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The Liberals’ not-so-catchy catch phrase: evidence-based policy

Didn’t somebody once say something about reason over passion?


 

Photograph by Blair Gable

The most frequently repeated phrase printed in today’s program at the Liberal party convention here in Ottawa and tossed around in sessions by delegates is “evidence-based policy.”

As a political slogan, it might not have a bright future. But as shorthand for what has emerged as the prevailing criticism of the way the governing Conservatives devise policy, the phrase does the job.

The realization that Stephen Harper’s government doesn’t bother much with assembling evidence to support its main policies started to set soon after he won power in 2006. I didn’t realize how self-conscious the Tories were about brushing off expert opinion, and even dismissing data, until I heard former Harper chief of staff Ian Brodie speak to the subject in 2009.

But it wasn’t until the mid-2010 that the matter of how evidence is marshaled took root as the clearest way of gathering objections to the Tory approach on a whole raft of policies—from crime, to climate change, to taxation—under one, convenient heading. The issue that brought all these disparate elements together: the government’s decision to take aim at the gathering of data itself by scrapping the long-form census. (I wrapped them up here.)

Indeed, the martyr of the census saga, Munir Sheikh, the former chief statistician at Statistics Canada, who resigned over the flap, gave a keynote policy address at the Liberal convention here today.

On Sheikh’s central point, there’s not much room for debate: obviously policy should be based on evidence. But just as obviously, this debate is more politically fraught than that. The Tories have been awfully successful thumbing their noses at criminology research by imposing longer prison terms, scoffing at tax experts by cutting the GST, and ignoring climate researchers by doing little on global warming. It seems a lot of voters don’t care much for evidence either.

Yet the evidence-based policy theme resonates powerfully for Liberals. One key reason is suggests a neat solution to the difficult dilemma of trying to survive as a centrist party. If the New Democrats appeal to the progressive left, the Conservatives the populist right, then the Liberals need a find a way to argue that their centrism isn’t just a boring, tepid, blend of both. Staking out research, logic, data as defining values is a possibility. Didn’t somebody once say something about reason over passion?

“I think a narrative that’s based on the country going in bold places based on honest reflections on evidence is very important,” says Mark Holland, a former Liberal MP who lost his Ontario seat in last spring’s election. “Even if a particular policy position supported strongly by the evidence is way back in the polls, what’s important is a conviction to fight for it until the public sees its truth.”

Recent history suggests the voting public doesn’t readily cooperate in seeing how Liberals interpret the evidence. Copious climate-change data underpinned Stéphane Dion’s “Green Shift” platform in 2008, but it failing miserably to click with voters.

Holland admits Dion’s campaign stands as a cautionary tale. “There was an evidence-based approach there, there were courageous positions taken, but we were never able to connect them with people’s lives and how they were going to improve the country. Getting people emotionally connected is essential.”

Another former Liberal MP, Toronto educator John Godfrey, says the key is to link evidence-based policy with opinion-researched politics. As minister of state for infrastructure and communities in Paul Martin’s short-lived government, Godfrey commissioned a poll on Canadians’ attitudes toward the aim—much beloved by hip urban planners—of building denser cities.

“If you say to a person, ‘Would you like to live in a more dense urban environment?’ they think Calcutta,” Godfrey said. “If you put it, making exactly the same point, ‘Would you like to live in a walkable neighbourhood, in which you could take your kids to school without getting in the car?’ they like it.  You’ve put it in a way that’s true, but understandable and compelling.”

Finding experts to tell you what policy is right is easy. Finding political strategist who know how to pitch that policy is hard.

And there’s another question. Even if a party diligently studies the evidence to figure out its platform, and then cleverly persuades the voting public to agree, there remains the matter of actually implementing the plan.

NDP MP Olivia Chow, who attended the Liberal convention today as an observer, says it’s this last part that the Liberals have failed to grapple with over the past couple of decades. On issues like higher education, home care, early childhood policies, Chow allows that the Liberals have some good ideas.

But she argues that their refusal to take a firm stand on transfer payments to the provinces—declaring that a Liberal government would refuse to transfer money to provinces that don’t meeting conditions on post-secondary education, bringing health to homes, and expanding daycare—renders their policies unworkable.

“You need a legislative policy framework, then you have to put conditions on the key principles around transfers,” she says. “In the last twenty years the Liberals haven’t had any serious discussion about how to make their policy reality.”

Evidence-based policy is a solid starting point for discussion, and a handy, ideologically neutral way to differentiate the centrist party’s approach. Put it together with some creative political marketing and a hard-nosed plan for implementing a platform, and the Liberals might actually be onto something.


 

The Liberals’ not-so-catchy catch phrase: evidence-based policy

  1. I thought I saw Olivia Chow!  Then I thought I was silly.  No, I did not for one split second (didn’t even occur to me until just now) think that she was switching parties.

    The least you could have done was ended this story with Sheikh’s poem.  Come on, that bit was cute.

  2. I am a big fan of evidence-based decision-making, even when it is difficult as it goes against your preconceived notions. I struggle to understand people who are not. I think I identify with the Liberals as they are the party that seems to most closely hew to such an approach to policymaking (sometimes a tallest dwarf contest) among the three major parties.

    I think this idea has a seed of promise for the Liberals. It is also a durable advantage that the NDP and Conservatives, as ideological parties with large constituencies who are deeply suspicious of ‘experts’, would find hard to match. Politics has long been reduced to a marketing exercise, and I feel that this is the area where the Conservatives and NDP outclass the Liberals. The actual policy is needed to motivate the troops, but the marketing is what wins elections.

