National Column: Government, a force for bad

by Paul Wells

It’s been a hard week for anyone who likes to see government as a force for progress. Two watchdogs of public spending, the auditors general of Canada and of Ontario, released reports within a day of each other this week.

Say hello to Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk. Most Ontario health-care patients receive timely care and go home quickly, she found in a report she tabled on Wednesday. But most of them aren’t suffering from anything serious or urgent. The bad news is reserved for some who can least afford it.

“At the three hospitals we visited, one in four patients with critical or life-threatening conditions had to wait an average of four hours for surgeries that should have started within two,” Lysyk wrote. “Half of patients who should have undergone emergency surgery within two to eight hours waited an average of 10 or more hours longer.”

Half of them.

Ontario hospitals have the second-highest rate of life-threatening infection in Canada, Lysyk found. That’s partly because patients are spending more nights in hospital beds than they should. If those beds were used less often, not only would sepsis rates go down, but “hospitals could have treated about 37,550 more patients a year,” she writes.

Health care isn’t the only mess. Kathleen Wynne’s government promises to sharply increase construction spending over the next several years. That’s excellent news if you’re a lousy construction company.

“The ministry is lenient with contractors who perform poorly,” rehiring them repeatedly after they turn in shoddy work, Lysyk writes. “In addition, the ministry has paid to repair substandard work, even when the repairs should have been covered by the contractor’s warranty.”

But haven’t you been seeing a bunch of ads at the cineplex, saying everything’s going swell in Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario? Absolutely. That’s because the Ontario Liberals, who passed legislation banning partisan ads with public money, then passed measures to weaken that legislation. So they’re spending two-thirds more on those ads after they told you they’d stop making them.

The good news is, if the ads are well-produced enough, you’ll feel really warm and happy about being screwed over.

Now, I live in Ottawa and I’m supposed to keep an eye on the federal government. But I couldn’t help being sensitized to Lysyk’s report after her federal colleague, Michael Ferguson, released a similar report earlier on Tuesday.

Ferguson, who’s been on the job for five years (and has, incidentally, improved the quality of his spoken French far more rapidly than most elected politicians manage), led his report with a kind of lament.

“Our audits come across these same problems in different organizations time and time again. Even more concerning is that when we come back to audit the same area again, we often find that program results have not improved.”

Ferguson’s report is striking because it shows the state of play after a decade of Harper Conservative government in Ottawa. Audits track effects that have been years in the making; even if you’re of the view that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are here to screw everything up, the fact is that they will not have had time to ruin most of the systems Ferguson measured.

And yet. Taxpayers who dispute Canada Revenue Agency decisions find themselves plunged, by the tens of thousands, into a Kafkaesque nightmare.

“The agency took five or more years to resolve 79,000 cases worth almost $4 billion,” Ferguson writes. “Unreasonable delays matter because while taxpayers wait for the Canada Revenue Agency to make a decision on their objection, the money in dispute is not used as productively as it could be, and this has an economic cost.”

One would have thought the Harper Conservatives would want to keep $4 billion flowing smoothly through the economy. One would have been wrong.

There are a few possible explanations for all these messes. One is bad faith: governments, or enough people in government, don’t want it to work because they are wicked. I’ve never put much faith in this theory. I meet too many thoughtful and dedicated public servants.

Another possibility is that it is simply impossible to design a government program that works well. A third is that most programs actually do work well, but that these reports are designed to point out a few bad apples, endlessly.

It would be gratifying, he said mildly, if there were more evidence that such questions are getting a lot of consideration at the top of the Wynne and Trudeau governments. Both operate on the assumption that government can be a force for good in society. Neither can long survive an inability to back up the claim.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

Print Friendly, PDF & Email