From the magazine: A version of the truth

If you’re so interested, there are 2,400 words in this week’s magazine under this byline. The topic is truthiness. Namely, this government’s problems with same. Featuring guest appearances from the Prime Minister, Pierre Poilievre, Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner, Tony Clement, Peter MacKay, professor Heather MacIvor and an unnamed Conservative strategist.

A short preview, a link to rest of the story, and a few further thoughts after the jump.

“Dr. Carty has retired.” Though not a lie, this was not the truth in its entirety. If nothing else, it was a sin of omission — a selective version of reality. Indeed, in four short words, here was the Harper government’s approach, to use Stephen Colbert’s terminology, to truthiness. “All governments interpret truths in manners which suit them,” observes a Conservative strategist. “The challenge for this one is when you set yourself up as being lily-white and suddenly you get a bit soiled it can look like you have taken a mud bath. You wear the expectations you set.”

For two years, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have worn those expectations boldly. In the 2006 election, they promised truth and transparency in government. What wasn’t explained at the time, but what’s become clear since, is that the truth would be measured subjectively. In this case, the doctor referenced was Arthur Carty, former president of the National Research Council and, until recently, the government’s national science adviser. And when the Prime Minister spoke the above words in the House of Commons in early February, Carty had, in fact, retired. But appearing in March before a parliamentary committee, Carty clarified the terms of his departure. Though treated as an adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office under Paul Martin, his mandate was greatly reduced under Harper. Then, last fall, he was informed his position would be eliminated. “I want to make it unambiguously clear,” he said, “that I conveyed my intention to retire from the public service only after I had been informed that the office was being closed.”

This week alone is proving to be an interesting case study. The government announced a new defence strategy that was widely lampooned for not existing. At a briefing yesterday, reporters learned that a plan did exist, the public just wasn’t allowed to see it. Oh, and the price tag quoted by the Prime Minister was tens of billions of dollars off base.

The latest poll has Tory support at 34%—down two points from where it was after the 2006 election. Indeed, one pollster noted that Conservative support seems to inevitably slip every time the party appears to be nearing the poll numbers necessary for a majority. Why? Well, focus groups commissioned by the Treasury Board seem to indicate that this government has only succeeded in increasing the cynicism Canadians feel towards government. 

Meanwhile, 55% of Canadians agree with the statement, “There’s something about Stephen Harper I just don’t like.” And for all the opposition leader’s failings—and despite a year of merciless pounding from the government side—Stephane Dion is deemed both more likable and more inspiring (if barely).

Polls are, of course, imperfect. And events come fast and unpredictable in this town. Spotting trends is a fool’s errand and predicting the future is for reporters with impatient and cruel editors. But this week’s story is an attempt to lay out plainly what’s been going on here. And there is apparently some cause to believe it is neither insignificant, nor lost on the population at large.


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