Opinion

Gordon Campbell's Big Fraser Institute Idea

Who inspired our premier to privatize nature? Michael Walker, maybe?

By Rafe Mair, 13 Jul 2009, TheTyee.ca

River rafters on Chilko River

Chilko River, BC. Wanna buy it?

I was having lunch (on me as usual) with my editor last week and we were wondering aloud how the Campbell government could possibly intentionally destroy our rivers and BC Hydro, a power company that's the envy of North America.

I mentioned to Dave that I believed it was a matter of ideology. Campbell, I said, is joined at the hip with the right-wing think-tank Fraser Institute. I recalled for him an interview I had done some 15 years ago with then Fraser Institute president Dr. Michael Walker.

"Why not do an article on it?" he asked.

Now my deep instinct is to refuse point blank suggestions of editors, program directors and that ilk but since I had made this point many times during the last election, I had to agree that the idea had merit.

The biz of selling rivers

Permit me, for a moment, to lay out the logical consequences of the Campbell rivers policy. Private companies are encouraged by Campbell to desecrate our rivers to produce power, which BC Hydro is forced to buy. Because nearly all this private power can only be produced during the spring run-off when BC Hydro has full reservoirs and plenty of power, and because there is no way of storing this private power, Hydro must export it at half or less what it paid for it.

This is the lunacy I can find only one explanation for: far-right-wing ideology.

Privatize all nature: Walker

Now I must say that I've always liked Dr. Michael Walker, founder and former executive director of the Fraser Institute. I don't really know why I said that except so often critics are accused of having personal grievances and, in fact, I don't. So there.

Back in the early 1990s, the Fraser Institute published an article arguing that rivers and streams ought to all be placed in private hands because, as Dr. Walker later put it, the private owners would take good care of them because they owned them. On my show at Radio Station X, he repeated this theory that private ownership would ensure the best available use of the river or stream.

I said, "But Mike, history shows us that the best available use of a river is as a sewer for industry and/or agriculture."

"No, no," he replied. "It would be in the owner's interest to see that the river was kept pristine so that all the fish and other living creatures could survive and prosper."

To one who has fished rivers and streams all over the world, this literally took my breath away.

"What," I asked, "if I owned Rafe Mair's Fishing Camp downstream from the huge Ajax Pulp Mill that dumped large quantities of black liquor into the river killing all the fish?"

Dr. Walker gave me that triumphant look of the righteous and smiled benignly at my stupidity and said, "No problem, Rafe. You could sue them." Evidently it does not occur to the "far right" that a lawsuit against a huge corporation is not very appealing to a small business owner. (I should add that I remember this interview particularly well because after the show Dr. Walker called me at my home to continue his fruitless efforts to convert me.)

Captured on film

Memories do play tricks, however, and I thought I'd better check and see if Dr. Walker had changed his mind without me knowing it. Lo and behold in a trice I had found a documentary called The Corporation, a 2003 Canadian documentary film written by Joel Bakan, and directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott. The documentary is critical of the modern-day corporation, which by law is considered to have many of the legal rights of a person. The documentary therefore evaluates corporate behaviour towards society and the world at large as a psychologist might evaluate an ordinary person. Needless to say it's considered "left wing."

However, lo and behold, there in the The Corporation, Dr. Walker is interviewed extolling the virtues of "selling rivers, streams and the air to private interests who would then take care of them because they owned them."

The research took me to Dr. Walter Block who, I believe, wrote the article on privatizing rivers for the Fraser Institute. In any event, Block was a senior fellow of the Fraser Institute at the time. I remember interviewing him and finding that he -- sit down and get a stiff drink for this one -- along with the late libertarian icon Dr. Robert Nozick, was one of the leading defenders of slave contracts, arguing that it "is a bona fide contract," which, if "abrogated, theft occurs"!

Hearing that, I could only think, "The Dred Scott case lives!" That case in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857 held that slaves, even in "free states," remained the property of the "owner and could never have citizenship."

Voluntary slavery?

Now Block and Nozick were arguing that in their libertarian utopia, a person would be able to sell oneself into slavery.

I would have thought that the words "voluntary" and "slavery" were antonyms but not, apparently, to "libertarians." Dr. Block believed that the logical extension of the complete liberty to do as one pleases includes signing oneself into a slavery contract.

I don't know if Dr. Walker shared that opinion, though I very much doubt it. But I tell the story to demonstrate that the Fraser Institute is so ideologically right wing that at least one of its senior fellows would prefer a world where slavery was perfectly legal.

Loony tunes economics

It is no secret that the Fraser Institute advises and has the ear of the Campbell government and Premier Campbell himself. There is nothing wrong, at least nothing illegal, about that. It may, however, give us a clue as to why Premier Campbell is, in effect, turning the rivers of B.C. over to large corporations like General Electric and Ledcor. And it might also explain why he has forced a public company, BC Hydro, to make deals with private power producers that will bankrupt it.

Mr. Campbell in an explanation that would make Pinocchio blush says, "We need the power so we can be energy secure by 2016." This slithers over the fact that any B.C. self-sufficiency can hardly be achieved by making power to sell to the U.S. market and avoids the fact that a modicum of conservation, upgrading present facilities, putting generators on dams just used for flood control and taking back the Columbia River power we're entitled to instead of taking money, are all we need to look after our power needs for as far down the road as we can see.

Dr. Michael Walker's opinions on private ownership of rivers are just loony tunes economic theories; in Premier Campbell's hands they are environmental and economic catastrophes.

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