Politics trumps everything in battle between evidence and ideology
Public servants are caught when commanded to "Make it so" in spite of unintended but predictable consequences.
by Ish Theilheimer
OTTAWA, November 4, 2010, Straight Goods News, with YouTube video: Evidence and ideology are at opposite poles of an increasingly vocal debate regarding the future of Canada's public institutions, the development of national policies, and the federal government role in national affairs.
Controversy over Canada's census, tough-on-crime legislation, and the long-gun registry, among other issues, have highlighted big gaps between what experts know and the political agenda. To explore the troubling questions being raised, three federal public service unions – the Professional Institute of Public Service of Canada, the Association of Canadian Financial Officers and the Canadian Association of Professional Employees – organized a panel with investigative journalist Dan Gardner, columnist and author Lawrence Martin, and economist Armine Yalnizyan on the theme "Evidence vs. Ideology in Canadian Public Policy".
"We are living in an untenable period, plunging back into the dark ages," Yalnizyan said. "What we are witnessing right now is a moment when the public is not being served and there's no pretense of the public being served, it's the friends of the government whose interests are being served." She said the Conservative government encourages a false populism that makes sensible decisions impossible.
"Everybody hates the government, including the government," she said. "Witness the message boxes that were used over and over and over again at every possibility when we discuss the census or the long-gun registry – government is intrusive, and government is bad, and these guys are here to stand on your side of freedom."
"This time will come and go," says Armine Yalnizyan in this clip on Youtube:
Decisions that favour a small group of people don't necessarily favour society at large, she said. "That's the role of the public service, to guide their political masters and say 'Yes, we will make it so, but here are the unintended consequences of making your goal come true'."
"The crew that's on the Hill are the same crew that was at Queen's Park in the 1990s," she recalled. "The message sent to the public service then was 'Read it. Do it. Don't give us options.'" This resulted in aberrations, such as an across-the- board 21.6 percent cut in welfare that resulted in a 78 percent difference between what disabled and employable people received. Planners warned the government this would happened but they were ignored.
"Even if you don't agree, your job is to say here are the consequences," she told the public servants. "This is a crew that doesn't want to know what the consequences are.
"At the beginning of the reign of the Conservatives in Ottawa the very first thing they did was to start the silencing of voices. They cut funding for Status of Women, they cut the Court Challenges Program, they started cutting any public servants that stood up against them, and the coup de grace, was the cutting of the Census."
In this way, she said, they not only "cut the mechanisms and the vehicles from those who might dissent, you also cut the evidence that might support those who marshall defence."
Dan Gardner said he was astonished as he followed the long-gun registry debate that neither proponents nor opponents of the registry knew its true costs.
"The media was quite convinced the registry should be killed or should be kept, but they didn't know this most basic thing. I was astonished.
Dan Gardner, Lawrence Martin and Armine Yalnizyan discuss ideology and evidence in this Youtube clip:
"How many undecideds are there about the long-gun registry? We all are convinced but we haven't even nailed down the most basic facts." He said this is part of a disturbing trend toward "belief-determined evidence" in which people look for evidence that supports their beliefs and ignore other facts.
"Sophisticated research gets in the way of ideology," said Lawrence Martin. "It undercuts ideological belief. It makes it more difficult for a government of an ideological stripe to impose its ideology."
The Harper government, he said "has imposed an unprecedented vetting-slash-censorship system wherein almost every message has to go through the Prime Minister's Office or the Privy Council to be vetted in with what they want to say."
"This is something we've never seen in this town."
What it has meant is the public service is expected to carry out principally the implementation function, and the policy formation process, in which it's had a very big role in the past, has been diminished, and it's unfortunate."