The Tories exposed

OttawaCitizen.com – technology
July 23, 2010

For years Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, sensitive to accusations of harbouring “hidden” agendas, and knowing that Canada’s political culture is centrist, have sought to avoid being typecast as a party of ideologues.

Sadly, all the efforts to appear moderate, flexible and impartial are now discredited, as a result of the war Stephen Harper has declared on the census. The census is the mechanism by which the government gathers the hard facts — social, economic, demographic — needed to formulate effective public policy. The Conservative plot to destroy the census represents the most vivid blow yet in its war against empirical data.

Ideologues don’t just ignore research. They actually abhor it, because it gets in their way. It interferes with their cosmology. If you approach the problem of drug addiction from an ideological point of view, then you have nothing but contempt for medical researchers who can show that safe injection sites reduce the harm of illegal drugs. If you approach the problem of crime from an ideological point of view, then you have nothing but contempt for criminologists who can show that “tough on crime” policies can be self-defeating. This contempt for empirical research is not the Canadian way, but it has become the Conservative way.

Statistics Canada has long been the most celebrated department of the Canadian government. The economists and demographers who work there are internationally famous for their ability to collect, collate and interpret census data. Yet the Harper Conservatives see these government experts — their own experts! — as the enemy.

The experts are on the side of data and research and science, and for the Conservatives that represents all things bad. By crippling the famed Canadian census, the Conservatives disempower the experts. The less data there are to contradict positions rooted in politics or ideology, the better.

Munir Sheikh, the head of Statistics Canada, resigned in protest Wednesday night. He was right to do so. As a PhD holder in economics, Sheikh evidently could no longer stomach the increasingly anti-intellectual and anti-science orientation of this government. One can only imagine how disorienting it has been for him, as it has been for every Statistics Canada employee, to hear ignorant Conservative MPs trivializing the value of the mandatory long form census. It would be like working for Health Canada and having your political masters dispute publicly the value of vaccination.

Political scientists, economists of all stripes, public and private sector organizations, medical people — virtually the entire research community across Canada — is horrified by the Conservative campaign to undermine census data.

Is the government doing this because it really believes that forcing Canadians to fill out a questionnaire is an intolerable violation of personal liberty (even though Canadians themselves don’t mind)? Or is the government doing this because it feels that census data are too often used to support left-wing social policies?

No one knows for sure why the Conservatives have surprised the country with this unexpected crusade. All we can say is that this government can no longer claim to be a pragmatic one, or even one looking out for Canada’s best interests.

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