Trudeau Just Another Casualty in the Long War (On Open Evidence-based Governance)
[note: I wrote most of this last week, but have had neither the time nor the connectivity to upload it in blog form until now, so it’s probably a bit stale. I mean, we’re talking about comments made more than seven days ago, which themselves were referencing an event that happened in a completely different month! Because of this, it may hold certain readers’ attention less well than something more de la mode, but I’m sure those who appreciate good blogentary will stick around to read. Right? Hello? Is this thing on?]
Prime Minister Stephen Harper renewed on his attack on the new Liberal leader last week, this time implying that Justin Trudeau was guilty of “committing sociology” in his response to the tragic events in Boston. According to party insiders who apparently spoke anonymously to Mr. Chase, a Globe and Mail reporter who covered the subject, the Conservatives simply couldn’t resist an opportunity to unfavourably label one of their primary opponents.
Mr. Trudeau’s brandable mistake? The Prime Minister accused him of “committing sociology.” It’s an odd formulation, one worth unpacking for a moment. In general, one doesn’t commit sociology, or any form of higher learning. One commits errors and cardinal sins. One commits crimes.
Accordingly, it implies that, in Mr. Harper’s eyes, there is something mistaken, even something criminal, in Mr. Trudeau’s insistence that we exert effort to understand the factors that drive people to commit violence against our society, before we take action to respond to current threats, and move to prevent others.
On the face of it, this is an inexplicable stance. It is quite simply impossible to govern effectively without rigorous research. Pick any sphere of government activity and there is a huge store of hard-won and constantly re-evaluated knowledge from various fields of research informing the laws enacted and the policies enforced. It’s true of taxation, education, and medicine. It’s true of contemporary domestic and national security as well. The government simply cannot effectively safeguard the country against threats without a deep understanding, constantly researched and re-evaluated, of the nature of the dangers it faces.
To take a single obvious example, the Cold War could not have been fought without an understanding of the motives of Soviet leaders, the strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet political and economic system, and an analysis of how best to arrange forces in the West to counter them.
With the huge proliferation of actors and causes since then, along with advances in technology and an increasingly mobile global population, it has become that much more challenging to understand the variety of threats present to the lives and livelihoods of Canadians. Accordingly, the practice of national security now involves far more information and analysis than ever before. It also requires expertise in a tremendous range of intellectual fields, both theoretical and applied.
No single political leader can hope to master such a diverse range of studies. What decision-makers must be able to do, however, is appreciate the importance of that knowledge, and become adept consumers of it.
That is why Mr. Harper’s recent criticism of Mr. Trudeau is so disconcerting. Why use sociology as a scarlet letter to affix to the Liberal leader? To say that he is guilty of committing sociology is akin to accusing him of supporting evidence-based policy-making, the cornerstone of effective government. If that were truly the Conservatives’ stance on the use of research in policy-making, one might be forgiven for wondering how to interpret the Prime Minister’s pledge “to do everything we can to counter” past and future episodes of violence. If that “everything” did not include the conduct and consumption of research, whether sociological or otherwise, then Mr. Harper’s promise would ring rather hollow.
Given the outwardly indefensible nature of that position however, it is possible that there is another, deeper game here. One possibility is that it is part of a longer campaign that the federal Conservatives appear determined to wage against open and informed governance. In other words, it is one move in a much larger struggle over the control of the flow information used in governing the country, regardless of its source. By associating higher learning with the liberal leader in a negative context, the Prime Minister hopes to denigrate both simultaneously.
There are earlier precedents that point to a similar conclusion. The most significant and well-publicized is perhaps the move to gut the long-form version of the 2011 census, a move that securely aligned the Conservative Party with an anti-intellectual stance towards government. Since then, there has been a steady drumbeat of news stories about scientists who felt suppressed in some way or other by the government, in many cases prevented from talking to Canadians about research funded with their tax dollars.
Most recently, on the same day that Mr. Harper made his newest comments, the country’s Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver was undertaking a similar exercise against a former NASA scientist, who has emerged as a vocal opponent to Canada’s ongoing oil sands development.
Throughout such episodes, the subject varies, but the message remains the same: we don’t need openly communicated scientific research to govern this country effectively.
Seen from this larger perspective, it seems possible that Mr. Trudeau is simply the latest piece of collateral damage in the Harper government’s ongoing campaign against open evidence-based governance, rather than the other way around.