Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NDP government the real privatizer

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BRANDON -- It is a collection of facts that should cause the public to ponder which of Manitoba's political parties is the party of privatization and which is the protector of public property and jobs.

For more than a decade, Manitoba's New Democrats have doggedly insisted the Progressive Conservatives harbour a secret agenda to sell many of Manitoba's Crown corporations, most notably, Manitoba Hydro and the Manitoba Public Insurance Corporation, and to dramatically reduce the size of the provincial civil service by contracting out various services.

The accusation helped carry the NDP to victory in the 2011 election and was recently repeated in the NDP's "running with scissors" attack ad. Since the legislature reconvened earlier this month, it has been reiterated almost daily by Premier Greg Selinger and Hydro Minister Stan Struthers.

It is often said, "A lie told often enough becomes the truth," and that is certainly the case here. The NDP's characterization of the Tories as determined to sell Crown assets, and the NDP as the party that would never do so, has been repeated so often, many Manitobans are convinced it is accurate.

However, there is no evidence the Progressive Conservatives are secretly scheming to privatize Manitoba Hydro, MPIC or any other Crown corporation. If such evidence existed, the NDP would have produced that smoking gun two or three election campaigns ago.

In the absence of any proof of a Tory privatization plan, the NDP has attempted to persuade Manitobans to infer that the party that sold MTS in the 1990s would sell other Crown corporations if given the chance. The strategy succeeded in the last election campaign, but it could backfire on the NDP in the next one.

Consider the facts: In 2011, the Selinger government partially privatized the provision of emergency medical transportation throughout the province when it entered into an untendered 10-year, $160-million contract with STARS, an Alberta company.

Last summer, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers issued a public warning that the province was preparing Manitoba Hydro for privatization by outsourcing work to private contractors, cutting jobs and raising electricity rates.

This past February, the government sold the province's property registry to Ontario-based Teranet through yet another secretly negotiated, untendered contract and eliminated more than 100 government jobs in the process.

The NDP claims to oppose the privatization of Crown corporations, but the Balanced Budget, Fiscal Management and Taxpayer Accountability Act contains a provision that specifically contemplates "the privatization of Manitoba Hydro, the Manitoba Public Insurance Corporation, the Liquor Control Commission (and) the Manitoba Lotteries Corporation."

Except in the case of Manitoba Hydro and MPIC, there is no provincial law that gives Manitobans the right to decide if important assets such as the Liquor Control Commission, lotteries corporation, universities, schools, hospitals and Crown agencies should be privatized. That explains how a core government activity such as the property registry could be sold out of province without Manitobans' consent, or even the opportunity to bid for the purchase.

As regards any future privatization of Manitoba Hydro or MPIC, provincial laws require a province-wide referendum, but the wording of those laws is exactly the same as the wording of the referendum requirement in the balanced-budget law.

Given the ease with which the NDP stickhandled around that provision when it raised the PST, laws purportedly protecting Manitoba Hydro and MPIC from being sold are little more than a mirage.

If the NDP was sincere in its desire to prevent future privatizations, it would have plugged the legal loopholes long ago by passing laws making it all but impossible for a government to dispose of Crown assets without a clear mandate from Manitobans. Instead, critical public assets are more vulnerable to privatization today than they were a decade ago.

It is a reality completely at odds with years of NDP rhetoric. Indeed, the evidence suggests it is the NDP, not the Tories, who are a threat to privatize Manitoba's Crown corporations and agencies.

After having sold the property registry and delegating public-sector duties to private contractors, can Manitobans be confident they won't do it again?

Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon

Twitter: @deverynross

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 28, 2014 A11

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