Archives for posts with tag: Stephen Harper

(Image: Toronto Star)

Canadians have Senator Duffy to thank for exposing us to a story that explains everything we need to know about the federal government and its non-compromising communications strategy.

Is it all that surprising that some politicians lie in order to deny Canadians the facts need to fully understand this entire sad affair? No – of course not. This is not actually an unusual thing in politics.

But now, instead of forgiving the Conservatives for a bit of political back scratching and still associating them with competent economic management, we are increasingly linking them with self-preservation, nastiness and a strong inclination for secrecy.  A sordid story about some public servants gaming the system for cash is changing the political communications landscape for the government.

Let’s set aside for a moment that Senator Duffy was unable to clearly understand the rules around primary and secondary residences and related expense claims, despite being a journalist on Parliament Hill for decades. Let’s also set aside questions related to why the Senate and PMO can’t get Senators to clearly understand the rules and effectively enforce them.

Forget, as well, that some of Duffy’s Senate expense claims covered travel for days when he was campaigning in the last federal election (full details of his expenses are unavailable because the Senate and the Conservatives won’t release them). Forget that Duffy didn’t fully co-operate with the Deloitte audit that was done on his expenses, and also forget that Duffy suggests he clammed up as a quid pro quo for Nigel Wright giving him $90,000.

Instead, consider how all of this was communicated to Canadians and how the issue was contextualized. Consider how Duffy was praised by the PMO for showing “leadership” in paying back his expenses. Consider how the only substantive comment offered on the $90,000 payment was that no taxpayer money was used. Consider, how we’ve been treated like fools.

What is missing is transparency. Without it, there is no credibility and no trust.

Why did the PMO not deal with this much earlier and ensure that Duffy – who is clearly a liability and who has awful judgement – take the blame and pay the price?

I think the answer is because exposing one weakness in the Conservative government communications strategy would then open the door to a complete re-evaluation of how we as citizens understand the choices the government makes. Thanks to the extreme partisanship that underlies all government communications, there is both an enormous disconnect between what we are told about the workings of government and how we actually perceive it and an unwillingness of the government of ever back down from its message.

Now, with Duffy exposing that weakness in spectacular style, things might seem that much clearer to Canadians. When you have been spun so hard and so relentlessly by your government, when you begin to feel like your government can no longer distinguish between fact and fiction, then you stop believing and then you stop listening.

The point is, we’re not really as worried about $90,000 wrongly claimed in expenses as much as we are worried about how the government has attempted to explain and rationalize this to us. That is what pisses us off more than anything.

Lack of transparency leads to lack of credibility. It’s that simple.

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Few things irritate me as much as politicians (and certain sycophantic elements of the media) who pay lip service to “science” and “evidence” while pursuing policies that are based on pure bullshit – sometimes called “common sense”.

In a contemporary context, much of the debate about global warming and climate change in the U.S. and Canada is infected with this, as is much of the debate over crime and punishment (another post on this will arrive soon, by the way).

A good example of this arose recently when Justin Trudeau wondered why domestically radicalized terror suspects (from the alleged VIA train bombing plot) chose the path of political violence. Barak Obama asked the same question about the Boston suspects. Stephen Harper, however, said this is not the time to “commit sociology” because it would detract from his government’s condemnation of the plot.

And with this, science was once again tossed aside in the service of pure partisan exploitation of a very serious issue. Who cares why this stuff happens, after all? That’s for academics.

Here’s an excellent opinion piece on why Stephen Harper’s comments – and the values they represent – are worth thinking about.  I’m posting it not because I dislike conservatives, but because ignoring science and fact is no way to make smart decisions about public policy. Because ultimately, we all pay for bad policy.

I digested the media coverage of the Richard Kachkar’s sentencing with a bad taste in my mouth. Yesterday, he was found not criminally responsible for killing Toronto Police Sgt. Ryan Russell; a result that can hardly be considered surprising for those who have been paying attention to the trial.

Yet, quite a bit of the media coverage focused more on the victims’ emotional response (“no closure”, “no justice”, “Sgt. Russell deserved better”), than on explaining the practical implications of Kachkar being found not criminally responsible. While in no way wanting to deny the obvious pain Kachkar caused Russell’s family, I was hoping for media coverage that would balance the tragic perspective with some objective facts that would explain how, far from walking free, Kachkar will undoubtedly be treated by professionals in a secure psychiatric facility under the close supervision of the Ontario Review Board, and could – depending on his treatment and progress – remain in custody for quite a few years. The Board will review his status every year, and this process will determine whether he gets out and under what conditions. And, importantly, public safety is the primary consideration for the Board in determining whether people like Kachkar get released.