    • Please. The Liberals are EXACTLY like the other parties when it comes to evidence-based policy. They support it when the evidence supports what they want to do and ignore it when it doesn’t.

      Take the crime bill for example. People who are against on the basis of evidence-based policy frequently cite studies about increased recidivism rates that result from longer prison sentences. While a rational policy to minimize crime would conclude that we should not do this, it does not take into account other factors such as the public’s desire for perceived justice. This is usually dismissed as being irrational and may be so but it is still very real. So by ignoring the public’s apparent desire to incorporate longer prison sentences as a justice measure are they not also ignoring the evidence? 

      I guess what I’m getting at is that evidence-based policy is basically defined by implicit assumptions. That the goal of the policy is to 1) minimize crime or to 2) find a balance between crime levels and a level of justice (or retribution) that satisfies public opinion. Evidence-based policy could point you to either option but those assumptions are initially set by what? Ideology. At least the NDP and the Conservatives aren’t embarassed to claim they have one.

      • I think the underlying point you are getting at, which I wouldn’t disagree with, is what is the fundamental purpose of our prison system – to minimize crime or to punish it? That is purely a values judgement; ‘evidence’ does not enter into it. Depending on which side of that question one falls, one can then find evidence of what is the best way to achieve that goal (e.g. corrections, punishment)

        I personally feel the goal of the justice system should be to minimize crime – I don’t think I can fault someone for feeling otherwise… and more importantly, I don’t think there is necessarily a national consensus on the answer to that question.

        I wouldn’t say the Liberals are without ideology on this issue; by their stance on mandatory minimums I would suggest they lean towards ‘corrections’ more than ‘punishment’.

        • If the goal is to punish crime, why lock people in prisons with plasma TVs and internet access? Why not 40 lashes? Why not daily waterboarding? 

          • As I said above, I am on your side on this one – I don’t think the goal ought to be to punish crime.

            That said, I think those who think it should be probably would question why prisons have perks like plasma TVs.

    • Please. The Liberals are EXACTLY like the other parties when it comes to evidence-based policy. They support it when the evidence supports what they want to do and ignore it when it doesn’t.

      Take the crime bill for example. People who are against on the basis of evidence-based policy frequently cite studies about increased recidivism rates that result from longer prison sentences. While a rational policy to minimize crime would conclude that we should not do this, it does not take into account other factors such as the public’s desire for perceived justice. This is usually dismissed as being irrational and may be so but it is still very real. So by ignoring the public’s apparent desire to incorporate longer prison sentences as a justice measure are they not also ignoring the evidence? 

      I guess what I’m getting at is that evidence-based policy is basically defined by implicit assumptions. That the goal of the policy is to 1) minimize crime or to 2) find a balance between crime levels and a level of justice (or retribution) that satisfies public opinion. Evidence-based policy could point you to either option but those assumptions are initially set by what? Ideology. At least the NDP and the Conservatives aren’t embarassed to claim they have one.

      • If the Liberals don’t have an ideology, how do they suffer from confirmation bias?

        If you want to implement a policy that will increase crime but make the people feel better because of a thirst for retribution, then you should own up to that. The current approach is to claim that tougher sentencing reduces crime, which has no empirical support whatever, and plenty of evidence against it. It is fantasy-based policy, if anything. They tell themselves a fairy tale about the evil-doers getting what’s coming to them and reality be damned.

        I’m not saying that the Liberals should ignore public opinion (which obviously won’t lead to electoral success) but rather to provide real leadership in the pursuit of policy rooted in stated goals and policies that have some chance of actually attaining those goals. What we have now is government by non sequitur. 

  3. This should go over real well. The Party of Pompous Know it Alls.

    And, smacking my forehead, of course. How could anyone have missed it. The Liberals need better marketing.

    How about nurturing enthusiasts in every riding that contribute money and time, and make themselves relevant in the lives of Canadians?

    • Isn’t marketing part of recruiting that base? The Conservatives have a very effective marketing arm. Every time a Liberal/liberal/NDP boogeyman opens his mouth, CPC Central sends out an email blast urging the importance of donating time and money in the fight against evil.

  4. Pity your main example of evidence based policy was climate change news back when M. Dion campaigned on the “green shift”.  Then, you must recall, the evidence included doctored historical temperature records.  We live in a democracy populated with reasonably well informed people, so leave it to them to pick the true winners.  Unless, of course, you think most democratic elections produce invalid results.   

    • And here, perhaps unwittingly, the poster points out a very likely pitfall.  Evidence based policy has its appeal and gosh darn we know abandoning it has made Harper do some utterly ridiculous stuff.  But will it stand up to simple falsehoods that a certain segment of the population wants to believe, repeated over and over and over again?

      • That segment of the population is likely to be motivated by ideology, and probably beyond the reach of a pragmatic brokerage party.

    • To call it doctored demonstrates a misunderstanding of what was done to the data series. At any rate, there are independent data sets that show the same trend in global temperatures, making this argument moot.

      Most people are not reasonably well-informed. Would you want a panel of average Canadians providing your medical diagnosis and indicated treatment when you fall ill? Why should you want to rely on the gut feelings of Canadians in other, similarly complex, non-intuitive areas. Human intuition is good for some things, and disastrous in others. 

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