As the inquiry into Walkertons contaminated water tragedy expanded its scope to look at provincial government policies, corporate interests stepped up their efforts to push privatization as the solution to underfunded, resource-starved public water systems.
Before the inquiry had even begun to untangle the complex conditions that led to the tragedy, privateers under the umbrella of the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships and Environment Probe took aim with their magic bullet, targeting the untapped profits of Ontarios water systems.
At presentations throughout Part 2 of the Walkerton Inquiry and in the pages of the National Post, these groups argued the multi-billion dollar infrastructure needs of the province could only be met through the private sectors deep pockets. They also fabricated horror stories about public sector conflict of interest, claiming governments cannot properly regulate public services they also provide.
Advocates for improved public water systems, including CUPE, were able to deflect and deflate the privateers arguments. They countered private sector claims with a watertight case showing the higher quality, greater accountability, stronger environmental protection and affordability of public ownership and control of water systems.
Together with the Canadian Environmental Law Association and the Ontario Public Services Employees Union, CUPE presented a wide-ranging paper to the inquiry. Detailed analysis demonstrated municipalities have excellent credit ratings that allow them to finance water infrastructure at far better rates of interest than the private sector. Breaking down the enormous cost projections, the report shows municipalities have the borrowing room to steadily invest in upgrading water systems.
The paper also poked holes in the privateers conflict of interest allegations, arguing that well-defined roles and a commitment to enforcement were the keys to strong regulation not privatization. In fact, the Ontario government had the opportunity to regulate municipalities a separate level of government that creates no conflict of interest but chose instead to cut costs, deregulate, privatize lab testing and slash red tape. Supplementary evidence from international privatization experts showed Britains water regulator has been weak in the face of powerful water corporations.
The paper showed municipalities are well-placed to run efficient water operations because they dont have to add in profit margins, and argued the private sector doesnt have a monopoly on innovation since municipalities can easily access expertise and technology they then own and control.
After scrutinizing the questions of security of supply, quality assurance, environmental protection, public accountability and full and fair pricing of water, the report concluded there is no area where the private sector can do a better job than the public sector in providing water services. On the contrary, the report concluded public ownership and managementhas a clear advantage, regardless of whether it is compared to outright private ownership or public-private partnerships.
In January 2002, the first report of the Walkerton Inquiry concluded provincial budget cuts and inadequate regulation were key factors in the tainted water tragedy. The report looked specifically at the events of May 2000 in Walkerton. While former Ontario Premier Mike Harris tried to pin all the blame on the mistakes of utility management and staff, Justice Dennis OConnor found the governments distaste for regulation and lack of oversight or coordination after privatizing water testing were also to blame.
Failure to monitor and enforce proper safeguards and procedures in Walkerton was linked directly to staff and budget cuts at the Ministry of Environment. The report includes new training requirements in its call for more resources, clear responsibilities and procedures, as well as strong regulation.
The evidence showing the real culprits at Walkerton should quell further calls for privatization. Downloading, deregulation, inadequate training and privatization combined to create the tragedy that killed seven and made thousands more ill. Learning from ideologically-driven policy mistakes, its clear the safest and securest future for water systems lies in public hands.