This article originally appeared in the National Post.
By Aaron Wudrick, July 18, 2022
Is government in Canada broken? The answer depends on who you ask.
In support of the proposition that things are just fine, Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders proposes that the pandemic may have made government agencies better at their jobs.
Likewise, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former top advisor, Gerald Butts, tweeted, “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?”
As Butts correctly notes, much of the commentariat is far less positive than he is. The National Post’s Chris Selley laid out a long list of examples of governments — federal, provincial and municipal — failing to discharge their most basic functions, while a Globe editorial lamented the interminable waits facing anyone looking for either a passport or a flight on which to use it.
It is tempting to simply chalk up one’s view of the situation to his or her ideological preferences: unsurprisingly, those who think of government as an unalloyed force for good will tend to cut it more slack, while those already skeptical of government generally will be quick to seize on fresh evidence of its incompetence.
But 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’s important to note that Canadians’ frustration with government didn’t start with the pandemic. Housing prices in much of the country were already a problem, in large part due to municipal obstructionism. Timely health care was a perennial gripe, featuring long wait times and federal-provincial finger-pointing over who should foot the bill.
Our military is starved of both jets and ships. Many rural Indigenous reserves remain without potable water. Money laundering is rampant. And the Trudeau government had developed a well-earned reputation for being really good at announcing things, but not so good at delivering them.
It really should not be controversial to suggest that any organization that is not doing a very good job fulfilling its current duties should probably pause before adding to its to-do list. It might even want to consider doing less until it can get a handle on the most urgent matters.
Imagine if Air Canada announced that it was going to get into, say, the car rental or cruise ship business. Do you suppose Canadians might wonder whether it should maybe abandon such fantasies and focus on its core business? Now consider the federal government’s suite of policies empowering it to regulate the internet, or wade further into areas of provincial jurisdiction.
No doubt those who believe ever-more government is a good idea will find this argument unpersuasive. But even those who want governments to do more must surely recognize the danger that is done to the institution itself when it buckles under the weight of a thousand different priorities. After all, buy-in for big government first requires buy-in for trust in government in the first place.
Conservative leadership front-runner Pierre Poilievre identifies this problem succinctly when he argues for “a government that does a few things right rather than a lot of things poorly.” Detractors will view this as a purely ideological statement, but it is also a clever appeal to common sense.
The reality is that most Canadians don’t have a deep ideological preference for massively expanding or shrinking government. But almost all of them would prefer that whatever governments are put in charge of, they fulfill those responsibilities reliably and competently.
Adopting a Gerald Butts-like tone by telling Canadians they’re wrong to be frustrated with the state of government services and that they ought to show more gratitude would likely be a dubious political message for the Trudeau government.
But far more problematic in the long run is doing nothing to improve government outcomes, thereby accelerating the erosion of trust in government itself. If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that trust in our institutions, once lost, is very hard to get back.
Canadians are unlikely to ever reach a consensus on the right size of government. But surely we can all agree that whatever government does, it needs to do properly.
Aaron Wudrick is the director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s domestic policy program.