Short Takes: Hillier’s remarkable labour conversion, the battle of the inequality authors and more

It is somewhat astonishing to see PC Randy Hillier vote against a Tory private member’s bill that would free construction giant EllisDon from a 55-year-old obligation to hire only unionized labour. This is the same Randy Hillier who, as the opposition labour critic, drafted a White Paper that advocates opening the door to any individual bargaining unit worker to opt out from paying union dues, taking advantage of the collective agreement without actually contributing to the cost of negotiating it. Recently an Indiana judge overruled such a local State law recognizing that it was unconstitutional to force an entity to provide service without compensation. Before losing his critic portfolio, Hillier complained that the Tories were introducing the bill in the hopes of enhancing party donations from the Liberal-friendly construction giant. EllisDon makes considerable financial contributions to the Tories but even bigger ones to the Liberals. Hillier wrote in an e-mail: “Our opposition will cite this example at every opportunity to demonstrate that we are only fighting unions to make big business richer.” Does he not think the rest of the PC labour platform already reflects that reality? While Hillier may appear to be supporting labour today by voting against the EllisDon bill, keep in mind that such action also brings embarrassment to PC leader Tim Hudak who may be the real reason Hillier has chosen to become a dissident on this issue. TVOntario host Steve Paiken recently blogged that such disloyal behaviour is a case of “what comes around goes around.” Paiken noted Hudak’s own disloyalty to former leader John Tory at a time when the former Rogers executive was seeking a safe by-election seat after losing his chosen constituency in a general election to Kathleen Wynne. According to Paiken, Hudak was said to be quietly urging his fellow MPPs not to give up their seat to allow Tory into the legislature. Now several of Hudak’s MPPs are encouraging a new leadership vote, the PCs having only won one of seven byelections since 2011. One of the MPPs encouraging such a review is Randy Hillier. We don’t know who left the comment on Paiken’s BLOG, but one reader duly noted that Hudak is the proverbial dog that don’t hunt. We’re not sure about the rest of the provincial PCs and their policies either.

We’re number two! Canada is now the second biggest market in the world for public-private partnerships (P3s), overtaking even the UK which is the birthplace of such convoluted money-sucking schemes. Ontario represents more than half of the P3 projects in Canada. One of the latest is the new hospital meant to replace the former Kingston Psychiatric and St. Mary’s of the Lake rehab facilities. Both hospitals are operated by Providence Care. This is not a good thing given P3s are far more expensive than conventionally procured infrastructure and far less flexible for the public. These expensive deals are usually justified by risk assessments that even P3 proponents agree are nonsense. Toby Sanger, our economist colleague over at CUPE, quotes Larry Dean in a recent post in the Progressive Economics forum. The former President of Partnerships BC once said “Public sector comparators won’t do you much good anyways, because I can make the public sector comparator as bad as we want to, in order to make the private sector look good.” Unfortunately for the UK, the massive number of P3 projects are finally coming home to roost, making even the Conservative Cameron government do a rethink. Sanger states: “Ongoing P3 liabilities in the UK now amount to £300 billion (almost C$500 billion or $20,000 per family). Canada is now following the UK down this path of creating a ticking P3 debt bomb.” Sanger says that ultimately risk transfer is minimal. Governments often pick up the pieces, especially in situations where the consortium simply decides to walk away. “Since P3s are invariably set up as ‘special purpose vehicles’ (SPVs), the big companies behind them can simply walk away if they aren’t making enough profit or if things go wrong, thanks to limited liability laws for corporations,” he writes. “The maximum they lose is any equity and any net cash they’ve put in, less what they’ve been paid.” That equity and net cash is usually far less than the “risk” amount used to justify such projects.

The battle to replace Bob Rae’s downtown Toronto seat in the Federal Parliament is turning out to be one between two authors who have documented widening economic inequality. While the NDP’s Linda McQuaig (The Trouble with Billionaires w/Neil Brooks) sees inequality as the consequence of three decades of Neo-Liberal policies, the Liberal’s Chrystia Freeland (Plutocrats) tends to sit on the fence, presenting the widening gap as almost inevitable. The former Financial Times reporter is reluctant to cast blame or frame the super elite in a bad light. For example, Freeland writes in her book: “Who can blame the 1 per cent for seeking for their children what the 99 per cent seeks, too?” Freeland’s concern is not with the policies that got us here, but whether the super-elite are about to pull up the ladder of social mobility as did the wealthy Venetians in the 1300s. It’s long-term greed we need, not short term, she implies at the end of the book. By contrast McQuaig views the last 30 years as part of a counterrevolution by the elites in which taxes were cut, social spending scaled back, services privatized and attacks made on labour. Whereas Freeland’s plea is for the elite to better exercise its power, McQuaig believes it is up to us to exercise democratic choice. The by-election date has not been set, but clearly this one will be interesting to watch.

Speaking of inequality, unions have been one of the bulwarks against the rising tide of inequality. Our national umbrella, the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), is holding a contest where you can win $1,000 by simply telling them why unions matter. Better yet, a winner will be chosen on the 15th of each month until “at least” the end of December. Our suggestion is be creative with how you say it – NUPGE is encouraging videos, songs and poems. For further details, click here.

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