We have lost trust in government … for good reasons

Two things caught my eye this morning:

First, Ian Bremmer CEO of the Euurasia Group posted this, from Forbes:

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Second, Brian Lee Crowley of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute penned a short article for the Ottawa Citizen that deserves our attention. Mr Crowley says that in 2016 we will see, “the irresistible force of rising public expectations will yet again crash into the immoveable object of government incapacity and failure.

That got me to wondering if governments were always failures or if something has changed since we ~ I suspect we, Canadians, are very much like our American neighbours ~ used to trust governments … when they were run by the likes of Louis St Laurent, John Diefenbaker and Lester B Pearson.

What was different? I asked myself.

Size, I decided, for one thing. Scope, for another. The Canadian government of 2016 is HUGE compared to that of, say, 1956 or even ’66. It has not just grown with the population, or the expansion of the economy, the number of departments and agencies has ballooned as governments, since circa 1970, have become more and more involved in more and more areas of our daily lives … more intrusive, in other words.

Let’s look at the loss of trust, first …

The first big drop in trust occurred, not surprisingly, in the Johnson-Nixon/Trudeau eras. We all lost faith in America’s strategic vision: John F Kennedy renounced the Truman-Eisenhower consensus and intervened in Vietnam, and just after Pierre Trudeau renounced St Laurent’s strategic vision as Canada as a leader amongst the “middle powers.”The next drop came as the Cold War was winding down. I tKitchen_debatehink it was obvious, in about, say, 1970, that we had “won” the Cold War … actually, the “decisive battle” of the Cold War was fought and won a decade earlier, in 1959 on our TV screens …… when then US Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev debated the merits of capitalism vs. communism in a ‘mock up’ of a fairly typical North American kitchen on display at an exhibition in Moscow.

It might have been “Morning in America,” as the Reagan campaign told us, but we, Americans and Canadians alike, were not sure how, perhaps even why, we were going to make it to the afternoon or what was in store when we did … the existential threat of Russian communism was gone, and just a few years later (1989) Francis Fukuyama would posit that it was the “end of history” in so far as ideological competition was concerned because 1264_1002589_1275879271Western, liberal democracy was “the last man standing.” But it wasn’t … at least it wasn’t, after Iran-Contra and boondoggles like the “invasion” of Grenada. And it certainly wasn’t in the minds of people who believe that they have a better, faith based system that promises to give us the best in this world and the next if we will only “submit” to the will of their god as interpreted by their sheiks and imans.

(It might be worthy of note that “trust” was a key issue in the 1957 Canadian general election that brought John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives to power. While, in my opinion, the key issue was just that, after five successive Liberal governments, in 1935, 1940, 1945, 1949 and 1953, Canadians were just ready for a change, there was no doubt that Liberal “arrogance,” especially in using closure to limit the (1956) pipeline debate, left a bad taste in Canadians mouthes.)

The most recent loss in trust, in America, has been, I think a result of the (second) Iraq war ~ Americans (and Canadians) understood and applauded the “First Gulf War” in 1990-91, but the USA - Iraq - Politics - Secretary of State Colin Powellsecond invasion of Iraq in 2003 was less obviously “just” and the image of Colin Powell trying (and failing) to justify President Bush’s invasion of Iraq left the whole of thew world in doubt about America’s leadership.  Canadians had no doubt that Jean Chrétien was right to keep us out of the 2003 Iraq war but there was considerable doubt about Prime Minister Chrétien’s tactics ~ he seemed to hiding behind the UN Security Council, and France’s refusal to approve of the US invasion rather than expressing Canada’s pretty general and principled opposition to the invasion of Iraq. The post 2003 drop in trust was exacerbated by the Great Recession of 2008, but President Obama has done nothing to restore America’s confidence in itself or the world’s (including Canada’s) confidence in America.

We have lost faith in our governments, especially in out all too human governors: bumblers like Jimmy Cater and John Turner and Kim Campbell and dishonest ones like Richard Nixon and Jean Chrétien. We includes Americans who have lost faith ~ trust ~ in their own government and Canadians and others (from Australians  to Zambians) who have lost faith in America, and Canadians who have lost faith in our government after issues like Shawinigate (the matter of the Auberge Grand-Mère and golf course) and  AdScam.

