Montréal, le 11 avril 1998
Numéro 6
(page 5) 
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by Ralph Maddocks*
          When government spending cuts were proclaimed throughout the land, the conventional wisdom was that the voters wouldn't stand for tax increases, being already too highly taxed. There, in all its stunning simplicity, was the politician's answer to the budget deficits which they themselves created. If you can't get away with emptying their pockets any more, then cut their services. Logical?  Not really! There is another alternative, but to implement it will run into many roadblocks.  
           I think that it was John Maynard Keynes who said that the difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping old ones. The answer of today's politicians assumes that the question has to do with having too much government. The political left thinks that we need more government and the political right thinks that we need less. The real question is perhaps what kind of government do we have? A question not of government but of governance; the manner, function or power of government. 
          None of us want less health care, less education, fewer or poorly repaired roads, less garbage collection etc., in reality we would all like more of them. That is, until we are asked to pay more for them.  
          Look at the road conditions in our province. If you were driven blindfolded into the province from Vermont, then, ignoring the customs post, you can tell when you are in Quebec by counting the number of  times your head hits the roof of your car! Yet there is, or was, a surplus in the Quebec Automobile Insurance fund. So, in this case at least, it can hardly be argued that there is not enough money to spend on road repairs; it is the manner in which that money is spent that is the problem.  
          Earlier, I alluded to an alternative to cutting or increasing taxes. In the above case we could make road builders responsible, at their own expense, for the maintenance of the road for the following twenty years. I'll bet that such a policy would produce a marked improvement in the driveability of our roads. Instead of salaries, we could pay the government auditors a percentage of the savings they find. The list of possiblities is mind-boggling.
Alternatives to over-regulation 
          All this government slashing may reduce costs, but it is analagous to chopping off your arm when you discover that you are overweight! We can see the results in the health service. The real problem is that civil servants are employed doing things which don't need doing, following regulations that should never have been written or filling forms that ought never to have been printed in the first place. How much money is wasted due to over-regulation? 
          Why not introduce alternative sources of supply of services or more sub-contracting, an idea unloved by unions. Decentralize services, create profit centres where possible, e.g. break up Quebec Hydro into smaller units and let them compete for your business, just like the long-distance telephone companies have to do. Combine and privatize the government Employment services and remunerate those who operate them on the basis of the number of successful placements made. Introduce user fees for those who use a service, i.e. a public golf course, rather than maintaining it out of general tax revenues. 
          The main resistance to this will come from all parties involved. The politicians, who spend most of their time thinking about how to get re-elected, are afraid to confront the unions or other pressure groups. The senior civil servants, because accountability would become more important to their promotional prospects than is length of service. Imagine a civil service run on a well designed incentive system. Payment by results, not by union scale!  Such heresy! The unions wouldn't like it because it would strike at the basis of that sacred cow, seniority. 
          We should stop confusing movement with action.  
(*) Ralph C. Maddocks is a retired textile executive and former management consultant, living and writing in Cowansville.
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