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Province For Sale: Step Right Up For An Opportunity To Buy What You Already Paid For

“This is not being driven by fiscal or ideological motivation, though that may seem funny.” Conservative advisor James Small

By David South

Id Magazine (Canada), December 12 to December 26, 1996

It is looking more and more like the Conservative government will launch a massive privatization campaign by the middle of next year. And it is becoming clear how key government assets such as Ontario Hydro, liquor stores and public broadcaster TVO will end up in private hands. The prevailing ideology of key advisors to the Harris government, including influential financial heavyweights at Canada’s top underwriters, is leaning towards a free-for-all where the highest bidder will win. 

To date, the government has been coy about its plans, occassionally making vague threats that certain services need to be “looked at.” Assets that could go on the block include road maintenance, jails and the Ontario Clean Water Agency. In August, the government appointed former banker Rob Sampson as the minister for privatization. His days as vice-president of corporate finance at Chase Manhattan make him a popular candidate with the suit, tie and blouse crowd on Toronto’s Bay Street. 

While Sampson is so far surrounded by only a handful of advisors, the plan is to create a privatization agency that will supervise each sell-off after getting the go-ahead from Cabinet. 

Sampson’s policy advisor James Small, sums up the government’s attitude: “This is not being driven by fiscal or ideological motivation, though that may seem funny. We can do better for less, even though that may sound trite.”

The government’s taxpayer-is-always-right attitude means it believes the best option is to float the newly privatized companies on the stock market, letting the highest bidder win. 

“We have sophisticated investors in Ontario,” continues Small. “[Privatization] is not driving us to expand shareholders in Ontario. Can we, as taxpayers, benefit? What will give the best results. It is not ideological. In Canada we have a consumer culture and a very mature social structure. The market will determine what people will pay for things. We didn’t get elected to sell the family silver.

“There has been 16 years of this happening. But is Margaret Thatcher the way to go? One of the advantages for Ontarians is that we can pick and choose the best approach. It’s difficult to point to one part of the world, one way we could provide better service.”

Shareholder Democracy

A concept popularized by British prime minsiter Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, shareholder democracy actually saw the light of day in British Columbia back in 1979. Then, premier Bill Bennett embarked on an ambitious scheme to give every citizen of the province, including children, five shares in the British Columbia Resources Investment Corporation, a mining and logging company. Out of a population of 2.4 million, 2.07 million applied for the shares. While that idealistic experiment eventually failed as a series of bad deals pushed the share price down and arrogant executives pissed people off, it was a bold initiative. 

Similar schemes have been used in Eastern Europe to increase private ownership in the economy. 

But it is looking more and more like the government is going to try and avoid even a semblance of giving Ontarians a fair shake, by selling shares on the stock market to whoever can afford them. While the NDP and unions are opposed to privatization for some very good reasons, they are missing out on an opportunity to push the government to divide the shares up amongst all Ontarians (not necessarily a big stretch for the NDP, who brought us toll highways). 

Shareholder democracy has developed two broad – and opposing – interpretations. For the left, a shareholder democracy in its truest sense is public ownership. For right-wing idealists, it means a nation of share owners playing the stock market with all the aggressiveness and greed of free-market capitalists. 

Like any ideal, the reality is far more disappointing. Any small-time stock holder will tell you about arrogant CEOs and board members not listening to them. Ask any Ontarian on the street, and they will tell you about arrogant and incompetent civil servants who aren’t listening to them. 

There is a more radical and fairer approach to privatization that would suit the populist rhetoric of the Conservatives. It involves selling shares along the lines of WWII war bonds. This solution would satisfy left-wing concerns the rich would run away with all the loot, while massively increasing share ownership in Ontario and raising funds to improve services and infrastructure. By selling millions of shares cheaply, and forbidding the trading of those shares, millions of Ontarians could reap the benefits of profit-making assets. This scheme would be contingent on reorganizing those agencies to become profitable, but could avoid a fire sale of taxpayer-funded agencies to wealthy corporations and investors. If critics of the government took the opportunity to guide the Conservatives, when a privatization is announced, towards mass share ownership, some good would come of it. 

