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.
Take for example, Elections Canada’s ruling that the Conservatives exceeded spending limits in the last election. “The visit by Elections Canada today,” House Leader Peter Van Loan announced in question period on the day Conservative party headquarters were raided, “is related to the issues of the court case that we initiated because of our difference of opinion with Elections Canada.” For that matter, he added, “we have been co-operating fully.” A day later, Van Loan offered a quote from Democracy Watch’s Duff Conacher that appeared to exonerate the party.
If only any of it were so. The search warrant executed by Elections Canada was related to its own investigation, an inquiry launched, it says, a month before the Conservative party filed suit against Elections Canada seeking reimbursement for the contested spending. The affidavit filed to justify that warrant demonstrates in detail how Conservative officials failed to co-operate with the investigation. And by the end of the week, Conacher would demand that Van Loan apologize for misrepresenting his views. Indeed, in the interview cited by the House leader, Conacher predicted Elections Canada’s ruling would be upheld in court.
On April 18, Van Loan said the government had not been provided with the Elections Canada affidavit. Forty-eight hours later, Conservative representatives leaked details of those very documents to select reporters. What was once termed a “visit” by the RCMP was spun otherwise just a week later when an anonymous Conservative explained in detail to the Globe and Mail how scared young party staffers were upon seeing their offices searched by police officers. When Parliament returned from a week’s break, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre stood in the House and declared that a 1997 ruling by then-chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley supported the party’s campaign financing. Only the document to which he referred was less a judgment than a report. And the author wasn’t Kingsley, but another bureaucrat entirely.
Days earlier, appearing on CBC News: Sunday, Poilievre received his inevitable comeuppance, courtesy in this case of University of Windsor political science professor Heather MacIvor. “Frankly, there is very little that Mr. Poilievre said that conforms to the facts as laid out in the affidavit to get the search warrant,” MacIvor said, interviewed after Poilievre. “Much of what Mr. Poilievre said was beyond spun.”
But it was, to a large degree, standard operating procedure. “All political communications is a battle of narratives. As defined by [media theorist Neil] Postman, narratives aren’t always scientifically verifiable. The more simple the narrative, the more potent it can be,” explains the Conservative strategist. “The pushback on the Elections Canada battle from the Conservatives is to make it about [the in-and-out] transfers, which is part of the story, and fairness – ‘if the Liberals do it why can’t we.’ Those things can be understood much more readily than the arcane legalese of the Canada Elections Act.” Indeed, the government has, at times effectively, blurred the distinction between the legal transfers of other parties and what they are accused of doing here. “Gross oversimplification with the odd mythical twist though, again, is not new for governments. With this government it simply has become mechanized,” the strategist continues. “And the opposition hasn’t figured out how to deconstruct it effectively. Which means they play into the narrative.”
When Gordon O’Connor, in trying to fend off allegations of torture in Afghanistan, was forced a year ago to apologize for incorrectly claiming the International Committee of the Red Cross was monitoring detainees, it was possible to believe the now-former defence minister was less a mechanized tool of confusion than just honestly mistaken. Since then, it’s become difficult to believe the government’s twists on this issue are anything less than coordinated. On Nov. 22, Peter MacKay, O’Connor’s successor, stood in the House and announced, “There has not been one single, solitary proven allegation of abuse of detainees.” But two months later, as part of a legal proceeding, government lawyers disclosed that prisoner transfers had halted after Nov. 5 because of a “credible allegation of mistreatment” discovered by Canadian monitors. Between Nov. 13 and Nov. 19, opposition members had asked the government numerous times whether it would halt transfers, but the Conservatives failed to note any change. When the shift in policy became public, the government claimed to have been unaware of shifts on the ground (a charge later retracted) and then cited operational security (even though its lawyers were responsible for disclosing the development).
In March, the Military Police Complaints Commission announced it would be going forward with hearings on detainee treatment because of the government’s “refusal” to provide documents relevant to the allegations. Last month, the government sought an injunction to stop those hearings, arguing the matter was outside the MPCC’s jurisdiction. Parliamentary committees seeking to investigate the in-and-out controversy and the Chuck Cadman affair have been similarly stymied – the latter a matter so disputed the RCMP are now reportedly investigating.
Even on relatively minor points, the Conservatives often cannot help themselves. After a relatively obscure access to information database was quietly discontinued last month, Treasury Board President Vic Toews used a quote from professor Alasdair Roberts of Suffolk University to denounce the service. Within two hours, the Liberals were distributing a full version of the professor’s comments, showing Toews to have taken them out of context. The next day, the government switched tack, blaming the previous Liberal government for what they claimed were the database’s failings. In fact, the database was created in 1989, when the Progressive Conservatives were in power.
“There’s this disconnect between what they say and what they do,” Liberal Mark Holland surmised recently, lamenting the long delays that have lately tied up access-to-information requests. “They go to great lengths to bury information and to keep people in the dark. For the average person, it means they’re given a government that you wouldn’t expect in a First World country, frankly.”
Not that this government isn’t interested in the truth. Speaking in London, Ont., this March, the Prime Minister was asked for his thoughts on negative advertising. In a minute-and-a-half answer, he used the word “truthful” no less than six times to explain what he demanded of his party’s ads. Never mind that a month earlier, Industry Minister Jim Prentice was forced to explain why an ad he unveiled had twisted a comment by Stéphane Dion about financial gains of green technology – “megatonnes of money” – to represent Liberal spending policy.
It is, of course, much easier to create a truth than refute one. A July 2006 poll of Americans, fully three years after the invasion of Iraq, found 50 per cent still believed Saddam Hussein’s deposed regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. “It’s not so much whether the people who are supposed to govern us by the rule of law are actually telling us the truth,” says MacIvor. “It’s how well they convince us they’re telling us the truth.”
And where the Bush administration manipulated a complicit media leading up to the war in Iraq, the Harper government has benefited from a complacent press here. At the height of the election financing controversy, one national news anchor lamented on air that the issue was too complex for the public to be interested in. Relatively few members of the press gallery bother to attend daily question period, and being the first to declare that a scandal is not a scandal seems to have become something of a competition among many of the country’s columnists. Indeed, the daily fibbing of the government’s ministers is rarely reported at any length. No doubt because many reporters long ago resigned themselves to covering a system of spin and deception. (They are not alone in this regard. A recent poll showed only 25 per cent of Canadians hold much respect for politicians. Just 49 per cent showed similar regard for journalists.)
But, if the Prime Minister still employed a national science adviser, he might ask for a lesson in the laws of action and reaction. The irony of the Bush era is that while many Americans still believe the “truths” peddled by the White House, the President’s approval rating has languished in the low 30s for months. It helps that his greatest deception is demonstrated in a disastrous war. But it is surely not lost on most of the population that Iraq represents not the exception, but only the most obvious of half-truths. “I think,” MacIvor says, “[Americans] have a sense that they’ve been taken for fools.” If Canadians don’t feel similarly so foolish, it is not for lack of effort by the Harper government.
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