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Illustration by Anthony Jenkins (The Globe and Mail)
Illustration by Anthony Jenkins (The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

You can talk about efficiency, but you can't hide the axe Add to ...

The Canadian government has just closed the visa section at its embassy in Iran’s capital, Tehran. Visas for Iranians – and there are many Iranians with relatives in Canada and others who want to emigrate – will be processed at the Canadian embassy in Turkey’s capital, Ankara.

Ankara is one country and 2,500 kilometres removed from Tehran. And yet according to a Harper government spokesperson, the processing of visas for Iranians in Turkey rather than Tehran will make things work “more effectively and efficiently.”

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Of course, this statement is patently absurd. But these days in post-budget Ottawa, all manner of absurd things are being said without much public comment.

It’s as if the media is so beaten down by mantras that are not true, and the public so distant from what goes on in Ottawa, that a government can say almost anything without anybody caring.

The latest absurdities flow from the March 29 budget, and how the Harper government chooses to explain the cuts therein. The government developed a story line – or narrative, if you like. It sticks to that line under all circumstances, save a few.

The line is that budget cuts of $4-billion will not affect service to Canadians, but rather can be absorbed by (the following words are in the budget): rationalizing, consolidating, integrating, streamlining, refocusing, reconfiguring, modernizing, realigning and everywhere seeking efficiencies.

Who can be against such laudable management objectives? Moreover, polls consistently show that the public, when asked about any government’s fiscal dilemma, thinks it can be solved by eliminating waste and duplication and making the government more efficient.

So the government line aligns perfectly with the polling data, which in turn reflects the naive belief that all spending dilemmas in the public sector can be solved by the elixir of efficiency.

Doubtless, efficiencies can be found and should be pursued. But there are not $4-billion of them to be found. Only if governments stop doing things can such sums be saved, which is what is happening, and will happen. But just what it will stop doing the government has refused to say.

What will necessarily occur are cuts to programs beyond efficiency improvements. It is honest, for example, for the government to say it will close Kingston Penitentiary to save money. It is not believable to say that almost $300-million can be struck from the budget of the Correctional Service of Canada, as the budget did, through finding efficiencies. Double-bunking will happen, unless additional facilities are built – facilities the government insists it will not build.

The same applies across the government. Programs will go, but the government is not willing to say where or when and instead sticks to the line that all the withdrawn money can be compensated for by the gobbledygook of efficiencies and refocusing and streamlining.

Statistics Canada will stop doing many surveys, and those who rely on reliable data will suffer, just as the loss of the long-form census was an assault on accurate information.

Fisheries inspections will be fewer. Fewer Canadians will be given skills training. Embassies will close (at a time when the government declares that “Canada is Back!” in the world). Visa-processing will get transferred thousands of kilometres away.

Foreign aid to certain countries will be curtailed. Fewer Canadian-made programs will appear on the CBC. Certain military purchases will not be made. The RCMP will have fewer officers in absolute terms and in relation to a growing population.

Regional development agencies will give out less money. Fewer documents will be collected for the archives. The national parks will be somewhat less available or more expensive, or both. And so on across government departments.

Governments tend to grow in size, and they need periodic pruning. Cuts are not necessarily unwarranted, because some programs outlive their usefulness and some can be managed better. New priorities emerge, and these might be financed by shifting money from other departments.

What’s wrong, however, is to pretend that a smaller government will bring no dilution of services and programs, that somehow the constant repetition of the government’s line about streamlining and efficiency gains can hide the reality of what is really happening, and will happen.

 
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