Public Values

Framing wars: The public battle over privatization

P3s are a solution looking for a problem.

The regional hospital in Abbotsford, BC, built by a P3, is widely seen as a giant Murray Dobbin

When big business tries to sell something they like to get out in front with the pitch and control the language of the debate. Some terms they have established include: "free trade" (which is not about trade and certainly not free); "tax relief" (which really involves transferring more wealth to the richest 10 percent); and the "deficit crisis", which is really an excuse to cut social service.

Whoever sets the rules of engagement usually wins the fight. In the public debate over the role of government, the public discourse so far has largely been framed in favour of business. If the defenders of public services and public space in general want to prevail they have to work just as hard at framing — or reframing — the key issues.

Neo-liberals destroyed an enormous amount of government infrastructure in the 1980s and 1990s, in the push for privatization. But during the process, the public turned against this key part of the neo-liberal agenda. Polls showed that people reacted negatively to selling off crown corporations — Air Canada, PetroCan, CN rail, phone companies and dozens of other utilities and crown corporations.

In response, the corporate and political elite reframed privatization to something that sounds a lot more benign and acceptable: public private partnerships or P3s. The ongoing battle over P3s — particularly in BC and Ontario — is a classic example of framing wars, the ideological fight for hearts and minds.

The fight against this recasting of language around privatization has been going on for almost ten years in Canada. In the UK, organized groups have been fighting since the early 1990s, when the first P3s — called Private Finance Initiatives — were established. They have swept through the health care system and infrastructure sectors. Both P3s and Private Finance Initiatives involve private consortiums coming together to design, build, finance and operate pubic facilities — all locked into 20-30 year contracts.

To fight against this form of privatization, progressive groups have had to do some strategic reframing of their own.

Opponents of privatization have tried to neutralize the corporate advantage in framing the issue of P3s — in this case, by trying to establish in the public mind that P3s are in fact simply privatization by another name. Remember, Canadians have a negative response to conventional privatization.

We can't ignore the term P3 but we can reframe the issue to remind people what it really means. In characterizing P3s as privatization it is equally important to choose terms carefully — avoiding any that tend present corporations in neutral or positive terms such as "private enterprise," or "free enterprise" or "free market". Instead, we must use terms that trigger people's generally sceptical attitude towards corporations: "for profit," "corporate," "consortium," or "multinational."

The P3 promoters have a number of key frames that they use repeatedly to sell their alleged benefits. One frame is the myth of for-profit efficiency, which builds on two decades of neo-liberal assaults on government as inefficient.

Reframing this argument involves making two separate points. First, we must remind people that P3s in fact are not more efficient. Not only are they are more expensive, but they must be monitored, which involves both increased bureaucracy and also additional time and effort — thus making these operations much less efficient.

Perhaps more important in terms of evoking the audience's progressive core values is to remind people that efficiency is just one of the ways you assess a service — and not necessarily the most important, especially when we are talking about public services such as health care, water treatment, education or child care.

Providing health care is not the same as having your lawn cut. Caring, equity, a holistic approach, attention to special needs, are just a few of the healing qualities that are sacrificed in a model that judges everything by cost efficiency.

Another key frame for the promoters is innovation. As US framing expert George Lakoff says, you cannot openly name a frame in order to negate it, because the effort just evokes the frame in people's minds. So we cannot win by claiming that the for-profit sector is not innovative.

To reframe, we must point out that all innovation is for sale to anyone — including governments — with the money to buy or rent the innovation. Relying on government to build or run a facility in the conventional manner does not mean innovative technology is suddenly not available.

A third frame used by promoters is the claim that P3 projects will always be built on time and on budget. To counter this claim opponents of this form of privatization argue that the tools used to ensure on-time, on budget construction — bonuses and penalties — can be used by anyone, including governments doing projects in the conventional manner. They can add that the enormous bonuses provided to P3 consortiums — up to 30 percent of the total cost — are much higher than the average cost overrun of conventional projects.

Framing a public policy issue often involves both reframing — taking the power of the frame away from the other side by explicitly countering their frames — and framing using our strengths. So while we need to reframe their chosen themes of efficiency, innovation and on-time construction, we also use our strengths.

In the P3 case these strengths are ample and persuasive. Here are just a few:

  • P3s are demonstrably more expensive, a fact that promoters no longer even bother denying. The private consortium always pays a higher interest rate in financing the project and the profit — often guaranteed at 16 percent or more — adds even more to the cost.

  • They are far less accountable to the public — a very important touchstone in Canadian politics these days. The contracts are virtually unbreakable, and they rarely accessible to the public even though FOI.

  • P3s set up adversarial relationships between government and service providers. If anything in the contract is unclear, then the prospect of litigation over who is financially responsible for what expenses is very real. Law suits involving P3 contractors and governments are legion.

  • P3s open up pubic services to the potential challenges under corporate rights agreements like NAFTA.

When thinking about the framing of the issue we must keep in mind that the messenger in most issues is as important as the message: we need unusual spokespersons (beyond civil society and union officials) especially on economic issues where the lines are so clearly drawn.

Reframing involves using their traditional messengers to deliver our message wherever that is possible. For example, the real experts who have hands-on experience — ex-hospital administrators, water plant managers, sewage plant operators, etc — are excellent spokespersons. Official auditors' reports have been very critical of P3s and these have been extremely useful. Retired government auditors — who are seen as personifying the public interest — can be hired as consultants to analyze specific projects before they are built (this strategy has been used successfully in BC).

A key element in framing is story telling — telling the most evocative horror stories of P3s gone wrong. These include the BC hospital that doubled in cost, Nova Scotia schools which were effectively purchased twice by the government, the story of a P3 prison in the US where three dangerous prisoners escaped for three days before the management found out or the Hamilton sewage treatment plant that changed corporate hands three times in 10 years.

Lastly, focus on the fact that governments have been building water treatment and sewage plants and hospitals for decades with no serious drawbacks. That lets us frame P3s for what they are: a solution looking for a problem.

Murray Dobbin is a Vancouver author and journalist whose latest book, Paul Martin: CEO for Canada? is published by James Lorimer.

Posted: November 11, 2007

  Public services
  Front lines
  Voices of privatization

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