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No room for sound privatization discussion

Posted on May 16, 2017 by Maple Creek

By Murray Mandryk

One wonders if we in Saskatchewan can ever have a reasonable conversation on important matters like privatization.

This isn’t a topic that a lot of rural people want to discuss after losing their bus service as a result of the Saskatchewan Party government’s 2017-18 budget decision to wind down the Saskatchewan Transportation Company.

Moreover, talk in Wall’s Bill 40 of defining what privatization means (evidently, it means more than selling 49 per cent of a government asset) has more than a few people in this province nervous about the future of SaskTel.

The likelihood of a private provider eagerly providing as much cell tower coverage is disconcerting to many rural people.

Similarly, so is the recent news that SGI is having discussions with private counterparts on the future of SGI Canada.

But the problem may be more about our willingness to have calm, reasonable discussion than anything the government is actually doing.

Of course, one big problem is politics is seldom conducive to rational discussion. And for the most part, politicians prefer it that way.

The more outrageous they can portray a situation to be, the more likely they are to move people towards their point of view. This strategy cuts across party lines.

In fact, we are seeing Wall play that card in his fight over the federal Liberal government carbon tax.

Make no mistake that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government’s $22 a tonne carbon levy will hit Saskatchewan agriculture, oil and mining.

And if just means the province collecting tax revenue and paying it back to farmers and oil companies, you do have to ask: What’s the point?

But also make no mistake that Wall has never had any real interest in finding a reasonable compromise that might help address environmental issues.

It’s again about politicians stirring up resentment towards a political rival.

The problem, however is it always cuts both ways in politics. The other side is apt to use the same tactic, which is where we are when it comes to our inability to have a reasonable discussion on privatization.

Consider STC, that has not made a profit since 1979, a fact we all seem to be aware of, but one that many seem to be willing to overlook, now that the Crown-owned bus company is about to be shuttered.

Some even suggest that STC should be viewed no differently than city bus services that also lose money.

Well, city bus routes can’t go everywhere. And some cities aren’t big enough to afford bus services at all.

Whether municipal or provincial, all governments have to take responsibility for spending of our tax dollars. And of all the 2017-18 budget decisions made by Wall’s government that have been questionable, it would seem shutting down STC has the most economic justification.

What makes this decision that much more justifiable is that there may actually be private sector alternatives, entrepreneurs willing to pick up the abandoned routes or courier services.

Obviously, the same issues don’t apply to profitable SaskTel and SGI Canada that have contributed much-needed dividends to Saskatchewan budgets for years.

Moreover, to even privatize a part of SaskTel would risk losing federal tax exemptions, making the Crown telephone utility less profitable.

But does that mean we never examine the possibilities?

As Wall recently pointed out, former NDP premier Roy Romanow both in 1996 and 2000 acknowledged that privatizing SaskTel was something his government would consider under the right circumstances.

That the Wall government has clarified the options for public investment doesn’t mean we are selling anything at this point.

Unfortunately, it’s easier for political opponents to stir up opposition.

What we instead need is a thoughtful discussion on what best suits our needs.

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