Why Stephen Harper thinks he’s smarter than the experts

For the government relying on academic research is bad politics

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.”

Experts who had already experienced the Harper government’s cold shoulder might not have been so surprised. McBean chairs a group called the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. It was set up by the previous Liberal government in 2000 to fund research, much of it related to global warming. Given that pedigree, it’s no surprise the foundation wasn’t instantly embraced by the Tories when they won power in 2006. Still, McBean was taken aback by the thoroughness of his shunning by Harper’s first two environment ministers, Rona Ambrose and John Baird. “They absolutely and totally refused to ever meet with me,” he says. “Or have a telephone discussion. Or even acknowledge any piece of information I ever sent them.”

Jim Prentice, the Calgary MP named environment minister in the fall of 2008, cautiously reopened the lines of communication. Prentice has met twice with McBean, who says “at least there has been a dialogue.” But the government provided no new money to his foundation in its 2010 budget, which McBean described as “basically the nightmare scenario for scientists across the country.” Projects, from a study of shrinking British Columbia mountain glaciers to climate monitoring on Ellesmere Island in the Arctic, are in jeopardy unless Ottawa gives the foundation enough funding, likely tens of millions, to survive in next year’s budget.

If there’s a glimmer of hope for a thaw in the government’s icy relationship with climate scientists, criminologists report undiminished antagonism. “They have a very strange antipathy to science and to evidence-based policy-making,” says Neil Boyd, a criminology professor at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University. Boyd is among those who say the government ignored research by making mandatory minimum sentences the core of its tough-on-crime agenda. In fact, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson’s office admits studies are “inconclusive” on whether more prison time results in less crime. Nicholson stresses less measurable benefits, such as making sure “victims feel that justice has been rendered.”

Another sore point is the Conservatives’ staunch opposition to Vancouver’s pioneering safe-injection site for intravenous drug users. They want to shut down the facility, called Insite, but a B.C. court ruled it falls under the province’s jurisdiction over health. Ottawa has appealed that decision to the Supreme Court of Canada, which recently agreed to hear the case. B.C. Health Minister Kevin Falcon slammed Ottawa for refusing to drop the case in the face of “very widespread independent medical journal support” for Insite.

Assessing how researchers and policy analysts on the federal payroll feel about such outside criticisms is difficult. The government has tightened rules requiring them to get permission to talk to reporters. Outsiders who work with them report frustration, though. “I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people who work in Justice and Health are pretty horrified by the lack of respect for evidence-based policy,” Boyd says. In an extreme case, a bureaucrat can always quit, as Munir Sheikh, Statistics Canada’s chief statistician, did over the cancelling of the long-form census. Career-ending personal protests, though, are unlikely to drive change.

What’s needed, McBean says, is patient, authoritative advocacy. Unfortunately, he adds, Canada lacks a body like the U.S. National Academy of Sciences that reliably commands high-level attention.

Nor does science have a designated voice at the Canadian government’s pinnacle. Former prime minister Paul Martin established the position of national science adviser, but Harper eliminated the job in 2007. “It was,” McBean says, “a very strong indication of the lack of interest in having scientific input at the centre.” And it meant the Prime Minister’s Office went back to having no senior official comparable to a U.S. president’s science adviser, a prestigious White House post created in 1976.

Not surprisingly, the Conservatives deny they sell science short. Back in 2008, for example, after the prestigious British journal Nature slammed what it called Harper’s “manifest disregard for science,” Tories stressed how the PM’s axed science adviser had been replaced by a whole council of advisers to the industry minister, drawn from the top ranks of companies and universities. As well, on highly charged issues like climate and crime, experts can’t credibly claim to be dispassionately neutral on the political implications of their research. “It is easy,” observes Rainer Knopff, a political science professor at the University of Calgary with ties to Harper’s circle, “and intuitively attractive, to see ‘interest’ behind political actions and ‘disinterested reason’ behind ‘expert’ actions.” But even on the census, Knopff points out, “vested interests and bureaucrat inertia” are plausible reasons for at least some of this summer’s resistance to change.

The ambivalent signals Harper’s government sends about science and research, data and independent analysis haven’t noticeably cost him politically. At least, not until the census move blew up, unexpectedly uniting experts in unrelated fields around their devotion to reliable data. It would be even more unexpected if such a seemingly arcane debate sparked a broader one, around the most fundamental questions about the basis on which the government develops and justifies its policies.

Photo: Reuters