I am writing this to urge you to read a new book called Corporatizing Canada: Making Business out of Public Service, edited by Jamie Brownlee, Chris Hurl and Kevin Walby and published by Between the Lines.
The book contains 16 chapters on many aspects of this important and dangerous development written by the top experts in the field in Canada. While they are all excellent, I must give a personal shout out to one in particular. Emma Lui, the Council of Canadians’ national water campaigner, writes a powerful chapter on the danger of governments running water services as if they are a business.
Many of us have fought privatization for years, understanding it to be a vital component of the neo-liberal economic globalization experiment that has failed so many so badly. But we have paid less attention to a parallel threat that has been building in our public institutions. Corporatization is the practice of using a market model to run public agencies, utilities, regulatory bodies and public services. Originally it was introduced to set up a buffer to protect public servants from political interference when governments of different political stripes gained office. But today’s corporatization is a way for public institutions and services to act at arms-length from the public they serve and where the needs of the public become subordinate to the economic bottom line. Public services become commodities to be bought and sold and service users are treated more as customers than citizens. Corporatized services are less accountable, less transparent and less democratic than true public services.
Often public agencies, Crown corporations and utilities interact closely with the private sector whose members often make up a majority of their boards. This helps shape their notion of who they serve and is often the precursor to privatization. Good examples listed in the book include Air Canada and Canadian National Railway whose original mandates were to break even and serve remote areas, but whose mandate before they were eventually privatized was to turn a profit and abandon unprofitable routes.
As well, say the authors, corporatization often leads to contracting out and that led me to remember how in Detroit, Michigan, the public corporatized water utility hired private contractors to carry out the mass water cut-offs as the public sector workers didn’t want to do it. There are many examples in the book but one stood out for me. Police foundations raise money, often for charitable work but also to buy uniforms, equipment, vehicles and more for the force. The book cites the case of the Calgary police foundation, which gets major donations from the big Alberta energy companies. To thank them, the police force mounts framed photos of the CEOs of these companies on their walls at the police station and puts their logos on foundation-purchased mobile command vehicles. Imagine, say the authors, being a protester at an anti-pipeline rally in Calgary and the police arriving in one of these vehicles all shiny with the logos of the very companies you are protesting!
Corporatizing Canada is a must-read for anyone interested in the role of governments, the right to real, public-oriented public services and the ways in which our democracy gets whittled away, one corporatized public sector at a time.
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