Beyond the Money: Understanding the UWO salary scandal, Bill C-51 and Canada Post austerity as the attack on the public sphere
This is a guest posting, written by Nikola Mitrovic…..
Beyond the money: Understanding the UWO salary scandal, Bill-C-51 and Canada Post austerity as the attack on the public sphere
The 2015 salary scandal at the University of Western Ontario (UWO) gained media attention for various reasons but what should be emphasized most is the greater context, which is the undemocratic undermining of the public sphere. This context usually leads to a private versus public debate related to the corporatization of post-secondary education. Corporatization implies not only funding but standards, ones that prioritize things, like marketing over research, that do not fit the measures of success of a public institution, evident in the state of the people who produce the research every day. If the choice is between state capitalism and private capitalism, the debate should ultimately transcend the public versus private parameters of argument to ones of organization (whether democratic or capitalist) and distribution of wealth and income (egalitarian or inherently unequal).
Nevertheless, the public vs private debate is useful for directing the discussion of the scandal to the undemocratic erosion of the public sphere by connecting the functioning of a public institution to two other issues, namely Bill C-51 and the neoliberal policies, often called austerity measures in the ongoing European crisis, brought upon the crown agency Canada Post.
All three examples of the erosion of the public sphere produce different critiques but ultimately allow one not to see the UWO scandal as an isolated incident that can be resolved with the returning of the salary or the dismissal of an individual. While these actions set precedent just like accepting the contract in the first place, the focus must stay on the context that allows for such scandals to exist. This context creates a platform that allows for solutions to be implemented that represent alternatives addressing structural flaws rather than policies that aim to fix symptoms.
While it may seem that one inflated pay cheque, the right to protest once or one home losing delivery is not a cause of concern, for a country that holds itself to a G7 standard, these are indicators of a society showing its increasingly undemocratic side. To elaborate, what is at stake is deliberately irresponsible use of public funding, the right to express one’s conscience without authoritarian consequences, or being denied a right to seek, receive and impart information in a socially sustainable manner that demands a level of accountability, is affordable, indiscriminate, builds infrastructure, generates employment and forms an identity.
A scandal such as the one at UWO, regardless of whether legally justified or not, reveals the issues that plague public institutions facing ever dwindling state funding and increasing influence of corporations. It is not just funding but influence from corporations, which for post-secondary education results in the narrowing of the public sphere by standards that bend the public institution out of shape because it does not follow the same rules in terms of measuring success, revealing the “irrational logic” of capitalism. Therefore, efficiency and effectiveness have very specific definitions that allow funding to be distributed in a highly discriminate way, like setting priority to certain departments in a divide and conquer strategy or focusing primarily on marketing, much like a company might spend disproportionately more on marketing than research. Even without the scandal, if one were to look at how funding is portrayed at the university, the perception of the big “extraordinary” posters would certainly be different if instead of the alumni individuals being propped up, the corporations they stand behind were showcased.
Bill C-51 sets precedent in the previously mentioned undemocratic context by stretching the justification of security by blurring the lines of who or what is deemed a threat or could be in the future. The public sphere is attacked through targeting the individual or group, normalizing the idea of creating a potential terrorist out of anyone and ultimately eliminating any platform for discourse, necessary in a democracy. Meanwhile, the Canada Post austerity measures may not be unique in how a crown corporation is handled but the policies do undermine rights in a multifaceted way.
Eliminating home delivery is the focal point of the transformation plans for Canada Post that is portrayed in the media. However, what is not always mentioned are the flawed justifications behind the policy like the projected deficit derived from questionable calculations and lack of adequate research into exploring alternative options postal services in other countries have pursued.
In viewing the issue within one of the public sphere, it allows one to study further these alternatives in order to maintain the important aspects of a public service. These aspects include affordable and indiscriminate service to individuals, small businesses, and everyone in between, all the while turning a profit (though not always the bottom line), and producing infrastructure and decent wages amid public accountability. Also, not to forget contributing to access to information in a world where we are told everything is online, typically implying its free, yet are increasingly being cut off through ever greater barriers to access, physically or virtually.
While all three examples present different and overlapping examples of the undemocratic undermining of the public sphere, when combined they reveal the underlying shortcomings of each, whether they be stretching the veil of security, irresponsibly prioritizing public funds, or undermining a necessary public service. Within the context of the other two examples described, it is clear that there is more at stake at UWO than an unpopular contract that can be resolved with returning the paycheque or even a certain number of people being dismissed. A more critical discussion is needed to propose alternatives that deal with the corporate influence and secure sustainable funding that do not discriminate against departments and undermine research by prioritizing marketing and leaving the people, who produce research day in and day out, starving.
Nikola Mitrovic, is an M.L.I.S. Candidate in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario and a member of the London Chapter of the Progressive Librarians Guild.This essay has also been posted at https://plglondon.wordpress.com/2015/04/28/beyond-the-money-understanding-the-uwo-salary-scandal-bill-c-51-and-canada-post-austerity-as-the-attack-on-the-public-sphere/.
 Richard D. Wolff, “Going beyond private versus public”, Democracy at work, (Dec 15, 2014) online: http://www.democracyatwork.info/articles/2014/12/going-beyond-private-versus-public/.
 For a more detailed comparison between universities and postal service see: Robert M. Campbell, “There’s a future for Canada Post as a public institution”, The [Toronto] Globe and Mail, (Dec 12, 2013) online: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/theres-a-future-for-canada-post-as-a-public-institution/article15909840/.
 David McNally, Another world is possible: globalization and anti-capitalism, (Winnipeg, Manitoba: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2006) 122.
 York University, “Big Pharma Spends More On Advertising Than Research And Development, Study Finds”, ScienceDaily, (Jan 07 2008) online: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080105140107.htm.
 For more specific details of the Bill see: Alyssa Stryker and Carmen Cheung, “Six Things Protesters Need to Know about Bill C-51” The [Vancouver] Tyee, (Mar 11, 2015) online: http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2015/03/11/C-51-Six-Things-To-Know/.
 For more details see: Erin Weir, “Canada Post: A Billion-Dollar Boondoggle?”, Behind the numbers [Ottawa] (Dec 12, 2013) online: http://behindthenumbers.ca/2013/12/12/canada-post-a-billion-dollar-boondoggle/.
Also: Francis Fortier, Hélia Tremblay-de Mestral and Simon Tremblay-Pepin, Should Canada Post be privatized? : A socio-economic report, Institut de recherché et d’informations socio-économiques (IRIS), (Montreal: April 2014) online: http://www.iris-recherche.qc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Note-Postes-WEB-en.pdf.