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Clark hammered on hydro rates at second byelection forum

Candidates wasted no time hammering Premier Christy Clark at a Westside Kelowna byelection forum this morning over her energy minister's indication yesterday that B.C.'s electricity rates must rise.

Minister Bill Bennett told reporters Thursday that the rate increase is necessary to pay for costly upgrades to the province's aging power infrastructure.

"My job will be to restrain the increases, but there's no way we can continue to sell power to customers, whether they're commercial or industrial or residential, at the rates that we're selling it right now," Bennett reportedly said.

Fired-up BC NDP candidate Carole Gordon jumped on the news in her forum opening statement, arguing that the minister's comments shows that Premier Clark says one thing -- that rates and taxes won't rise, and that spending is under control -- but does another.

"My big question is: just how much are BC Hydro rates going to go up?" Gordon asked.

B.C. Conservative candidate Sean Upshaw called Clark's message of a balanced budget and controlled spending a "grand delusion," and said under her leadership the government has added $12 billion to the provincial debt.

"She won't admit that. She'll smile right through it like it doesn't exist, but the truth of the matter is, it does," he said. "Don't be fooled, Hydro rates will go up by 50 per cent. I don't see her smiling about that."

Last August, BC Hydro cut its proposed rate hike over three years in half, from 30 to 16 per cent, following a government review.

Hydro's lack of preparation for a significant natural disaster was also the focus of debate in the legislature yesterday. A December 2012 internal audit, which The Tyee obtained through freedom of information and reported on July 1, found the Crown corporation isn't ready to respond to an earthquake or other similar event, which could lead to the widespread loss of power for months.

Clark, having lost her seat in the May general election, is vying to become Westside-Kelowna's MLA in a byelection on July 10. Seven candidates total participated in this morning's forum, which focused on local issues such as postsecondary education and jobs training in the Okanagan, transportation, and municipal funding priorities.

Throughout, each candidate highlighted the fact that Premier Clark isn't a resident of the area, and attempted to position themselves as more knowledgeable advocates for the region.

Early on, Clark admitted that she lost her Vancouver-Point Grey seat in the election because she was out stumping for the BC Liberals across the rest of the province, but argued that she is the candidate that best represents Westside-Kelowna's values.

"This riding doesn't need someone who complains," she said, but "someone who can get what it's earned."

This morning's forum followed a lively first-round candidates' debate last evening.

Robyn Smith reports for The Tyee.

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