Nova Scotia·Opinion

Nova Scotia registry outsourcing years from reality, Graham Steele says

Minister Mark Furey announced that the government may be outsourcing some public sector registries this past week. Analyst Graham Steele says the question is not whether these registries will continue to exist as public services, but only who is going to run them.

Minister Mark Furey announced Tuesday that government may one day outsource land, company, vehicle registries

Graham Steele says Service Nova Scotia Minister Mark Furey's announcement about the potential outsourcing of provincial registries is tepid because no one likes to use the word 'privatization'. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Mark Furey, the Minister of Service Nova Scotia, held the mildest of news conferences on Tuesday.

He announced that the government is moving to the next stage in its proposal to outsource the work at three government registries: the land registry, the companies registry, and the motor vehicle registry.

The question is not whether these registries will continue to exist as public services, but only who is going to run them.

Anybody who has anything to do with a car, truck, bus or motorcycle will be familiar with the motor vehicle registry. That's the one that issues licenses, administers tests, and hands out vehicle plates. We've all waited in line. We know what it looks like.

The land registry and the companies registry are less well known to the general public, but each performs a crucially important function.

If you want to buy or sell a piece of property, you have to know who else might have a claim on it. A good, well-functioning land registry is one of the foundations for our economy and legal system.

The companies registry (the bureaucratic title of which is the Registry of Joint Stock Companies) gives us access to basic information about corporations. The registry is one of the few windows we have on the corporate world.

Loaded word

Minister Furey's announcement was so tepid, so restrained, so hedged about with qualifications and reassurances, that one could wonder why he even bothered.

He's going to (gasp) seek to pre-qualify potential bidders.

It was akin to watching someone in a bathing suit announce that maybe, or maybe not, at some undetermined point in the future, maybe in a couple of years, or longer, talks would be held with some private lifeguard companies  about whether they might, or might not, assist him in dipping his toe in some water somewhere, although he wasn't sure which toe it would be.

The Registry of Motor Vehicles may be one of the provincial registries that could be outsourced in the future, according to Furey's announcement on Tuesday. (CBC)

And don't use the word privatization, please.

The government knows that privatization is a loaded word.

The last big privatization was Nova Scotia Power in 1992. Some still see it as a giveaway.

Privatization took another reputational hit in the 1990s, when the Liberal government went in for public-private partnerships (P3s) to build schools. To cut a long story short, the schools ended up being more expensive than if they'd been built the traditional way.

Overwrought language

The tepidity of Furey's announcement did not hold back the critics.

A corporate handout. An attack on democracy. The start of a province-wide privatization drive. Handing our private data to Americans.  Shipping profits to Britain.

And of course, because the government wants to avoid the word privatization, the critics gleefully used it at every opportunity.

The language was so overwrought that I wondered if maybe there had been another news conference that I missed.  But no, there was just the one: the tepid, vague one.

Furey's vagueness, which he thought would protect him, actually made things worse. The lack of detail left his critics free to paint the worst of worst-case scenarios: closed offices, poor service, less staff, lower wages, higher fees, lower revenue, privacy breaches.

All of those outcomes are theoretically possible, but only if the government enters into a service delivery contract with a private company, and then completely, totally messes it up.

Worth the fight?

A new idea, which isn't that new — given that some other provinces are already doing it — deserves some breathing space to see how it develops.

Getting a private company to deliver registry services might be a great idea, or it might be a terrible idea. It depends entirely on the terms of the contract.

The McNeil government is miles away from deciding to enter into a contract, never mind figuring out what the terms might be.

What they learned this week, if they didn't know it already is that they're in for a fight.

A government has the energy for only so many fights at one time.

So instead of asking only whether outsourcing registry work makes sense financially and operationally, the deep thinkers in the McNeil government will add the political question: Is it worth the fight?

The status quo is always there, singing from the rocks, as alluring and destructive as always.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.

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