By the end of July, the uproar in the press gallery over the Harper government’s plan to scrap the mandatory long-form census had reached the point where it was time to perform the premature autopsies.
“Jarred into wakefulness by the sound of summer gunfire,” James Travers wrote in the Toronto Star, “Canadians are confronted by the spectacle of a wounded Prime Minister leading a gang that can’t shoot straight.”
“The upshot,” Lawrence Martin added in the Globe, “has been no change in the government’s image and zero improvement in its popularity numbers. Unable to score through these times, Tories must be wondering whether they can ever score.”
L. Ian MacDonald in the Montreal Gazette: “Having lost the argument, the government should be looking for a way out, for some kind of Canadian compromise.”
Rob Granatstein in the Toronto Sun: “It was senseless to go there. All it does is whack the PM’s credibility with an idiot stick.”
The provincial premiers were reported to be looking for a compromise. The list of organizations who worried that the reliability of the census would be ruined if the government made participation voluntary grew steadily longer.
What everyone may have missed was that the premiers could not find anyone to discuss a compromise with, except for one another. The federal government, which runs the census, had no intention of dropping its plan. And as long as Stephen Harper remains Prime Minister, he needs nobody else’s help to make this change.
So is the Prime Minister wounded? I think if you ask him he’ll say no. Can he shoot straight? He set out to junk the obligatory long-form census. He seems likely to get that done. That’s pretty straight. So the Tories are having little trouble scoring through these times and they’re reasonably assured of scoring into the future.
Please don’t take any of this as an endorsement of Harper’s move. I’m in the tank with the Ottawa beltway lamestream consensus on this one. Unmooring the census from its basis in statistical reliability is a wicked thing to do because it takes away one of the few tools we have for measuring the effectiveness of the things governments do.
If you want government action to have any relation to society’s real needs, you need to measure the society’s characteristics accurately every now and then. If you want the evaluation of government action to be a public good, available to us all, you need publicly available data of a high order, so that anyone with a decent grasp of statistics can measure results against goals.
The Harper government is moving in the other direction. It will spend more money to send more of these long-form questionnaires to more people, to produce a survey with a larger sampling error so more billions of dollars can be misallocated, and citizens will have fewer independent benchmarks against which to judge any of this. If that’s a victory for limited government and the rights of the little guy, then I’m Tony Clement.
But it represents at least two other kinds of victory. First, it marks a kind of rhetorical advance: at least there’s a debate going on in this country now about the proper limits of government interference in citizens’ ordinary lives. And sure enough, the Harper government soon found it wasn’t short of allies among observers who fancy themselves proper libertarians. Terence Corcoran and George Jonas in the National Post discovered a long-standing animus against jackboot census-takers and their meddling ways.
This is the way it often works with governments in power: when they do something unexpected and even a bit flaky, they can usually create a constituency for change where none existed. The influence of the bully pulpit is real whether it is skilfully used or not.
Harper’s other win is a reaffirmation of a central principle of his time in government: while he is Prime Minister he can do pretty much what he wants. This is obvious to everyone who doesn’t work in Ottawa. Almost no issue, by itself, turns the mood of an electorate on a dime. When Canadians have chosen to turf out governments—in 1984, 1993, 2006—it was because they were convulsively sick of incumbent parties that had worn out their welcome irredeemably. The country just isn’t there with this government.
You read a lot about how there’s “zero improvement” in Harper’s popularity and not a lot about how it also resists collapse. Support for the Conservatives is stable and sturdy. Harper is not frittering away his time, although plenty of writers prefer to believe he is. No: he is chipping away at the foundations of the idea of government the Liberals built over decades. That’s why the census debate was so emotional. Everyone, Harper’s allies as much as his opponents, knows he’ll follow this sudden move with many more.
The assumption behind so much of our political chatter is that Harper’s grip on power hangs by a thread. He likes that assumption. It allows him to keep changing the country while everyone waits for him to fall.