By Paul Moist
When Paul Martin starts talking about transformative change of the health care system, look out.
Current Liberal governments, whether in Ottawa, Quebec, BC or Ontario, seem to be listening more closely to their business backers than the views of Canadians when it comes to the public services we count on.
Under the guise of public-private partnerships, transformative change and re-engineering government, the Liberals trundle down the same path pioneered by Ralph Klein and Mike Harris toward the privatization of public services.
Maybe because we are on the front lines, dealing day to day with the public, public sector workers know that Canadians are strongly opposed to this erosion of public delivery of public services. And because weve studied the experience of privatization across Canada and around the world, we know the public has every reason to be suspicious.
A new poll released last week by Ipsos-Reid shows an overwhelming majority 84 per cent of Canadians want their public services delivered by public sector workers accountable to elected representatives and the public, rather than by corporations accountable to their shareholders. Fifty-four per cent said they strongly agree with choosing public sector workers over for-profit suppliers.
Thats bad news for the pushers of privatization, despite their huge wallets and political connections. And it should serve as a wakeup call to Paul Martin, who recently appointed a parliamentary secretary for privatization, MP John McKay.
But its hardly surprising. Almost without exception, privatization has led to higher costs, poorer service and rampant buck-passing with taxpayers being left to pay the bill.
The Ipsos-Reid polling shows that women in particular are more likely to oppose privatization. And again, thats not surprising. When public services are privatized, women are hit with a triple whammy. Not only do they suffer service cuts and fee hikes, they are often expected to fill the void, caring for family members and picking up the slack as community services are lost. Worse still, they are the ones most likely to loose their jobs through privatization, as stable public sector jobs that pay enough to support a family are replaced by low-wage, part-time work with private contractors.
Canadians are equally skeptical of so-called private-public partnerships or P3s. When asked whether Canada should rebuild its public infrastructure hospitals, schools, highways and water systems through direct public investment or through P3s, 75 per cent say keep it public.
What they know, and what our politicians seem to have forgotten, is that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Turning over vital public services to corporations many of them multinationals is like handing them a license to print money. It costs the private sector more to finance these projects even before you build in their profit margins. Access to service falls and corners are cut, reducing quality and safety. And at the end of the day, its impossible to hold the corporations to account as they claim confidential privileges and hide behind trade and investment treaties.
Whether we look at the sorry history of P3 schools in Nova Scotia, Highway 407 in Ontario or looming P3 hospitals across the country, we see the politicians ducking their responsibility, the corporations reaping windfall profits and the public left holding the bag.
Canadians dont want this sort of transformative change. Instead what they are calling for is direct public investment the cheapest and most responsible way to rebuild strong public services, which in turn are the cornerstone to strong communities.
That means good old-fashioned public bonds, rather than dodgy Enron-like off-book financing schemes that require the public sector to lease a hospital or a school, or pay for a mortgage at a privateers interest rate.
It also means public delivery not just public funding of health care and other vital services.
Paul Martin and the federal Liberals bear special responsibility for the decline of national public services. Deep cuts to spending on health care, education, social services and public infrastructure have resulted in a huge social deficit.
There are some within government and among the cheerleaders for privatization who have used this manufactured crisis to justify their call for the private sector to play a greater role in delivering public services. But the public sees through this cynical game and they want no part of it.
The message from Canadians to Martin and the premiers is we want our public services in public hands and we want our tax dollars to pay for publicly owned and delivered public services, not to pump up corporate profits.
Paul Moist is National President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Canadas largest union representing a half million public service workers.
The Ispos-Reid poll was conducted with 1,057 respondents between March 30 and April 1, 2004. Results are considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times of 20 and are available at www.ipsos-reid.com
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CUPE National President