Privatization plans ready for a power trip

ONTARIO - It's not as flashy as gambling or booze. But if Ontario's government decides to go the privatization route, the smart money is on energy transmission.

If it were just a matter of principle, that wouldn't be the case. The government has a natural role to play in ensuring the public has a steady supply of energy; steady access to a blackjack table or a decent bottle of scotch, not so much. But it's practical considerations that will dictate what, if anything, gets sold. Dalton McGuinty's Liberals can't afford the perception that they're responding to their $24.7-billion deficit with a fire sale.

So even if they're largely motivated by short-term interests, they'll have to be able to make a long-term case for privatization, in terms of how it will affect both service delivery and the government's bottom line.

To unload either the Liquor Control Board of Ontario or the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, both of which are major generators of annual revenue, would run the risk of adding to the province's structural deficit. And even if the government were able to get past that concern (a 2005 report concluded that, if done properly, selling the LCBO could actually generate more annual revenue), there are other disincentives.

Private liquor sales would be very popular in downtown Toronto, where they would probably create better options for consumers.

But that wouldn't be the case in small-town or rural Ontario, where the LCBO provides a much better range of products than those markets would otherwise demand. In other words, service in much of the province would get considerably worse - a message the LCBO's powerful union is already gearing up to deliver.

OLG is a better candidate for privatization down the road, particularly if Mr. McGuinty - a straight-laced sort who doesn't seem thrilled with being in the vice business - gets a third term. But it would be difficult to unload in the next year or two, partly because a ton of complex regulatory issues would need to be worked out. No less important is that OLG has all sorts of structural and management problems that would hurt its market value.

Unless it's looking to sell low, the government will give new corporation chair Paul Godfrey some time to fix it up.

Hydro One doesn't need fixing up. The province's energy transmission utility, which has been run competently, is already an attractive commodity. What it needs is a significant infusion of capital, which could allow Mr. McGuinty to make the case for its privatization.

From the government's perspective, the most attractive aspect of a Hydro One sale would be its bottom-line impact: Although Hydro One would fetch a higher price than either OLG or the LCBO, its annual profits are lower. But if Mr. McGuinty is prepared to exhibit more faith in capitalism than he has previously, he could make the argument that the real upside would be better service down the road.

By that line of thinking, private owners would be better positioned to spend the billions of dollars needed to upgrade the transmission system in the years ahead, as the province tries to improve its energy efficiency and facilitate green energy expansion.

To sell Ontarians on all this, Mr. McGuinty would need to overcome skepticism about the private sector's commitment to acting in the public interest.

It helps that the purchaser would almost certainly be one of the province's big pension funds, which have a public dimension to them. But the key would be in negotiating a very clear set of expectations, and penalties for failing to meet them.

There are many Liberals at Queen's Park who advise against any privatization at all. Mr. McGuinty already has more than enough on his plate trying to sell the new harmonized sales tax; it may be too much for him to also become the champion of privatization that he railed against during his opposition days.

The Liberals who argue for privatization aren't pretending it'll be easy.

But those familiar with the files generally agree that selling Hydro One would be easier than the other options, even though it provides the more essential public service.


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