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During the Ontario leaders debate, Dalton McGuinty jokingly promised a pony for every boy and girl in the province. Well, the Liberal leader is about to get a horse a really big horse, parked right in front of his Ottawa campaign headquarters.

This afternoon at 2 p.m. EST, a 15-foot-high Trojan horse that has been touring Ontario to publicize the issue of privatized hospitals will make a stop at McGuintys office. Private health care is a major issue in this election, thanks to a new contract to privatize Royal Ottawa Hospital. The Conservative government has just signed it, and the NDP has said theyll scrap it.

As for the Liberals, they havent exactly taken a strong stand on this issue. A few weeks ago, McGuinty suggested he would let it slide, but stop all other private hospital deals. Then, two days ago, he announced he would cancel the ROH contract. Yesterday, he backtracked, and said he wouldnt cancel if it means paying a penalty fee. One of McGuintys local lieutenants, Richard Patten, the Liberal MPP for the area where ROH is located, suggested the other night that hes not concerned about the deal at all.

There are many reasons why voters across the province should be very concerned about this $100-million contract. Many of these concerns have already been made public, including the hospitals allegation that the contract can only be cancelled with a stiff financial penalty. But until now, no one has bothered to take a close look at who benefits from it.

Its not the government who benefits, and its certainly not the people of Ontario, who depend on their hospitals for first-rate care. The group that benefits the most is a multinational consortium of companies, some of which have a very dubious track record when it comes to hospital management.

One of the deals principal signatories is a British company called Carillion, which has a long history of buying and managing hospitals in the United Kingdom. Lately, its newest hospital has been the subject of an extensive investigative series in the Wiltshire Evening Advertiser. The newspaper reported that the Great Western PFI Hospital in Swindon was the victim of huge cost overruns. It cost twice as much as originally planned, after the budget ballooned from its original estimate of $330 million to a final tally of $720 million. When the annual payments are factored in along with construction costs, British taxpayers will be dinged over $1 billion over the duration of the 30-year contract.

That figure doesnt include $27 million for a new ward that the hospital was forced to add, when it became obvious there wasnt enough room for patients. Thats because Carillions new and improved hospital had 80 fewer beds than the one it replaced.

There are similar stories at other Carillion-run hospitals in the United Kingdom. At the new Dartford hospital just outside London, for instance, there are 50 fewer beds than the one it replaced. And since the company didnt bother to put water in the operating rooms, surgeons dont have easy access to sterilization.

Carillion isnt just in the hospital business. Its also involved in transportation, but the companys track record for railways isnt any better. Carillion was recently fined more than $160,000 by the British government for health and safety violations that resulted in two serious workplace accidents at its privatized rail unit. Three months ago, the companys share price dropped 15% due to revelations of cost overruns and construction delays at another privatized transportation project.

Despite all this, Carillions chief executives continue to earn millions in salaries and bonuses. Meanwhile, workers at the companys new hospital in Swindon had to beg for a raise. When Carillion refused to give them more than the minimum wage, workers were forced to strike.

Another member of the consortium that wants to buy Royal Ottawa Hospital, Borealis Capital Corporation, has already developed a reputation with another Conservative government here in Canada. Its not a good reputation, though. A few years ago, Borealis played a key role in an ill-fated scheme to build and manage 15 schools in Nova Scotia. But when the provinces auditor general studied the deal, he announced it should not be used as a model for other operating leases. Shortly after, John Hamms Conservative Party was swept to power, and the new government decided to cancel the contract.

A couple of days ago, the Ottawa Citizen reported that the financial penalty for canceling the ROH deal is $10 million. Since it involves multinational companies that are entitled to trade agreement protections, it could actually cost even more. Whatever the penalty, it is still cheaper than the price of the current privatization plan, which involves a multi-decade lease that the consortium already admits is more costly to the public than owning the hospital outright in the first place.

In the leaders debate, both McGuinty and Premier Ernie Eves refused to answer this direct question from NDP leader Howard Hampton, who firmly opposes private hospitals: What are you going to sell to balance the budget? We know what Eves is planning to sell our hospitals. Hopefully Dalton McGuinty will listen to the Trojan horses warning, and stick to the statement he made earlier this week that Ontarios hospitals are not for sale.