While Alberta Premier Danielle Smith captured most of the media attention for her populist attack on the Canadian constitution, Tim Houston was also busy last week burnishing his populist-autocrat credentials.

Smith showcased her much-anticipated Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act as a way of stirring up anger and resentment against the Central Canadian liberal establishment, currently personified by Justin Trudeau and his government. 

Houston’s masterpiece was his five-page letter calling on the Utility and Review Board (UARB) to reject a rate increase agreement – a so-called settlement agreement – between Nova Scotia Power and major customer advocates.

Like Smith, Houston’s intervention attempts to exploit anger and resentment – in his case directed against Nova Scotia Power, its regulator the UARB, and those representing consumer interests before the UARB. The letter is also one more example of the Houston government’s autocratic, we-know-best approach to governing.

Just to review, the fall session of the legislature was all about transferring power to Houston and his cabinet, eliminating independent boards and commissions and overruling other decision-making bodies.

The overruled included Halifax city council and the UARB, the latter ordered through Bill 212 to limit any non-fuel increase in NSP rates to 1.8 percent. But it wasn’t that simple.

The contested settlement agreement incorporated the terms of Bill 212, but with the cost of fuel going up even more, the proposed rate increase would be 6.9 percent next year and again in 2024. And irony of ironies, that proposed increase is higher than the hike that was on the table before Houston’s government went to all the trouble of stripping the UARB of its independence.

Thus the need for another top-down intervention from the populist Premier, self-described in his letter to the UARB as “a key missing voice…the voice of Nova Scotians and those focused only on protecting the ratepayers.”

The People v. the Establishment

Populism can be defined as politics that pits ‘the people’ against ‘the establishment’. By anointing himself as the ratepayers’ voice, Houston emphatically joins the people. And in doing so, he dismisses the efforts of lawyers and other experts who have apparently been advocating for consumers at NSP hearings for decades. By implication, instead of really standing up for the people/ratepayers the advocates have become part of the establishment.

Among those Houston is challenging are the Consumer Advocate, the Small Business Advocate, lawyers representing large industry, Dalhousie University and municipal utilities as well as representatives of the Ecology Action Center and the Affordable Energy Coalition. His letter makes clear his contempt for them all, suggesting that in signing the settlement agreement those establishment intervenors are either scofflaws or dupes of Nova Scotia Power.

“The entire purpose of Bill 212 was to protect Nova Scotians,” Houston writes. “On early review, it appears the intent of this agreement is to circumvent the legislation.” 

A conspiracy perhaps?

UARB in crosshairs

Having trashed the efforts of intervenors, Houston moves on to bigger game, questioning the competence of the UARB. The cudgel he uses for the attack is the failure of the Muskrat Falls project to deliver sufficient energy on time, forcing NSP to rely on additional purchases of expensive coal to keep the system running. Houston doesn’t pull any punches.

“The fact that Nova Scotians have paid over $500 million for this (Muskrat Falls) project with minimal benefit, and no one has been held accountable, is wrong,” he writes. “It was this Board of the day that approved the contracts and entered the final project into rates. 

“I find it remarkable that those contracts did not include different risk sharing mechanisms; they should have had provisions for issues in oversight of project management. Nevertheless, it was approved, and is causing significant harm to ratepayers in the form of increased rates. I would ask whom the Board feels should be held responsible for this mess and while it appears that they didn’t adequately protect Nova Scotians with foresight in thought, will they step up to protect ratepayers now?”

Dredging up the Muskrat Falls “mess” looks like a warning to the UARB that if it fails to do Houston’s bidding he will continue to attack its credibility. And if he does end up in a confrontation with the UARB he may well have the upper hand.

Not only would the Board be put on the defensive over past decisions about Muskrat Falls, but electricity rates and the villainous NSP, not regulatory independence, would be seen as the issue. Instead of a power-hungry autocrat, Houston would come across as, in his words, the “key missing voice” one “focused only on protecting ratepayers.”   

Opposition parties likely won’t put up much resistance to any further bullying of the UARB. Both the Liberals and the NDP voted for Bill 212, and the Liberals actually spent an entire question period calling on Houston to intervene in the rate increase application before the UARB.  Bill 212 appeared the next day. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. 

As for public opinion, if the latest quarterly poll from Narrative Research is a guide, the modest fuss about the government power grab during the fall session of the legislature hasn’t cut into PC support, which remains high. 

We’ve noted before that Nova Scotians don’t seem very concerned about the dismantling of democratic institutions such as school boards or health boards. Threatening the utility board in the interests of lower power rate increases is even less likely to cause a stir. History from other places has shown that autocrats can get away with quite a bit for quite a while provided they can make the trains run on time.  The opposition would do well to focus on health care, where derailments are inevitable.