Food, Shelter, Water, …Education, …Health Care, what next?

At a meeting that I attended this week, mention was made about the way the federal government had reviewed the needs of First Nations band communities, determined a need for water treatment plants but then failed to provide funding. A suggestion offered was that government could build the treatment plants as Public-Private Partnerships (PPP).

This is a bad idea at many levels. Even ignoring the truth that PPPs are a more costly way to provide service, this suggestion completely disregards the fact that access to water is a fundamental right. It is not a privilege; it is an essential of life. Shifting responsibility to a PPP takes control of clean water out of the hands of the people, into corporate control and can block access for the poor when they cannot pay. We have seen examples of this in Bolivia and recently in Detroit.

Why would we give control of a basic right – water – to a for-profit corporation? But then again, why would we give control of food supply to a for-profit corporation? Why would we give control of shelter to a for-profit corporation? All are now profit centres for the market.

Water – The Council of Canadians has decried the trend to PPPs for water supply. The issue has been resisted consistently by the public but the pressure continues. No government has made a strong stand to protect the public good over private interests. What do people who cannot pay for clean water do? In Detroit this week, city council has turned off the tap to those who cannot pay. Do we need to sink this low?

Food – Genetically modified food has meant that corporations like Monsanto control the access to seeds. Local crops are disappearing. The family farm is disappearing. Government policies on food are being shaped to the interests of corporate investment. Food at every level of business is a very profitable commodity. What do people who cannot afford to eat do? Nearly a million Canadians need to use Food Banks each year.

Shelter – Social housing in Canada has been in decline for a quarter century. Cash strapped cities, once the key to a solution, have been hamstrung by cuts from senior governments. Most low rental properties in Canada are 45 years old or older. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians live in substandard housing while many corporations make big profits by renting poor accommodations. What do poor Canadians do? Approximately 200,000 are homeless.

In every case, people yield to corporate interests in the belief that they are actually improving access and service in those service areas. By definition that excludes people, but those who seek profit have convinced many people otherwise. Sometimes the push is through the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) who all are accused of long neo-liberal track records of protecting the interests of the big investor countries. Rarely these days is one able to get outside of market driven philosophies to question whether in fact some things should be maintained outside the market.

Also this week, I heard someone on a CBC radio show proposing that opening health care to privatization would help the poor. Rubbish – it is not the rich who are missing out on treatment now. The problem is political not even economical as many choose to believe. Then I heard an economist selling the belief that a university education should be treated like a home mortgage and receive far less public subsidy. This type of view is rampant with those who do not see education as public investment in the type of society we want but as an individual good to be paid for by each one of us.

We who believe in free public education must not be complacent about it. We are so convinced of its value that we fail to see that our belief is not shared by everyone else. The World Bank, IMF and WTO not only speak of “affordable” education but draw support from major countries throughout the world. They are attracted by edu-business groups like Pearson who speak of “Low-Fee Private” schooling because of their false perception of education as a commodity.  Edu-businesses are also placing themselves in positions as “stakeholders” who participate in decision-making. They are vendors not stakeholders. Citizens need to take back control of the public good. The market is not always right. Private is not necessarily better. Governments must act in the public interest, not private interests. We need to stir the public debate on issues like fundamental rights to water, food, shelter, education and health care.

If not, our complacency is their friend.

Calvin Fraser, Canadian Teachers’ Federation

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