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By Barry ONeill

When corporations tell you they can do the job of government cheaper and better than the government can, hang onto your wallet. The evidence shows that when business steps into the public arena prices go up and services go down.

British Columbians are being softened up to allow business interests to take over many of the public services we take for granted.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation is calling for the wholesale privatization of government services. It chastised Liberal leader Gordon Campbell for saying that when he was mayor of Vancouver, public sector workers provided better value than private sector workers nine times out of ten.

It appears the new premier was quick to reverse his opinion, under pressure from the privatization forces. Campbell has promised to cut BCs government ministries by up to 50 per cent. Private hands will be waiting to take over delivery of integral public services.

But can we afford such a shift?

In Nova Scotia, the provincial government contracted private companies to design, build and manage more than 30 schools. But, in June 2000, Nova Scotia said no more. Construction costs for the schools had risen by $32 million under private management. Nova Scotias Minister of Education said, When you think $32 million would build three of those schools, its hard not to get angry.

BCs municipal governments have a huge advantage over private companies when it comes to building and managing projects. We benefit by being part of a financial cooperative called the Municipal Financing Authority that has earned a Triple A financial rating. Private operators must pay more to borrow money, and then pass these costs on to taxpayers through higher taxes or higher fees for community services such as recreation.

The Consumers Association of Canada has released a report showing that British Columbias publicly owned insurance company, ICBC, is providing cheaper service than private companies do in Ontario.

Recently, the Greater Vancouver Regional District considered handing management of their water plant over to a foreign company. In Britain, this practice has resulted in great expense to the public and the environment. Privatized water companies were named as among the worst business polluters in England and Wales this year.

When you ask, people say they want public services kept public. An Ipsos Reid poll this spring showed 70 per cent of British Columbians flatly opposed handing control of their water services over to private companies.

Cost is one consideration. Service to the public and social responsibility another. When privatization consumes the public sector, we lose one more thing: accountability.

Contracts with private companies are frequently kept secret. You can try to find out what your government is doing under Freedom of Information law. But that legislation protects private companies.

You can vote your local city councillor or your MLA out of office. Try to fire the president of the multi-national water company that has just taken over managing your water for the next 30 years.

Certainly there is a place for local businesses to share in providing public services in their communities.

What is questionable is the claim of those pushing for privatization that private sector managers can do the job better, simply because they are in the business of business.

Can anyone actually argue that we are better served by Air Canada today than when it was a federal crown corporation? Or that Nortel responsibly managed peoples investments?

The tragic events of September 11 have raised other questions. Who do we want managing the security of our airports? Who do we trust to ensure the safety of our water supply? Do we want well-paid, well-trained public employees, or do we want minimum wage workers employed by profit-driven companies?

Finally, who really wins with privatization? Corporations win as taxes are shifted from public services to private profits. The provincial government might see a decline in its total spending. But as citizens of BC, we may soon be wearing holes in our pockets as we dig ever deeper to pay inflated prices for the services once provided by our government.

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Barry ONeill is president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees BC, representing 65,000 workers in this province. For more information, please see the website at cupe.bc.ca.