Masters of mediocrity

Why is our government so determined to hide out in the middle of the pack?

On May 22, Governor-General David Johnston gave a talk to the St. John’s Board of Trade wherein he praised the province’s record on innovation. Of course, he was pandering to his audience, but it’s a sobering topic because the one thing our province’s leadership does not do with any degree of success is innovate. In fact, our ‘leadership’ distinguishes itself by a novel approach to leading, directed toward burying itself as close to the middle of the pack as possible.

This, like the ethic of sacrifice which I’ve previously discussed, is one of the off-shoots of the neoliberal mind-set — a stultifying, mediocritizing mind-set in which our province’s leadership appear quite stuck. It expresses itself in exactly the opposite of innovation. It’s afraid to lead, to do anything else that nobody else is doing. This is why governments study ‘best practices’ and why they set ‘benchmarks’ (both of which are synonymous with a sort of striving for mediocrity).

Take some of the recent claims by those in power in this province.

Shirking responsibility

In a debate in the House of Assembly last month, Deputy Premier Steve Kent made a remarkable show out of his own failure to innovate. When called out on the fact the new long term care facility had unopened beds despite significant demand, he blamed it on the inefficiency of his own department (well, he blamed Eastern Health, but it’s under his responsibility as health minister, unless he’s forgotten).

He tried to turn it into a pitch for privatization, saying that the private sector was more efficient than he was. What the Honourable Scout Leader didn’t seem to realize was that this only bolsters the case that he ought to be replaced as quickly as possible. It speaks more to his own admission of inability as Minister of Health than it does to broader questions of private versus public. He ought to be defending—or improving—the services he’s responsible for, not dissing them on public television.

Peer pressure

Another example of striving for mediocrity lies in Memorial University administration’s fight for tuition fee increases. They’re rolling out their campaign for increasing fees—reversing this province’s progressive 15-year policy of working to eliminate fees entirely—by comparing themselves to other universities. They argue that if other universities are charging X amount, they ought to be charging X amount (or closer to it) as well. This is known as ‘benchmarking’, when you adopt somebody else’s standards as your own — and it’s an idiotic practice.

Why would you strive to meet somebody else’s (lower) standards — especially when that means casting aside your own higher standards and undermining your superior achievements? It’s a variation of, “If everybody else jumped off of a cliff, would you do it too?” In today’s world of politics and administration, administrators are trained to answer: “Yes! If everybody is jumping off a cliff, that would clearly indicate that cliff-jumping was best practices and so we should do it as well.” The purpose of your nan’s adage about not jumping off cliffs was to say: Think for yourself. Everyone else can be wrong. (For further examples of where everyone else was wrong despite solid benchmarking and best practices: resistance to the theory of evolution, geocentrism, tobacco smoke enemas, lobotomies and electro-shock therapy, slavery, etc, etc.)

And we have a clear example of that in this province, where we have achieved — at least in the field of post-secondary education — global renown and respect for thinking for ourselves, doing things differently, and achieving unprecedented success in the process. Despite all the odds (and a shrinking high school population) university enrolment has skyrocketed, we’ve reversed outmigration, and we are diversifying and cosmopolitanizing Newfoundland and Labrador. And we’ve done it by thinking outside the box, and steering away from the cliff which all the other provinces and universities are leaping off of.

But aligning ourselves with the other provinces’ mediocre trends will only hijack this province’s future and drive us all off the same cliff everyone else is jumping from. And our provincial government — also on a cliff-jumping auto-pilot, it seems — is doing the same.

Competitively on-par

Take salaries of the province’s senior administrators (from health boards to university). Their public relations staff, which have also ballooned in both number and salary in the past decade, are fond of defending these trends (such as the MUN president’s nearly half-million dollar salary) by saying, “Well, it’s on par with what some other places have.”

 Anytime you hear somebody defend an action with some variant of, “Well, it’s actually on par with what other places are doing,” you can be assured that the person you’re speaking with is providing no substantive argument at all.

What sort of a hare-brained excuse is that? The notion that, “Well, other places do it too,” is never an excuse for doing something, and it’s doubly absurd that the argument is deployed by people working for an institution of higher learning.

