COLUMN

Save the mediocre, damn the first-rate

New government phone systems that use recorded messages are the bureaucrats’ dream machines—they need never face us again

BARBARA AMIEL December 23 1991
COLUMN

Save the mediocre, damn the first-rate

New government phone systems that use recorded messages are the bureaucrats’ dream machines—they need never face us again

BARBARA AMIEL December 23 1991

Save the mediocre, damn the first-rate

COLUMN

New government phone systems that use recorded messages are the bureaucrats’ dream machines—they need never face us again

BARBARA AMIEL

A dozen years ago I glimpsed catch-22. I had arrived in Egypt, but my luggage stayed in Yugoslavia. When my suitcase finally made it to the Cairo airport I was turned back for want of a piece of paper. I got the required piece of paper from an inscrutable Egyptian bureaucrat, and in exchange for giving up this form to another official was admitted to the luggage depot. But the next step was impossible: in order to actually get my bag, which sat there in front of me, I now had to present the very piece of paper I had just given up. In vain, I pointed to the man in possession of my form. That was deemed insufficient. Three times I was sent out to repeat this hopeless odyssey. The fourth time, I flung myself to the floor, foamed at the mouth and began screaming. I got my luggage.

I suggested this technique to a friend who is dealing with Ottawa—the department of transport, airworthiness branch, to be precise. He flies a small plane and requires an airworthiness certificate that has to conform to departmental regulations. He is a nice chap, but a little overworked, and it so happened that he sent off his application slightly later than the required postmarked date. Back came a registered letter asking him to re-submit the form and reminding him that he could not fly his plane until certification was complete. How long would that be? Oh, about a month. And what is the catch-22 here? Well, the manufacturers of this particular plane warn that in order to keep it airworthy, it should be flown once a week—something to do with ore deposits and getting the moisture out of navigational equipment.

The point is this. The airworthiness certificate will not make that plane more airworthy—the form is just a routine piece of paperwork. Flying will make the plane more airworthy. But my friend can’t do that because he is grounded by airworthiness bureaucrats. Processing a piece of paper that allows the pilot to fly that plane should take a day, maybe two days, perhaps three. Why on earth does it take

a month when no one is actually going out to look at the plane?

I put it all down to the advent of giving civil servants these beastly telephone systems where no human voice ever answers, only a recording that tells you to push a button for this service and push another digit for that one. When you have listened to the voice in the machine go through a list of idiotic requests, one finally reaches nothing but an answering machine. These telephone systems are the bureaucrats’ dream machines—they need never face us again.

I leap from this to an analysis of Canada’s state of health. The entire society looks to me like a bureaucrat distanced from reality by an insufferable telephone answering machine repeating the same wrong message: “Sorry, we’re not available at the moment. We are facing a constitutional crisis and can’t come out to play.” By now, even intelligent Canadians have convinced themselves that the trouble with Canada is the constitutional wrangle facing us over Quebec. This is madness. Quebec and the Constitution is the least significant problem Canada has, useful only for distancing one’s mind from reality.

Quebec is a province of several million peo-

ple with a very distinct culture which, if assimilated with Canada, would die. A lot of Quebecers have decided that they would like to keep their own ways—so let them. There is utterly no reason why Quebec cannot live happily forever in a trade association and commonwealth arrangement with Canada and the United States.

Canada itself happens to be a rather nice country, blessed with natural resources and totally failed by its intellectual, political and religious elite. This elite has systematically allowed the country to fall into the grip of a variety of social democratic notions that have rendered us economically inefficient and crippled our character. We have overspent like drunken sailors in order to fill the sense of “entitlement” that our weak-tea socialism has created. We have become a country of feuding special-interest groups in which envy and resentment play more than their natural roles. Why did we develop this way, while our neighbor to the south did not? Perhaps if we understand that we might begin to correct the problem.

I can only think about it in broad strokes, and there must be many more subtle reasons. But it seems to me that one needs to go back to the nature of Canada. France had an empire that extended from northern Quebec to Louisiana. The French and English fought for dominion over this continent, and gradually the French were pushed back and conquered. What followed was a substantial population change.

The United Empire Loyalists came to Canada. Those people who chose to fight England in the American War of Independence rather than remain a loyal colony moved south. That left Canada with essentially two groups of people: the conquered and those who preferred the status of a colony to that of an independent country. Such people have different values to the jostling entrepreneurial society of the United States. We cherish the status quo, the safety net and any values that we see as opposite to those of America.

These are perfectly splendid values, but what has happened in this land of ours is less encouraging. We extended the safety net to encompass not simply the genuinely unfortunate, but rather anyone who is second-rate. We would rather take care of the second-rate people than reward first-rate ones for their initiative. This applies on every single level of Canadian life, from our education system to our labor market.

One can’t say that such an attitude is wrong. But if you reward mediocrity and discourage excellence, the consequences can be no surprise. Mediocrity flourishes and rises to the top. One can hardly blame mediocre politicians, our frightful church leaders and a hopeless intellectual establishment for endorsing this system—it works very well for them. The solution, I am sure, lies in the many Canadians under the age of 40 who know in their hearts and minds that our glorification of mediocrity is, in the end, holding them and the country back.

But before you can answer the telephone and get on with business, you have to turn off the answering machine.