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August 31, 2010

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Time for bold solutions to save public services

Every year at this time, union leaders like me are asked to share our thoughts on the significance of Labour Day and the contributions of working people to the communities where we live and work. I often say that working people are the true engines of the economy, and that will never change. But this year as Labour Day approaches, what has been changing is that senior levels of government are quicker to embrace the privatization of public services that union members provide.

These public services are being threatened more than ever by so-called public-private partnerships (P3s) and other forms of privatization. This threat is based on the false argument that public services contracted out to private operators provide better service at less cost—a myth reinforced daily in the big mainstream media, where right wing commentators are given generous column inches to extol the virtues of P3s and the global market.

Few would disagree that the private sector does good work when it comes to designing and building public infrastructure. But operation is a whole different story. With profit motive the key consideration, private contractors don’t have the same social investment in the effective operation of schools, hospitals and recreation centres that the locally-based public sector does. Nevertheless, when budgets are tight, federal and provincial governments often turn to privatization as the first and only solution.

So what are the alternatives? If governments are serious about generating new revenue to offset program costs, why not maximize the multiplier effect of our existing tax dollars—creating more revenue from consumer spending that stays in the community? Why not provide more opportunities for young entrepreneurs to stay in the communities where they live, so that they can develop innovative new products at home rather than joining the brain drain? We could also create additional revenue by promoting programs that use capital stock in municipalities. We could do leakage analysis in order to find ways to slow down the number of dollars that leave the community. We could consider programs that deal with import substitution to reduce, for example, our reliance on products flown in from other hemispheres.

These ideas have worked in the past, and they continue to prove effective in developing new revenue streams. Last year in Denver, Colorado, I saw them in action at a conference of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), which represents more than 21,000 independent business members across the U.S. and Canada.

When times are tough, federal and provincial governments are too quick to slash programs, throw people out of work and deprive citizens of public services they’ve come to rely on. And they’re too quick to embrace privatization as the easy, short-term fix—even though it may cost them so much more in the long term. What we really need right now is a bold, visionary approach to government that is unafraid of trying creative new revenue streams with an aim to protecting public services and the dedicated workers who provide them.

Barry O’Neill is president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, B.C. division.