Democracy is about asking ourselves: What do we think is right? And if anyone thinks that, in a province where not even the premier earns $200,000, a salary of more than $460,000 for a university bureaucrat is in any way conscionable, they really ought to go back to university. This is what ‘benchmarking’ and ‘best practices’ leads to: the notion that high tuition fees are normal, and elevated presidential or CEO salaries are normal, and therefore we should do both — not because they make sense, but because they are normal.

It used to be normal for women not to be allowed to vote, for white farmers to own black slaves, and for Catholics to burn Protestants at the stake. We learned to stop doing things ‘because they are normal’ and start thinking critically about what makes sense for us in the particularity of our situation, and what does not. Anytime you hear somebody defend an action with some variant of, “Well, it’s actually on par with what other places are doing,” you can be assured that the person you’re speaking with is providing no substantive argument at all.

Variations of this [non-]argument say ‘Well, we must offer enormously high salaries in order to be competitive.’ This, too, is a nonsensical argument. Why would we want to ‘compete’ for administrators who think their primary task is to fill their pockets with public tax dollars and enjoy perks like car allowances and housing allowances and first-class air travel and so forth? We ought to be competing for the other type of person—the one who is sensible enough to take a reasonable salary, spend thriftily and wisely, and set an example of good and reasonable spending practices. The notion that we ought to compete for the most demanding and greedy candidate is precisely the opposite of what we ought to be doing.

External consultants – because we can’t think for ourselves

Back to the provincial government. More mediocrity emerges in its grand fiscal plan to bring in an external consultant to figure out why we spend more on public services than any other province.

This is mediocrity on an obsessive-compulsive scale. We have a government that redistributes more of our tax money back into public services that benefit us than most other provinces. And the challenges of providing services in a large, sparsely-populated province with daunting weather and geography are well-known and well-documented to all of us. But because we redistribute more of our money than other provinces, and give back more than other provinces, government has again fallen for the argument (made by the business community, those rich people who lobby against corporate tax hikes) that deviating from the norm is a bad thing.

For any logical-minded person, it’s a wonderful thing we ought to be trumpeting proudly from the rooftops. But because being in the lead is worse than being in the middle for our mediocrity-minded leadership, it’s a problem that must be resolved instead. And to add insult to injury, they’ve apparently decided it’s not a problem that the government we elect and pay for can solve, but they’re hiring an external consultant to do the dirty work for them.

“External consultant” has a high-minded and fancy ring to it, kind of like “interior decorating” or “bariatric surgery”. But all it really means is government doesn’t think it has the chops to do its job by itself. So instead we must put our faith (and hundreds of dollars per hour) in some total stranger who knows far less about the things they’ll be making recommendations on than the people who hire them to make those recommendations. There could hardly be a strategy for a more stupid decision-making process than hiring an external person to tell you what to do on the internal files you know far better than they do.

The Telegram’s James McLeod set the perfect tone in a piece earlier this month titled Too Many Consultants: “After the auditor general reported last week that the government’s reliance on consultants is costly and excessive, Premier Paul Davis announced Monday that he’ll hire a consultant to get to the bottom of the consultants situation.”

The real rub, however, is the fact that “Davis acknowledged the irony of hiring a consultant to look into costly spending by consultants, but he said it’s simply the only way.” In other words, he realizes the incongruity of the situation, yet he continues to do it anyway.

These are the methods and masters of mediocrity. The goal: eliminate any competitive advantage we have, do what everyone else is doing, don’t dare think for ourselves. The standards: being best is bad, originality and innovation is worse, if nobody else is doing it we shouldn’t either, and if everybody else is doing it we need to do it just as much (but no more or less). The goal: to be in the middle.

I’m not sure when mediocrity became our goal — the arrogant ambitions of Danny Williams had their problems, but I’d much prefer them over this middling mayhem — but it’s time for us to challenge this ambition-to-be-average.

We can lead the country. We can show a better way. We can think for ourselves, and we can achieve greatness in so doing.

But not so long as we allow the masters of mediocrity to hold us back.

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