Federal government seeks privatization of health care, education

The Report: November / December 1999 vol.20 num.4


The arcane world of trade and investment agreements is not known for its poeticlanguage, but there are exceptions. Promoters of the World Trade Organiztion (WTO) comparemembership in the organization to Ulysses tying himself to the mast of his ship soas not to succumb to the call of the Sirens.

The analogy suggests that, by voluntarily constraining themselves with multilateraltrade and investment deals, politicians can resist their citizens siren calls tomaintain or create government programs. As the national ship founders on the rocks ofprivatization and foreign investment, politicians can then say it isnt their fault -the WTO made them do it.

The new minister of trade, Pierre Pettigrew, says he believes in "humanizing"globalization. If thats true, lets hope he is a quick study, because he takesover his job just as trade officials around the world are opening up public services tomassive privatization through the next round of WTO negotiations.

Critics of the failed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) - the most blatant effortso far to hobble democratic government - have been trying to determine where the MAI willshow up next. They now know it is being primed to resurface under the General Agreement onTrade in Services ... the GATS.

The WTO describes the GATS as "the worlds finest multilateral agreement oninvestment" with "legally enforceable rights to trade in all services" andthe right to "set up a commercial presence in the export market."

The GATS until now has received little public attention. First, it is what is known as a"bottom-up" agreement, meaning that only those things that governmentsvoluntarily put into it are covered. (The MAI was top-down: everything was covered unlessyou could negotiate an exemption.) Secondly, all government services were excluded, sothat health care, education, social services, the environment, and government procurementwere not open to private corporate investment.

That is about to end - if the US, the European Union (EU) and Canada have their way. Yes,Canada. Our government, through Industry Canada and External Affairs, has been activelypromoting the corporatization of Canadas health care and other public services.

In an Industry Canada document entitled "Constraints to the Export of Canadian HealthCare Services," our officials argue that there "must be increased cooperationbetween the private sector and the public sector, including Canadas publicly-fundedhealth care institutions".

Trade officials want access to foreign markets for private Canadian health care firms. Butin the quid pro quo of international negotiations, you do not gain access to foreignmarkets unless you are willing to let foreign corporations into your own.

Last Spring, US trade representative Charlene Barshevsky made the US position on the GATSclear: "Our service agenda covers a vast range of industries [including] health,education, environmental protection..." The European Commissions policy paperstates that no services should be excluded from the GATS. Their negotiator suggestseducation and health, in particular, are "ripe for liberalization."

This powerful trade imperative is driven by the relentless pressure of the worldslargest corporations to open up new and potentially lucrative areas of investment.

The US Coalition on Service Industries is just one powerful corporate lobby and includesthe American health giant Aetna. In its position paper to the US government, the Coalitionstates: "We believe we can make much progress in the [GATS] negotiations to allow theopportunity for US businesses to expand into foreign health care markets."

Public education is the other big target for privatization. The WTO Services Division isconducting a world-wide investigation to identify public policies that"discriminate" against foreigh education providers.

A private organization, Global Alliance for Transnational Education (GATE) was contractedby the WTO to ferret out "restrictive practices" by governments. In its survey,GATE encourages citizens to turn in their own governments, assuring them that"restrictive practice is probably epidemic globally, so disclosure does notconstitute treason!"

The decisions about what Canada will and will not "put on the table" in theupcoming negotiations on services will have a profound effect on our public services andour sovereignty. Are Pettigrew and the Prime Minster in support of opening up our publichealth care and education systems to corporate ownership?

There is good reason, unfortunately, to believe that the answer is "yes" - thatour political leaders have already tied themselves to the mast of even-more-liberalizedtrade and privatization.

Murray Dobbin is a research associate with the Canadian Centre for PolicyAlternatives.

What you can do - see October/Novemberissue (Vol.20 No.3)