days later, the sale collapsed after Quebec said the power plants weren't worth what New Brunswick was asking.

The NB protests were reminiscent of the outcry in Newfoundland in 1994 when Matlock lookalike Clyde Wells announced plans to privatize that power utility. Jeering protesters called the Newfoundland premier a "dictator and liar" and showed up outside the legislature to unfurl the old flag and sing "Ode to Newfoundland." After a few more months of protest, Wells backed down.

Compare that with what happened in 1992 when Oscar the Grouch lookalike Donald Cameron sold off Nova Scotia Power. The late Daily News columnist Harry Flemming expressed surprise at how little opposition there was. Both daily papers ran editorials applauding the sale and Flemming noted that local business suits "were predictably orgasmic in their delight." Can you blame them? Legal beagles at a Tory law firm and hacks at a Tory PR company scored big bucks for greasing the wheels on the biggest share sale up to that point in Canadian history. The brokers who peddled the shares also made out like bandits, pocketing $44 million in commissions and fees.

The opposition parties prophesied that Nova Scotia Power Inc. would cut jobs to maximize profits for shareholders already guaranteed outrageously high rates of return. Sure enough the Canadian Press news agency reported that the company had shed about 500 jobs by 1997. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers complained that 172 repair crew jobs had been cut by November 2004, when 30 centimetres of heavy, wet snow toppled 12 transmission towers rendering 180,000 customers powerless, some for up to four days. It was the third major power failure in just over a year and Nova Scotians were livid, especially after NSPI told customers to stop calling its jammed help lines. I wrote then that the company seemed to have adopted new PR slogans: "When the wind blows, your power goes. When the snow falls, we won't take your calls." Noting that NSPI was seeking a 14 percent residential rate hike, I suggested a new ad slogan: "We're not being funny, just give us your money."

Of course, the issue of steadily rising rates to maintain company profits is no laughing matter for electricity consumers. In 2005, the NDP's Howard Epstein pointed out that NSPI profits had by then amounted to $1 billion since privatization. Epstein was questioning top brass at the company during a legislative committee meeting. He said that the money paid out in profits could have been used to improve services or upgrade equipment, but he acknowledged it was probably too late to regain public control of the utility.

But is it? Would it be possible, for example, to set up a provincially owned power corporation that would issue bonds in exchange for the shares now held by private investors? It's called a debt/equity swap and could be one way of regaining public control of our power utility without adding directly to the provincial government's debt. To me, it makes no sense for us to continue forking over fat, guaranteed returns to investors in a company that has a near-total monopoly over the sale of electricity we could be selling to ourselves. As the old saying goes, power to the people!

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