David MacNaughton – I have always been mystified by the attachment many of my fellow Liberals hold to the notion of public ownership of operating companies. The federal Liberals shed this long-held article of faith in the mid-90s for a simple reason: they didn’t have a choice. They hit the wall financially and managed to effectively dispose of a number of crown assets. In addition to raising some much-needed funds, the private sector investment helped turn a sleepy bureaucratic railway, Canadian National, into North America’s leading company in this sector. Likewise, Petro Canada, freed from the constraints of public ownership, became a dynamic player in the oil and gas sector — so much so that it ended up as an attractive merger partner for Suncor, itself a company with a history of some public ownership. The resultant company is one of Canada’s leading enterprises.
The current government of Ontario, facing both a fiscal deficit and a commitment to invest billions of dollars in much needed public infrastructure, seemed poised to embrace reality when it appointed Ed Clark and a group of prominent Ontarians to advise on the government’s large, publicly owned assets. The government had included a statement saying it preferred to retain ownership of these assets, but many assumed it was merely pre-election protection against the NDP’s predictable position on the issue. Apparently not.