Monday, April 14

Report on ‘Not for Sale - Promoting Public Solutions in Today’s Alberta’ Conference, Edmonton April 4–6, '08

I was really glad I was able to attend this conference on ‘Not for Sale -Promoting Public Solutions in Today’s Alberta’ held in Edmonton April 4 – 6, 2008. It was sponsored by Public Interest Alberta. It was most informative and invigorating.

There was a keynote speech by Avi Lewis, Award Winning Journalist and Filmmaker, on Friday evening on Privatization – the Fundamental Struggle of our Time. Unfortunately, due to another commitment I was unable to be there for it. From comments by other speakers on Saturday and Sunday it sounded like it was really captivating and inspiring and judging by the quality of the content and other speakers of the event I can believe it. Speakers featured local, national and international leaders in advocacy and public policy research.
The focus of the conference was on advocating on issues of privatization. This conference was designed as an opportunity for organizations to meet and learn from people from various public interest sectors and to build the network for effective action on issues of privatization.
We heard that every part of the public sector is facing the ongoing threat of privatization: healthcare, seniors’ care, childcare, the environment, education, municipal infrastructure and others. Yet civil society in Alberta and around the world has been standing up to big business and successfully promoting public solutions.

The first Plenary Session on Saturday was on ‘Selling the P3 Myth – the British Experience’. Speaker Allyson Pollock, one of Britain’s top researchers and advocates on privatization of health care and P3s. The usual arguments used by the government pushing to prepare for privatization are; competition, efficiency, innovation and value for money. The claim that competition would force costs down never materialized, in fact the opposite and small businesses were muscled out. Sooner or later staff cuts occur and evaluations show that service was questionable. Later when independent reviews and evaluations were completed it was found that studies quoted by bidders were suspect and in essence seen as “smoke and mirrors” to justify their claims and it was noted that the chief Auditor for the UK has been forced to retire.

Another major concern found after years of experience from privatization, is that the partnership dictates to varying degrees the type of service that can be offered. In effect, government loses control and yet is expected to top-up funding shortfalls when needed. Ms. Pollock provided numerous examples of problems and profits gone wild. The most notable of these was a private funder of the Royal Edinburgh Infirmary who bought-in for 500,000 pounds and later sold his shares for 168 million pounds! Ms. Pollock also noted that the new international rules for accounting has forced the UK Government to put all P3 costs back on their in their books again. A couple other interesting notes were that only 11 of 500 PPP projects reported on time and that Wembley Stadium, which was supposed to cost only 326.5 million pounds when contracted out, wound up costing 900 million. Apparently similar anomalies and stories are available for nursing homes which were privatized. Any of these stories can be verified on the web.

Deb Brennan, International expert, corporate childcare and one of Australia’s leading researchers presented on the privatization of childcare. She kicked off describing current childcare in Australia as “big box childcare”. Apparently the Australian Government started the process of preparation for P3s in Childcare in 1970 with changes in the Childcare Act. First it grew as non-profit but in the 80’s the government though implying hesitancy were talking the usual lingo: needing innovation, business involvement etc. and then business started lobbying for it. By 1990 privatization was underway and by 1991 the government changed legislation to cover fees for “private for profit”. The Groves family, originally from South Africa, has monopolized and is listed on the Stock Exchange. Check ABC Future One.
The Groves venture has spread into the US, UK, Indonesia, New Zealand, Canada and even China. With 500 centers in the US dealing with 80,000 children we get a sense of the extent of it. The company has also got into stores selling children’s supplies and other companies purchasing and performing maintenance of the centers. The company refuses to allow research in the industry; nevertheless, independent research and evaluation have been achieved outside of the centers and provide a lot of information with cause for concern. Notice that fees rose by 88% in a 5 year period. There may be more places, but there’s no choice due to monopoly. In Alberta check 123 Global.
Heather-Jane Robertson, Vice President of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and researcher and author spoke on “Education, the private sector and the privatization of education – Assault on Schools”. The pro-privatization lobby is increasing in the US and the latest there usually follows here. Privatization will always figure out a way to get around issues. Check latest by Naomi Klein; currently New Orleans. Check the dictionary and you will find that privatization is linked to commercialization and latter is linked to the spirit of commerce. Issues of note: everyone taking care of themselves does not necessarily mean they take care of everyone. Individualization encourages separation from those around you. Privatization done by stealth and design – they chip away at it. Often they can not agree on a cause but usually agree on outcome and goals. They weaken the existing system so they can move in and buy to provide opportunity to make money on it. The wish by some segments of the population to be different on theological grounds supports privatization.
There are also privatized schools within the public system. Ideologues and the right wing of government form alliances to achieve goals. Since everyone is not of the same level or ability “no child left behind” policy and legislated measuring of achievement sets up for failure and wittingly or unwittingly sets the stage and need for tutoring which increases the cost. There is also a high drop-out rate. Teachers lose rights; one was silenced by the state for speaking out against war because, as a commodity, a teacher is not allowed to speak out. This one lost a job and house.
The situation can be ironic: picture kids receiving malaria shots with our help, while smoke of factory pollutes in the background (as it produces cheap consumer goods for us) who later die from lung diseases. It is difficult not to see the system as designed for some to get ahead at others expense.
Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, author and internationally acclaimed advocate against the corporate control of water and the global trade system had us all captivated with her stories and facts from around the world.