With all its scandals, bad publicity, grotesque executive salaries and inconsistent service that has turned privatization into a dirty word in the UK, the fact is share ownership did go up. In 1979 when Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher was elected, shares were owned by 2.5 million people; by 1992, 11 million people had shares or a quarter of the population. Narrowly defined, that is a success. 

But the mainstream financial community loathes the idea for obvious reasons. At consultants KPMG, corporate evaluater John Kingston symbolizes the opposition to anything other than a straight sell-off at the stock exchange. “Issuance of shares to employees doesn’t put any new money into the coffers, like in the Eastern European example of gifting shares,” he says. “But selling shares to the public does provide some compensation. They must satisfy taxpayers by getting the right amount.”

“I think if government is going to privatize then it is a good time to do it,” says Deloitte and Touche’s Jim Horvath, a veteran of privatizations in Argentina, Hungary and Brazil, who supports a quick sell. “The stock market is up. There are a lot of deep pockets looking for investments.”

The mantra for an open sale will get louder as each privatization approaches. But such a sale does have its disadvantages. 

Advantages of an open sale: 

Can get the highest price. Use the funds to pay down debt or a one-time only increase in funds for something like health care. Argue protecting taxpayers’ interests by selling for the best price. The asset could raise funds on the stock market to improve infrastructure/services. Once in private hands, future governments will have a hard time trying to buy assets back. 

Disadvantages of an open sale: 

Taxpayers are also consumers; they could get screwed by any increase in rates. There is no guarantee the government will use funds for public good (maybe they will build another casino?). Any pay-off is once only, whereas the LCBO for example, makes money every year. Government could make a mistake and sell for too low a price. 

Government Agenda

Two factors could significantly slow down the government’s ability to launch privatizations. The Conservatives have relished making cuts to government services despite labour unrest, but it has shown little skill at the more intellectual task of implementing a new philosophy. Major planks of their Common Sense Revolution, such as workfare, are bogged down and in chaos. Privatization will need a sophisticated sales job to counter-attack the slick television and newspaper ads unions have been running for the past year attacking privatization. Encouraging mass share ownership would show that leadership the government sorely needs. 

The second liability is its own ambitious agenda. Already the Legislature has had to extend its term to try and deal with a backlog in reforms, including chopping another $3 billion, rearranging how government services are delivered and fighting the province’s doctors. But if it must privatize, then the honourable thing to do is to offer mass ownership. To do otherwise will show Ontario isn’t even capable of the heights of imagination some of Eastern Europe’s new democracies have shown. 

Note: I debated this topic on CBC TV’s Face Off after this was published. 

Cover headline: “The Harris Tories have an opportunity to turn Ontario into a shareholder democracy. Will they take it?”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

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Will The Megacity Mean Mega-Privatization?

Annex Gleaner (Toronto, Canada), March 1997

As the provincial government tries to shoehorn six municipalities into one megacity, opponents of the plan worry that one of the results of amalgamation will be widespread privatization of public services.

References to contracting out and tendering municipal services in order to achieve savings run through the provincial government’s much-maligned report supporting a megacity, produced by consultants KPMG.

Many observers feel the new city will have no choice, while others argue privatization won’t be nearly as extensive as some fear. Still others think it is far from a foregone conclusion that a future amalgamated council will push privatization.

“Who knows if the council will have an interest in privatization?” says a senior bureaucrat at the City of Toronto, who did not want to go on record. “People are running around saying they will privatize everything, but who knows what the political make-up will be of the new council? They are assuming there will always be savings to be had from privatization – that doesn’t automatically follow. The financial pressures on the megacity can’t be avoided by privatization.”

Among the six current Metro municipalities, it is Etobicoke that has most fully embraced contracting out. The City of Etobicoke’s experiments with contracting out – 60 per cent of public works contracts are performed by private-sector companies – calls into question the estimates of substantial savings being bandied about by the provincial government.

According to the senior bureaucrat in charge of running that city, acting city manager and commissioner of public works Tom Denes, contracting out isn’t the tax-saving nirvana some believe.

“I think we are finding in contracting out,” says Denes, “that the higher the skills of the workforce, the less sense it makes to contract out. For example, it would be very expensive to contract out water treatment.”

