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George Smitherman, the privatizer: No thanks

You learn a lot about a candidate for public office when he or she first stakes out a position on a key issue.

In this case, the candidate is George Smitherman, who recently left the Ontario Liberal cabinet, to run for mayor of Toronto. In an in-depth interview with the Toronto Star, Smitherman mused that he would consider privatizing garbage pick-up in Toronto and the privatization of some of the city's public transit lines.

Anyone who has studied privatization of garbage collection and pubic transit knows that this comes down to two things: saving money by slashing workers' salaries and making it easier to lay them off; and creating a cash cow for businesses all too happy to make profits at the expense of workers and taxpayers.

Experiments with privatization of transit have been undertaken in many countries, a notable case being the United Kingdom. The U.K. experience with privatized train and bus service teaches anyone who cares to look that the private sector is not more efficient than the pubic sector. Over time, capital investments fall in the renewal and upgrading of the services. Wages decline and there's plenty of money to be made by businesses who step in -- often with close ties to privatizing governments.

If you want to experience expensive and lousy train and bus service, try Britain. Compared to the systems on the other side of the Channel, all that's to be said for Britain is that it's quaint. And it's somewhat romantic kissing your significant other goodbye in the mornings wondering if you'll ever see them again.

No George. If your first thought about being mayor is to back a scheme that will reduce public services over the long-term and widen the income gap in Toronto -- clearly the city's greatest problem -- you're not for us. And please don't try to fob us off with the line that you are for "Privatization if necessary, but not necessarily privatization."

Compared to other North American metropolises, Toronto has used its strong public services as a backbone for a city that regularly ranks high in surveys of the best places to live.

The real issue for Toronto is to establish a tax base for the city that is not a relic of the 19th century. Uploading transit systems to the province for the Greater Toronto Area would be a good start. Beyond that, we need a wholesale reform of how the city raises revenues. And that will require a huge struggle with Queen's Park.

A mayoral candidate with his or her eye on those changes would be worth backing. Not one whose first instinct is to throw civic workers onto the scrap heap.

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