EPCOR and The Block’s Big Lie

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The Big LieFor all their evils and their wrongs, the Soviets did some things very well: propaganda and disinformation. As one writer commented in the Spectator, “Communist ideology dismissed the idea of truth as a bourgeois construct. What mattered was power; and you baptised as truth those doctrines which provided it.” Stalin defined truth as what he said it was.

The Soviets were such masters at it from an early stage that George Orwell declared that history stopped in 1936; after that there was only propaganda. So good were they at it that their methods and techniques were copied by other states and are still in play in the West, today. And they’re not just in what comes from the Trump administration: both are in play right here in Collingwood, alive and active this very week.

Yes, Collingwood has been subject to the sort of propaganda and deception that has its historic roots in Soviet propaganda.

The core of Soviet and later propaganda was the Big Lie. It proved so effective that his arch enemy, Adolf Hitler, eagerly took it up to promote his own cause. The value of the Big Lie in promoting ideologies and views proved too strong for ideologues to resist. It still does. The Washington Post noted:

As most politicians know, lies can also be used for short-term political advantage. Here the problem is usually one of credibility: How can one make claims that aren’t backed up by the facts but are nevertheless credible to specific audiences at particular time? Again, this question goes back thousands of years: The Sophists of Classical Athens were accused of “making the weaker argument appear the stronger.”

The sale of our utility has always been the “weaker argument” because it makes no sense economically or socially. But sense matters nothing to the ideologues behind the Big Lie.

The Soviets called their military buildup in Eastern Europe a “peace offensive.” They called the invasions of Afghanistan, Hungary and Czechoslovakia “fraternal assistance.” They claimed their economy, their manufacturing output, their agriculture, their education was better than the West’s. But it was all lies.

PropagandaJust like The Block’s claim that the sale of the Collus share in 2012 was a bad deal. That’s their Big Lie today (earlier this year it was that the hospital was the source of the contention with the town, and previously they presented other Big Lies). And like other Big Lies they proffer, each is propped up with numerous Smaller Lies to keep it afloat. But even through all of them are easily refuted, their false claims deflated, and their shaky statistics debunked, they continue to be repeated. That’s because repetition is the core of The Big Lie’s effectiveness. Joseph Goebbels explained how it works:

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

And they repeat it today on all channels: through friendly, unquestioning media, on social media, on official publications and websites. That’s the “firehose of falsehood” propaganda technique: spread your falsehoods as widely and as often as possible. They ignore truth, they ignore credibility, they ignore facts: what matters is keeping the Big Lie alive.

But despite the ideology, despite the repetition, it’s still a fabrication. The Big Lie is just another untruth coming from the mouths of unethical, deceptive politicians. Perhaps, then, repeating the truths that contradict these lies will have an awakening effect. So let’s look at The Block’s (and the administration’s) use of these techniques and do a little debunking ourselves.

The Big Lie:
The town’s sale of 50% of its electrical utility, Collus, to PowerStream in 2012 was a bad deal.
The Truth:
The deal was examined, debated, and approved by the members of, staff, accountants and lawyers for four municipal councils, two utility boards, KPMG (one of the world’s four largest consulting firms), lawyers from Aird & Berlis, the Ontario Energy Board and the independent NGO, Energy Probe. Literally hundreds of people were involved in the process. It was done entirely in public, with public comment and consultation. At the time, this partnership was widely hailed across the province as a model of cooperation and collaboration that allowed a small utility to get access to the operational services and support of a larger utility without losing local control over rates, staffing and customer service. It received considerable industry and media attention.
Brian Saunderson was recently quoted saying “a 50% relationship is very problematic” – but typical of his pontifications, he doesn’t say why or how (actual facts and data are always absent from Block pronunciations). And it wasn’t a problem until he and his Blockheads interfered with the utility’s operations, its staff, and cut its revenue stream. I suspect Saunderson finds the very notion of collaboration and cooperation “problematic” – like marriages (which, at least in good marriages, are 50% partnerships), our hospital and our airport (which he and his minions are also trying to destroy). Saunderson doesn’t play well with others, it seems.

The Big Lie would easily collapse when faced with the facts. But The Block and the administration have never allowed facts to be presented to the public. Instead, they prop up their Big Lie with numerous Smaller Lies. These also act as distractions to the public whose attention gets pulled away to smaller fabrications and the Big Lie passes by smoothly.

