The Council of Canadians is opposed to public-private partnerships (P3s). We were particularly opposed to a provision in the Harper government's $14 billion Building Canada Fund that required any infrastructure project worth more than $100-million seeking federal support to be approved by a Crown corporation called P3 Canada.
Then-prime minister Stephen Harper asserted, "[P3s are] an excellent additional tool to allow taxpayers to share risk and thus help get projects completed on time and on budget." But Council of Canadians water campaigner Emma Lui countered, "A study of 28 P3 projects in Ontario worth more than $7-billion found that public-private partnerships cost an average of 16 per cent more than conventional tendered contracts. Allocating funding for water services under P3s entrenches water governance within a market framework that favours profit over human rights, environmental protection, social justice and public health."
In 2011, the Council of Canadians opposed a P3 plan for a consortium to design, build and operate a water source and treatment system in Abbotsford, British Columbia. The Harper government had said it would fund $65 million of the project through its P3 Canada Fund. Despite this, 75 per cent of residents voted against the P3 in a referendum.
We have also called on the city council in Saint John, New Brunswick not to pursue a P3 for its new drinking water treatment plant and for the city council in Regina, Saskatchewan to abandon its plans for a P3 wastewater treatment plant. But in February 2013, CTV reported, "Regina Mayor Michael Fougere noted that the city must adopt a P3 approach to be eligible for up to $58.7 million in federal infrastructure funding." Also in February 2013, CBC reported, "[Saint John] will have to funnel any federal funding application through P3 Canada, a Crown corporation."
Consequently, by May 2014 the City of Regina had chosen Edmonton-based Epcor and four other corporations to design, build and operate their sewage treatment plant. And on November 6, less than two weeks ago, the City of Saint John chose for its drinking water system a consortium that is comprised of nine corporations, including the Spanish transnational Acciona Agua.
Today, the Globe and Mail reports, "The federal government will no longer require that cities and provinces look first at creating public-private partnerships before getting funding for major infrastructure projects. ...The move suggests the new government may be less enthusiastic than the Conservatives about P3s..."
This decision is likely related to the delays caused by public opposition and community mobilizations against P3s given the Liberals are not opposed to P3s.
Just last year, Justin Trudeau addressed the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships and stated, "The government needs you to help in identifying new and more innovative mechanisms to finance and build public infrastructure. ...Private capital will obviously be important because it will enhance – and complement –increased federal investments. Together, we can seize this opportunity to embark upon a new kind of nation building."
Today's newspaper report notes, "The [move away from the P3 requirement] is aimed at making it simple, easy and transparent for municipalities to qualify for federal infrastructure money, according to [Infrastructure and Communities Minister Amarjeet] Sohi." The minister commented that the P3 screening can delay projects by a year or more.
Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow has highlighted, "If the right to water is to be honoured, it is crucial to keep municipal water services in public hands and to maintain their status as a public service." Barlow has warned that, under the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), if transnational corporations win contracts to operate municipal water and wastewater systems, and then a future city council decides to move back to a public system, those corporations would be able to sue to be compensated for their future profits.
We will continue to campaign to stop the ratification of CETA to ease this threat, particularly in the case of Saint John given the involvement of a Spanish transnational in that consortium. And we hope that Regina can review its options given the federal government's announcement. City councillors in both cities should look to the Here to stay: Water remunicipalisation as a global trend report by Public Services International Research Unit, Multinationals Observatory and the Transnational Institute. It highlights the failures of privatization and notes that there has been at least 180 cases of remunicipalisation in 35 countries over the last 15 years.
For more on our water campaign, please click here.