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Opinion It’s time to put ‘public’ back into government services

Warren (Smokey) Thomas is president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

The dramatic collapse this week of the British outsourcing giant Carillion is a wake-up call: we can't trust privatization, and it's time for us to close the book on this failed policy.

It's not like we haven't had warning signs. Here in Ontario, we've had to endure years of financial pain wrought by privatization: the sell-off of Highway 407; the gas-plants scandal; Hydro One.

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It's the same story across the country. In Newfoundland and Labrador, privatized adult education has led to higher tuition and lower enrolment. In Alberta, privatized liquor sales have led to higher prices. In Ottawa, the new privatized payment system means tens of thousands of government workers aren't getting paid properly. And here in Ontario, the privatized payment system SAMS (Social Assistance Management System) continues to cause havoc and hardship to thousands of people who aren't getting the assistance payments they deserve. We've even had plenty of warning signs about Carillion. More than once, the corporation has earned the scorn of Ontario's Auditor-General.

In 2015, for example, the Auditor-General looked back at the "public private partnership" schemes that the province had used to build things such as highways and hospitals over the past decade, and found that we'd been overcharged by nearly $8-billion by the private "partners."

Carillion is also the biggest provider of privatized highway snow-clearing in Ontario. Two years ago, the Auditor-General looked at privatized snowplowing and found that it was slower and therefore left our highways more dangerous.

It will likely be months before we know the true cost of this collapse, but we can count on one thing: it's people like you and me who will left picking up the pieces and paying the bills.

Which leaves us with a big question: In the face of all this evidence, why do our politicians keep turning back to privatization?

Why is Ontario already rushing to replace Carillion's snowplowing contacts with another private contractor? Why is Ottawa rushing ahead with its "Infrastructure Bank," which is really just a scheme to streamline even more and bigger P3 (public-private partnership) contracts to secretive and shadowy corporations such as Carillion?

For one thing, many of the people who profit from privatization are often big donors to the political parties and candidates who support privatization. Privatization gives politicians a chance to play a shell game of their own: making it seem as though we don't have to pay for our public services. That lets them make it seem as though our budgets are balanced, and maybe even offer up a tax cut or two.

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But the truth is privatization makes us pay more – often billions more – in the long run. And I'm convinced more and more Canadians are coming to realize this.

My union is the major supporter in Canada of an international pro-public-services campaign called We Own It. The idea is to inspire pride of ownership in the public sector. After all, it belongs to all of us: we built it, we paid for it, we own it. In just a little over a year, more than 50,000 Ontarians have pledged their support for the campaign.

The Carillion collapse is just another painful reminder that we can't trust the private sector to provide reliable and affordable public services that we depend on.

This week, the Ontario Premier shuffled her cabinet, hoping to gain support. But if she were really serious about helping everyday Ontarians, she would have forged a cabinet with courageous and imaginative politicians who understand that we all suffer when we sell off our public services. And that we all benefit when we invest in those services instead.

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