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A Brief History Of Corporate Time (Part II) Corporate presence in our governments and schools By Stephen Vogler Upon filling out the "Whistler 2002 Booklet: A Vision For Our Future" last winter, I was surprised to come across the suggestion that our municipal government could be run more like a corporation. In the section where I could agree or disagree and give comments, I suggested that the corporate model might work well for a corporation trying to increase shareholder profits, but that a government’s job, while it should balance its books, is fundamentally to serve the needs of the people who voted it in. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who took exception to the corporate model being applied to local government. Municipal administrator Jim Godfrey says many people responded negatively to the suggestion of a corporate or entrepreneurial model for government, but he feels that the municipality’s position may have been misunderstood. "We used the word entrepreneur and some people felt that it was probably an inappropriate one because they linked it directly to the corporate world, they linked it directly to the bottom line and us getting into business per se, as opposed to fulfilling our real role which is looking after the public interest and providing for the public good by providing a number of goods and services. "I think that a government has to take a look at using whatever tools are out there for them to be more efficient and effective. And if they can learn from the business model in some ways, then that’s great." Godfrey points to some of the changes which the entrepreneurial model has brought to the RMOW: Departments are given more autonomy in terms of their budgets. Rather than the traditional spend-it-or-lose-it budgeting, departments ending up with a net gain can keep 50 per cent of it to use on an innovative project that is consistent with the goals of the community. Performance is no longer measured in terms of inputs — how much money it will take, and how many people — but in terms of outcomes. "Do you actually deliver the products, the goods and services, that the community is looking for, and do you do it cost-effectively?" is how Godfrey describes it. The trend is also toward following a vision and a mission statement rather than mere rules and regulations. If bureaucracy and red tape stand in the way of accomplishing something worthwhile, they should be torn down and not hidden behind. Innovation and creativity are encouraged, as is competition. "We’re trying to harness the intellectual capital of the organization," Godfrey says. "We’re trying to empower people. Those are all things that will come from the private sector to some degree, and yet they add real value to government as well." If government can operate more efficiently and be more responsive to the needs of the people, few would argue against adopting such changes. What is telling about these new trends in local government, however, is how much the language of the corporate world has entered the public sector. They’re dealing with "products, goods and services," increasing "productivity and efficiency," harnessing "intellectual capital." In terms of language and ideology, corporatization has already occurred, not only in our municipal government, but in many others across the country. Closely on the heels of this ideological shift in local government, corporations came knocking at the municipal door in a much more physical manner. Major corporations are now prepared to offer large sums of money — sums which could ease the tax burden — in exchange for having their names associated in one way or another with the Whistler Resort. "If you’re going to move into sponsorships," Godfrey says, "you have to do it in such a way that’s consistent with your vision, with your mission statement, your community values and your principles." But he says there is a need to look for alternative revenue sources, and sponsorships is one of them. "We just can’t go to the property owner and continue to tax them to provide all the goods and services that the public is looking for." The corporate language and line of thought that has found its way into municipal government is also emerging in the administration of our schools. "We’ve gone to site-based management," says Whistler school trustee Andree Janyk. "Instead of all the financing being done centrally, and the decision-making on the budget being done centrally, all the schools make their individual budgets." Janyk explains how a particular school might save money one year through less teacher sick days, or through attracting foreign students. The following year they would have a budget surplus which could go towards a program of their choice, something like music or sports which aren’t sufficiently funded by the Ministry of Education. While Whistler’s schools haven’t had a barrage of potential corporate sponsors lining up at the door yet, Janyk says there have been some initial discussions and workshops dealing with the topic. "Everybody’s aware of it, but we haven’t explored it in terms of policy or anything like that," she says. "As we get more used to this (site-based) management style, we may end up growing in developing some corporate sponsorships." Janyk says it’s been an education watching the municipality, because the school board will have to look at the same things. "What are the pros and cons of it? What do we need out of it? What policy will we write around it to make it work for us?" As to whether corporate sponsorships could compromise education, Janyk says that is something that everyone would be very careful of. She points to some examples where sponsorships have worked to the benefit of certain schools, such as Burnaby South Secondary, where IBM is a sponsor. "They (the school) said ‘Here’s our priority, can you come in and deal with us under these conditions?’ and then the school got what they needed, and it stayed within the educational bounds." Heather Jane Robertson, author of No More Teachers, No More Books, was more skeptical in a recent CBC Radio interview about allowing corporations to gain a toe-hold in our education system. With continual cutbacks to education, she says our schools are vulnerable and the marketers are dying to get in, seeing every dollar lost to public education as a dollar in the pockets of those who want to sell to schools. "Creating good, effective Canadian curriculum takes time and money, and as teachers and school systems have less of both," she says, "it becomes very tempting to just pick up Cadbury’s lesson plan on the true meaning of Easter, let’s say, or Nike’s lessons on the environment and child labour." She also points out that when it comes to new technologies we seem to forget our standards in keeping corporate advertising out of the classroom. "If private sector values, or materials, or profit interests, come attached to technology, it’s like we become completely denuded of our skepticism." She gives the example of people who wouldn’t put corporate posters up on the walls of a classroom having no problem with the advertising that comes across the screen savers on computers. The reason our public institutions have to start looking to corporations for funding seems simple enough. There’s no longer enough money in the public coffers to pay for the things we have come to expect as Canadians: public education, health care, social programs, infrastructure, etc. The transfer payments from the federal government to the provinces have been cut, and in turn, the money from the provinces to the municipalities and school boards has been cut. Public institutions have been effectively put on hold while the federal government focuses on its top priority, balancing the budget and eradicating the debt. Yet in the midst of this so-called money shortage, large corporations are doing better than ever. The five largest chartered banks in Canada raked in profits of more than $6 billion last year. Many other corporations have earned record profits over the last few years. And while corporations are doing so well, many are not paying their fair share of taxes. Deferred corporate taxes owing to the federal government are currently in the 10s of billion of dollars. If those taxes were paid up, our government could start rebuilding the social institutions that have suffered at the hands of deficit slashing. In today’s economic climate, where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations, it’s not surprising that those corporations would start putting up money for our social institutions. But while such moneys were once distributed by our federal government — an institution that represents our shared national values — having them instead distributed by corporations whose values are entirely different and not necessarily concerned with the common good of society, has disturbing implications in a democracy. In the past, institutions like governments and schools were always separated from vested interests (at least officially if not always in practice), but that separation seems to be disappearing. The fact that corporate influence, in terms of ideology and perceived lack of money for social institutions, has reached down to the local level in Whistler, one of the richest municipalities in Canada, reveals just how pervasive the new corporate thinking has become. But if corporations are having an impact on local governments throughout Canada, their impact on the federal government is of a much greater scope. Canada has been negotiating in Paris with other OECD countries (the richest 29 nations in the world) for a global investment treaty known as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). Like the Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA before it, the MAI would create investment codes that give sweeping powers to transnational corporations. Tony Clarke, director of the Polaris Institute, and author of Silent Coup: The Business Takeover of Canada, calls it "a charter of rights and freedoms for corporations only — a charter to be guaranteed by national governments in the interests of profitable transnational investment and competition. It is meant to benefit corporations, not citizens." Under the MAI, corporations would have a legal status equal to that of nation states, and in some cases superior. They would have the right to the free flow of capital, so that no government could impose restrictions on the return of profits from the host country to the parent corporation. They would also have the right to directly sue governments or states, while governments would not have the reciprocal right to sue corporations for damages on behalf of their people. The MAI would forbid governments from using investment policy as a tool to promote social, economic and environmental objectives. It would forbid governments from imposing performance requirements such as job content and import and export quotas on foreign-based corporations. It would prevent governments from utilizing "special share arrangements" allowing local workers or communities to buy a company. The draft MAI contains clauses protecting corporations from being targeted by governments for operations in other countries where they are seen to be violating labour, environmental or human rights standards. Bans, sanctions or embargoes that restrict investment — such as the ones which helped topple Apartheid in South Africa — would not be allowed under the MAI. The investment rules in the agreement would apply not only to national governments, but to state, provincial and municipal ones as well. The MAI negotiations in Paris have been shrouded in secrecy and, for an agreement that would cause enormous changes to Canadian society, there has been virtually no public debate. In the States, the biggest lobbying coalition behind the MAI is the U.S. Council for International Business, while in Canada it is backed by the Business Council On National Issues. Due to opposition from informed citizens around the world (many of them using the internet to exchange information), the MAI has so far not been ratified. But the pressure to pass it, whether as the MAI or under a new name, will certainly continue. Back at the local level, adopting corporate ideologies and accepting corporate dollars to run our public institutions may seem harmless enough on the surface. But in light of what is going on with corporations at a national and multinational level, it might be worth stepping back from our immediate concerns and looking at the broader picture. How much control do we want to turn over to corporations — to institutions not concerned with the public good, but with the generation of profits? If we continue to invite corporations into our public institutions, we may find one day that the balance has shifted — that our democratic system has become nothing more than a vehicle for corporations to enact their own controls over society. I hope that day hasn’t come yet, but all things considered, it would be worth our while to flex our democratic rights and see just how much control we still have over corporations. If nothing else, we’ll at least find out who’s really running the show.


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