Thursday, October 22, 2015

The case for keeping services in public hands

In the past few months, the provincial government has held a public forum and a healthcare summit as part of its Strategic Program Review. The goal is to find ways to save between $500 million and $600 million and improve service delivery for New Brunswickers.
During both meetings, a keynote speaker addressed the crowd and, in both cases, the message was the same - the benefits of privatization. At the public forum, Jon Bethel, a former British Columbia civil servant, spoke of the positives of alternate service delivery (i.e. privatization) implemented by the BC government. In the more recent health-care summit, Dr. Guus Banneberg spoke of how the Netherlands incorporates the private sector into its health-care system.
It appears the New Brunswick government is looking in this direction, despite numerous alternate suggestions for raising revenue and saving money from its citizens. The reasoning often associated with privatization is savings. In both instances, Health Minister Victor Boudreau made mention of this line of thinking.
At the public forum, he was quoted as saying, "There may be some areas when the private sector can deliver a program or a service more efficiently and still provide satisfactory levels of service. We need to look at that."
During the health summit he's quoted as stating, "Their point of view is that if the private sector can deliver it more effective and efficiently than government can, than why not?"
In both instances, people were advocating for privatization based on the claims that it would be more efficient and effective than the current publicly-owned mode of delivery. In both cases, only the perceived benefits of privatization were presented. There was no mention of why it is beneficial for these services to remain in public hands, though there are many reasons:
In her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, author Naomi Klein writes there is, "a clear and compelling relationship between public ownership and the ability to get communities off dirty energy. Many of the countries with the highest commitments to renewable energy are ones that have managed to keep large parts of their electricity sectors in public (and often local) hands."
The argument is since private companies are governed by profits, they're ill-suited to incorporate environmental sustainability and conservation. On the other side, Crown corporations are not solely confined to the same needs as private firms and are in a better position to make changes to try and combat climate change, which has become one of the defining issues of this generation.
Public-owned services allow all Canadians access to essential services regardless of their ability to pay. It's part of how we define our identity as Canadians. Colin Leys - in his work Market-Driven Politics: Neoliberal Democracy and the Public Interest - sees public services as a requirement for democracy. He cites education, objective information, universally accessible media, public libraries, public health and universal healthcare as needing to be delivered through the public, as the private sector either cannot or will not be able to provide them in an equal manner.
In the same vein, privatization of public services could be viewed as somewhat undemocratic, as accountability for the types of services listed above would not rest with the people, but rather to market fluctuations and profit motives.
Drawbacks to Privatization
The provincial government's forum and healthcare summit did not bring forward the arguments for keeping services public, and also did not present some of the criticisms of privatization. In the piece The Decision to Contract Out: Understanding the Full Economic and Social Impacts, Daphne Greenwood argues that privatizing public services doesn't automatically equal savings. Greenwood states that initial savings attributed to privatization tend to evaporate over time as the contractor achieves a "virtual monopoly" on the service. Greenwood goes on to state that the cost of government ensuring compliance on the part of the private contractor often negates the cost-savings of privatization.
In the end, the New Brunswick Union believes the best way forward is for government to maintain public services and look at other means of raising revenue or cutting costs before taking a drastic step that is by no means guaranteed to work.