Public Values

Privatization – Harper Conservatives quietly eye options

Nuclear sell-off and private prisons may be on horizon.

Will the federal panel on prison reform bring in privatization by the back door?OTTAWA, July 12, 2007: Although Stephen Harper has been careful not to mention the word, privatization appears to be quietly making its way onto the government agenda.

Last week, news broke that the federal government is negotiating to sell a large share of Crown-owned Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd to General Electric Co. According to the Toronto Star, Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn has been leading the privatization discussions, along with AECL's new chair, Michael Burns.

"Lunn is driving this himself," one source told the Star. "GE is very confident that this is a done deal." AECL is a Crown corporation in the nuclear research and manufacturing business. It makes and maintains the CANDU heavy water reactor, of which 22 operate in Canada.

Cabinet would need to approve the deal, and it might open the process to other bidders, particularly France's state-owned nuclear giant Areva Group, with which Lunn has reportedly met. While there is talk of the government's "preference" to maintain a majority stake in AECL's commercial CANDU business, it appears any proposal might be considered.

"In polls Canadians express wariness over selling the government-owned nuclear facilities, probably because voters are afraid private companies would cut corners in the name of profit and risk meltdowns and Chernobyl-type disasters," says pollster Marc Zwelling of Vector Research. This may account for the quiet nature of these negoatiations and the lack of public comment on the idea of selling off AECL.

Back door prison privatization?

While these negotiations continue, a federal review of prisons is being carried out by Rob Sampson, who, as a Mike Harris Ontario cabinet minister, was the chief architect of the province's short-lived experiment with private prisons and "boot camps." Sampson served under Harris as privatization and then as correctional services minister.

He played a key role in establishing a private prison experiment. After five years of management by a Utah-based American correctional corporation, the Ontario "superjail" at Penetanguishene was returned to public sector management by the McGuinty Liberals, citing high operating costs and poor performance.

Sampson supported numerous privatization initiatives, including the controversial privatization of Highway 407 on an ironclad 99-year lease. He promoted the privatization of Ontario's prison system despite warnings, later substantiated by studies that this could result in decreased safety.

In April, federal Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day set up a panel headed by Sampson to review the operations of the federal prison system and report back October 31. Although Day said, "the question of privatization is not on the table," when he appointed Sampson, it is hard not to wonder about the panel's biases. Panelists include Sharon Rosenfeldt, co-founder of a group called Victims of Violence; Serge Gascon, a former Montréal police investigator; and Ian Glen, a former National Parole Board chairman.

Day proposes a "Canadian solution" to federal prison problems, which is likely to include a big increase in the prison population the Conservatives appear likely to create as with their tough approach to criminal justice.

John Howard Society executive director Craig Jones is concerned the panel will recommend "privatizaton by the back door." The Conservative proposal to eliminate statutory release (under which convicts serve the final third of their sentence in the community under conditions similar to parole) "would bring about a surge in the prison population of about 50 percent." To house this massive increase in prison population, "You could construct a scenario where you bring in private prisons through the back door because of emergency needs of housing a sudden surge in the prison population." Jones says private prisons "have had a really bad run in the US and Canadians are aware of that."

Pollster Zwelling agrees. "As with private nuclear reactors, voters oppose private jails, also on the grounds of public safety."

In any case, crime has been declining in Canada since the early 1990s, says Jones. "I don't think Canadians are interested in building more prisons in a context of declining crime." Prison construction is a quick source of government job creation, so building new ones could help the Conservatives in vulnerable ridings.

Criminologist Matthew Yeager believes the political baggage of privatization may keep it from being considered, but fears a massive investment in new prisons. He calls privatizaton a "red herring. The more serious and dangerous issues have to do with extending what I call enemy penology — expanding the list of suitable enemies to be locked up for longer periods of time, which will require a public building program."

Yeager, a member of the faculty of Kings University College at the University of Western Ontario, is alarmed with the secretive way in which the panel is working and a repeated pattern of government officials concealing the panel's activities and purposes. "You now a group of people spending three million dollars in public funds, government officials lying about it and conducting a blackout, and a group of officials who come to the issue without a lot of experience.

"It's a payoff to the right wing of the Conservative party," said Jones. The government will be able to point to the panel as evidence of action without taking too much action. The panel is largely symbolic, he says, with 13 major policy items to cover in 50 days and no members with professional experience in corrections. "Any one of those 13 items would command the undivided attention of an expert for 50 days, and there isn't an expert on this panel."

"I think if they were able to get their own way [the Conservatives] would privatize everything," said Jones. He does not believe, however, that privatization will go ahead because it would hurt the Conservatives politically. Instead, he believes the panel is a political sop to important Conservative constituencies.

Prior to his return to electoral politics, Stephen Harper as head of the National Citizens Coalition (NCC) one of Canada's leading privatization advocacy groups. Since the 1960s, the NCC has campaigned to "de-unionize" the workforce, privatize and/or eliminate public sector services, and discredit activities carried out through the public sector such as education or health care.

Privatization vs. Public Values Frame
  Review / Sell-off, privatization
  Rob Sampson / Privatization
  Law and order / Prison surge, crime rate decline, enemy penology

Links and sources
  Day denies prison privatization plans but is he being honest? National Union
  Privatization guru to review federal prison system, CanWest News Service
  PRIVATE PRISONS, John Howard Society of Alberta 2002
  Tories eye nuclear sell-off, Toronto Star, July 6
  Ottawa to take hard look at federal prison system: Day, CBC News, April 20, 2007
  National Citizens Coalition, Harper Index, May 11, 2007

Posted: November 11, 2007

  Public services
  Voices of privatization

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