Chairman's Desk

The pandemic proved we need less red tape. Repealed regulations should stay that way

Inevitably, over time, the differences between elected governments and the bureaucracies that serve them blur. The result? They join together in one of the great pursuits of governing: the creation of the unnecessary regulation.

Then the pendulum swings and a new government comes to power, having campaigned on a promise to sweep away the cobwebs and modernize our regulatory state.

Though it feels like ancient history, there was once a time when the Ford government might well have been defined by its efforts at reducing red tape. After all, once in office, Ford and his government quickly brought forward at least four rounds of legislation, efficiently packaging together repeals of outdated or redundant regulations. It was the kind of sensible, small-government reform that Ford has always excelled at selling his voters on. “We have counted some 386,000 regulations. We will cut 25 per cent of them.”

It’s not quite clear how far they got, because COVID-19 disrupted this work — or, as it now appears, advanced it in some unexpected ways. As we look ahead to the end of the pandemic, the question to ask ourselves is what we want to carry with us into the future, and what we want to leave behind.

In a funny way, the pandemic has been the ultimate exercise in red-tape reduction. Out of dire necessity, we stripped away a whole host of outdated and illogical regulations (adding, of course, many others for reasons of health and safety).

Sixteen months later, and suddenly no one can remember why restaurants couldn’t sell alcohol with takeout or delivery in the first place, or why one couldn’t attend a courtroom hearing virtually, or file some paperwork with the government by uploading it online.

It turns out we don’t need endless public consultations, study after study and a pilot project with a report to be considered — all to make a common-sense change to our liquor laws or any of these other areas of public policy.

We can simply cut to the chase.

These are just three small examples — there are countless other instances of burdensome rules or regulations that were repealed in short order for us to function during the pandemic.

The Ontario government is not the only one to learn this lesson. In the field of philanthropy, Mackenzie Scott’s similarly inspired approach to giving also dispenses with unnecessary red tape.

Since her divorce from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Scott has gone on an unprecedented donation spree, giving away $7 billion to nearly 400 organizations in a span of just four months.

She has achieved this by moving swiftly to identify a worthy charity and then giving a substantial gift with no strings attached. Oftentimes, she has given to causes that were considered “unsexy” or overlooked, like affordable housing lenders or historically Black colleges and universities.

Compare this approach to the one taken by the Gates Foundation, which gave away over $6 billion last year but employs 1,600 people and has years of network-building behind it. With Scott’s method, there is no proposal stage, no massive team, no protracted negotiations — just a worthy recipient and a much-needed infusion of cash.

If her approach sounds so simple as to be obvious, well, it is — but it took the profound crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic for us all to realize that there were different, and maybe even better, ways of doing things.

There is nothing wrong with the Gates approach, just as there was nothing self-evidently “wrong” about Ontario’s old ways. It was just that a better way of doing business existed, if we cared to reach for it.

Of course, regulations are needed, but there is no reason that any regulation repealed during the pandemic should not simply stay repealed. Finally, the onus has been reversed — let the rule-mongers make the case for why some ordinance must come back.

My hope, post-pandemic, is that we have the courage to put its lessons to good use. Keep what we need to but embrace our creativity to change what we can. I also wish for my pizza to continue to arrive accompanied by a great pinot.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on June 13, 2021.

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