FREDERICTON – The provincial government is entering into discussions with Quebec that could include talk of privatizing NB Power.

On Tuesday, Premier Shawn Graham said the province will hold talks this summer with the Quebec government, which will also include officials from Hydro-Québec and NB Power, the province’s often-maligned electric utility.

Graham said the main focus will be on securing more cheap hydro power from Quebec, perhaps in exchange for the use of New Brunswick’s electrical grid.

But Graham was quickly asked by reporters if the talks would focus on privatizing NB Power – a point he didn’t deny.

“This is going to be a very broad discussion. It’s preliminary,” he said. “There are going to be a number of hypothetical questions out there.”

The Liberals have previously floated the idea of privatizing the debt-ridden utility ($3.2 billion and counting).

The original privatization plan, however, was hatched by the former Conservative government of Bernard Lord.

In October of 2004, NB Power was broken into five different companies to trigger the end of the state monopoly, in response to cries for outside competition.

But the plan was never carried out to the end goal.

Energy Minister Jack Keir now contends the utility is a $1.5-billion company divided into five silos. He has previously said the utility must either be pushed closer to privatization, or pulled closer to government.

Movement on the file was suppose to occur early in 2009, but so far nothing has materialized.

On Tuesday, Keir was again asked about the possibility of privatizing NB Power in an editorial board meeting with the Telegraph-Journal.

Like Graham, he spoke vaguely about the Quebec talks, but wouldn’t rule out a move toward privatization.

“It’s just the start. It’s just some discussions. We’ll see where it takes us,” he said.

Keir’s evolving stance on privatizing NB Power comes in stark contrast to the Liberals’ initial position.

During the 2006 election, the Liberals pledged to maintain NB Power as publicly owned utility.

But that position has softened, notably after a debacle late last year involving hidden bonuses and pay hikes for the utility’s CEO and other executives.

The controversy quickly escalated into claims that the Liberals are dangerously unaware of the utility’s business and operations.

Keir quickly blamed the Opposition Tories for leaving the utility in a kind of no-man’s land – caught in a state of partial privatization.

Certainly the idea of shedding NB Power from the public sphere has supporters.

Charles Cirtwill, for example, hasn’t hesitated when asked which direction the government should go: “Just sell it and get it over with.”

Cirtwill is the executive vice-president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax-based think-tank.

“Their best solution is to sell the bloody thing and have a regulator set up to monitor it,” he said in a previous interview following the NB Power bonus scandal.

According to Cirtwill, the utility should be put down the same path as its cousin, Nova Scotia Power, now a subsidiary of the energy firm Emera.

“The challenge you have is government trying to run a business, but you don’t have anyone in government with the credentials. That doesn’t mean they’re evil or that they’re trying to rip people off. It just means they don’t have experience operating private sector companies,” he said.

“They’re trying to do too many things and as a result no one is really in charge and the accountability is confused. It’s a recipe for this type of confusion, consternation and quagmire. They created a complex structure and as a result they’re getting exactly what you’d expect: a mess.”