Ok, so this wasn’t given equal play in media coverage. So what?

I think this is important because the media coverage is enabling and shaping public perception of public safety issues and how governments respond. Specifically – and bluntly – unbalanced and superficial media coverage of public safety issues enables unbalanced and superficial public safety policy. When we get media coverage of crime that is all about victims, then the laws will reflect that.

Here’s an example of how this works: After Kachkar’s verdict was announced, Ryan’s widow Christine scrummed outside of the courthouse and made a point of mentioning her support for the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act, a classic Stephen Harper piece of legislation that purports to “make our streets and communities safer,” and “ensures that not criminally responsible accused people found to be too dangerous to release are no longer a threat to their victims or Canadian communities.” In fact, it is another pointless and unhelpful bill that changes little, will impact only a handful of people and will not stop this type of tragedy from happening again. However, it will reinforce the idea that our streets are filled with danger (Stephen Harper is building new prisons while crime rates are currently at a 40-year low) and that the mentally ill are merely criminals with convenient excuses. Don’t forget that fear, ignorance and political expediency drive  Harper’s correction policy; not expert research or facts.

Less crime, more fear (Image: Canada.com)

Does this approach to public policy remind you of anything? Climate change policy? Ignoring and muzzling scientists?

I regret that people feel the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. I regret that people feel that correctional policy should be built around the idea that even the mentally ill must suffer in proportion to the terrible crimes they sometime commit.

But the truth is that the process is generally fair and objective – and that is how the justice system should be. Not vengeful and emotional. Media coverage should make sure people understand that.

Globe and Mail image

I am getting used to hearing a familiar refrain about the idea of a carbon tax in Canada: “It’s a tax! It’ll kill jobs!”

It’s proof of the success Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have shown in communicating and framing the issue to Canadians. Tories, though, use the description “job-killing tax on everything”.

His government is under no real political pressure to do anything more than tinkering around the edges on climate change – and why should it? A poll  done by environment Canada earlier this year suggests that there is a lot of public hostility to a carbon tax. Most of us see a carbon tax primarily through the lens of personal economic security.

The relevant question in that poll, however, seems to suggest the issue is fundamentally one of “What will it cost me?” It reads (the underline is mine):

I’d like to know how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statements. Please use a 10-point scale, where 10 means you strongly agree, and 1, means you strongly disagree.  Canada needs to implement a federal carbon tax to promote energy efficiency and protect the environment, even though it means increasing the cost of things like gas and groceries for consumers.

The results indicated that 43.5 per cent of respondents were on the “strongly disagree” part of the scale, while only 19.1 per cent were on the “strongly agree” side.

I wonder what the response would have been if the key part of the question was more like this:

Canada needs to implement a federal carbon tax to help replace the energy generated by fossil fuels with cleaner energy and reduce the impact of global warming and also to help Canada to adjust to the inevitable low-carbon economy.

Ok, this is slightly exaggerated, but I hope you get the point. When you contextualise issues not as transformational, but instead as a raid on your pocketbook for some intangible benefit (“Sure, we want to protect the environment, but not if it makes gas and groceries more expensive.”) you can see why more than 43 per cent are strongly opposed.

What if those who are actively involved in debates on climate change and reducing fossil fuel emissions consider the former approach; you can tax carbon and use it to support and develop the technologies that will provide us with clean energy. But that’s just the tree-hugger take on a carbon tax; even growing numbers of companies in the oil and gas sector think it’s sensible policy.

I was reminded of this when recently reading a Jeffrey Simpson column, where he examines Australia’s carbon tax and its lack of catastrophic economic impact. In the column, Simpson suggests – and this is hardly a new idea – that a carbon tax is the most efficient market mechanism to shift behaviour and reduce emissions.

But when so many people see a carbon tax as a bottom-line pocketbook issue, it’s no wonder that it seems a long shot – no matter how appropriate it is as public policy, and no matter how many in the oil patch think it’s an idea whose time has come.  Unless, of course, those who support a carbon tax, including the oil and gas sector, start contributing more actively to the public debate and challenging the misperception of a carbon tax. Yes, it’s a complex issue, but some voices carry a lot of weight. I think they should be talking more about this, and they should be doing it loudly.