Big business has big plans for Ontario’s public sector.
The other week I attended the Ontario Economic Summit, put on by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. A lot of business leaders were there. And here’s what I learned: business has never been more eager to take over public services and buy public assets than it is right now.
We know that profit is what business is about. And to the Chamber, the public sector is an opportunity for growth and revenue. But at what cost to the people of Ontario?
What business and the Liberal government ignore is that privatization (no matter what you call it) has a lousy track record in Ontario (see Epic Fail – a short history of privatization in Ontario (with report) and Better, cheaper, fairer: the case for contracting in of public services in Ontario). It typically fails to deliver on its promise of better, cheaper services, or increased revenues to government. But it always seems to deliver a tidy profit to investors. That’s why business loves it.
The public, on the other hand, is much more skeptical. So when the privatization promoters come knocking, we need to challenge them.
Can they really make a case that a particular privatization will deliver gains to the public and to government?
Can they really make services and assets more productive, or will they just squeeze profits out of jobs and wages?
Most importantly, are they willing to meet public sector standards for openness and transparency?
Make no mistake about it: the reason we keep hearing about one Liberal scandal after another is that the public sector is transparent. Government budgets are public documents. Government spending is scrutinized by an auditor general, a houseful of MPPs, and an army of reporters. Heck, if my public sector neighbour works enough overtime, I can even find out his salary!
But when private meets public, it seems, everything is hidden. Contract details are secret. And if a company boss makes his living off public dollars, you can be sure his salary won’t be trotted out to the press once a year. That’s private.
For a while now, provincial unions across Canada have been promoting a five-point plan to protect public services from privatization. What it is, really, is a test: can private sector companies meet public sector standards?
I don’t think they can, quite frankly. But I’m willing to watch them try.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas
President, Ontario Public Service Employees Union