Denes says the city’s pride and joy is its privatized garbage collection handled by Waste Management Inc. and BFI. The WMI contract is worth $6 million a year, down from the $7.5 million a year it was costing to publicly run garbage collection. The price is fixed for five years, when it must be negotiated again. While the city made $1.9 million selling its old trucks, councillors set up a $4 million fund so Etobicoke could go back to collecting garbage itself if private companies tried to gouge the city.

Denes, who has been meeting with counterparts at other cities and the provincial government, believes the new Toronto will be divided up into several districts which private garbage collectors will have to compete for.

“Based on what I know, if you were to divide the city up into waste contracts, it would be at least four areas,” claims Denes. “No company can handle the whole city. You just can’t find a company that could handle a megacity. It would become a monopoly.”

Denes thinks the likely suspects for contracting out would be any manual labour work and the TTC. He thinks a megacity would be mistaken to contract out skilled work like surveying, arguing that skilled workers would use their desirability to their advantage and charge high consulting fees.

“The US cities have all gone through these exercises. They are in fact contracting services back in,” says Denes.

While the Tories have been slipperier than a scoop of ice cream about their specific privatization plans, one thing is clear: An essential element of the Tory economic vision is a greater role for the private sector in delivering public services. The $100,000 KPMG report plays to this, making it clear contracting out is a key means to saving money in the new megacity. The report claims between $28 million and $43 million per year could be saved from contracting out computer operations and some management; between $38.5 million and $68 million by contracting out fraud investigations; between $29.6 million and $54.5 million by contracting out road and electrical maintenance, snow removal and data collection; between $21 million and $39.4 million by contracting out garbage pick-up and processing.

The report also offers this proviso: “There is no such thing as automatic, cost-free savings from organizational change. The implementation process must be tightly managed to produce the savings suggested here.”

Ron Moreau is the administrator for Local 43 of the Metro Toronto Civic Employees Union, which represents over 3,000 public works workers and ambulance drivers at Metro.

“How will the megacity and municipalities cope with pressure from the public to hold the line on taxes? Where will councils find the difference between spending and revenues?” asks Moreau. “The level of service will suffer. When you contract out, public policy is held hostage by private enterpise.”

Moreau threatens that labour will play hardball with the new city. Most of the contracts for Moreau’s members run out on Dec. 31 of this year.

“Assuming the government doesn’t tamper with the labour legislation on our books, the unions can be organized into two large locals, one clerical/technical, the other outside workers. They would have effective bargaining clout.”

One major player looking for government contracts in a megacity will be Laidlaw Inc. While the company recently sold its garbage collection operations to an American firm, USA Waste, it still has interests in operating school buses and ambulances. Laidlaw is a heavy contributor to the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, according to records kept by the Commission on Election Financing. Laidlaw has also made an influential new friend: in January, it hired former Metro chief administrative officer Bob Richards as its vice-president.

Ward 13 city councillor John Adams is definitely in the privatization-if-necessary-but-not-necessarily-privatization camp. “I don’t see everything being contracted out, but more stuff being put out for competitive bids.”

Adams thinks contracting out could be a good tactic to help modernize garbage collection, for example. He points to the City of Toronto’s deal with WMI to collect garbage at apartment buildings. In that deal, costs were reduced by $2.5 million over a five-year contract, and the crews on trucks were reduced from two to one. Instead of an extra crew member, closed-circuit television cameras were installed on trucks to speed up pick-up. Adams points out the crews are still unionized, but instead of CUPE it is the Teamsters.

“The way we pick up garbage from households is back-breakingly stupid. I think we need to rethink how we do it, to use machines more than people’s backs.”

But Adams doesn’t believe a megacity is a money-saver. “There will be a leveling up of wages. How long will two firefighters work side-by-side for different salaries? You can bet the union will negotiate an increase at the first opportunity.”

Adams thinks a megacity will be more prone to the slick lobbying efforts of companies like Laidlaw because councillors will be dependent on political parties to get elected. “The provincial government will contract out municipal government to Laidlaw,” he says sarcastically.

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This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021