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Time to prune the overgrown bureaucracy

By Tim Ball
web posted May 16, 2011

Was it third time lucky for Stephen Harper? Maybe, but regardless he has a majority and an opportunity to be more conservative. In my view, the election results were more a repudiation and rejection of Michael Ignatieff than a ringing endorsement of Harper. Similarly, NDP gains were Liberal votes fleeing Ignatieff rather than support for Jack Layton. Ironically, the NDP's gains have put them in a weaker political position than under a Conservative minority.

One political thread in the vote is a support for smaller, cheaper, and more efficient government. It's a challenge because the same people say "Why doesn't the government do something about this?" During World War II, people surrendered personal liberties and responsibilities to government for a common goal. Income tax was introduced as a temporary measure to cover the costs. After the war, governments were loath to surrender power and transition to peacetime required direction. Now most people have no experience of smaller government and even less about what should be private or public sector, but that's what we need. Thomas Jefferson said, "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground." Harper has experience of governing and must use it drastically to prune the overgrown bureaucracy that has gained ground.

Today government cutbacks usually mean a reduction in bureaucracy. That should occur, but only after a rethinking of the role of government and elimination of unnecessary departments. The federal government has grown the most in cost, but least in services. Currently people on average pay about 35% federal taxes, 18% for Provincial and 9% municipal yet the latter provide most services and needs. A plan to invert the pattern is essential so governments truly accommodate the geographic and regional differences ignored in the liberal concept of overwhelming federalism and universality.  

An investigation of the original intent and legislative establishment of each department and government-funded agency is essential. There is need to ask questions such as: Is the original purpose still valid? How much have they drifted? Is it a legitimate shift? Has it shifted merely to survive? Are they still necessary? Agencies no longer necessary must be eliminated. Many of the 43 Crown Corporations are no longer necessary.

Divisions of roles were set out in the British North America (BNA) Act. Since then the federal government has worked to intrude into every area assigned to provinces and municipalities. Why is there a Department of Natural Resources when resources are a provincial jurisdiction? Why is Environment Canada now listed under the separate category "Nature"?  Nowhere has a department and its bureaucrats involved themselves more in politics. During the Kyoto debacle, eight of ten provinces opposed the Accord, but were ignored. Ralph Klein pointed out that Kyoto was a provincial matter because CO2 was a resource. He was ignored because few knew what he was saying.

Bureaucracies are established to solve problems, but they often perpetuate them because resolution means redundancy. Politicians must be in charge; however, with the short-term election cycle and the increasing complexity of the world they have little chance. Bureaucracies have virtually no accountability. The solution is to reduce government and put most things in the private sector - the market place is the most effective apolitical form of accountability.

Environment Canada is a good example of a government agency no longer fulfilling its original purpose. It abandoned data collection and weather forecasting to pursue a deep involvement in Global Warming and Climate Change politics of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They pushed an unproven scientific hypothesis thus subverting the scientific method. They directed all funding to research that proved their chosen hypothesis.  It is time to limit their role to data collection. Even weather forecasting is better performed by other agencies.

It is time to slim down government by reducing or eliminating some bureaucracy. The federal government must control government by reducing departments to data collection agencies.  The data becomes the basis for policy and legislation made in consultation with all elements of the society. The second function of departments is to monitor and ensure the policies are implemented. This can offset fears of untrammeled and uncontrolled private industry. As Abraham Lincoln said, "Must a government of necessity be too strong for the liberties of its people or too weak to maintain its own existence?" It can only find the balance if it controls the government and that means controlling the bureaucracies. Harper has a unique opportunity. ESR

Tim Ball is Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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