This week I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with a class of political science majors at UPEI. The discussion centered around democratic reform, but it also branched off in many interesting and provocative directions. Following an answer I gave on how different voting systems affect the behaviour of elected representatives – with some tending to promote antagonism and hostility, while others tend to collaboration and compromise – I was asked what the purpose of the opposition is in a parliament. Surely, the individual insisted, the opposition is there to oppose government and hold them to account?
One of many mysteries that is gradually unfolding before me as I stumble my way through the treacherous landscape of Island politics is what it means to oppose government. I may not be the official opposition, but as the third party representative in the House, part of my responsibility is to oppose the government; to critique their agenda and pick apart legislation. I have also made it my business to recognize and applaud a good idea when I hear it (whether that comes from government, the official opposition or outside the rail), and to always consider whatever issue is up for discussion with an open mind. This aspiration requires me to be honest and straightforward about both good and bad policies, as well as calling out political maneuvering and posturing for what they are.
Yesterday the government made an announcement about the future of energy on PEI. Contained in the announcement were several different strands – the cancelling of the CT4 diesel generator, the commitment to conservation and to a more diverse generating capacity, and that there would be rate increases of 2.3% for each of the next 3 years. Partly because there are many facets to yesterday’s announcement, as an opposition MLA, I could have gone several ways with my response. I celebrated the cancellation of CT4 (a proposal I referred to as “madness” the day it was announced in the House); I commended the government for their stated commitment to conservation and a more diverse production model (“the Liberal government is implementing Green party energy policy, and I’m delighted to see that” is actually what I said); and while I lamented the fact that there will be rate increases (amounting to around $2.60 per month for the average household) I pointed out the fact that the longer we delay our transition to renewable green energy, the more vulnerable we will be, as carbon pricing flows through the economy pushing up rates of power derived from fossil fuels, and as expensive public investments (like the shelved CT4 diesel generator would undoubtedly have been) become stranded assets.
Jamie Fox, leader of the official opposition, erroneously stated that we have the highest electricity rates in the country (we don’t; our residential rates are lower than Ontario, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan) and he has called for an emergency sitting of the legislature to debate the rate increases.
Putting aside the tangly monster that is energy production, distribution and regulation on PEI, I have to say that I think Mr. Fox is over-reacting. While the rate increase is regrettable, a more thoughtful appraisal of the situation would perhaps have given him time to pause and reserve such drastic notions as an emergency sitting of the legislature for a more worthy crisis.
The solutions to building a resilient, cost-effective and equitable power grid on PEI are enormously complicated, and deserve to be thoroughly debated in the House. We need to talk about the fact that these rate increases will not go toward public spending, but a private company's (Maritime Electric) operating budget. Maybe it’s time to seriously consider having public ownership of our electricity utility, or even hybrid ownership, as recommended by the PEI Energy Commission report in 2012.
The citizens of PEI also need to ask whether those elected to their House who are tasked with the responsibility of holding government to account are really opposing, or merely posing.