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Public Power: The Fight for Publicly Owned Electricity

by Howard Hampton with Bill Reno

Among the many controversial policies of Ontario’s Conservative government, few drew as big a public backlash as plans to privatize Ontario Hydro. One of the leaders of a movement that eventually forced the government to back off from its headlong rush to sell off the public utility was provincial NDP leader Howard Hampton. His account of that battle, and the century-long struggle over ownership of Ontario’s energy resources, forms the backbone of Public Power.

Hampton is well situated to tell the tale; he once worked building hydro transmission towers in Northern Ontario, and as a politician, he knows the backrooms of Ontario politics, where decisions about the province’s energy future are often made. He provides an interesting history of the development of hydro, and how much of Ontario’s economic progress has been based on access to reasonably priced electricity rates. Hampton paints a bygone era when Hydro representatives hit the travelling-circus circuit, promoting electricity use with a wide variety of then-unheard-of appliances such as dishwashers and electric stoves. He also manages to show how debates about power ownership at the close of the 19th century eerily presaged those at the start of the 21st.

Public Power is ultimately a cautionary tale, exploring both the disastrous results of energy privatization and the resulting blackouts and skyrocketing rates that afflicted Britain and various parts of the United States, as well as the move in many of these same jurisdictions back to public ownership of utilities. Hampton also provides roadmaps for environmentally friendly energy solutions.

While the story is a valuable one often well told, the book occasionally suffers from an excess of self-righteous rhetoric that can only come from a politician gearing up for an imminent election. Some sections read as if taken directly from soapbox speeches or broadsides aimed from the opposition benches in the legislature. These passages cheapen the effort, and tend to make otherwise sound arguments vulnerable to the charge of being so much political hay.