In August 2000, I wrote a commentary called The Lessons of Walkerton Run Deep. Almost 12 years later, it is troubling to think that we may be forgetting the stark lessons of the past.
The commentary was written after the deaths of several citizens in the town of Walkerton who were infected with e-coli from poorly-monitored local water supply. Are we heading into the same rough waters?
Recent cuts announced in Budget 2012 will slash the capacity of many federal departments, including the agency responsible for assuring the quality of Canada’s food supply, to protect public health and safety. The following excerpts restate the Walkerton wake-up.
The lessons of Walkerton come at an immeasurable price. They show what can happen when we downplay or neglect the importance of public infrastructure that protects our health and safety.
Clean water pipes are not the stuff of dinnertime conversation. Safe drinking water does not translate into snappy political slogans. Sewage treatment is not a vote- getter in political rallies. Until now.
Walkerton is a tragic but instructive wake-up call. It speaks to the need for high-quality public infrastructure – the amenities that benefit us all but are either invisible or simply taken for granted.
Walkerton is about far more than the quality of water. It is about how we make public investments to promote and protect the quality of life.
Walkerton is a lesson in the importance of the public good. The ‘public good’ refers to actions taken in the interest of all citizens.
Unfortunately, the public good is a concept that has fallen out of favour in recent years. It flies in the face of unfettered individualism that has become the hallmark of the ‘new economy.’ Why be concerned about the common good when it is apparently more profitable to look out for personal interest?
Market ideology – which is anything but new – clearly has gained ground in recent years with business and government elites. Yet part of the defence for the public good arises from the very demands of the so-called new economy.
Lessons from the ‘old economy’ are also instructive. A national system of social security evolved in Canada in the years following the Second World War. The various programs that comprised the social security system were an antidote to the economic devastation and social despair arising from the Depression and wartime chaos. They were the bulwark against an unstable economy. They helped compensate for an insecure income. They protected against an uncertain future.
Ironically, despite the ‘new’ economic context, the original core rationale for social security remains as valid and necessary today as in the past. The need for protection against common threats through public provision is all the more critical in a rapidly changing labour market with unstable earnings and few associated benefits. It is all the more important in a knowledge-based economy in which social and intellectual capital are vital to nations’ comparative advantage.
Public investments that comprise the public good are not generally seen as assets. Government expenditure in such areas as clean water, health care and public education is basically counted, for bookkeeping purposes, as an outflow.
We have seen all too tragically what can happen when public spending in a crucial area – such as environmental protection – is viewed simply as a minus sign on a ledger sheet. Public investments in key dimensions of environmental and social infrastructure should be considered essential contributions towards the foundation of a healthy, successful and sustainable society.
The Walkerton tragedy is an extremely hard way to learn a relatively simple lesson: There is real good in the public good.
Posted May 10, 2012