The end of cheap power in Quebec?

Jean Charest is looking for ways to erase a $4-billion deficit

The end of cheap power in Quebec?Things are always changing in Quebec, but for a long time the province’s citizens could count on at least one constant—cheap, government-subsidized energy. But with a $4-billion-plus deficit staring it in the face, Jean Charest’s Liberal government is looking for ways to save money, and one idea it has floated is to raise the price of electricity at the government-owned Hydro-Québec.

The province had a moratorium in place on rate increases between 1999 and 2003—since then, home energy prices have grown by 16 per cent. Now it looks like they might climb higher, perhaps significantly. The Liberal government is considering raising rates by an average of $265 per household per year—doing so could bring in revenues of $1.4 billion. It could also mean the Liberals might be able to avoid other proposed fee increases, including CEGEP tuition hikes and adding toll roads.

Raymond Bachand, Quebec’s finance minister, says raising energy fees is the simplest way to get the needed money: “If we have a choice of [how to use] . . . Hydro-Québec, do we use it to reduce our [energy] rates or do we use it to pay for the health services?”

But opposition leaders are rallying against any rate hikes. “The sad thing here is that [the Charest government] wants to take more money from those who already give their money honestly,” says Jean-Martin Aussant, spokesman for the Parti Québécois. “We think it’s a shame that we’ve gotten to this point.”

Aussant thinks the government can cut the deficit without any cost to taxpayers, simply by increasing efficiency at Hydro-Québec—a program he claims could save $2 billion. Cracking down on tax evasion across the province could create another $900-million windfall, he says.

And, of course, the PQ sees Ottawa as the ultimate villain. Aussant says the feds owe Quebec $8 billion in federal transfers, money that Charest refuses to fight for. “[Charest] doesn’t want to be on bad terms with his friends,” says Aussant. “Everybody knows his dream is to be prime minister of Canada, not Quebec.”