The Conservative Party of Canada vs. Facts

May 2, 2011 —

I am ok with people disagreeing with me. I am not ok with efforts to suppress, deny, and falsify factual data.

This seems like a basic idea that we could all agree upon, right? A safely non-partisan issue. Something that we could expect from our politicians as a starting point, something we could almost take for granted.

I wish it were so, but in this election, and indeed for the past few years, Canadian politics has suffered from a disturbing disrespect for factual data by participants at some of the highest levels. There has also been an increase in government secrecy and a tendency for government MPs to attempt to evade responsibility for their actions.

I happen to think it is important for government decisions to be made in an open and transparent manner, not in secret. I also think it is important for people to take responsibility for their actions, and to be accountable for them.

To shed some light on these points, let’s take a look at some example scenarios.

Example Scenario 1:
If I say “Why are you treating punishing crime as a priority, when statistics show that the crime rate is going down and already quite low?”

What would you think of someone who replied:

1) “Even though the crime rate is low, we think this policy is important because of X.”

2) “Everyone knows that the crime rate is going up!”

I think I can have a reasonable political discussion with someone who chooses reply #1. How can I have one with someone who chooses reply #2? They are denying the factual data outright, and they are refusing to explain themselves.

Example Scenario 2:
If you are a Member of Parliament who disagrees with the recommendations of a staff report, what would be a reasonable course of action?

1) Acknowledge receipt of the report by signing it. Put into effect a program that goes against the recommendations of the report. When asked about it, explain the reasons you disagree with the report and why you have chosen to do things differently.

2) Alter a report that has already been signed by other people to say the opposite of what the staff recommended. Put into effect a program based on the altered documents. Publicly claim that you are following the recommendations of your staff and the report. When someone catches you, lie about altering the document. When that doesn’t work, blame the staff for not giving you a way to disagree with the report.

If someone chooses option #2, they are refusing to take responsibility for their actions. They are also showing a willingness to falsify data and lie about facts.

These examples I’ve given are not hypothetical scenarios. These are summaries of real situations where Conservative Party MPs chose option number #2. Not only that, they have shrugged off the episodes as no big deal.

I can’t go along with that. I can’t respect that.

And the sad thing is, these are not isolated incidents. There is a pattern of the Conservative party showing little respect for factual data, and claiming that it is unnecessary for them to explain themselves or take responsibility for their actions.

I will mention some more examples here. The ones I’ve mentioned so far are a sort of paraphrase of the Conservative government’s response to statistics about the crime rate (for example Stockwell Day’s comments about unreported crime) and the Bev Oda scandal.

Requiring government agencies to have the Prime Minister’s permission before releasing information to the public.
I kid you not, government agencies have to fill out a ghastly thing called a “message event proposal” and get it approved by the Prime Minister’s Office before they are allowed to talk to the public.

I find it appalling that they are being silenced in such a way. Prime Minister Harper insisting on controlling what his caucus members say is distasteful, but within the bounds of our expectations about how political parties might choose to operate. But controlling and micromanaging the communications of all of our public servants? That’s a lot more than a decision to stay on message as a political party. That’s censorship and a way to stifle dissent. It’s also a way to use public funds to do advertising and spin doctoring.

Destroying the long form census
The Conservative government changed the long-form census so that it is no longer mandatory. This effectively destroys the census, since it becomes a voluntary survey instead, and has problems with bias because of that. The quality and accuracy of the data will be severely reduced.

Tony Clement, Minister of Industry, defended the government’s decision. First, he said that the voluntary survey will have no effect on the quality of the data. This is simply not true. Ask anyone who has taken a basic course in statistics.

Then, Tony Clement claimed that the chief statistician of Statistics Canada had told him the data would be equivalent. The Chief statistician Munir Sheikh had to publicly resign to make the point that he had said no such thing.

Blaming the staff, and lying about what the staff said seems to be a pattern here. This is part of the disrespect for facts that I am talking about, and also a way of avoiding taking responsibility.

Tony Clement claimed that a reason for destroying the census is to stop people from going to jail for not filling it out. He seemed quite surprised to learn that no one has ever gone to jail for refusing to fill out the census. He also seemed to be unfazed by a proposal by the opposition parties to revise the census law to remove jail time as a punishment. This suggests to me that jail time is not the real issue here.

Tony Clement claimed that another reason for destroying the census was to protect the privacy of Canadians. My interpretation is that is if the Conservative party cared about your privacy, it wouldn’t be making an election promise to require all internet service providers (ISPs) to monitor all internet internet activity and turn over the information to the government without a warrant. (It’s part of their tough-on-crime policy that they’ve promised to implement within the first 100 days of taking power based on Bills C-50, C-51 and C-52 that they introduced this past session.) The census is far less invasive in comparison.

My take on the census is that it is about destroying the ability of the government and ordinary Canadians to have accurate information about the country. It is also an indication that the Conservative party thinks that such accurate information is irrelevant to how they decide what laws to make. They would rather make laws based on ideology and guesswork than consult the evidence. And they don’t want anyone else to have access to accurate information either.

Refusing to say how much “tough-on-crime” plan would cost.
The Conservative government refused to hand over detailed cost estimates of the tough-on-crime plan to build more prisons and require minimum sentencing. This is one of the two incidents that the Speaker of the House Peter Milliken ruled to be a “breach of privilege” that puts the Conservative party in contempt of Parliament. The other incident was the Bev Oda scandal.

This is a very basic question. “How much will it cost?” This is information that all Members of Parliament have a right to expect to have access to. Yet the Conservative government wanted the other parties to vote to approve their plan without having answers to that question. Vic Toews, Minister for Public Safety, and Rob Nicholson, Minister of Justice, claimed the information was a “cabinet confidence” (basically a state secret) and refused to provide the information for almost two years.

There are other examples. I’m running out of time to post this before voting begins, so I’ll just mention a few more.

  • Proroguing parliament to avoid a vote they didn’t like (and thereby disrespecting our parliamentary traditions)
  • Going to court to avoid releasing documents about how Canadians sent Afghan detainees to torture
  • Refusing other freedom of information requests for so-called reasons of national security
  • Pressuring the CRTC to change its regulations to allow false news to be broadcast
  • Firing a whistleblower who shut down a nuclear power plant that was at 1000x the usual risk of safety problems.

To be fair, there have also been some positive moves toward transparency by the Conservative government. For example, the pilot project to release of government data to the public through the data.gc.ca website happened on their watch. But overall, the pattern of their behaviour has been to move our government and our political discussions in the direction of secrecy and disrespect for facts.

The Conservative party came to power in 2006 in part because they ran on a platform of transparency and accountability. They also said they wanted more public debate on issues such as international agreements, and more free votes in the House of Commons. If they had actually followed those principles, I would be a lot happier right now.

Instead, they are in the process of re-making our political system to be systemically worse on these types of issues, and have taken lying and falsification and suppression of facts to extremes that I have never seen before in Canadian politics.

Shall we reward them for this on voting day? Is this truly a matter of pesky political bickering about details that ordinary Canadians care little about? Or is this something that matters to Canadians? I know I care about it deeply.

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1 Comment »

  1. I agree. I never thought about it this way…

    Comment by Amber — October 16, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

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