Hassan Arif Headshot

Harper Needs A Policy Reality Check

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The Harper Conservatives have turned their backs on facts-based policy -- on research, data, and reality -- in favour of ideology to a degree not seen in decades in federal Canadian policy-making. There are seemingly countless examples of policies that are unreasonable -- downright illogical -- often followed by attempts to demonize, even stifle, dissenting voices.

The Harper government's decision to abandon the mandatory long-form census is one example, creating a serious inhibition in data-collection that was important for academics, researchers, and policy-makers. There was the planned prison-building spree despite a decline in the crime rate. There is the slashing of jobs at Environment Canada, abolition of the environmental roundtable, and attempts to curb various environmental protection oversights. These measures are to cater to a narrow economic sector -- the oil industry -- and prevent their interests, the tar sands and the controversial BC oil pipeline, from being hindered by the scientific voices of environmental conservation and protection.

Pollster and pundit Alan Gregg recently wrote, "Before we make those [policy] decisions, let's look at all the facts; have a full and rational debate; and make a reasoned decision on what is best for all the parties involved. For voters to determine whether they support these measures requires that they know what is at stake and what the government is actually doing."

Unfortunately this is not true with the Harper Conservatives. It should be, across the political spectrum. There is often room for interpretation -- between those who prefer a greater role for government to those who would rather have a greater role for market forces - however policy and political debate should be based on facts, research, and reality.

Although this would involve accepting certain realities like global warming. Environmental conservation has been a central concern for many centre-right parties in Europe - the German Green Party, for example, was founded in the 1980s by a conservative. In Britain, the Conservatives have a tree as their symbol as an emblem of their concern for environmental conservation. Several years back, Al Gore praised the British political scene where parties competed over who was the strongest on environmental conservation, the best means to get there, and not on whether global warming itself was real or not.

In the United States, the Republicans are in increasingly irrational party. At the Vice Presidential debate, Paul Ryan argued against the Obama administration's cuts to defence spending, saying it represented a threat to national security. This, however, ignores the reality that the United States has -- by far -- the biggest budget in the world on national defence. At $700 billion in 2011, America's defence spending accounted for 41 per cent of the world total, way above the second highest spender, China, at $143 billion.

Ideological dogma and blindness to facts is of course not the sole property of the right. There is a far-left that would see nationalization of almost everything as a goal, that would have a knee-jerk reaction against anything involving the private sector. However, this "far left" is hardly in the mainstream of centre-left politics in North America. By contrast, a blindly ideological right -- with contempt for facts and reality -- has found its way into the mainstream of right-wing political parties.

Of course, there are instances of policy-makers from the centre and the left deviating from facts-based policy, a recent example being the former McGuinty Liberals in Ontario on poverty.

There is proven research that combating poverty and homelessness is not only the morally right thing to do, but the fiscally right thing to do as well. Anti-poverty advocates such as Calgary's Tim Richter have been strong advocates in this regard, making the fiscal case for ending homelessness. This was also the subject of Malcolm Gladwell's much-read article, "Million Dollar Murray."

In short, providing housing for people reduces the healthcare and law enforcement costs associated with homelessness. Promotion of social inclusion allows more people to be participants in the economy.

However, in the name of deficit reduction, the Ontario Liberal government has abolished a 20-year-old emergency allowance that had been an important resource -- lifeline -- to those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Among other things, this benefit enabled those who were homeless to find a place to live, it helped low-income tenants pay the bills, and helped those seeking a job buy suitable clothes for interviews.

However, often it is more politically expedient to attack the poor in the name of deficit reduction -- as the wealthy and middle-class have more money and more access to political resources, they can make louder noise when their interests are threatened and are more likely to turn out on election day.

The motivation of the Ontario Liberal government is thus not ideological -- it is political expediency -- but it flies in the face of facts and research just the same.

At the end of the day, however, it is the right that are by far the worse offenders in ignoring facts-based policy. It is the right -- as seen by actions of the Harper Conservatives -- that are actively trying to stifle dissenting scientific voices that get in the way of industries like the tar sands. It says a lot about the current political climate that "facts-based policy" -- something which should be commonsense -- has become a political rallying cry.