I recently had the privilege of travelling to Montreal to speak at and participate in a conference called The Future is Public, hosted by Friends of Public Services and the Municipal Services Project and sponsored by several national labour unions. It was promoted with the tagline “Building a pro-public movement for everyone.” I want to share some of my thoughts and experiences from the conference because I think there is a lot to be learned from it.
The most important thing in my mind that the conference did was flip a conventional progressive strategy on its head. Instead of a focus on opposing privatization of public services, the framing was propositional — in favour of the public provision of public services. That framing went far beyond the conference title and permeated every session of the conference. The instructions I received for the workshop I led on public education included these words: “The conference is NOT about the problems of privatization. It is about how we want to remake and reclaim public services in ways that make them more inclusive, more sustainable and more democratic in the future.”
On the opening night, the conference facilitators had participants get together to come up with two things: a significant victory for public services that happened in the past and a future pro-public win we want to achieve. Past victories included things like public education systems and public health care. Future goals included universal pharmacare and child care systems.
The overall pro-public framing of the conference isn’t necessarily new, but it is a change in how those of us advocating for stronger public services think of our work. I think it actually aligns extremely well with the kind of work Public Interest Alberta (where I work) has been doing over the past three years since Albertans elected an NDP government.
When Alberta was governed by Progressive Conservatives, almost all of the work we found ourselves doing was on the defensive. We were trying to prevent conservative governments from handing over control of our public services to private, mostly for-profit, corporations or from offloading government costs to families. Sometimes we took direct action, like in 2014 when our Seniors Task Force occupied Health Minister Fred Horne’s office after he announced he was dismantling universal pharmaceutical coverage for seniors to save the government money (he reversed his decision).
That work was reactionary. We would watch government media releases for announcements that degraded our public services and scramble to respond with the reasons why they were working against the public interest. And that role has not disappeared. It will always be important for us to prevent things from getting worse.
Even under an NDP government, we have seen public long-term care beds closed as new private ones open. And they actually mused about bringing back Fred Horne’s idea for dismantling universal drug coverage for seniors. So, we still have defensive work to do. But we have shifted much of our work to focus on the positive directions we think the province needs to go.
Our Revenue Reno campaign aims to get Albertans thinking about taxes in a different way; they are the way we pool our money together to invest in public services. And if we want to protect and revitalize our public services, it means raising more tax revenue. Our Public Funds for Public Schools initiative advocates for reallocating the significant public subsidies given to private schools to improve classroom conditions in our public school systems. Our From Poverty to Progress campaign is pushing for Alberta to develop a poverty-reduction strategy, as we remain one of the very few provinces in the country without one.
These kinds of actions focusing on a positive vision for the future need to become the new normal in progressive advocacy in Alberta and across the country. It doesn’t mean the defensive work disappears, but the pro-public work will actually make our defensive work more effective. Getting Albertans to understand why our province and country need universal pharmacare for everyone will make any future campaign we need to do to protect universal drug coverage for seniors that much sharper.
So, we should be unapologetic about advocating for a bold, progressive agenda focused on stronger public services, a cleaner environment, and a more vibrant democracy. Let’s push for the ambitious things our government should be doing and never be satisfied with cautious half-measures. That is how we will inspire people, and that is how we will win.