WHERE WERE YOU when the lights went out? Ontario Premier Ernie Eves was on his way to his own nomination meeting in picturesque Caledon East, the prelude to an election calland now likely a victory-that seems always to be eluding his grasp. Taking heat for not living up to the Rudy Giuliani standard of immediate crisis management, the premier may yet be forgiven for trying to get ail his facts straight before reaching out to Ontarians four hours after the massive outage. After all, Ottawa did itself no international favours when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Defence Minister John McCallum, the man in charge of emergency preparedness, pointed fingers at all sorts of imaginary U.S, targets. (Even as U.S. figures were pointing northward.)
Still, for hard-luck Ernie, Thursday’s big blackout was the political equivalent of being stuck in an elevator nowhere near an accommodating floor. But that’s what you get for playing loose with a system that needs more than crossed fingers to keep the juice flowing.
When Eves, a former finance minister, took over Mike Harris’s ideologically bumptious Tory government in the spring of 2002, he aiso inherited its plan to privatize the power system, the once almighty Ontario Hydro. But when electricity prices spiked a year ago, Eves did an about-face. He iced privatization plans and capped rates at their old levels (well below rising market cost) for homeowners and small businesses. And that had three consequences; it turned off investors who wanted to start private utilities; it dug a huge hole in provincial finances to account for ongoing subsidies; and it gave Eves political ownership of a stultified electrical grid (with two large reactors out of commission) that had grown overly dependent on imported power.
All summer, as Conservative operatives tested the waters for an election call, they
prayed for damp, cool weather so as not to create the rolling Caiifornia-style brownouts that might roi! bedrock voters. The darndest thing was: they almost made it.
In many ways, Ernie Eves is a nice stentorian fellow from middle Ontario who seems to have the worst political luck, or judgment, of any leader in recent memory. A planned election call in the spring, on the heels of a purportedly balanced budget, was derailed over the controversy of delivering the budget away from the legislature. A summer window was shut when a second minister went down in a blaze of personal overspending. And now, as the premier was contemplating the David Peterson
feint-call the vote in the dog days of August so voters are spared tuning in until after Labour Day-he was hit by an imposing darkness. With rolling electricity-sharing brownouts now official Ontario policy for weeks to come, Eves would appear to have little choice but to head back to Queen’s Park for a fail session. It’s not been a particularly hospitable environment. But if you’re going to redesign the province’s backbone power system, it is the place to start. ROBERT SHEPPARD
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