a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Census decision a stupid waste of credibility

When I first came to Ottawa as a journalist in the 1980s I used to think this country was being run by a bunch of Machiavellians capable of the most clever and diabolical conspiracies. It was not long though, after seeing government and politics close up, that I realized just because someone was running the country didn't necessarily mean they knew what they were doing.

Sure there are plenty of Machiavellians in Ottawa and some conspiracies actually do look pretty clever. But that has to do more with plain, dumb luck rather than anything else. Here on the banks of the Ottawa river, the ruling class stumbles through its work week just like everybody else.

With those thoughts in mind, let's look at the Great Census Controversy.

Someone in the Langevin Block, where the Prime Minister and all his bright young things hang out, probably decided months ago that getting rid of the compulsory long-form census questionnaire would be a good idea.

But it was decided not to announce the decision while the Opposition was in town, lest there be controversy. So the Prime Minister's Office sat on its decision until Parliament had risen for the summer and then tried to quietly announce it in the dog days of July when Opposition MPs would be on the barbecue circuit.

Unfortunately for the PMO, the only thing going on at the federal level was the bus tour by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, hardly enough to hold the press gallery's attention for more than a day. As a result, the census decision got inordinate attention and still does as the only game in town.

One has to wonder what would have happened if the PMO had chosen a busier time like budget week to announce the census change. The media likely wouldn't have noticed.

As for the reason for the decision, your guess is as good as mine about what the Tories had hoped to gain. But here's a theory.

During the days of Mike Harris in Ontario, the provincial government liked to have successive target groups, such as welfare cheats, teachers or union bosses. What better way to show the voters what a good job you were doing than by setting up a straw man issue and dealing with it.

The Harrisites who haved moved to Ottawa seem to have brought that modus operandi with them. After all the Harper government got elected by campaigning against crooked lobbyists (real and imagined). Then the Harperites turned their attention to the press gallery, then Liberal-appointed civil servants, then an evil Liberal-NDP-Separatist coalition, and so on.

Claiming the census was a threat to people's liberty and then doing something about it seems to fit that pattern -- create a crisis, then appear to solve it.

It might have worked had Industry Minister Tony Clement not tried to mislead us by implying Statistics Canada was on board with the changes. That prompted the chief statistician, Munir Sheikh, to quit and publicly proclaim the government's idea as goofy as we thought it was.

Now the Tories have a real crisis.

In fairness, this isn't the first government to come up with a dumb idea. After all, the Liberals' sponsorship strategy didn't quite work out as planned. The Mulroney Tories thought it would be a great idea to designate Montreal and Calgary international banking centres in order to drain thousands of jobs from Toronto.

Clement should watch his back. Another part of the Tory MO is to throw a scapegoat under the bus. Ask Helena Guergis.

One bit of advice from the late Frank Magazine for all those who insist on defending the indefensible. You can't polish up a turd.

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