From anti-privatization to pro-public

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Image: Modified from an image used with permission of the organizers of the the Future is Public conference.

David McDonald is a professor of Global Development Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario whose work over the years has focused on issues related to public services and privatization, mostly in contexts in the Global South and in Europe. Scott Neigh interviews him about his role as a co-organizer of The Future is Public, a conference happening in Montreal on June 15 and 16 that will bring together more than 150 activists, trade unionists, and researchers from across North America to discuss struggles and successes from around the world and to begin figuring out what it might mean to articulate a vision for public services that is not just anti-privatization but one that is resolutely pro-public when it comes to things like water, health care, education, energy, transportation, and all the rest.

In recent decades, all of us have become familiar with the agenda of privatization, as governments of nearly every stripe have sought both overt and covert ways to push it forward. Similarly, there are countless examples at the local, provincial, and national levels of communities, grassroots groups, unions, and others taking action to oppose privatization. Sometimes these grassroots anti-privatization efforts are successful and sometimes not, but movements have developed a fairly robust set of tactics and scripts for opposing privatization and, on the whole, have not done too badly in the Canadian context when it comes to keeping public services in public hands. Today's guest argues, however, that we need to go beyond that -- anti-privatization work is important but not enough, according to McDonald, and our movements need to shift from being on the defensive to articulating the kind of pro-public vision that will strengthen public services and take initiative away from the privatizers.

McDonald points out that privatization as we usually use the term actually encompasses a number of different things. At its most blatant, it is the outright sale of publicly owned assets to the private sector. In the Canadian context, this has happened over the years in instances like Bell and Air Canada, but outright privatization has not happened here as much as it has in, for instance, the U.K. or Australia. However, governments in Canada have made extensive use of things like contracting out and Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), in which governments retain ownership but turn to the private sector to finance, manage, or deliver all or part of the service in question. As well, public services have to a significant degree in Canada been corporatized, such that even when they remain firmly within public ownership, they have been organized like a private company, and they behave accordingly.

There are two core problems with privatization, according to McDonald. One is that private companies -- whether they own the service outright or are involved via a PPP -- need to make a profit. Either that means the service costs more, or it means that the company has to make up that money via reducing the amount or quality of services, cutting corners with things like safety and environmental protections, reducing wages, or some other mechanism. In addition, evidence has shown that because of this drive to wring profit from services, the cost to governments of managing and regulating contracts with private companies is prohibitive if they want to try to minimize detrimental impacts on recipients, communities, and workers.

In co-organizing the Future is Public conference, McDonald is in part acting in his capacity as director of the Municipal Services Project, and he is collaborating with the organization Friends of Public Services and with a steering committee comprised of people from NGOs, think-tanks, and public sector unions.

Building a pro-public movement will be challenging. We can all cite examples from our own experience to show that, sometimes, public services don't do as good a job as we need them to. A pro-public movement has to aim not only to preserve the public character of services, but to improve them -- democratize them, make them more transparent, perhaps open them up to the possibility of more participatory governance, and make them more responsive to people's needs and to the ways those needs are different in different places and among different populations. This has implications for how organizing and mobilizing must happen. In anti-privatization organizing, the concerns, the arguments, and the approaches are largely similar for campaigns across different sectors and different parts of the world. In pro-public organizing the rhetoric, the tactics, and the goals will likely look very different from one place to another and from one sector to another.

Much of the work that has happened in this area in the Canadian context has had an anti-privatization focus. As important as that work has been, McDonald hopes that the Future is Public conference will provide a venue to begin talking about what it might look like to go beyond that. It is possible that a new organization or plans for future collaborative work might emerge from the conference, but at the very least he hopes that it will inspire participants to return to their communities and organizations and begin the work of building pro-public movements here in Canada.

Image: Modified from an image used with permission of the organizers of the the Future is Public conference.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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