Only in the public sector would they celebrate the month Ottawa’s light rail expansion was meant to finish, even though it didn’t. It’s one laughable indication that government in this country is broken. Not broke. Broken.
OK, it’s also broke. From Queen’s Park to Ottawa, even the debt governments admit to has reached perilous proportions. Far worse is the debt they’re hiding, from off-book borrowing to unfunded liabilities. And the real issue isn’t that they’re hiding it from us. They’re hiding it from themselves. Not only can’t they balance the books, they can’t keep them.
No matter where you look, government is a horrendous mess. Like the news that in Ontario: “New drivers graduating from provincially approved drivers’ education courses are 62 % more likely to crash their vehicles than those who don’t take the course.”
It’s tempting to dismiss such stories as that one from 2007, as outliers. Even Ronald Reagan once said, “Sometimes maybe you think I’m too critical of government. I worry about that too. But then government comes over the hill with another zany.” And at some point you realize the zanies outnumber the accomplishments.
Lowlights from my substantial file of government blunders include the combat bra that never happened (turns out they sell them in athletic stores) and the multi-year made-in-Canada astronaut menu flop. Or Ontario’s Alcohol and Gaming Commission banning an Austrian beer called Samichlaus (St. Nicholas in Swiss-German) as advertising to children. Or the feds needing a robocall project to discover how many unused phone lines they pay for (as of 2014, over 8,000).
Then there’s a program to migrate federal emails to a simple @canada.ca format that, six years in, hasn’t done one in five. Or the $100,000 study for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada that found people didn’t like or understand “Agri-Food.” Very agri-vating. Like the infamous MV Sun Sea, intercepted smuggling Tamils into Canada in 2010, sitting rusting at a federal dock in Delta B.C. since 2012 because the feds can’t scrap a ship.
As for renovating 24 Sussex, don’t even ask. But small potatoes, right? No. Not all of it. The fact that a backlog of thousands of Old Age Security and Canada Pension Plan disability appeals doubled after the Harper Tories created a special agency to reduce it creates real hardship, like the inability of Tories or Liberals to fix the federal Phoenix computerized pay system. Or a federal fund to give financial help to parents of missing or murdered children that spent $2.4 million internally (not counting employee benefits) while handing out just $170,000 in grants. Or the implosion of the inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.
Then there’s the Canadian tax code, now over a million words long and some 2,800 standard pages, up from 573 in 1971 and 88 in 1948. It’s not just that doing your taxes is a nightmare. It’s the enormous diversion of talent, effort and money away from customer satisfaction into an accounting labyrinth. At this length and complexity, the code isn’t implementing policy goals wise or foolish. It just has us all going in circles.
Foreign investment is increasingly giving Canada a miss. And as with a refugee policy that’s filling up homeless shelters, the government isn’t just unable to solve a self-inflicted problem. It’s unable to understand it.
Back in 2006, former Pierre Trudeau advisor Tom Axworthy warned his party “Liberalism’s dirty secret is that government doesn’t seem to work well much of the time.” And while getting rid of Justin Trudeau or Kathleen Wynne might have advantages, it will barely begin to solve the problem. Remember, the bureaucrats couldn’t spend billions Trudeau’s people allocated for infrastructure. And despite lavish compensation, surveys show the public service is a miserable workplace environment, wracked with absenteeism and depression.
Then there’s the judiciary, which takes so long to deal with routine business that vicious criminals get charges dismissed. Even the B.C. government’s Kinder Morgan pipeline crisis constitutional reference will apparently drift through languid case-management conferences this summer instead of starting the trial.
The problem is not lack of will. Politics and the public service are full of energetic idealists. And I have no illusions that bureaucracy has ever been anything but bureaucratic, or politics anything but political. But we are asking government to do far more than it can, leaving it overstretched and entangled in areas where it cannot possibly function competently.
Until we face this reality, the fact that governments are broke will be just one scary symptom of the fact that they’re broken.
John Robson is a National Post Columnist, Commentator-at-Large with News Talk Radio CFRA 580 and documentary filmmaker. Find and support his work at www.johnrobson.ca.