POLITICS

Canada's Truthiest Election Campaign Begins: Don Pittis

04/23/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/22/2015 05:59 EDT
Comedy Central screengrab

The Harper Conservatives are the balanced-budget party. You might as well get that into your head now, because you are going to be hearing it repeated till election day.

This is also the economic stewardship party, the spending-on-transit party and the party fighting for the poor and middle class. Yesterday, Finance Minister Joe Oliver even implied they were the fight-against-climate-change party.

An independent analyst might dispute those statements. In fact, independent analysts in newspapers and columns across the country have been doing just that this week following Oliver's federal budget. But in what is shaping up to be Canada's "truthiest" election campaign, scientific evidence doesn't strictly matter.

Truthiness, as coined by U.S. comedian Stephen Colbert, is something expressed as a truth because it is a feeling from the heart without evidence or logic.

After reading a wonderful piece by Oxford economist John Kay called "How beliefs became truths for the political establishment," it struck me that this is exactly what we are seeing in our own Canadian (pre-) election campaign.

As well as claiming a balanced budget, Oliver promised spending on transit and other infrastructure and tax breaks that would stimulate the economy. But there may be less substance to these boasts than appear.

Economical with the truth

There is nothing new in the accusation that politicians are economical with the truth. In fact, in a system like Canada's, where caucus solidarity is so strongly enforced, the ability to lie with a straight face is essential for survival. That's because no matter what your true feelings are on any issue, you must always speak and act as if the party line is actually your own.

But truthiness is different. Instead of just white lies to make sure everyone sings from the same songbook, with truthiness, the party view becomes an article of faith.

"Truthiness is the belief that comes when conviction is prized over information," Kay wrote in Tuesday's Financial Times.

Kay refers to the case of U.S. presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who once maintained that the elderly in the Netherlands were being "euthanized involuntarily." When Dutch citizens complained it was factually not true, a Santorum aide justified the statement on the grounds that the politician "says what's in his heart."

Kay says conservatives do not have a lock on truthiness, quoting a Guardian commentator who insisted that we should believe Rolling Stone magazine's alleged rape victim at the University of Virginia on principle, even after her accusations were disproved.

Partisan conclusions

In elections, the danger implied in truthiness is that it takes dishonesty an extra step so that it cannot be honestly challenged. And that is one more nail in the coffin of evidence-based democracy.

Instead of a careful examination of issues and their consequences, we jump, first, to partisan conclusions. It represents the destruction of Socratic logic, so we no longer examine the thesis, then the antithesis and come to a synthesis. Why bother? We already know the answers.

It is true that scientific evidence can be interpreted in many ways. Economics is even less stable ground, with each economist offering a different description of what is happening in the world.

But in this Canadian pre-election campaign, we are entering a never-never-land where facts seem to have become unimportant.

According to the Bank of Canada, the economy grew at zero percent at the beginning of the year – yet Oliver takes credit for wise financial stewardship. Spending for promises such as infrastructure projects doesn't kick in until after the election, when the Conservatives may not even be in power. And as almost everyone except our finance minister has observed, balancing a budget with contingency reserves and assets sales is balancing in name only.

The truth behind truthy

The odd thing is that speaking a truth all of us can believe may have helped the government more than it hurt. It may well be true that cutting taxes is the best of all forms of stimulus. It may be that helping well-off Canadians with income splitting and higher limits on tax-free savings accounts will help the entire economy, creating capital pools and motivating the poor.

It may be that Conservatives truly believe climate change is not true, or not a problem. If so, they should tell us why it is so, not send the environment minister to accuse the provinces of not doing enough to mitigate it or the natural resources minister to boast of the government's "already exemplary record of environmental performance."

I'm not sure the comments section below this column is an accurate sample of the Canadian electorate, but I am often disturbed by the polarized and "truthy" debate from those who support the Harper government and those who come to opposing conclusions, writing from the heart, not the head.

Truthiness is the home and refuge of the true believer. Each party has those, and we know which way they will vote.

But elections are decided by the undecided. As the New Democrats, Liberals, Greens and others begin to bring out their own platforms, the voters who count will be the ones who look for the truth behind the truthy.

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