Memo to the liberals: ditch activist government

MONTREAL - As the Liberals gather here to choose a new leader, I hope they’ll also consider having a policy agenda. I don’t mean a public-relations agenda with positions in place of policies. I mean some really substantive thinking about how to do things differently. I modestly suggest “Making Government Work.” Some may doubt the sincerity of such advice from a reactionary who, the cliché has it, doesn’t want government to work. Actually, I want government to do the things it should a lot better than it has lately, in part by attempting fewer things for which it is spectacularly ill-suited. But I’m not here to write about that.

I’m here to give the Liberals some serious advice on a progressive agenda for the early 21st century. And while it is a drawback that my advice is unsympathetic (like Chesterton, I find their descriptions of future happiness don’t resemble any actual happiness I ever had), by the same token it is also dispassionate.

It may prove uncongenial. But it is not put forward as sabotage or parody. I sincerely urge progressives to think less about what they want to do in government and more about how they intend to do it. It’s all very well to say that where there’s a will there’s a way, but it will not do to misunderstand this proverb and think the will is the way.

This point bears stressing. Tell some progressives they need to make government work and they think you mean make it work for people, not corporations, or some such thing. I mean it much more literally. For instance, if I criticize the gun registry don’t start in on l’Ecole Polytechnique, misogyny and those awful Americans. Ponder instead how something so apparently simple could go so expensively wrong in implementation.

Or take socialized medicine ... please. Each Liberal leadership candidate has something resembling a position on Quebec as a nation or on the Afghan mission. But they don’t appear to me willing even to admit what the problems in public health care are, let alone to discuss why they arose and what, therefore, can be done differently to make them go away or at least get less serious.

Then there’s global warming and the Kyoto Protocol. My old friend and Liberal adviser John Duffy just wrote that climate change is as crucial to a Liberal resurgence today as the welfare state was under Mackenzie King or the rights revolution under Trudeau. “Grits have the ideological flexibility,” he argued, “to deliver the mix of public-sector responses and private-sector stimuli that will be required.” But, he admitted, “this writer, along with other Liberals, must contritely acknowledge that while the last two Liberal governments started moving in the right direction, they clearly were not moving swiftly enough or far enough.”

He’s partly right: Global warming is a huge issue if you believe in it. The problem is, the last two Liberal governments didn’t move slowly on Kyoto: They did nothing relevant at all. Back when they thought socialized medicine was a huge issue Liberals created legislation that, for better or worse, did give institutional form to the underlying vision. On Kyoto, they were like someone who announced a piano recital, got up on stage, then went: “Whoa, Nelly, what’s all them white and black things in a row there?”

All the current leadership candidates publicly declare that they intend to do very well indeed on Kyoto next time. And I have no doubt they are sincere. But I don’t hear, or overhear, any discussion of why they didn’t manage to translate their good intentions into good results last time, which raises the ugly possibility that they won’t do any better next time. It could just be partisanship that they denounce the Tories for not implementing a non-existent Liberal Kyoto plan with far more vigour than they devote to developing a real one. But I fear it’s much more deep-seated.

Reading news stories on the latest auditor general’s report, it’s hard to shake the feeling that modern activist governments are preposterously unable to implement even what I consider bad policies. Look at the Liberal record, from Adscam to the rusting out of our armed forces to our aging medical professionals to any important file you care to name. Even the one thing they did right, balancing the budget, included shocking incompetence: A C. D. Howe Institute study (produced by my brother) found that federal budgets from 2000 to 2004 planned for a total cumulative spending increase of $28 billion but it rose $56 billion. Extraordinary. And it hasn’t gotten better under the Tories. With infrastructure, defence and health all desperately needing vast cash transfusions, you should be mighty worried about this bleeding, not oblivious to it.

Guys? Huh? Guys? Can you even hear me over the chanting and techno-pop?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson