Hydro One sell-off was unpopular even before announcement by Ontario Liberals in 2015

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne takes part in the meeting of First Ministers in Ottawa on Friday, Dec. 9, 2016.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne takes part in the meeting of First Ministers in Ottawa on Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

TORONTO – More than a year before Ontario’s Liberal government announced in 2015 that it would partially privatize Hydro One, polling it commissioned showed strong opposition to the idea.

That opposition has not waned in the years since, with a large majority of respondents consistently saying they’re against the sale in polling conducted from early 2014 to the present and examined by The Canadian Press.

Pollara conducted research at the government’s behest in January and February of 2014 asking people for their thoughts on selling Hydro One, the LCBO, Ontario Power Generation, Ontario Lottery and Gaming, and even eHealth.

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The general response: Don’t do it.

“Most Ontarians would not support the provincial government selling a controlling interest in any of the five Crown corporations tested,” the research said. “Approximately one half oppose any sale at all, while a further 17 to 27 per cent would only support the sale of a minority of shares.”

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Just 25 per cent of respondents supported selling Hydro One. Slightly more were in favour of selling the LCBO, with 30 per cent support, while about 20 per cent of people said they were in favour of selling the other three Crown agencies.

READ MORE: CUPE Ontario files lawsuit against Liberals to block further sale of Hydro One shares

A spokeswoman for the premier said eHealth will not be sold.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said it’s “frightening” that it was apparently ever considered. On Hydro One, she said it’s not too late to halt further sales, before more than the current 30 per cent is privatized.

“It’s pretty disturbing when even their polling shows that people are completely against the selloff of assets, particularly Hydro One, and she still turns around and ignores that and goes ahead and sells it,” Horwath said.

Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown asked the premier in question period Tuesday why the government would pay for polling if its going to ignore it.

Premier Kathleen Wynne shot back that she weighs all alternatives, taking input from not just polling, but also businesses and economists and doing what’s in the best interest of the province.

“If the leader of the Opposition is saying to me, ‘Premier, why don’t you just govern according to the polls?’ I think that gives us an insight into the political methodology that he ascribes to,” she said.

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The pollsters tested messaging with the respondents, finding that while some arguments resonated – such as “the sale would generate a lot of money for health care or balance the budget” – more than 50 per cent of people were still against any sale.

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One month after the government received the polling it announced a panel to review assets, and one year after that, in April 2015, announced its plan to sell up to 60 per cent of Hydro One.

In the interim, the government had taken another crack at asset sale polling, with Pollara asking 1,202 Ontarians if Hydro One should be owned by the government. Three-quarters said yes, though most also said it was worthwhile to do a review.

After the Hydro One sale formed a centrepiece of the government’s budget, 63 per cent of respondents were opposed – most of them “strongly” opposed, polling found.

READ MORE: Ontario Liberals knew hydro was No. 1 concern long before relief announced

Expanding beer sales to grocery stores, however, got a 76-per-cent thumbs up. More people were aware of the beer retailing changes than the Hydro One sale or the budget itself, the polling found.

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Wynne said the partial sale was important for the $4 billion it’s expected to net for infrastructure spending.

Hydro One’s 15-per-cent initial public offering came in November 2015 and a further 15-per-cent tranche was sold in April 2016.

READ MORE: Ontario government hydro ads aren’t in contempt of parliament: Speaker

But still, the polling remained highly unfavourable.

The most polling data from October 2016 shows 69 per cent of respondents oppose the sale – 54 per cent “strongly” and 15 per cent “somewhat.”

Deputy Progressive Conservative leader Steve Clark said it’s “disappointing” the government didn’t listen to its own polling.