Stephen Harper wasn’t obsessed with data. Here’s why Justin Trudeau is

Posted on April 4, 2023 in Governance Policy Context

Source: — Authors: – Politics/Opinion
April 3, 2023.   By Susan Delacourt, National Columnist

Throughout the “made-in-Canada” budget unveiled last week are a raft of measures to amass data on everything from the state of Canadians’ health to air-travel information, Susan Delacourt writes.

In a YouTube video titled “Budget 101,” Justin Trudeau appears at the head of a classroom, scribbling on a whiteboard all the steps in creating the annual budget.

It’s meant to show Trudeau in full teacher mode, but also as the data geek he often professes to be. As it happens, his government’s latest budget could be called pretty data geeky, too.

Throughout the “made in Canada” budget unveiled last week are a raft of measures to amass data on everything from the state of Canadians’ health to air-travel information.

I talked to a member of Trudeau’s team deeply involved in this year’s budget preparation, who said he would prefer to speak on background. He said he hadn’t noticed just how much data-gathering had figured into the government’s planning until we drew it to his attention, “but yeah, there is a lot.”

It is everywhere — it is in the Trudeau government’s conditions for providing more health-care dollars to the provinces, and it’s a major part of laying the foundation for the new dental-care program.

To improve labour and trade mobility in Canada, there’s a plan to create an “internal trade data and information hub.” Transport Canada is amassing data to help deal with supply-chain problems. And one of the big efforts to crack down on financial crime (and possible future election interference) revolves around the creation of a registry.

This whole fixation on data is, first and foremost, a big product of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the realm of health care. Trudeau has talked often about how the government learned in the early days of the pandemic just how little information it had at its fingertips.

“We actually worked in those first few weeks of the pandemic, on top of everything else, to try and make sure that all the provinces were at least collecting and reporting (data) on a similar basis,” the prime minister said in an interview with me earlier this year.

“That sort of got us all thinking, well, how many other areas are we not comparing?”

Essentially, the pandemic put the federal government back in the service-delivery business in a large way, the adviser explained, and you can’t deliver services without data. Moreover, if this is a government that wants to keep billing itself as progressive, activist and constructively involved in the lives of its citizens, it needs an accurate, ongoing handle on where things stand.

The logjams at passport offices and airports were a good illustration of what happens when government doesn’t have the data it needs, he said.

“We weren’t as effective as we could have been at deploying scarce resources, because we just didn’t have the picture that we needed to have.”

So there is also very definitely a political — even ideological — force at work here, too. The Trudeau Liberals came to power promising to be far more data-friendly and activist than the old Conservative government, which scrapped the gun registry and the long-form census. (Remember how geeky Canadians celebrated the return of the long-form census in 2015?)

Occasionally, you’ll hear members of Trudeau’s government talking about how hollowed-out they found the public service in terms of data collection when they came to power nearly eight years ago. The adviser confirmed this is indeed a motivation — a need to play catch-up in modernizing the data capacities of the federal government after a “decade of darkness,” you might say, of the Stephen Harper years.

“It is shocking what we inherited in departments like industry, and others, in terms of the investments that had not been made in understanding huge swaths of the economy,” the adviser said.

The data deficit in the current public service has also been cited as one reason the government has needed to lean so heavily on outside consulting firms — another hot political topic from earlier this year, revolving mainly around how much contract work has been handed out to McKinsey & Company

Dominic Barton, a former managing partner at McKinsey, testified at a Commons committee on this controversy in February and alluded to the government’s lack of sophistication in data and technology, and why that may be forcing Ottawa to get that expertise from outside.

“There’s a technology transformation that’s needed in this government and in all governments. I don’t want to be harsh about it, but we’re in the stone age,” Barton said.

Big data, big government isn’t likely to be among the sales pitches Canadians will be hearing as Trudeau and his ministers fan out to sell Budget 2023 this week. But it is a budget that reveals a government that is heavily channelling its data geekiness.

Susan Delacourt is an Ottawa-based columnist covering national politics for the Star. Reach her via email: or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt

Tags: , , , ,

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 4th, 2023 at 11:59 am and is filed under Governance Policy Context. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply