07/29/2013 08:08 EDT | Updated 09/28/2013 05:12 EDT

The Cost of Government Deregulation

Tragedies like the 2008 listeriosis outbreak involving Maple Leaf Foods, the 2012 E. coli contamination at XL Foods or even the more recent rail disaster at Lac-Mégantic remind us that government oversight of everything from food production to labour standards to transportation is key to keeping Canadians safe.

In the case of the listeriosis crisis, which was linked to 22 deaths, the official investigation found that "[i]n the lead up to the outbreak the number, capacity and training of inspectors assigned" to the tainted Maple Leafs plant "appear to have been stressed..." But despite this conclusion, the government continues to diminish the role of federal oversight in food production, choosing instead to turn to the food industry to police its own safety practices while cutting millions of dollars from the budget of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

Meanwhile, the story of the XL Foods contamination is much the same, with the independent panel charged with reviewing the incident recently recommending, inter alia, additional training and education for inspection officials, and a greater role for the CFIA in the overall inspections process.

And though the investigation into the Lac-Mégantic derailment continues, anyone concerned with public safety will give renewed attention to a report from the Canada Safety Council (CSC), which states that the government is allowing "rail companies to regulate themselves, removing the federal government's ability to protect Canadians and their environment, and allowing the industry to hide critical safety information from the public." This observation was made by the CSC in 2007, before the dramatic 280-fold increase in the transport of explosive crude oil on Canada's railways--from 500 railcars in 2009 to an estimated 140,000 carloads this year, and also of course before the drastic budgetary cuts at Transport Canada over the last couple of years.

Despite all the above, the federal Conservatives continue to view regulations as nothing more than red tape that hinders business and profit-making. This is the underlying reason for their cuts to government regulatory functions over the years and for the so-called Red Tape Reduction Commission, which they launched last year, and stacked with Conservative parliamentarians as well as business friends and lobbyists, to help create the political climate for further deregulation.

The Conservative hostility to regulation also helps explain the government's approach to a group of about 10,000 federal workers who are primarily involved in the performance, inspection and oversight of skilled technical activities. Amongst these are civil aviation inspectors, marine inspectors and railway safety inspectors. This group, classified as Technical Services (TC), and often working in positions invisible to the public, has been without a contract for two years, and the Conservatives have so far used a variety of tactics to delay reaching a fair contract with them, creating a scenario in which retention of qualified personnel in a range of departments from Health Canada to Transport Canada is becoming increasingly challenging.

It is, in fact, astounding that the government would not urgently move to create an atmosphere that is empowering for Canada's federal technical experts and inspectors, and conducive to building a robust inspections and regulatory regime in this country.

Most Canadians would be shocked to learn, for example, that the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) found that "although the national planning frequencies state that aviation companies must be inspected every year, about 70 per cent of aviation companies across the country were not inspected in 2010-11." Or that last year Transport Canada itself admitted to being short of 100 aviation inspectors.

Indeed, the government's reticence in reaching a fair contract with Canada's technical services experts is not helping to alleviate the regulatory void. Perhaps the Conservatives have calculated that Canadians can be successfully kept in the dark about this void, and convinced that industry self-regulation is the solution. From time to time, however, the behind-the-scenes federal technical workers undertake a project that receives popular attention, and sharply highlights their importance, as well as the need for government oversight independent of business.

Take the recent story of 81-year old Sid Morris, who lives near Alix, Alberta, and received the shock of his life in January this year when a gas bill for $3,789 arrived in his mailbox from Chain Lakes Gas Co-op Ltd. Morris balked at the sum, but the company certified that Morris' gas meter was functional and that the usage total was correct, leaving him unable to pay his bill in full; by March he received a disconnection notice.

It was around then that a technical inspector working for Measurement Canada, a federal regulatory agency, got wind of the story and investigated the gas meter at Morris' home only to conclude the device was in fact defective -- something the first test conducted via the gas company somehow failed to do. In Morris' words: "Why in the world they would go to an engineering firm that is no near as qualified as Measurement Canada, I have no clue." (sic)

Will ideological opposition to regulations and inspections that help keep Canadians safe and protect the public from situations like the one faced by Sid Morris keep the Conservatives focused on their current path of budget cutting, deregulation and layoffs? We will soon find out, as this week Technical Services workers, represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada, once again head into negotiations with the government in search of a fair contract.