Public Values

Privatization in many forms looms as potential election issue

Another public service nightmare story could galvanize debate.

Government oversight of public health and safety could become an election issue.by Ish Theilheimer

Privatization and government downsizing have produced explosive news stories this year, but privatization itself has not yet emerged as an election issue. Perhaps it should. Consider the number of related issues that have risen to national prominence in the past two years:

Food safety. First came the April 1 move to self-management systems (SMS) in the food industry, under which companies inspect themselves and inspectors mostly just audit their inspections. Then came the leak of plans to extend this system and get government out of food inspection entirely. Then came the listeriosis outbreak, of which Canada has not seen the end.

This summer's huge propane explosion in Toronto is widely believed to be a result of government downsizing under Mike Harris government, and taking regulatory authority out of public hands. While gas regulations are provincial, this fatal disaster illustrated the dangers of turning public safety over to the private sector.

Consumer safety has been a prominent concern since the discovery of toxic substances in children's toys, pet foods and other imported products. In addition, federal laboratories have been closed or downsized, with testing contracted out to private firms. After the pet food scare, the Harper government brought in new consumer protection rules that increase fines on manufacturers who sell unsafe products, but whether public ability to inspect imported products has increased much is subject to sharp debate.

Airline safety. Thousands of Southwest Airline passengers in the US were grounded this year to due to neglected maintenance encouraged by the same sort of self-management systems that may have produced the listeriosis outbreak. Now Canada is set to introduce the same sort of system to deregulate its airlines. Will Canadian travellers experience the same kind of delays and ongoing safety violations as Americans have experienced under the new system?

Postal deregulation appears a real possibility, with the federal government conducting a review of Canada Post. If postal deregulation proceeds, many Canadians may find the mail service they now take for granted will become another major expense item, like cell phones and cable TV, two more telecommunications sectors in which battles are underway between private and public interests.

Health care has, for years, been the most prominent of public-private controversies, and Canadians tell pollsters it is their number one concern. Canada's beloved public health care system is under attack from under-funding and the availability, in various provinces, of a range of elite private health services. The direction Canada's next government chooses will have long-term implications.

The push for P3s. Even their opponents are forced to use the lingo of those who push for corporate financing of public infrastructure, better known by the more promotional name, Public-Private Partnerships or P3s. The 2007 and 2008 federal budgets included measures that virtually force provinces, municipalities and hospitals to look first at this kind of financing. Problems continue to occur in privately-financed and managed public projects, and they have often been troublesome for municipalities that get involved, but P3s, so far, have stayed off the political radar.

The Canadian Wheat Board has been a long-time target of the Harper Conservatives and the Reform Party before them and a topic of heated controversy since Harper took office. His government, with its tilt toward big business and its bias against collective marketing has worked, since installed, to strip the Board of its powers.

Child care. One of the earliest "trademark" acts of the Harper government was to halt efforts toward a national early childhood education program and replace it with a system of child care grants for families that do not come close to meeting the cost of professional care. As a result, many families are forced to place children in unregulated private car. It's hard for parents to feel much comfort leaving their children with caregivers who are not accountable professionals, but that was the choice this government made.

Prisons. Although there has been virtually no public discussion, Canada could be headed toward private jails with which Ontario unsuccessfully experimented under Mike Harris. The Harper government hired Harris' former privatization minister to conduct a review of Canada's prison system and then brought in a harsh punishments for criminals convicted of everything from marijuana possession to gun crimes that are expected to result in more prisoners doing more time and a sudden demand for prison space that can only be met with hastily-built private prisons.

Other privatization and public service issues lurk, including water export, post-secondary education, and social services. Any could become a battleground, if another Maple Leaf Foods or Walkerton or toxic pet food story blows up at the right time in the election campaign.

Privatization vs. Public Values Frame
  Free market providers can police themselves / Separate profit-making and safety decisions

Posted: September 11, 2008

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