The unions must use a template every time a government announces that it will ax one public service and replace it with one that saves labour and money. We see his again with the debate in Vancouver about closing the Kitsilano Coast Guard station in favour of more modern rescue vessels based in another station nearby. The arguments used against the change are exactly the same heard in the 1980s when small fire-fighting ships were introduced to replace a large vessel and again when a driver-less railroad called Sky-train was to replace some public buses.
The first cry is always "Lives will be lost," accompanied by detailed references to the hard work put in by the current workers providing the service. References to the number of jobs lost are used sparingly since they can too easily be turned into an argument in favor of the proposed change.
Opposition to change always seems to be carried by the usual self-appointed and union-supported crowd skilled in fomenting public indignity about politicians putting money ahead of safety. Politicians of all stripes jump on the bandwagon to shore up support for the next election. The media give ample space and time to the controversy, much loved by their audiences and advertisers.
The clinching argument in the debate is always the same. The burden of proof is on the government that no lives will ever be lost if the new policy is implemented. Of course, such proof can never be provided. Whatever measures the most caring and free-spending government takes, boating always involves an element of risk. No doubt we will one day see a boat with all occupants destroyed by a falling meteor.
The detailed arguments against change also come from a template. Lives are at risk because only trains driven by workers (who are union members) can stop trains in emergencies. Only the big fire boat can reach the tops of tall ferries and cruise ships. Only rescue boats located in a specific location can reach vessels in distress with the needed speed.
One cannot blame the unions and their supporters for making every effort to save the jobs of workers who drive buses, fight fires and rescue vessels. What’s deplorable is the lack of rational discussion regarding the merit of the proposed changes.
Such discussion would focus on the benefits and costs of saving lives. Such considerations do not reflect a callous and uncaring attitude. If it costs $100 million to save a life by using one method and only $10 million by another, no one other than the workers who earned the $90 million difference would consider it uncaring to make the switch to the cheaper method. After all, the $90 million could be used to save more lives in hospitals and the building of safer roads.
The data for making such calculations are difficult to obtain but we do know the costs of providing existing services. Unknown is the record of lives saved. The defenders of existing systems only have proxies of questionable value. Typically in the current debate over water rescue is the number of distress calls received. Interestingly, some experts noted that other private vessels came to the rescue of the vast bulk of those in distress.
Here is how the current debate over the closure of the Kitsilano coast guard rescue station can be made more rational and enlightening. We have enough information about the amount and cost of the work done by the station. Needed is detailed information about the results of all this effort. How many boats in distress were reached? How long did it take on average to reach the vessels needing help? What aid was provided? How many boats were prevented from sinking? How many lives were saved? How precisely would this record be changed by rescue efforts coming from the alternative location using new and speedier boats?
And then we should have a debate about the very need of a publicly operated water rescue system. Hikers and skiers in the North Shore mountains are served well by a volunteer search and rescue organization subsidized by private donations and some government funds. Why have not a similar organization staffed by volunteers from private yacht clubs and the fishermen’s union provide volunteers and helped financially by governments? Should not users pay? Why should low-income residents in Vancouver, who pay taxes, subsidize the rich boat owners, as they do presently?