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P3 promoters met in Toronto this November in a conference billed as putting public private partnerships under the microscope. But they only had one specimen on their slide: the profits to be made from privatizing public infrastructure and services.

Participants in the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships annual conference zeroed in on the vast and growing infrastructure gap facing governments. The gap, pegged at between $60 and $120 billion, is the cost of upgrading, maintaining and building new roads, water systems, hospitals and other public infrastructure. Corporations and politicians at the conference were eager to promote the private sector as the only way to rebuild Canadian communities. But it was clear that the pushers are encountering their fair share of obstacles, including CUPEs sustained and substantial opposition.

CUPE has thrown up many roadblocks by analyzing P3 plans, exposing the flaws, building community coalitions and communicating our findings broadly. Several key P3 players approached CUPE staff observing the conference, wondering why we couldnt all just get along.

Evidence of CUPEs impact came during a session on how to spin P3s and try to get ahead of community opposition from groups like CUPE. The session is a warning of new approaches to sell P3s. The privateers plan to focus on building their own coalitions and influencing community leaders. They also want to steer public attention away from the P3 process, which is extremely vulnerable to criticism. Instead, the privateers hope to focus on the promised outcomes as a way to sell P3s. However, whatever promises they make cannot erase the poor outcomes of many P3s underway or cancelled. As the CCPPP tries to step up its push, CUPE will work to stay one step ahead of their plans with solid research and strong community support.

The CCPPP is intent on shifting public opinion on P3s. They kicked off the conference with the release of a poll they claimed showed majority support for P3s among Canadians. However, the polls key question was a loaded one, focusing on a lot of ifs rather than the realities of P3s. Respondents were asked whether they would support P3s if access to services remained the same, if the quality of services was the same or better and if the cost to you was no more than if the government was providing the services all claims that havent panned out with P3s in Canada and around the world.

The private sector identified British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec as current hotbeds for health care P3s, and representatives from those three governments emphasized that they were open for business. Ontario was seen as sending mixed messages, despite giving the go-ahead for two P3 hospitals. Meeting sessions also focused on P3s for aboriginal communities.

Several lessons emerged from the conference about the British experience with P3s (known there as PFIs). Workers delivering public services, mainly women, are being hit hard. And while government regulations provide some shelter for workers wages and benefits under a PFI scheme, new hires have no protection effectively entrenching a two-tier workforce.

Finally, corporations in the United Kingdom have realized only the biggest projects are profitable, an approach that has spilled over into B.C., where the government is considering regionalized private management and operation of school infrastructure.

CUPE National President Paul Moist wrote to every public sector representative speaking at the conference, sharing CUPEs research on public sector alternatives to P3s and urging them to take the public route to rebuild strong communities. Aboriginal CUPE members wrote to Aboriginal conference presenters with the same message.