Government dependency

Time for a little fence-mending, I'd say. No, not Michael Ignatieff and Denis Coderre, Stephen Harper and the right or Jack Layton and relevance. My actual fence.

It won't make headlines even in this month's "Not Obviously Worse Homes and Gardens." But it sure beats my backyard's previous centrefold in "Trees God Didn't Make" and cover story in "Chain Link Fences to Disgrace a Soviet Waste Dump." And I would like to draw to the attention of my political masters that I did it all by myself. (OK, all by my wife, but they didn't help her either.)

Why bore you with this wooden prose? Because if you read the newspapers, you will realize such self-reliant projects are unknown to our chattering classes. In official Canada we cannot lift a fork without state assistance.

Thus the Globe and Mail has been beating the drums for a national sodium strategy. A typical headline last month: "Ottawa must act on salt crisis, doctors say." Why must Ottawa act? "Ottawa" is not eating salt. We are. But apparently we can't stop ourselves because it's in our food.

This Tuesday, under the preposterous headline " 'Invisible' sodium think tank under fire," the Globe described Commons health committee efforts to find out why the sodium-reduction task force established in 2007 hadn't reduced our sodium intake.

Because we make our own dinner? Nooooo. Because of too little federal spending.

"A massive sodium-reduction campaign rolled out several years ago in Britain cost the government more than $30 million, said Mary L'Abbé, vice-chairwoman of the sodium working group."

Are British people healthier or less saline? The question doesn't seem to arise. It's just assumed to be government or nothing, for everything.

A Sept. 24th press release tells me the federal government gave $14,000 to Grain magazine, published by the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild, so "the best new writing from Saskatchewan writers will continue to be available to Canadians."

The initial impulse of the welfare state to protect us from major disasters has turned into relentless meddling in every aspect of our lives -- meddling from people whose competence in their own affairs, let alone ours, is far from obvious. Remember when the fisheries department gave lobster fishermen a toll-free number connected to a smut service, then corrected the error on their website, but didn't send out a new press release? Don't try this with power tools, folks.

Suppose you were building a fence and our four main party leaders wandered bickering down the street. Harper, Ignatieff, Layton and Duceppe walk into a fence ... Politicians occasionally display surprisingly normal aptitudes, like singing: "I get high with a little help from my friends." But I remember the time Jack Layton and his wife went canoeing and it reminded him of social injustice. Give these guys wood and screws and they'll slap together a soapbox at your expense and jump on it to praise themselves.

In fact the government did help with my fence, through the Tories' Home Renovation Credit (which they haven't actually managed to enact, so maybe fix the Constitution before my windows). But why? What possible logic, other than electoral, exists for this credit? If the new fence is worth more to me than the cost of building it, I don't need a subsidy, and if not, they're paying me your money to do something wasteful. But what do I know?

If, as the anti-sodium activists imply, I cannot eat soup safely without state assistance, by what tortured logic am I entrusted with choosing a government to help me eat it? And if we need a national salt strategy, why not a National Fence Strategy?

The obvious answer is if we had a Canada Fence Act there'd be waiting lists for wood and we'd be trying to lure carpenters here from the Third World. Maybe we already are, given governments' efforts to make everyone go to university and study sociology or, if they're girls, engineering.

Although Willard Boyle, the Canadian who just shared the Nobel Prize in physics, denounced ill-advised subsidies and said he wants "an appreciation for the free will, free spirit of scientists."

Of scientists he said: "Give them a chance to do the things they want to do." Us too, I say.

Plus, Mr. Boyle was home-schooled until 14, then sent to a private school. So why does Dalton McGuinty want to be the education premier? I suppose I should be happy it'll keep him away from hammers.

Fences are real. They stay up or don't; the boards are crooked or straight; you stain them or fail to. There's nothing to spin, no manoeuvering, no interdepartmental committees.

Besides, if we had a national fence strategy I know what it would look like -- the hideous rusty chain-link junk I just cut out to put in my nice fence. If you want some, there's plenty. Just call the toll-free number for Fence Canada and hope it's not a sex line.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson