Thursday, November 14, 2002

In or out, Nettleton makes his point
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Even after talking to him, I'm not sure Paul Nettleton meant to poke such a sharp stick right in the eye of Premier Gordon Campbell.
Nettleton has always struck me as a thoughtful MLA, a good representative for his constituents in the stunning country north of Prince George. If you were betting on the Liberal MLA most likely to speak his mind - carefully - he'd be on your list.
So it wasn't a total shock when Nettleton weighed in with a critique of the Liberal approach to BC Hydro, sent to all his party's MLAs.
Lots of people share at least some of his concerns about the government's plans to hand one-third of the Crown corporation over to a private operator, break the rest into two pieces and invite private companies into the power business.
But Nettleton didn't just disagree with the policy direction. He placed himself firmly in the camp of the people who think the Liberal leadership has a secret agenda, and can't be trusted.
And even if Campbell forgives, he's not going to forget.
Lord knows we need more backbenchers who are prepared to say what they think, instead of biting their tongues, rolling their eyes and hoping for better days. For most of the NDP government's long, slow journey on to the rocks, MLAs stood loyally on deck, saluting the captain. Liberals MLAs have watched as the government shredded their communities or broken promises.
It's a bad system, for governments and for the public, and some straight talk would be welcome.
But Nettleton went much farther.
"I am firmly convinced that this legislation is only the opening move in a strategy whose ultimate goal is the wholesale privatization of the utility," he said in his letter. Going ahead in the face of public opposition betrays "the sort of arrogance I recall, now with some chagrin, denouncing from the Opposition bench."
"I think we have just become infected with the same sort of ideological blindness that once plagued the NDP," he continued.
Nettleton will find out Monday or Tuesday whether he's out of caucus. He says he stands by his letter, so he's likely gone.
What about Nettleton's actual critique, the substance of his concerns?
He goes too far. Nettleton argues that splitting Hydro into two companies, one to make and sell power and one to take over the transmission lines, will inevitably sound "the death knell for BC Hydro." Letting power companies sell to the highest bidder could mean British Columbians would pay soaring prices if California had another crisis.
But splitting the Crown corporation in two makes sense. Letting Hydro control the transmission lines and the power plants is like letting one car manufacturer decide who gets to use the roads. No one else could ever compete.
It could work well - given a good regulatory framework and a strong commitment to maintaining the benefits of low-cost power for all British Columbians.
That's the Liberals' real problem. People do not trust them to deliver those controls. They do not believe that Campbell will keep his promise not to privatize Hydro.
That suspicion has been reinforced by the secretive approach taken by the Liberals. Energy Minister Richard Neufeld has had a major task force report on energy, including Hydro, for about eight months. He could have released it - we did pay for it - to allow public participation in the debate, while the government worked on the policy. He could have shared the briefing on splitting Hydro up that caucus got three months ago. The debate could have been public, and the Liberals could have made an effort that they do listen to concerns.
Now they're left with a hard question. If the Liberals can't even convince their own MLAs that they're playing this straight, how can they ever convince the public?
Paul Willcocks can be reached at

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