A great Canadian garage sale

As Paul Martin leases crown land, Canadians get closer to public-private partnerships

Paul Martin and his Liberal government have plans to sell off more than 300 pieces of crown land.
Paul Martin and his Liberal government have plans to sell off more than 300 pieces of crown land.
Photo courtesy of worldphotos.com
Patrick Vert, MA '05
Patrick Vert, MA '05

A novel by Max Barry entitled Jennifer Government predicts a reality where taxes are illegal, the police and NRA are on the NASDAQ and governments can only prosecute crimes if they can send you the bill. In short, there is no such thing as the public sphere in Barry’s book. With Paul Martin’s recent announcement that his government plans to sell off 300 pieces of crown land—are we so far off from Barry’s ‘bizarro world’?

I distinctly remember panicking to a friend, when the Dominion of Canada announced that a corporate criminal in cufflinks—Paul Martin —would be our next King. I said to my friend, “That guy will be worse than Mulroney, this is really bad. Say hello to the new Free Trade Area of the Americas, no doubt about it.” I could follow that up with a list of his actions thus far—to table the evidence—but let’s stick to the subject at hand. Flash-forward to the present where Martin’s government plans to sell off 300 or more of Canada’s 365 crown lands, particularly office blocks. The federal government will then lease them back, for eternity? Presumably.

Anybody with half a brain would question the long-term feasibility of leasing back land we used to own. The corporate media is doing a good job downplaying this as not the stripping of federal assets, but rather a humanitarian act of saving us all a bunch of money. At best, the sale would only see the government return 10 per cent in immediate savings. Keep in mind that pre-privatization figures are notoriously inflated and rarely do governments actually earn the revenue they boast they will by selling off their property and responsibilities.

The official line being echoed throughout the media is “the government was never meant to be in the landlord business.”

Huh? It wasn’t? It isn’t? Excuse me, is that what the Feds told aboriginals when they claimed their lands in the name of the Queen? Get real. However, what is truly surreal is the manner in which the public is being reassured that the Parliaments and Supreme Court are not for sale, as though this was just narrowly contemplated. Well, small comfort indeed.

Meanwhile, the Ottawa Citizen cannot tell us “[w]hether properties such as the National Library and Public Archives, or National Capital Commission properties on Sparks Street” are on the auction block. So far, this is a grey area and remarkably, it has not been determined whether or not these commodities constitute any national symbolic heritage worthy of saving from a price tag.

Let’s do some socio-political math here and try to deduce what’s really going on. We Canadians are told that German and Israeli investors are already being primed for the take-over, but there is something larger at work and it’s called public-private partnerships or P3s. P3s are a highly speculative exercise of reducing the government’s role in financing and caring for certain projects and industries—especially in utilities, infrastructure and all major urban projects.

It is a back-door route to full privatization of government, where direct privatization involves too much bad PR. Or maybe I’m being too cynical? Think again.

Let me introduce you to a man named John McKay, the Scarborough MP named parliamentary secretary to the finance minister. He’s Martin’s right-hand man in all of this.

Quoting from a CUPE article last May—which eerily foreshadows our current state of affairs—it stated McKay has been given “special responsibilities for public-private partnerships, and he wasted no time in putting federal responsibilities up for sale to the corporate sector.” Among the services and civil works offered up for P3-ization were affordable housing, electric power, sewers and water. McKay was quoted as saying “all of that stuff can all be P3ed. Why does the government have to run a sewage system? Why does a public entity have to own a hospital? Why does a public entity have to finance a hospital?” We must assume Walkerton taught McKay nothing. McKay spoke even more candidly to Axiom News, questioning why the government is running its own computer system or signing its own chequebook.

“All the major banks’ back offices are run by a different company. Why can’t we do that?” he said. This is the harsh reality: it is not a mere matter of selling off a few office blocks. The very infrastructure of government finance and data storage is being considered for sale. As is usually the case with privatization schemes, the concept of a “conflict of interest” just doesn’t register into the thought-stream.

All this falls under the umbrella of a three billion dollar infrastructure re-structuring program. The sale of 300 federal properties is just one small part of it. To wit, a deconstruction of Liberal discourse would reveal that the “P3” concept is being used interchangeably with full-force “privatization.” Depending on when and whom you ask in the party, P3 is either a method to thin out the public’s burden-of-cost or it is a smoother mechanism for private sector management of formerly public resources and assets. Take your pick, depending on what your allegiances are. At the end of the day, the new system will obligate a “P3-analysis” to justify why the private sector can’t manage any given piece of infrastructure or service—not the other way around.

However, not all of us are sleepwalking into the new Jennifer Government reality. Certainly none of us should be surprised if we wake up one day to realize that our surnames have been replaced by our employer’s corporate logo, as is the case in Max Barry’s sci-fi adventure.

To those keen enough to be reeling from the shock of all this, the question must be asked: if you didn’t suspect that a tax-evading crook would run the government like a garage sale, where was your mind? The fix is in, folks. The distinction between private and public is not just going grey—it is being obliterated.

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