In a column for the Ottawa Citizen, MLI Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley predicts that in 2016 the federal government will fail to meet expectations that our leaders can fix Canada’s social and economic problems. Contrary to popular opinion that they were anti-government, the Conservatives had plenty of interventionist policies, but they were “mugged by the reality that even with the best of intentions, the state is actually a remarkably poor instrument of social control and change”. And it’s a sure bet the Liberals will be too.
By Brian Lee Crowley, Jan. 2, 2015
My prediction for 2016? It will be a lot like 2015. Except the Liberals will be getting the blame instead of the Tories.
What will be the same is that the irresistible force of rising public expectations will yet again crash into the immoveable object of government incapacity and failure.
The predictable outcome will be a choleric outpouring of bile on social media as the disaffected heap scorn on the alleged incompetence of our leaders who supposedly could fix anything they like if only they tried hard enough.
The bitterness will be compounded by the still-widespread belief that the Tories were anti-government, whereas the Liberals came to power campaigning on the belief that government is a force for good and that every social problem can be made better by a timely and well-crafted intervention.
Neither of these beliefs stands up to scrutiny. The Tories wanted to re-equip the military but failed woefully. Ditto for their attempts to conjure up a fourth national mobile telephone operator out of thin air or to punish the railways for being efficient. They spent a tenth of GDP on largely ineffectual tax credits that were thinly disguised social engineering (“If you do what we want, we’ll give you back some of your tax money”). When they left office government spending was at an historic high. They continued with Paul Martin’s plan to pour billions in new money into the hands of the provinces for health care, despite the indisputable evidence that money is not the problem and that many other national universal-access systems get better value and cost less.
This was no anti-government government. It was a government mugged by the reality that even with the best of intentions, the state is actually a remarkably poor instrument of social control and change.
The Liberals, therefore, have made a fundamental error in assuming that the problem with government in Canada under the Tories was that the place was run by people who didn’t believe in what they were doing. Now that well-intentioned folks who believe in the power of government to do good are in the saddle, well, everything will be different.
While in opposition, Tom Axworthy, former top advisor to Trudeau père, tried pointedly to warn the Liberals this was a delusion. In a document he wrote for the party’s 2006 convention he cautioned, “Liberalism’s dirty secret is that government doesn’t seem to work well much of the time.” And in support of this shocking break with Liberal orthodoxy he cited myriad failures that occurred under the previous Liberal government, including gun registry cost overruns, lengthening queues at the immigration wicket, military procurement woes, dreadful conditions on many Aboriginal reserves, etc.
Now the Liberals are back with an ambitious agenda to stimulate the economy, bolster the middle class, reduce inequality, save the planet, revolutionise relations with Aboriginal people, build green infrastructure, make peace with the public service, renew the military’s equipment (that comes up a lot, doesn’t it!), save medicare, and much more to boot.
In this they will almost certainly fail more than they will succeed because the reason so many of these problems remain unresolved is not bad intentions or “lack of political will.” They remain unresolved because government is actually a poor instrument for solving most of them and the little government can do is entirely incremental, not revolutionary.
The looming crisis of our democracy is the growing anger sparked by the clash between the public’s expectation that every problem can be legislated or regulated away by omnipotent government, and the reality that governments struggle every day to do relatively simple tasks like deliver the mail, build needed infrastructure and equip our soldiers. Contrary to the expectations of many, this anger cannot be appeased by the election of an activist government. It will be exacerbated until the public’s exaggerated expectations can be brought into line with government’s actual abilities.
Happy New Year.
Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.