By Paul Moist
The battle for our communities is heating up. Prime Minister Paul Martin is back in the news promoting his New Deal for cities, a long-overdue response to the growing infrastructure crisis in Canadas cities and towns.
But is it the real deal?
Is it enough to tackle the combined threats of under-funding, downloading and privatization in our communities?
Starved and burdened by more than a decade of under-funding and downloading of responsibilities, our communities are struggling to provide the basic services we all rely on to stay healthy, safe and well-educated.
Finally, it looks like some cash is starting to flow. But far from solving the crisis, Martins plan for cities and towns would actually further endanger our communities.
Why? Theres just not much new in this deal. Its not enough and it comes with private strings attached.
The “New Deal” for cities should aim to publicly fund the public infrastructure needs of communities across the country. Canadas mayors are calling for $60 billion to address the deficit, but the New Deal funding is currently set at an insufficient $2 billion over five years.
Worse, Prime Minister Paul Martin has not earmarked this money for public spending. Instead, he is encouraging municipalities to arrange public private partnerships or P3s despite their record of secret deals, higher costs and poorer service. The better way is to keep infrastructure publicly invested and publicly controlled.
The infrastructure deficit is the consequence of a federal and provincial cut-backs, followed by a reckless program of downloading to municipalities by the latter. To be fair, municipal governments have in some cases added to the problem through poor urban planning with heavy emphasis on urban sprawl and development-induced capital spending.
But now, big business interests are using this manufactured crisis of under-funding and downloading to push their for-profit response as the solution. Clearly, big business must find the historical collaborative processes between governments and private companies inadequate today. No longer content to merely build public buildings and infrastructure through tendered construction processes, the corporate sector is pushing to own as well as operate community infrastructure such as highways, bridges, and water services through P3-type arrangements.
But private, for-profit solutions have been bad for our communities.
This past summer, a controversial P3 recreation centre in Cranbrook, BC, was taken back into the public sector in what the mayor calls a new beginning for the city. In 2000, the Nova Scotia government scrapped its P3 plans to build more schools, after 33 P3 schools came in $32 million over-budget. Finance Minister Neil LeBlanc said that the [P3] school program was an expensive experiment that cost Nova Scotians dearly.
Ontario is grappling with steep toll hikes on its privatized highway 407: the company running the for-profit highway has raised rates for some peak hours more than 200 per cent in the past four years, prompting a court battle over the terms of the 90-year deal.
The residents of Hamilton, ON, know too well how disastrous privatization really is. The city there just brought back its water and wastewater treatment plants back into the public sector after a decade-long experience with for-profit management there, ending an era of secrecy, spilled sewage, malfunctioning equipment and a revolving door of corporate owners. Concerted citizen effort turned the tide in that battle.
The success in Hamilton reminds us that there is an alternative to settling for costly private sector mismanagement public control and democratic decision-making beats privatization every time.
And this success mirrors other huge citizen victories against privatization that have been won locally elsewhere, notably Vancouver and Halifax. Local struggles reversing the privatization of municipal and other public services may well be the early skirmishes in a longer battle to find public, long-term and sustainable solutions to the countrys infrastructure deficit.
This is why CUPE is launching a new campaign to rebuild strong communities on what were calling Communities Day on October 5th.
We say, rebuild, because, every day across this country, people are fending off cutbacks and privatization. Too many politicians are pushing privatization in everything from health care to community infrastructure as the solution.
But that would just make things worse, and leave us with strained public services at all levels, less access to quality services, fewer decent-paying jobs and a growing economic gap that threatens social cohesion.
Our campaign will unfold differently in communities across the country, depending on pressing needs and local conditions. We will act as one, though, in our purpose and our resolve to rebuild strong communities. This October 5th marks the first time that we are organizing such an effort, one that will be surely build over the coming years.
This October 5th, were starting what we hope will be a vigorous, year-long discussion to rebuild strong communities.
This is one discussion in which everyone can take an active part.
Paul Moist is national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.