Sound and fury signifying
The battle around P3s
The lines are drawn. Many government and private sector
leaders campaign for public-private partnerships (P3s); many labour and
political leaders oppose them and bureaucrats struggle to understand,
negotiate and implement them. The stakes are huge for politicians
wrestling with budgets, for private sector companies looking for profits
and for government employees facing the uncertainties of
It is possible to find examples to prove almost anything
about P3s. That is why, among the many investments being made in the
future of P3s, efforts to influence perceptions may be the most important.
Jacques Huot, vice-president of Ontario SuperBuild Corporation,
speaking in Kingston to Ontario municipal bureaucrats and politicians,
quickly sums up what his government expects from P3s: "I assist in
the delivery of $20 billion of infrastructure with $10 billion in planned
government spending, using P3s." But there is nothing simple or easy
about P3s. "It all relates to risk," Huot says, "and from
where you sit currently there are three primary risks.
financial risk. Many municipalities think 'we're too small to be able to
do that.'" Some of the world's largest corporate entities, he points
out, are ready to work with small municipalities to provide the needed
capital and expertise.
"There is operational risk - the risk that
the thing won't work, whatever it is, once it is finished," Huot
He continues, "There is political risk." How do you
make the public understand a complete change in service delivery? And if
it doesn't work, the people who promoted it will obviously have a
political and perhaps a career price to pay for that, he concludes.
uses fewer words to tell his now attentive audience why they should
consider P3s in their own communities. "Basically, you don't have a
The pressure is on every level of government and the
alternatives to P3s have narrowed. Budgets have tightened, citizens expect
more and the private sector's ability to deploy new technology, innovate
on the run and beat the status quo on both price and performance has
increased dramatically. Early success by British Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher's privatization initiatives brought widespread emulation, and P3s
are now seen as one way to deliver more with less.
Within the Canadian
government, Industry Canada's Lucien Bradet, director general of the
Service Industry Branch, promotes P3s saying Canada wants to develop P3
expertise for export. "Our mission is to develop Canadian industry,
to be more successful domestically and internationally," he says.
"More and more opportunities in our country are being taken over by
other countries, or are being considered by other countries who have more
experience than us."
While the officers leading the charge in the
P3 army are mainly in the federal and provincial governments, municipal
public servants, mayors and councillors are on the front lines. Big P3s,
like Ontario's Highway 407 and Prince Edward Island's Confederation
Bridge, make big headlines, but the municipal level is where the greatest
savings will be made.
The message from the senior levels of government
is "you can do this." P3 educational literature, both
unrelentingly optimistic and practical, stresses the issue of leadership.
Without a champion many P3s come to nothing. That champion is more than
likely a politician.
Abraham Akkawi, vice president with
PricewaterhouseCoopers Financial Advisory Service says, "In many
municipalities, especially the medium-sized to large ones, I can pick
projects that could be done through P3s but people are not doing it, or
they are still planning it and studying [the concept] to death - that's
what happens. [Why not] engage in a serious discussion of how to deliver
that service or infrastructure?"
Unwillingness to champion a P3
may result from negative feelings, like distrust of complexity, or fear of
the unknown, but often it comes from a desire to be re-elected. The
challenges of a P3 could be an impediment to that.
managing director of RBC Dominion Securities and a veteran of large P3
projects, says, "There have been some highly successful P3s; some
were less successful
one has to watch very carefully the level of
complexity, the amount of time and money spent paying lawyers and
accountants and other similar consultants. The implementation costs of a
P3 can be prohibitive."
And the politician's worst enemy can be
another politician. Doug Lychak, formerly Hamilton, Ontario's city
manager, says, "In the Hamilton sewer and water P3, with $30 million
in savings over 10 years, the council vote was 14 to 13. And, once a vote
is taken, it doesn't mean council is on side. The other 13 shoot at you
for the next 10 years while the contract is ongoing."
Lathrop, a former public servant in Cumberland (now part of Ottawa),
relied on support from then-Mayor Brian Coburn to move the highly
successful Ray Friel Recreation Centre P3 ahead despite several
difficulties. "We did [some] research to find out whether anybody had
done this kind of relationship before. Nobody had done it before in
Ontario." Lathrop said. "When you don't have relevant
experience, when you don't have background, your natural tendency is to
fall back on the same old, same old."
There is little doubt that
the private sector believes in the P3 concept. But increasingly, it
questions governments' commitment to implementation, having become wary of
prolonged, detailed and expensive preliminaries to projects that never
A government department's internal culture can also
prevent viable P3s from going ahead. Lychak says, "Often, for me, one
of the biggest problems has been managers afraid to lose control - afraid
because they don't have the expertise, because instead of telling 100
people what to do, you manage a contract."
