Why are we selling off the impressive public enterprises we often battled as a nation to create?
In the early 1900s, thousands of Canadians battled wealthy interests, winning control of Niagara Falls and creating a public power company. Another popular movement succeeded in creating Canada’s public broadcasting system to counter American dominance of the airwaves. And a Canadian doctor established a publicly owned laboratory that saved countless lives by producing affordable medications, contributing to medical breakthroughs and helping to eradicate smallpox throughout the world.
But in recent decades, we have allowed our inspiring public enterprises to be privatized and our vital public programs downsized, leaving us increasingly dominated by the forces of private greed that rule the marketplace.
In The Sport and Prey of Capitalists, Linda McQuaig challenges the dogma of privatization, which has defined our political era. She argues that now more than ever, as we grapple with climate change and income inequality, we need to expand, not shrink, our public sphere.
About the author
Linda McQuaig is the recipient of a National Newspaper Award for investigative reporting. She is also the author of eight national bestsellers, including Shooting the Hippo, selected by the Literary Review of Canada as one of the twenty-five most influential books of the past twenty-five years.
Excerpt: The Sport and Prey of Capitalists: How the Rich Are Stealing Canada’s Public Wealth (by (author) Linda McQuaig)
By April 2018, Kinder Morgan, the Texas-based energy company, had had enough. After years of frustration fighting Indigenous and environmental groups in Canadian courts, it was ready to walk away. If Ottawa couldn’t assure approval for a pipeline expansion, allowing the company to bring more heavy crude from Alberta’s oil patch to the British Columbia coast, Kinder Morgan vowed to pull the plug on the mega-billion-dollar project by the end of the following month.
The deadline set off panic in Ottawa, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau realized that all his efforts to win favour in Alberta suddenly hung in the balance. Then, with only days to go until the deadline, Trudeau announced that Canada would buy the pipeline, committing $4.5 billion of Canadian taxpayer money, and possibly many billions more if Ottawa ended up paying for the expansion of the pipeline as well. The surprise announcement produced a lot of high-fives in the oil patch — the majority of these were in the boardroom of Kinder Morgan, where the leaky, sixty-five-year-old pipeline had come to be regarded as something of an albatross.
Perhaps the oddest thing about the highly controversial purchase was Trudeau’s insistence that it was in “the national interest.” Quite apart from the risk of leaving taxpayers on the hook for a multi-billion-dollar project that might never be approved, there was another, far greater consequence that was barely mentioned in days of media coverage: the impact on climate change. The proposed expansion of the pipeline would triple its capacity to transport the province’s heavy oil, which renowned U.S. climatologist James Hansen describes as “one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuels on the planet.” Hansen says it would be “game over” for any hope of solving the climate crisis if Alberta’s oil sands are fully exploited.
How can something be said to be in the national interest when it would compromise the ability to survive on this planet? Can something really serve our interest as a nation when it undermines our more basic interest as humans?
In purchasing the pipeline, the Liberal government was following a long Canadian tradition of establishing publicly owned enterprises. But Trudeau was using this important tool of national development in a new way: not in a way that would advance the interests of Canadians, but in a way that would — by any meaningful measure — set back those interests. He was turning the Canadian tradition of public enterprise on its head.
For the first century after Confederation, Canadians collectively created significant public enterprises and national programs that helped transform this vast stretch of land into a functioning and successful nation: power plants, a national railway, a public broadcaster, a nationwide postal service, coast-to-coast transportation infrastructure, strong public health care and education systems, a publicly owned pharmaceutical company that pioneered medical breakthroughs — the list goes on. Many of these key national projects came into being only after hard-fought battles that pitted the public against a narrow set of financial interests.
After fighting to put these public enterprises and programs in place, Canadians have spent the last few decades downsizing them or selling them off to private investors. After more than a century as nation builders, we’ve spent recent decades as dismantlers or vendors of our ambitious collective undertakings.
All this cutting and privatizing has far-reaching consequences. It diminishes our collective power to own and control key aspects of our economy, our country, and our lives, thereby shrinking our democratic capacity as a nation.
These sweeping changes have been made under the illusion that we’re better off if we leave our economy and our lives in the hands of the private marketplace. Another influential but false notion has been that we can no longer afford things we managed to afford decades ago, even though we are a vastly richer country today.
In reality, we haven’t made these changes because of the inherent superiority of the marketplace or due to financial necessity. Rather, we’ve made them because of the pressure exerted by powerful financial interests who have been keen to take over lucrative parts of our public domain so they can own them and milk them for profits.
Of course, all this is hardly unique to Canada. The push toward privatization started in Britain and the United States several decades ago, and it has had major impacts on both those nations. But its impact may be particularly profound in Canada — a country where public enterprise has played an especially important role, something that is now largely ignored as we’ve succumbed to the dogma that the marketplace always does things better.