Where has all he water gone? We must remember that only a small percentage of the world’s water is fresh water. The hydrologic cycle has been upset by thoughtless pollution from industrialization, and without our realizing it, commercialization of water has occurred to the point that it is now treated as a commodity. Poorer and third-world countries are especially vulnerable and affected as entrepreneurs move fast to buy up rights to supplies. They are often assisted by the World Bank which will not give loans unless they agree to allow privatization.

Pollution is the largest concern.

Some interesting facts: all of Africa’s 667 lakes are polluted. China, because of its policies, is creating new desert at the rate of half the size of Rhode Island every year and has proposed taking water from the Himalayas for 400 of 600 largest cities.
Around Johannesburg, South Africa, water is metered even in the shantytowns.
Water is seen as one of the main issues covered under the ‘Security and Prosperity’ Agreement between Canada, USA and Mexico and is expected to be treated the same as oil. To deal with shortages the WTO has proposed that water be put on the open market; while most believe none should own it and many still believe we have it in abundance and it will not run out. Australians are making water from sewage and some propose that grey water be used in industry. The CD Howe and Fraser institutes (and guess what, they’re right-wing think tanks) want a new NAFTA agreement. I say, I welcome a new NAFTA if it is based on justice, fair compensation and sustainability, and if it cancels the right of corporations to sue governments.

However, people are fighting back. Two years ago the Indian Government closed down Coca Cola. In 2004 Uruguay voted water as a right. “Legislation will not restrain the heart but will restrain the heartless”.
After each keynote speech attendees were expected to participate in breakout sessions that discussed considerations and recommendations, including:
Saving Money? Debating Public vs. Private Efficiency: to promote public enterprise, advocates were expected to counter the assumption that the private sector is inherently more efficient. An abundance of Canadian evidence shows that this assumption is false. Participants were expected to prepare as advocates to assist in terms of the debate, and respond to the claims of the private sector!
Public Participation in the Process: Also, sessions were expected to motivate Citizens to Take Action on P3s: It is believed that much of the population is opposed to privatization, and P3s are still not well understood by the public. Are P3s equivalent to privatization, or do they present unique challenges? How can the dangers of P3s be communicated to the public in a way that will engage citizens to take action?

Framing Privatization: Effective Media Strategies: Engaging the media is central to promoting public solutions and opposing privatization. Media advocacy can counter misconceptions about private sector efficiency, expose the loss of accountability that accompanies privatization, and be a useful tool for education. How can advocates influence media messages and frame the privatization debate?

Know the Difference: Integrating Research and Public Advocacy: It is recommended and absolutely essential that advocates of public solutions are well-informed on all points, and actively support relevant research. Which research questions are the most valuable? How can the results of research be used in advocacy? What are the best ways to support research on public enterprise?

The Politics of Privatization: Influencing Elected Officials: Advocating to political decision-makers requires a unique approach and a particular level of argument and detail. Building the tools to influence elected officials maximizes the impact of media and public advocacy. How do we best influence officials? Which issues require different kinds of arguments? Are current strategies effective?

Taking Action Together – Building an Effective Provincial Network: Privatization in Alberta has many faces, and has an impact on every sector of public service. To be effective as advocates, we must see the links between different sectors and come together to speak out on shared concerns. How do we work together to form coalitions and minimize conflict? Are existing organizations cooperating effectively? What concerns do we all have in common?

Sessions included – Childcare, Cities, Democracy, Education, Environment, Healthcare, Living Wage, Secondary and Post
-Education and Seniors.

I wish you could have been there!

Summarized by Michael Cormican

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