Tories Playing With the Facts?

By Aaron Wherry
Maclean’s May 26, 2008

“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 CONSERVATIVEstrategist. “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.”

With that said, a Conservative member of the committee attacked Carty for various travel expenses, including an 87 cent cup of coffee. “We have a responsibility when we have witnesses,” pleaded LIBERAL Scott Brison at this, “not to create straw-man arguments that are not intellectually honest.”

Carty’s name was last raised in the House when a Liberal member tried to make the case for Harper as a latter-day Richard Nixon – committed to undermining the public service at every opportunity. This is not a comparison without merit. But the truly withering comparison is more contemporary. Government members in the House groan whenever an opponent compares their side to the present Bush presidency. But on the count of truthiness, it’s difficult not to at least start there. Six years ago, a senior aide to George W. Bush described to journalist Ron Suskind what those around the President dismissed as “the reality based community.” “We’re an empire now,” he said, “and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities … We’re history’s actors.”

All governments dabble in duplicity. But truth under Bush became a commodity. Something that could be manipulated to fit any situation and advance whatever goals. Witness the ever-changing justification for war in Iraq. Indeed, it was Colbert who succinctly made nonsense of it all with a single word: truthiness. “It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts,” he explained. “But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all … People love the President because he’s certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don’t seem to exist.”

To Harper’s credit, he has yet to distort the truth on an issue as dire as Iraq. But, as with Bush, the facts don’t always support his certainty. Speaking to a rally earlier this year, Harper explained his approach to crime. “Some try to pacify Canadians with statistics. Your personal experiences and impressions are wrong, they say; crime is really not a problem. These apologists remind me of the scene from The Wizard of Oz when the wizard says, ‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.’ But Canadians can see behind the curtain. They know there’s a problem.” Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner quickly made a mockery of such a supposition. “Mr. Harper implicitly acknowledges that his claims about crime are not supported by data. But that doesn’t matter, he says. What matters is subjective perception. Rational inquiry isn’t the best way to discover the truth. Feeling is,” Gardner wrote. “It is an epistemological claim of staggering primitiveness.”

That echoes the verdict handed down this month by various members of the scientific community in the pages of the International Journal of Drug Policy. Amid several articles dealing with this government’s handling of Insite, Vancouver’s safe injection facility, Health Minister Tony Clement is blamed for authoring a “policy horror story” – hampering research and innovation for “unstated but blatant political reasons.” A spokeswoman for Clement deemed such claims “completely inaccurate,” but shortly after that report made news, Neil Boyd, a criminologist contracted by the Harper government to study Insite, convened a press conference on Parliament Hill to publicly state all the ways in which his work validated the facility. “I would hope now that the government … would see that it’s time to close the chapter and to move on and to grant Insite the lengthy exemption that it so deserves,” he concluded. “I would hope that the government would say, ‘We’re going to make decisions based on science. We’re not going to make decisions based on our ideological leanings.’ ”

To be fair, that Harper would pursue a far-right ideology once in government – the so-called “hidden agenda” – has so far proved a threat mostly unrealized. With noted exceptions, the government has not made a habit of ignoring objective facts for the sake of political belief. But what it lacks in ideological blindness, it has exceeded in more straightforward exaggeration.

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