An outsider to Stephen Harper’s Ottawa might easily be forgiven for assuming that this summer’s uproar over the Prime Minister’s decision to scrap the long-form census was an isolated event. How could a debate, no matter how heated, over the way government gathers statistics signify much beyond the argument’s own peculiar details? But ask prominent scientists and researchers who’ve struggled to influence federal policy over the past few years, and they’ll quickly link the census flap to wider misgivings about how the Harper government uses data and evidence—or refuses to—in shaping policy.
On sensitive files from crime to health, taxation to climate, the Harper government has often clashed with experts who argue the fruits of their research are undervalued by the Conservatives in the development of new laws and regulations. “I think,” says Gordon McBean, a University of Western Ontario geography professor and internationally respected climate-change scientist, “there is a significant problem—unwillingness to entertain, or invite, or listen to, people who are experts in their fields and want to provide advice and guidance to the government.”
Since he’s a prominent advocate for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, McBean might be suspected of merely having an axe to grind, considering the Harper government’s track record of hesitant steps, at most, on the global warming file. But it’s not just that frustrated academics turn resentful when Conservatives look skeptically, even dismissively, at the recommendations that flow from their work. In fact, the Prime Minister and some of his closest advisers have occasionally expressed reservations about letting expert views directly inform their policies.
During the 2008 election campaign, Harper boasted that his party’s platform was grounded in real-world experience. “Grand blueprints that have been done on the blackboard,” he said, “endorsed by experts with no practical experience in the economy or society, are disastrous.” Harper added that he had steered away from that kind of expert-approved policy-making, at precisely the point when Stéphane Dion, then Liberal leader, was moving his party toward it with his elaborate “green shift” plan to tax carbon.
Painful experience lay behind Harper’s conscious move away from the influence of academic research. His former chief of staff, Ian Brodie, talked candidly about the transition at Montreal’s McGill University last year, in a panel discussion on the role of evidence in policy-making. Brodie recounted how Harper had run in the 2004 election on a tax-cuts platform carefully constructed along lines favoured by tenured economists. “We promised a comprehensive system of moving brackets around, cutting bracket rates, multi-year this, multi-year that, a corporate income tax cut as well,” he said. “A program so well thought out that even the people who wrote it can’t remember the details now.”
The Conservatives lost that election. The setback, Brodie explained, led Harper and his advisers to radically rethink their approach. By the 2006 campaign, Harper was pitching a simple idea, cutting the Goods and Services Tax, which was almost unanimously opposed by mainstream economists. But if experts would have overwhelmingly preferred reducing the tax burden on income and investment, voters liked the sound of Harper’s uncomplicated pledge to slash the widely resented consumption tax. That GST promise helped them win, and Harper’s team learned to treat conventional wisdom among specialists with a certain disdain.
On another key Tory policy theme—law and order—Brodie touted conflict with academics as good politics. Most university criminologists say there’s no evidence to back up the Tories’ heavy emphasis on imposing longer prison terms. They point to studies showing that more jail time doesn’t reduce crime. At the McGill panel, though, Brodie said voters tend to side with Conservatives when they argue with “sociologists, criminologists, defence lawyers and Liberals” about prison terms. “Politically, it helped us tremendously,” he said, “to be attacked by this coalition of university types.”
So not only do Harper’s advisers suspect that following expert advice leads to unsaleable policies, they also think battling the experts can boost their popular standing. In the census controversy they seem willing, almost eager, to take on virtually the entire Canadian research establishment. Among the many groups arguing for keeping the mandatory long-form census, which Harper is turning into a less reliable voluntary survey, are the Canadian Economics Association’s executive, the C.D. Howe Institute’s president, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and the Canadian Institute of Planners.
The National Statistics Council found itself in perhaps the strangest position. The 40-member expert group is appointed by the government, supposedly to provide advice on statistical matters. But when it came to deep-sixing the long-form census—the most consequential federal policy change on stats in memory—the council was kept entirely in the dark until the decision was announced. One of its best-known members, former Finance Department and TD Bank Financial Group economist Don Drummond, said discovering they had been frozen out was “shocking.”
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