The Smaller Lie:
The town has not had a good return on its investment.
The Truth:
The town didn’t invest ANYTHING in the partnership: PowerStream was the investor. But the partnership paid a dividend of approx. $200,000 a year until The Block and the administration stripped its revenue sources and made further dividends impossible. Selling to EPCOR means the town will never get another dividend in future from the utility. However, the city of Edmonton will be paid its dividends by EPCOR.

The Smaller Lie:
The 2012 sale failed to fully monetize the asset.
The Truth:
Public utilities are not assets to “monetize” – they were created to serve the public, to provide necessary and useful services that are not subject to the whims of capitalism or economic greed. Monetizing public assets by selling them is both short-sighted and economically foolish. Selling an asset to get short-term cash is like selling your home to pay off your credit card bill.

The Smaller Lie:
The shareholder’s agreement prohibited the town from saying anything publicly about selling the utility.
The Truth:
There is nothing in that agreement that prohibited the town from saying why it wanted to sell the utility. There was nothing to prevent council from engaging the public to consult on whether we wanted to sell it. There was nothing that prevented the town from allowing PowerStream to present facts in a public forum to counter fallacious reports.

The Smaller Lie:
The shotgun (buy/sell) clause in the shareholder’s agreement was a bad idea.
The Truth:
Partnership agreements routinely include such clauses. The fact that the town used it to buy back the second share from PowerStream proves The Block used it for their own benefit.

The Smaller Lie:
The value of the share didn’t grow enough.
The Truth:
The town demanded $12.5 million from PowerStream for its half of the utility, thus acknowledging that the value had grown by more than 50% in just five years. There are few private sector corporations whose value skyrockets that much in such a short time. Imagine what it might have been worth in another five or ten years!

The Smaller Lie:
The utility refused to provide critical information to the town when requested.
The Truth:
The town received all the information it demanded, sometimes sent several times because the town kept demanding the same thing they had received again and again. They were not given personal, confidential information about staff salaries and benefits that is protected under provincial law. This was made available to board members (of which the town had three representatives) on the condition of signing a confidentiality agreement (as is common in board structures). However, the town members refused not to share that information even though doing so would violate provincial laws.

The Smaller Lie:
Selling 50% was a bad deal.
The Truth:
The decision to sell only up to 50% was made publicly and explained in the media and at public meetings: the town did not want to lose local control over rates, service and staff, and wanted to retain openness and transparency about business plans, technology and innovation. The RFP asked for bids up to 50%, but no bidder offered less. Selling 100% of the utility to EPCOR gives up all local control, and loses any semblance of openness. There will be no similar public input into growth, rates, service or initiatives now.

The Smaller Lie:
The “other side” held all the cards.
The Truth:
The town had equal representation on the board. No “side” could made a decision that was not based on a majority vote. Apparently Councillor Doherty didn’t understand what 50% means. Until the town replaced its board members with town administration staff and then later with outsiders – all appointed in violation of town bylaws -the board was a cooperative, collaborative group that worked for common goals and the greater good. Only after that replacement did “sides” emerge and confrontation erupt.

The Smaller Lie:
We were only kicking tires or testing the waters.
The Truth:
That almost qualifies as a Big Lie by itself. The Block and the administration made the determination to sell its share in Collus at a closed-door meeting early in 2015. They continued on their track, holding at least 37 (and possibly more) in camera meetings about the utility and its sale this term. They were never exploring interest: they always intended to sell simply because they wanted to undo everything the previous council accomplished. Councillors promised they would engage the public before they made any decisions. And then they sold our public utility without ANY input or consultation with residents. In July, 2016, Deputy Mayor Saunderson told the public they were only “kicking tires.” I guess that went the way of his campaign promises to “.. ensure the residents of Collingwood are informed of all council initiatives and engage the residents regularly to get community feedback” and “Ensure all major decisions seek out community input, and ensure there is rigorous staff research and due diligence before any decision is made.” None of which he has done.

The Smaller Lie:
This will generate money and save the town future expenses.
The Truth:
This has already cost taxpayers well over $1 million in legal fees to accomplish and will likely cost that much more to complete (and that doesn’t even include the costs of keeping on the interim CAO at a salary higher than that of the premier). The cost of doing our own water utility billing is estimated to add another $45,000-$60,000 a month in expenses to the town. The IT service costs have already doubled and may soon triple over what the shared services agreement cost us. And the for-profit EPCOR will raise our electricity rates as high and as fast as they can once they own the utility. Plus the town has agreed to pay half of EPCOR’s legal costs AND to pay the 22% transfer tax to sell the utility to them: another $5-$7 million. The costs to the taxpayers of our town for this deal will be significant. Remember the interim CAO promised the town would save $750,000 a year when it took away the water utility from the shared services agreement? And then recall how that $750,000 mysteriously vanished and was never recorded in subsequent budget documents or talked about in budget discussions? The truth is that these moves COST taxpayers significantly more: they never saved us a penny. The Block never raised the missing $750,000 during budget because they knew it would expose the lie and embarrass the administration.

