There are Plenty of Reasons to Resist Bureaucratic Rule

Media Appearances, Public Sector, Frontier Centre

Last week, the annual barometer survey by the Manning Centre for Building Democracy revealed that support for big government, which means government by bureaucrats -federal, provincial and municipal -has declined from the glory days of Liberal party ascendancy, except in everdistinct Quebec.

There are good reasons for the growth in distrust of bureaucratic rule.

Earlier this year, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy released a report showing that administrators, the bureaucratic innards of big government, have received wage increases of between 55 and 60 per cent over the past decade. Loggers, who actually do something, such as cut down a tree, received an 11 per cent increase. The Canadian average was 30 per cent.

The public sector is almost always in a position to extract what economists call "rents," remuneration above and beyond the market value of their work. The difference between working for the federal government or for a private company in Ottawa (if there are any) is around $25,000. Plus job security. Plus indexed pensions. Plus no need to worry about delivering decent service. The assertion is often made, as Brett Gartner of the Canada West Foundation put it, that we need well paid bureaucrats to ensure good public policy. Paul Tellier, a former top bureaucrat, likewise recommended "significant investment in senior management."

One of the ways of making such investments is to create new categories of senior managers. It used to be that the highest rank was deputy minister. Now, we have a super deputy minister. Other ranks have followed suit, from associate deputy minister, to assistant deputy minister, to associate assistant deputy minister, to directors general and regional directors general and so on down the line.

Consider an organ with which the current government has had a few disagreements, Elections Canada. Its spending has quadrupled over the decade and now reaches nearly $140 million. Money monitoring election expenses has increased tenfold over the decade to more than $30 million. Even so, Elections Canada has consistently underestimated its expenses.

This was the same outfit that refused to allow Gina Goldie of Grande Cache to vote because she had her three-year-old in tow. One mother was told to leave her 10-month-old baby at the door. But they allowed the prime minister to be photographed voting in the company of his children.

Likewise, the Fisheries Department, which managed the Atlantic cod fishery into oblivion and had no idea the Adams River run of sockeye would show up last summer, made up for its incompetence in what it is supposed to do by compelling obedience to rules it has no business enforcing. In 1993, it fined Martin Reid, a Quebec farmer, $1,000 for "having caused the death of fish for reasons other than sport fishing." He pumped water off his flooded farm, which proved fatal to carp. His land flooded again earlier this month. This time, he got a fishing licence and transported carp off the farm to avoid a $100,000 fine for a second offence.

Bureaucrats in the government closest to us behave the same way. Back in the day, the Calgary Regional Health Authority wanted to regulate school bake sales. Today, the Calgary Board of Education provides detailed instructions on how to walk in a parking lot when it has suffered the indignity of a snowfall -make sure you can see where you are going, they instruct, and walk like a penguin.

And speaking of snow, one of the most insulting directives from the city, one that destroys the opportunity to be generous, is to be a snow angel and shovel the walks of old or infirm neighbours. Personally, I shovel my neighbours’ walks despite this instruction.

Such stories, and we have all heard them, are reflected in the Manning Centre survey. What it means is this: the pioneer attitudes of self-reliance, so important in settling the West by new Canadians in the 19th century, now resonate with the new Canadian pioneers of the 21st century settling Toronto and Calgary. And politicians who reduce the bite of bureaucracy will be handsomely rewarded.