The government soufflé falls flat

One of the small joys of my job, and by joys I mean "things that keep me from being driven insane by political idiocy," is consuming the rich buffet of press releases I get via the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

I devour the self-satisfied prose, indignant focus on trivia, specialized language of partisan drivel and the fact that unlike mine, politicians' computers apparently don't have elementary grammar and spell-checking capabilities. But I most enjoy the way everything is dunked in crème de sublime conviction that they are in control as well as in charge. Of anything.

Here, taste this March 31 release from the Canada Revenue Agency and the Minister of National Revenue. The appetizer is the headline "The Canada Revenue Agency succeeds in reducing the Paperwork Burden for Businesses", with the chefs congratulating themselves for something that in a normal restaurant you'd wait for customers to thank you for.

Next, savour the phrase some flack put into the minister's mouth that "Canadian businesses are a vital part of local, provincial and national economies" which I guess was cooked up to feed pro-business sentiment but tastes both bland and greasy. They whip this vacuity up on short order in large amounts, yet make it look effortless.

Finally the entrée, the claim that "the CRA has identified over 8,000 obsolete or non-essential information obligations imposed on business. The elimination of these obligations, when implemented, will reduce the paperwork burden on business by 24.2 percent." That extra decimal place gives me a special frisson. Not "about a quarter" or even "24 percent" but "24.2 percent".


Such precision.

Such attention to detail. We're lucky to have that kind of government. It's a vital part of local, provincial and national rhetorical overload.

Or not, since obviously they haven't measured exactly how burdensome various regulations are. How could they even know how time-consuming these rules are, let alone what other vexations they impose and in what amounts? CRA staff can't sit in every small businessperson's office or kitchen and monitor their blood pressure as they fill out forms.

I like how the headline said the CRA had succeeded whereas here the text only says it will succeed. But I love the precision of the estimate, particularly that delicious point two per cent. That's because my deepest satisfaction in a meal of this sort is the pungent, lingering aroma of certainty not only that scientific management is the answer to public policy problems, but that our governments are currently engaged in it.

As with that crust on crème brulée, I am intrigued by the consistency with which they get this surface on everything they do.

Take Dalton McGuinty ... please. How can he be so invariably untroubled by any suspicion that he might not be able to manage your affairs for you better than you can manage them yourself? Right down to the free programmable Internet-accessible thermostat the province recently offered me, with fine print admitting they might occasionally reset it for me without warning, though only when they felt like it.

It doesn't matter what evidence of ineptitude floods in, like massive churn in the federal public service or Wednesday's Citizen report that 10 per cent of Ontario's core public service hauls in over a hundred grand a year. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan sneered that the latter was nothing to the salaries paid to U.S. financiers and besides many small Ontario firms depend on the trade of well-heeled bureaucrats to survive. It would be irrelevant to ask whose taxes he thinks fund those plump salaries.

What really matters is that neither federal nor provincial governments have any real handle on their own staffing, yet blithely tell us where to smoke, what to drive, what to think, when to exercise and in their spare time fiddle with our thermostats.

The illusion of control is so widespread that hardly a week passes without calls for a "national strategy" for something or other, as though massive centralized bureaucratic political initiatives had been proven by recent experience to work at all, let alone better than decentralized private voluntary ones.

(Why, here's a March 19 call for a "national injury prevention strategy for youth in sport"; let them implement such a thing, and next they'll be boasting of a 24.2-per-cent reduction in preventable youth sport injuries).

And hardly a day passes without a press release stating indignantly that the government "must" do something when it's obvious that it doesn't have to do it, probably shouldn't attempt it and very possibly couldn't do it if it tried.

So taste, taste. Savour the exquisite flavour.

Just don't swallow any of it.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson