John Robson: Compiling a Checklist of Failures Would Show Whether Government in Canada Is Broken

July 19, 2022 Updated: July 19, 2022


Is government in Canada broken? Opinions seem divided between the Marie Antoinettes inside the palaces and the peasants who are revolting. But as an economist and a historian I respond: “Compared to what?”

For instance, it’s currently outperforming the Austro-Hungarian empire. And if you’re thinking it’s not much of a standard, let’s try to find a reasonable one.

Weighing in strongly on the “aye” side in the National Post, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Aaron Wudrick said many things I wanted to, including quoting this precious Gerald Butts tweet: “The public sector got us through two years of pandemic, vaccinated everyone who wanted one and kept several million Canadian households from going bankrupt. But the commentariat has declared Canada broken because they have to wait for their passports?” And certainly, a major issue with the broad public sector in Canada is smugness.

I laugh out loud at pretentious PMO press releases about his Justinity fixing the economy, gender, society, the weather, and world peace every time he contrails it to hobnob with his fellow wizards. Or when, as Wudrick notes, “Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders proposes that the pandemic may have made government agencies better at their jobs.” But what would you expect?

No, seriously. Wudrick says while Canadians are unlikely to agree on how big the state should be, “surely we can all agree that whatever government does, it needs to do properly.” To which I retort that Satan will be lacing up skates the day any government anywhere does much of anything “properly.”

There are exceptions. The loonie and toonie, for instance. Or Canadian postal codes (far better than, say, zip codes because transpositional errors are immediately obvious.) But if you examine the details even of, say, the Allied effort in World War II, genuinely one of government’s finest hours, it’s amazing that we won.

Public sector incentives are perverse. Plain and simple. Always have been. Always will be. Which is not a counsel of despair but of wisdom about the nature of the problem.

It’s a matter of oversteering an inherently very clumsy vessel, including having to demand excellence in order to settle for adequacy. Thus when Wudrick applauds Pierre Poilievre’s call for “a government that does a few things right rather than a lot of things poorly,” I say if elected, Poilievre’s about as likely to shrink the state as to flap his arms and fly to the moon. But also that it’s far more important to discuss this notion than to pour well-bred scorn on his ill-advised words about cryptocurrency, let alone his wise ones about central bank accountability.

It’s also important to consider the dictum, “Never was a government that was not composed of liars, malefactors, and thieves.” Especially as it’s from Marcus Tullius Cicero, whose efforts to sustain the Old Republic ended with Marc Antony having him murdered and his severed head and hands displayed in the Forum 2,067 years ago, before committing suicide after losing at Actium and Alexandria to the future Augustus Caesar.

So is it hopeless? Not at all. Our government is outperforming the Roman Republic in its final days, and a good thing too. But there are massive challenges, including the chronic touchiness of the powerful even in democracies where they can’t nail up body parts or unleash bullets in a parking lot.

Thus I propose starting with an abstract checklist of things that would constitute “broken” government, then seeing how many we can honestly say aren’t happening here. And it’s important to include items like “Conducting genocide,” “Making political opponents disappear,” and “Embezzling a quarter of state revenue” to remind ourselves that things could be a lot worse. But also ones like “Waiting more than two months for a passport” and “waiting more than two weeks to see a doctor” to remind ourselves that they should be a lot better. (Seriously: how often do you wait that long for a dentist?)

Similarly, “Waiting more than two decades to buy a fighter plane” or “a pistol” or “any dang piece of military hardware.” For all the schmozzles in World War II, we rearmed and won in six years without microchips or photocopiers. Why not now?

I could go on and on. (No: ed.) But it’s not about me. I want to hear from Butts, Saunders, and Trudeau about their standards for this institution whose praises they so often and cheerfully sing. What do you consider good enough for the masses?

As Wudrick also said, “while defenders of government competence may still be able to get away with shrugging off inconveniences like long queues, the long-term consequences of chipping away at trust in government are far more serious.” It can bring a deluge.

So if your benchmark is pre-Revolutionary France, or Ivan the Terrible, come clean. If not, give us better.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

John Robson
John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”