Forget the beaver, dumber Canada needs the ostrich

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Thu Jul 22 2010.  By James Travers, National Affairs Columnist, OTTAWA

Conservatives are going soft. Instead of stopping the dumbing-down of Canada at abolishing the mandatory long-form census, Stephen Harper should take the bolder step of dumping the eager beaver for the foolish ostrich.

Even if its head-in-sand defence is a myth, the ostrich has other metaphorical merits as a fitting new national symbol. It’s been known to deliver devastating kicks to onrushing locomotives and isn’t naturally found in this northern habitat.

Conservatives share those characteristics. They resent the relentless march of progress and resist it with alien ideas imported from other places.

Opting to know less about ourselves is about as smart as flying without instruments. Reliable information opens the decision-making conduit that carries us safely from present to future.

Munir Sheikh underlined the danger of closing that conduit last night when he resigned as head of Statistics Canada to protest the shift from a mandatory to a voluntary survey. His unusually principled decision deepens the crisis and flies in the face of government assurances that the world-respected agency approved the change.

Most of all, it raises new questions about Conservative commitment to applying intellectual rigour to public policy. Expertise, the prime minister once publicly reminded his party, is as suspect as elites. Intuition and the nodding wisdom of next-door neighbours are to be trusted.

As if to make the point, science crashed headlong into instinct this week in one of those real-life coincidences that in fiction strains credibility. Stats Can released an annual report Monday that makes utter nonsense of a Conservative core belief.

Countering fear with facts, the latest crime study confirms a decade-long trend. Overall, there’s 17 per cent less crime now than in 1999. Better still, most offences are minor and heinous violent crime has fallen so far that it’s now less than one quarter of one per cent of the shrinking total.

Good news is rarely so badly received. Public safety minister Vic Toews is now scrambling awkwardly to justify why this deep-in-deficit government will spend a forecast $9.5 billion over the next five years implementing a single part of its law-and-order agenda.

Shooting the messenger is Ottawa’s reflex response. It refuses to accept overwhelming evidence that an imperfect justice system is working pretty well, finding the delicate balance between crime, punishment and rehabilitation. It rejects independent budget office projections of soaring federal and provincial prison costs but won’t reveal its own spreadsheet.

Those tactics are familiar. Canadian Conservatives are operating from a borrowed U.S. Republican playbook. From it they learned that a single frightening event or a memorable case where justice is seen not be done is more emotionally riveting, more politically useful than data streams or reasoned debate.

Too successful not to be spread, those methods are now being deployed against the confidential census. Industry Minister Tony Clement muses darkly about Canadians forced by the threat of jail to reveal their secret lives to big government. He talks about an illusory rising tide of resistance from the 20 per cent of households required to answer questions business, charities and every level of government require to understand the nation and advance its progress.

Clement’s rigid proselytizing in favour of the determined right not to know would be rib-cracking laughable if it weren’t so bone-headed ideological. Canadians aren’t cowering in their basements fearing census will come knocking. They’re not rallying to the barricades to protest one of the few demonstrably constructive intrusions in a brave new world of security screening, street cameras and still fresh G20 summit memories of “papers, please” police questioning.

Instead of protecting privacy, Conservatives are pandering to ignorance while cynically limiting the capacity of Canadians to follow facts to a logical conclusion. That makes about as much sense as trading our noble rodent for a bird of very little brain.

< http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/census/article/838589–travers-forget-the-beaver-dumber-canada-needs-the-ostrich >

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