Wednesday’s federal Budget reaffirms the Canadian Government’s commitment to its promised “Canada Infrastructure Bank.” This opens the door to having corporations deliver public infrastructure through public private partnerships which is a controversial move. In the words of one writer:
In other words, public-private partnerships are sort of like credit cards: You get the shiny thing you want now, and put off the pain of paying for it. But sooner or later, the statement comes around.
There is an interesting side story rolling out in Manitoba that may say even more about the problems of P3s.
Most people outside of Manitoba will not be aware that it was the only Canadian province to have legislation compelling some form of public transparency around public private partnerships. Made law in 2012, the legislation, was intended to “enhance the transparency and public accountability of the decision-making processes followed by a public sector entity that uses the P3 procurement method for a major capital project.”
Most people outside of Manitoba will not be aware that it was the only Canadian province to have legislation compelling some form of public transparency around public private partnerships.
Yet despite this legislative call for transparency and accountability to the public, Manitoba’s new Conservative government, elected in 2016, made getting rid of the legislation one of its first priorities.
In their November Throne Speech, the new government promised it was going to get rid of the P3 legislation saying it “actually discourages the use of such innovative funding partnerships.”
The legislation repealing the transparency law arrived this March in a package described as reducing “red tape.”
Manitoba’s Education and Training Minister Ian Wishart told the Winnipeg Free Press that the transparency legislation had to go because it “makes it difficult for the private sector to build schools here.” In a press release Manitoba’s Finance Minister Cameron Friesen said “Our government is committed to eliminating the barriers that prevent business and local governments from thriving and expanding.” He continued:
“Our government recognizes the status quo has created unnecessary challenges for both industry and government. The proposed changes were identified as priority actions by both industry leaders and the civil service. Once implemented, these changes would improve efficiency and effectiveness, making it easier for all Manitobans to prosper and focus on their priorities.”
Just what is it in Manitoba’s P3 legislation that discourages innovative funding? What creates these challenges? What stops the building of schools? What have industry leaders demanded be eliminated to improve efficiency and effectiveness?
The 2012 Public-Private Partnerships Transparency and Accountability Act demanded a preliminary analysis of P3 projects outlining the risks, costs and benefits. It required information be made public and that public consultations, including a public meeting, be held. And it required that a public entity using a P3 for a project must prepare a report on the project and submit it to the province’s public auditor. The auditor was entitled to all documents on the project.
Now our federal government has called for a massive increase in the use of P3 projects, and they have not promised any improvement in transparency.
So, it appears making information about P3s public, involving the public and having an Auditor General review the process got in the way of P3s in Manitoba. It stopped the building of P3 schools. And industry leaders demanded the legislation go.
Other provinces don’t have inconvenient legislation forcing some public transparency around P3s. Neither does the federal government. Information about P3s is routinely withheld from the public either because of “commercial confidentiality” or because it is a Cabinet secret. Even documents accessed under Freedom of Information are largely redacted.
Saskatchewan is one jurisdiction building P3 schools. Academics studying a different Saskatchewan P3 complained about information being withheld from the public, calling it a “complete misuse” of freedom of information legislation. “Information opacity and democracy is not a good combination,” they concluded.
People need to ask themselves, if governments and “industry leaders” are so terrified of making information about these projects public and giving the public a voice, what are they afraid of? If these projects cannot stand the sunshine, what are they trying to hide?
Now our federal government has called for a massive increase in the use of P3 projects. They have not promised there will be any improvement in transparency of these projects. In fact things might well get worse. Manitoba is leading the way.