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In praise of ineffectual government

06 Apr 2022 | OP ED Watch

In the Financial Post William Watson surveys the Canadian government’s dismal record of failed climate pledges and delivers the verdict that “An institution – the federal government – that has struggled for 15 years to replace just a few dozen obsolete fighter jets supposedly is going to oversee the radical transformation of a modern economy in just eight years. It would be laughable if it weren’t also so frightening.” And then he comes to an even more surprising verdict: If it must be attempted, let it be fools making the effort. “If you think central planning is disastrous for economies, and it is, do you want your central planners to be competent and efficient or do you want them to be jokers, engaged in barely concealed fraud?” So there’s some good news… we guess.

Much of Watson’s column is devoted to the Canadian government’s extraordinary record of pompous failure on this file, particularly under the current regime. For instance “in the 14 years between 2005 and 2019 total Canadian emissions of carbon dioxide equivalents fell by just nine megatonnes (Mt), from 739 to 730. Yet from 2019 to 2030, the plan would have us believe, they will fall by 287 Mt – more than 30 times the 2005-19 change.” And he also notes that “In the electricity sector, emissions fell 61 Mt from 2005-2019, thanks largely to the elimination of coal. From 2019-2030 they supposedly will fall another 47 Mt, even though coal can’t be eliminated again.”

Having shown the fatuity of the goals, he moves on to the fatuity of the methods. For instance “It is, as Elizabeth May noted, a lovely document, with attractively coloured charts and diagrams. But if you assumed an emissions reduction plan would provide a detailed checklist of policy actions the government would be taking, you assumed wrong.” Instead, although emissions from buildings in Canada “actually rose by six Mt, from 84 to 91” between 2005 and 2019 “’where we could be in 2030,’ according to Ottawa’s chart, is 53 Mt. The chart explains: ‘A whole-of-government and whole-of-economy effort focusing on regulatory, policy, investment and innovation levers is needed to drive decarbonization of the buildings sector. To this end, the Government will develop a national strategy for net-zero and resilient buildings …’” Will develop. Not has developed. Not is developing. Not has a clue how to develop. And while “whole-of-government” is a hot buzzword bingo item nowadays, what it means is that departments that can’t even coordinate their own efforts will be brought together, perhaps by the Ministry of Administrative Affairs, into a seamless whole which will miraculously become efficient through the multiplication of steering committees and strategic plans. And after all, how hard can it be to completely redesign a society’s architecture and governance when completely redesigning its energy sector, labour markets and social attitudes is a piece of cake?

The further Watson drills the worse the resulting noise and friction. The unplan contains, by his count, 8,600 words in “What’s next?” sections. Yet “The ‘What’s next?’ section for electricity is just 482 words… And much of it is filler — for instance, 182 words describing the “clean electricity standard” consultations processes…” rather than what sorts of regulations might emerge.

The end result is that these people have so little idea what they’re doing in designing the plan that the only real consolation is that its execution will be in the hands of people who also have no idea what they’re doing and will end up accomplishing little and pretending much.

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