The Smaller Lie:
Residents will get a reduction in electricity rates for the first five years.
The Truth:
The Ontario Energy Board has not approved anything like that, and it can only be done through a Cost of Service application, made every five years and requiring a public process. The current COS application is due to be presented before the end of this year and will be made either as Collus-PowerStream or as the town-owned Collus. But that plan does not include a reduction in rates, and in fact has an increase to cover necessary upgrades and expansions of service. EPCOR will have to wait another five years to apply to reduce rates. But even if they get it in five years, their promise of a reduction does NOT include business and industrial customers. Their rates will likely be hiked to cover the shortfall of a reduction to residents, making Collingwood a less attractive place for businesses to operate. Keep in mind: EPCOR is a for-profit corporation whose mandate is to make money for Edmonton, not to make like easier or cheaper for Collingwood’s residents. Last year EPCOR had record profits and will pay Edmonton $146 million in 2017. They got that profit from consumers like us.

The Smaller Lie
EPCOR is a good company for us to sell our public assets to.
The Truth:
EPCOR is a predatory, for-profit corporation which has a single mandate: to make money for the city of Edmonton. This deal allows them to weasel their way into the Ontario market and compete against municipally-owned and Ontario-based LCDs. They do not care about local residents or this community. Smarter councils have blocked their predation into Ontario, but ours – lacking even basic financial or business sense – chose to help it.

The Smaller Lie:
The town isn’t going to privatize its water and wastewater services to EPCOR.
The Truth:
That has always been part of the secret deal. EPCOR wants to own our water utility – like they own other water utilities in Canada and the USA. EPCOR tried to take over water services in Innisfil when it offered to buy InnPower and when that came to light, the council there kicked them out. They tried again here, but pulled back when it became public knowledge. The Block and the administration pretended that EPCOR’s drive to privatize our water services wasn’t on the table. That’s merely smoke and mirrors. Acquiring the water utility will be a clause in EPCOR’s contract – which will be kept secret from the public. They get to make another attempt to privatize the water utility once they get control of the electrical utility and Collingwood will lose control of these assets for good. Privatization of water utilities has proven a disaster for residents in many countries, including several US states.

The Smaller Lie:
The EPCOR deal is good for the town and better than the PowerStream deal.
The Truth:
Since The Block and the administration have done everything in secret, public has never been allowed to know their intention or any of the deal’s conditions. This council has not provided us with any comparisons, any data, any conditions, likely because they know the deal is so bad, and will cost taxpayers so much, that revealling it would cause more public outrage. Last term, the full 610-page application for the sale was posted online for the public to read. This term: nothing has been made public and The Block have hidden behind alleged-but-fictional confidentiality clauses in the shareholder’s agreement to avoid being open and transparent.
Only an independent judicial inquiry will tell us whether the process was legal (we already know it was unethical) and the deal satisfies the greater good. But The Block will do like their name says: block any attempts to make anything about it public. This deal has been overseen and advised by tiny, sole-sourced consultants and one sole-sourced lawyer – nowhere near the oversight and advice from legal and consulting giants for the previous deal.

But the Big Lie has its weaknesses, too. The Post continues:

It’s hard to fool large groups of people for long periods of time. The psychological literature on persuasion suggests that people can be persuaded to believe in many false things, especially when they have little personal experience or interest in the matter, or explicitly trust the source of the false message. But it is difficult to get people to keep believing claims that conflict with what they can see with their own eyes, or that conflict with their deep seated identities.

Maybe if we share these truths, maybe if we expose the deceptions behind this deal, the Block’s lies will lose their power, and people’s eyes will be opened to the deception, the betrayal of public trust and the egregious abuses of power this term. All of this deserves a judicial inquiry – and maybe a police investigation into who got paid by public funds. You can email your comments and objects to the Ontario Energy Board, too, if you care about the wellbeing of this community. It’s possible we can stop the sale if enough of us complain.

Collingwood deserves better.

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