Now to other reasons who government’s fail …

In his excellent Ottawa Citizen article, Brian Lee Crowley says:

“The Liberals, therefore, have made a fundamental error in assuming that the problem with government in Canada under the Tories was that the place was run by people who didn’t believe in what they were doing. Now that well-intentioned folks who believe in the power of government to do good are in the saddle, well, everything will be different.

While in opposition, Tom Axworthy, former top advisor to Trudeau père, tried pointedly to warn the Liberals this was a delusion. In a document he wrote for the party’s 2006 convention he cautioned, “Liberalism’s dirty secret is that government doesn’t seem to work well much of the time.” And in support of this shocking break with Liberal orthodoxy he cited myriad failures that occurred under the previous Liberal government, including gun registry cost overruns, lengthening queues at the immigration wicket, military procurement woes, dreadful conditions on many Aboriginal reserves, etc.

Now the Liberals are back with an ambitious agenda to stimulate the economy, bolster the middle class, reduce inequality, save the planet, revolutionize relations with Aboriginal people, build green infrastructure, make peace with the public service, renew the military’s equipment (that comes up a lot, doesn’t it!), save medicare, and much more to boot.

In this they will almost certainly fail more than they will succeed because the reason so many of these problems remain unresolved is not bad intentions or “lack of political will.” They remain unresolved because government is actually a poor instrument for solving most of them and the little government can do is entirely incremental, not revolutionary.”

I think he’s got it …

They aren’t the wrong problems, heaven knows we want to solve them … most of them, anyway. The “tool” we have chosen is wrong for some of them.

The business of rebuilding the military, for example, is a good job for government … in fact government is the only tool for that application, inefficient and ineffective as it often is, because the military is the highest order of trust ~ sending our children to kill and die ~ that we give to government.  Nothing else in our national life compares, even remotely, to the seriousness and pain  of sending our navy, army and air force into battle. It is the highest duty of government … and the one that most governments try their damnedest to ignore.

But the others ~ inequality, relations with First Nations, preserving our environment ~ are things that governments cannot do, not by themselves and, in most cases, not even as the “lead agency.” They require society, at large, to decide, for itself and by itself, that it wants to make changes. First nations, for example, cannot succeed unless and until the people in each First Nation demand real, responsible, accountable leadership.

Governments have become too large and to intrusive because we have both asked and allowed them to become so. Elements of the political left, including even Franklin D Roosevelt, believed that governments could do “social engineering” … and in some cased they can help: consider the role the US military, for example, played in racial desegregation. But social-racial equality in America wasn’t a government programme, government, even under Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson wasn’t the big player – civil society was: individual Americans and church and community groups rose up and made changes … government followed along to enforce the laws and keep the peace.

This was, certainly, far, far more important …
robinson-dodgers

… than this …

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And so it will be with every other social problem … governments can help, they can follow civil society’s lead, but they cannot “do” it themselves and we are wrong to ask them to try or to be disappointed when they fail.

Brian Lee Crowley concludes with this:

“The looming crisis of our democracy is the growing anger sparked by the clash between the public’s expectation that every problem can be legislated or regulated away by omnipotent government, and the reality that governments struggle every day to do relatively simple tasks like deliver the mail, build needed infrastructure and equip our soldiers. Contrary to the expectations of many, this anger cannot be appeased by the election of an activist government. It will be exacerbated until the public’s exaggerated expectations can be brought into line with government’s actual abilities.”

We need, as , and , said to “revive civil society” and to do that we need, as a start, to expect less from government, to ask less from government and to, actually, trim back government, to make it “get out of the way” so that civil society can respond to the challenges.

We need to shrink government back to something that Prime Ministers St Laurent and Diefenbaker would recognize. Look at these two pictures: gal_7iCanada's new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau poses with his cabinet after their swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa

They are the St Laurent cabinet circa 1950 and the Trudeau cabinet 65 years later. There has been about a 50% growth … some of it certainly justified but much neither necessary nor productive.

Government are doing a bad job at their core responsibilities, like raising, equipping and training our armed forces, because they are focused too much on things that they cannot, ever, hope to do and which we, Canadians, ought not to ask them to do.

 

8 thoughts on “We have lost trust in government … for good reasons

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