Canada 2020

DeMont: Politics of Simple Things

September 30, 2010

by Phil DeMont

Even as the controversy rages over the federal government’s plan to kill off the mandatory long-form census, what this debate really has killed off is Industry Minister Tony Clement’s reputation as a deft political touch.

Often seen as the one Toronto-area Tory who could sell the Conservative message in Ontario, the bespectacled former provincial politician badly fumbled the elimination of Statistics Canada’s mandatory census survey, turning what should have been a bureaucratic tweak into a public policy nightmare.

After Ottawa announced the new policy in the summer, Munir Sheik, the respected head of Statistics Canada, quit in protest and then essentially accused Clement of lying about his support for the alteration.

International statistical groups opined loudly that the Conservatives were destroying the quality of Canada’s data collection. And even the usually reticent Governor of the Bank of Canada, Mark Carney, said dumping the mandatory census form was a bad idea.

Of course, most policies have pros and cons. And one might debate about the necessity of changing Statistics Canada’s data-gathering methods.

But, it would be neigh on impossible to argue that what Clement has done is good politics. In fact, poll after poll show that the Harper government has lost – not gained – votes over the controversy.

The question is how did Clement, usually reasonably adroit at gauging the political winds, so badly misjudged this issue.

After all, the fortunes of governments do not often hinge upon policy shifts in the area of data collection.

But, having spent time in political offices, one can also see Clement’s thinking: a marginal party promise, hanging around for years, would help solidify small parts of the Tory base, mainly in western Canada.

As well, the Industry Minister could use the opportunity to tick another promise off of the Conservative’s ‘to-do’ list.

Instead, the English-born Clement found himself going toe-to-toe with statistical nerds and discovered that his rhetorical arsenal woefully inadequate.

Setting aside the policy debate, politicians can take away a few lessons from Clement’s travails regarding the long-form census.

1) Do not make a move in a technical area unless you have the support of the people who actually do the work.

These days, politicians lack overall credibility, a deficiency magnified in scientific fields. After all, if you do not believe the elected official knows much about the economy, you are really unlikely to believe that same person will have a reasoned opinion on a particular medical treatment or Internet protocol.

Essentially, Clement – or more likely his staff – had not lined up support for census move among the pointy-headed crowd and thus looked unknowledgeable as he tried to bluster his way through subsequent criticism from these same groups.

2) Be prepared with a defensive strategy if what looks like an innocuous change turns ugly.

Politicians make all kinds of minor decisions dealing with a myriad of subjects, some of which have the potential to blow up in their faces.

A number of years ago, the McGuinty government banned placed a ban of fresh sushi based upon the recommendations of the province’s medical office. What appeared to be a move to protect the population’s health become an embarrassing public backdown for a government often accuse of trying to micro-manage the lives of Ontarians.

A similar problem vexed Clement with the long-form census.

He did not have a decent fallback position once the data fight turned nasty. Instead, Clement tried to question Sheik’s credibility in opposing the change, especially since the chief statistician’s street cred on the census debate was superior to Clement’s.

3) Sometimes running away is the best strategy of all.

A good politician needs to show backbone when dealing with a policy of principle or face increased pressure from interest groups hell-bent on forcing the elected official to shift on another policy.

But, the politician also must recognize that sometimes taking a continued pummeling on an issue is not courage but just foolhardy.

Essentially, the Conservatives were unlikely to lose votes by reversing the census policy once it became apparent the extent of the opposition. After all, the supporters who wanted the change were few in number and exceedingly unlikely to switch their votes to more liberal options in the case of a flip-flop.

Alternatively, swing voters, those people attracted by the Tories’ fiscal stance but nervous about the Harper government’s ideological bent, became increasingly puzzled by Clement’s stance on the census. By holding on to the government’s position long after his credibility on the issue disappeared, Clements lost some moderates without any appreciable gain among other voting groups.

Politically, that is just a dumb outcome, one Clement was supposed to prevent.

In the end, the Tories have damaged themselves politically in the census debate. Now, anytime the Liberals bring the fight, voters will not see an overblown bureaucratic discussion but an example of bad judgment by a key Harper minister.

Philip DeMont, a veteran print and television journalist based in Toronto, is a co-author (with Eugene Lang) of Turning Point: Moving Beyond Neoconservative.

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