The public good means more public enterprises

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By Roderick Benns

Roderick Benns is the publisher of The Advocate. An award-winning author and journalist who grew up in Lindsay, he has written several books including Basic Income: How a Canadian Movement Could Change the World.

In the early 1900s, a Conservative MPP named Adam Beck campaigned diligently for a public power utility in Ontario.

The campaign was a success, thanks to the hard work of Beck and others. Beck and other allies knew there would be no benefit in creating a private corporation with the vast majority of profits going to shareholders, versus creating a public enterprise where the money is returned to our province.

Roderick Benns, publisher.

After the 1905 provincial election, though, a corporate syndicate applied for the rights to the water power generated at Niagara Falls. Would the government accept the deal and let big business run the show?

Thankfully, this was averted at the time, with Premier James Whitney declaring that “the water power … should not in the future be made the sport and prey of capitalists and shall not be treated as anything else but a valuable asset of the people of Ontario.”

The Sport and Prey of Capitalists, in fact, is the name of Linda McQuaig’s latest book — a compelling look at Canada’s history of creating successful public enterprises. The question, she muses throughout the book, is why we don’t create more of them? And why are we letting slip away the ones we have, like Hydro One?

Unfortunately, Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, as most of us know, became the improbable champion of big business-in-waiting for Hydro One more than a century later, selling 60 per cent of the public utility. It’s a conspicuous blemish on her otherwise progressive legacy.

Wynne was warned that shedding an asset that generated a $750-million annual profit (back in 2014) would have a long-term negative financial impact for the province. It was no more intelligent than former Conservative Premier Mike Harris selling off the lucrative Highway 407 — another example McQuaig cites.

The potential for postal banking — something Canada had for a century, from the moment the country was born until well into the 1960s — was covered in this month’s print edition of the Advocate. This is one of those public enterprises that could revivify the idea of a strong public enterprise in Canada — a topic McQuaig tackles as well.

The question is, do we have the political will to resist the big-business agenda that has hijacked Canadian society for decades now?

From power plants, a national railway (CNR), a public broadcaster (CBC), public health care and coast-to-coast transportation infrastructure, McQuaig’s book is replete with examples of strong national initiatives that benefitted Canadians, not big business.

Pick up a copy of The Sport and Prey of Capitalists at Kent Bookstore in Lindsay or at The Book Lady in Fenelon Falls and remind yourself — or learn for the first time — of Canada’s historical legacy of social enterprises for the common good.

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