The real agenda in Walkerton

Terence Corcoran
Financial Post
June 30, 2001

Ontario Premier Mike Harris survived his appearance yesterday before the Walkerton inquiry. More than survived: He triumphed. Facing an orchestrated ambush by smirking union lawyers, hired activists and placard-carrying demonstrators, Mr. Harris rose so far above the low politically motivated smears of his prosecutors that many citizens of Ontario must now be wondering about the validity of the Harris caricature they have been fed for most of the past year.

No doubt somewhere in the hours of testimony some news clips can be found to highlight an apparent contradiction or make Mr. Harris look bad. But throughout the session, as his questioners dug their cynical holes, Mr. Harris conveyed a sense of integrity and honesty they lacked. The issue, in some ways, is how Mr. Harris mustered the generosity last year to appoint an open inquiry that handed his political enemies a platform for his own prosecution.

For anyone who watched yesterday, moreover, it must have been eye-opening to realize that the lawyers questioning Mr. Harris were less interested in getting at relevant truths than in scoring ideological points. At times, the sessions slipped below the level of Question Period in the legislature.

The inquiry’s chief council, Paul Cavalluzzo, is a former NDP policy advisor who occasionally could barely resist mugging for the camera when he thought he’d scored a point. Paul Muldoon, whose clients are supposedly a group called Concerned Walkerton Citizens, is in fact also a front for organized labour. A media favourite, Mr. Muldoon’s grilling of the Premier revealed the bias he displayed in a recent paper funded by public service unions. “There is no criteria for which the private sector has an advantage over the public sector in providing water services.”

Their main point, of course, is that Walkerton was the product of spending cutbacks, privatization and a right-wing government hell-bent on a corporate-style business plan aimed at trashing the environment. If only that were true. If there’s any underlying lesson to come out of the Walkerton inquiry it is that the Harris government did not bring in a corporate-style business. They did not privatize, they did not bring in the structural reforms that their critics are now attacking.

The Harris government is under attack for a policy it failed to implement. In August, 1996, the Harris cabinet agreed to a program that would bring private investment to Ontario’s water and sewage system. The plan was to phase out the system of provincial grants and subsidies, which had proved distortive and ineffective, and replace it with local responsibility, local ownership, and, where appropriate, privatized services. Excerpts from the cabinet document appear below.

Privatized water systems, accompanied by full cost pricing, would bring numerous benefits over the current system. This was no crackpot cost-cutting conspiracy. The benefits were outlined by David Crombie, who headed a government advisory panel, in a memo later that year. The old subsidies system, he said, created overbuilding in some areas. Consumers don’t pay full cost for water, and therefore have no incentive to conserve and local governments have no incentive to invest wisely, if at all. The subsidy system also “dampens innovation and the pursuit of creative management practices.”

A former red-Tory mayor of Toronto, Mr. Crombie is no right-wing ideologue. But he said, “Clearly the current situation is financially and environmentally unsustainable.” He and his colleagues called for a major overhaul of water and sewer services, along the lines approved by the Ontario cabinet. But the program, as we now know, was never carried out.

Why not? Who knows. Former Environment Minister Norm Sterling, during testimony last Wednesday, conceded the government did the opposite. Under questioning from a lawyer representing the Energy Probe Foundation, Mr. Sterling was asked whether the cabinet plan remained in effect. “Well,” he said, “nothing happened.” In fact, he said, the government introduced legislation “which almost discouraged it.” Instead of ending grants, it provided new ones that acted as a disincentive to privatization.

The Walkerton tragedy is beyond any doubt the product of public ownership, buck-passing local bureaucrats, beer-drinking incompetents and decades of destructive public funding. All this long pre-dates the Harris government.

If anyone should be on trial at this inquiry, it’s the clients, policies and ideologies that the Cavalluzzos and Muldoons have long represented. The real campaign here is not to get to the bottom of Walkerton and its causes. The objective is to stave off programs and policies that would finally end the union and public stranglehold over government services.

Correction: Paul Cavalluzzo, chief counsel to the Walkerton Inquiry, is not now and never has been a policy advisor to the NDP or any other political party.

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