The Manitoba Government Air Service Branch, which includes essential and lifesaving services such as water bombers and air ambulances, is facing the uncertain prospect of privatization. As Manitoba’s Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler recently remarked, these services are now classified as “important,” a notable downgrade from their previous status as essential services, which has been the case since 1996. It is with this shift to “non-essential” that allows services such as our water bombers to be privatized.
In the 1990s, a similar attempt to privatize the water bombers was unsuccessful under the Conservative government of the day. As the debate on privatization ramps up again, Minister Schuler indicated his belief that we can get better value for our taxpayers. However, the water bombers currently operate as a not-for-profit entity. The current operation structure seems to be quite cost-friendly to taxpayers already, due to the nature of the compressed work year (CWY) agreement that is in place with water bomber pilots, including working overtime at straight time, being their regular hourly wages.
With this current cost-friendly framework of operations, it is unclear how privatizing this service would result in financial savings. The very nature of business is to turn a profit for stakeholders. The public-private partnership materials on this matter comment on the 15-20% return that the successful party would see on their investment. On the whole, it seems that privatizing these essential services would be a more costly proposition than the status quo.
What is also overlooked is the current ability of the government-operated water bomber system to operate safely, timely, efficiently and effectively. If this service were to be privatized, there are roughly 80 to 90 civil servants whose fate would hang in the balance. These are highly trained individuals who represent countless hours of experience providing this service in the most effective and efficient way possible, while gaining a strong sense of the local terrain. This invaluable experience and leadership could be lost with privatization.
Considering the importance of the service provided to the public, it is fair to wonder if water bombers should be removed from provincial control at all. Public airspace that involves the fate of communities and individuals should be used in the public’s best interests. The best way to ensure this is to have final authority rest with the public’s representatives, not special interest groups. The concern with privatization is that the system is turned over to a combination of special interest groups that have profit as their main priority, as is the nature of business. Allowing such a service to be placed at the mercy and whim of the free market, where it could be exposed to labour actions, economic downturns, and bankruptcies could potentially bring the provision of this service to a screeching halt.
It seems unavoidable that running this service as a business will put the system at some risk. Investment may not occur equally in all areas, whereas in the government-operated system, it is provincial policy to invest everywhere, even in rural Manitoba. As the goal of the private sector is to turn profit and see a return on one’s investment, it seems justified to be concerned about whether privatization is really cost-effective for taxpayers and whether or not the effectiveness and efficiency of this service will suffer as a result of this shift.
Should privatization occur, it is crucial that the new system be evaluated based on whether it provides workforce rights and benefits, maintains safety and efficiency as the top priorities, creates funding certainty without going over and continues to maintain service to all geographical areas of the Manitoba community.
Dr. Mary Jane McCallum, of the Barren Lands First Nation, is a senator from Manitoba and a social justice advocate.
This article was published in the Aug. 8, 2018 edition of The Opasquia Times.