Citizen perceptions are
part of the battle and Lychak puts his view succinctly: "Taxpayers
are really into value for money. The research I've done in various
municipalities tells me they really don't care what colour the garbage
truck is or whether the person driving the truck has a blue uniform or a
Large or small, each P3 must provide quality
service at a fair price. David Leonhart, director of government and public
relations for the Ontario division of the Canadian Automobile Association
took a special interest in Ontario's Highway 407 project, hailed as a
successful P3. ##He gives it a mixed review. "What has succeeded is
that we've got a desperately needed highway, which literally cuts right
through the section of this country where most of the increase in commuter
traffic is happening and is expected to happen in the next two
decades." He is less pleased about the toll and early billing
irregularities. "The fact that there are highway tolls while we
continue to pay extravagant gas taxes and licensing fees is, in our mind,
a total failure of the entire accountability system." And, "The
deal was structured that, if you didn't pay up, you were not allowed to
renew your licence." Although there is now an appeals process, the
province has retained the right to enforce private sector billing through
public sector regulations.
Citizens also want a fair, open and
competitive process. Ottawa's Lathrop says, "We were quite concerned
about sole sourcing [the Ray Friel Centre]. A red flag goes up when you
are talking about the public sector and how to deal with an individual
company without being accused of not tendering or not going out and doing
the appropriate canvassing."
Using private sector techniques,
long-term financing and innovation to provide public services means
tapping into a new, multi-billion dollar market. The companies involved
look for long-term arrangements because, as Akkawi says, "Except for
purely service oriented P3s, the private sector is bringing
financing." Where there is significant capital investment, the
private sector partner may not see a return for several years.
news, according to SuperBuild's Huot, is that, "Private sector
resources are virtually limitless. They have access to world-wide
McCallum says, "The Canadian financial community
has a huge amount of money ready to invest in public infrastructure
projects, if they can feel comfortable that the return is commensurate
with the risk. The difficulty with many of these things is establishing
any revenue stream at all. If you invest money, then you need to have
money come back, both to pay off your initial investment and to give you a
return. There are many areas in which, under the current conditions, it is
hard to provide that money."
But no matter how well they're sold,
not everyone buys into P3s. The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)
has waged the P3 public relations battle with skill and resourcefulness,
minimizing successes and trumpeting failures.
rates and lengthy lease schemes mean these partnerships cost taxpayers
more than publicly financed services. Quite simply, the private sector
can't borrow as cheaply, or with as good a credit rating, as any level of
government - municipal, provincial or federal," says Judy Darcy,
national president of CUPE. "Where there are cost savings - often
generated by cutting services and staff - they're pocketed by the
corporation. New user fees often erase any savings that do trickle down.
Paying more for eroded services is no partnership."
acknowledges that the private sector has a role in public services and
infrastructure. "In most provinces the private sector has been
involved historically in designing and building new water treatment
plants, schools and hospitals. But we believe that's where the involvement
must stop, and the keys turned over to the public."
continues, has other issues with P3s. "On democracy, P3s also get a
failing grade. Lengthy lease agreements, negotiated in secret with little
or no public input, saddle governments with deals that can stretch over 20
or 30 years. Community control and accountability are diminished, as the
public is shunted to the side in decision-making processes."
says, "One of the problems faced in some of the bigger municipalities
where CUPE plays a larger role and CUPE national keeps their local
presidents of those bigger organizations on a very short chain, is the
opposition for any kind of innovation or change that impacts their
membership and indirectly their dues. The union never gives
In the perceptions battle, Industry Canada's Bradet points
out that CUPE has the advantage of a higher profile than P3 proponents.
"CUPE is a public figure. The labour movement is a public figure.
There are hundreds of people in every municipality who are CUPE members,
very vocal and with a big PR budget. Who talks for the other side unless
you have a champion?"
CUPE has built credibility protecting its
members from unfair P3 implementations. Akkawi describes a situation
several years ago where the Ontario Realty Corporation released an RFP
that it had to withdraw after the union challenged it in court.
"Union issues had not been dealt with up front and legislation was
not in place; these are show-stoppers. It can't only be a win for the
public sector in terms of value for money, or for the private sector's
return on their investment; there has to be fairness for the employees
impacted by the transaction," he says.
In other cases, Akkawi
the private sector walked away because the process was not
well defined and did not include all the stakeholders." Pensions are
a challenge, because "there's simply no portability between public
and private sectors." However, the marketplace is beginning to
provide solutions that mirror an equivalent to the public pension.
Whatever else they are, P3s are neither quick nor easy. Public
services still cost money, no matter how the deals are structured -
budgets aren't getting any bigger, nor are taxpayers any easier to please.
The message from the top is that governments can minimize the risks of a
P3 with thorough negotiations before a contract is signed and later,
through the regulatory power. But as McCallum points out, "They are
in the manner in which they are being documented.
The sheer complexity poses a hurdle that, for smaller projects, often
proves to be insurmountable." In his opinion, widespread acceptance
of P3s will hinge on the standardization of supporting legal and financial
documentation. Because it takes time and experience to develop that
foundation, the struggle to make P3s business as usual in Canada is far
Richard Bray is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. He has
been published in magazines and newspapers in Australia, the United States
and Canada. Before freelancing, he worked as a producer, reporter and
senior writer for CBC in Toronto.