Commentary | In response to creation of the Max Bell School of Public Policy

Dear Principal Fortier,
In the Winter issue, McGill News reported the creation of the new Max Bell School of Public Policy (Training Tomorrow’s Policy Leaders, winter 2017/18 page 15). Christoper Ragan, the Schoolís inaugural director, and advisory board co-chair Rona Ambrose cited climate change, the environment, and urban sprawl as some of the policy challenges faced by our society.

I hope that the students of the new School will be discussing private public partnerships, whose impacts on all of us are not benign.

For instance, is it in the public interest to allow privatization of transit, essential to general prosperity as well as a key element in slowing climate change and urban sprawl, when we consider that private companies have profit as their sole object, and they are answerable to their shareholders, not transit riders and voters?

In the case of the controversial Réseau électrique métropolitain (REM), a crucial public service will be given to a quasi-private subsidiary of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, (CDPQ) Infra. This gigantic transfer of wealth from us, the public, was engineered by the Quebec government without tender and without transparency.

The REM will benefit from a large investment of public funds and infrastructure — such as the appropriation of the Mount Royal Tunnel without compensation, the use of the new Champlain bridge, huge acquisitions of property for parking lots. Despite depending on this public funding, CDPQ Infra will be at liberty to sell the REM to whomever it wants, if it should choose to do so.

Marc-Nicolas Kobrynsky has warned in L’actualité (S’inspirer du privé? Oui. Privatiser? Non merci!, January 17, 2018) that privatisation increases the cost of services. Unknown costs, unlimited resources (the Quebec government is on the hook for any cost overruns) and pressure to complete a project in a hurry add up to the perfect storm for cost overruns according to Jean E. Fortier, former chief of Montrealís executive committee, Luc Gagnon, Ph.D, ETS, and Jean-François Lefebvre, Ph.D, Sciences de la gestion, UQAM.

Privatisation can undermine democracy. Thanks to the law concerning the REM, passed by the Québec Liberals in 2017, the REM operators have the right to compel local transit authorities to modify their plans to favour use of the REM. The REM will be independent from the Authorité régionale de transport métropolitain, whose mission is to deliver public transportation, and which answers to the Ville de Montréal.

Citizens’ taxes pay for transit authorities whose mission is to provide the most efficient service possible, and that objective will be gravely weakened by their financial obligation to a for-profit company. REM users’ fares will still have to be heavily subsidized, yet the CDPQ plans to make a considerable profit from the REM, largely from real estate development along the route (Michael Sabia estimates this at five billion dollars). Costs will be socialized, but profits will be privatized.

No-one in the greater Montreal area contests the need for action on transportation. However, there were no public hearings about the efficacy of the proposed REM. As for the Bureau des Audiences publiques sur l’Environnement, the time allotted for hearings was compressed. The BAPE refused to render any recommendation — an extraordinary situation — because the promoters did not provide sufficient details to the commission. The BAPE’s refusal to endorse the REM was a striking warning to the public, yet as soon as the its report became public the head of the Chambre de Commerce de Montréal and Quebec’s, Philippe Couillard, accused the commissioners of exceeding the BAPE’s mandate. Ignoring its conclusions, they insisted the REM project must proceed as quickly as possible.

The REM project has been excoriated by experts in transportation, urban planning, sustainability, and economics from Concordia University, Université de Montréal, UQAM, École de technologie supérieure, and McGill University.
Michael Sabia, president of the Caisse de Dépôt et Placement du Québec of which CDPQ Infra is a subsidiary and a keen proponent of the REM, is co-chair of the advisory board of the Max Bell School of Public Policy.

President Fortier, why do you think that Michael Sabia is going to help the Max Bell School of Public Policy “push the envelope and engage and communicate in different ways,” as Rona Ambrose is hoping it will do?

Yours truly,

Alison Hackney, B. Sc. (Agr) ‘84