Tainted meat, free trade and the lies politicians tell

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In launching his leadership campaign Justin Trudeau pledged that his policies would be based on evidence, saying: "It may seem revolutionary in today’s Ottawa, but instead of inventing the facts to justify the policies, we will create policy based on facts." For Trudeau the "ideology" we need to face todays challenges is: "Hard, scientific facts, and data."

This is not a bad start for someone who is routinely dismissed as a lightweight on policy. Honesty and integrity in policy making would make a refreshing difference to public life in Canada and elsewhere.

In the presidential debate last week, Republican candidate Romney referred to the U.S. as having the best medical record in the world. The U.S. ranks 41st in the world in child mortality (deaths within 28 days of birth), 34th in life expectancy, and Romney is defending a system that made the U.S. the only industrialized country without universal access to health care. 

According to Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman the American media is unable to "handle untruths" and expose Romney. With his serial lies approach, Romney expects to be elected U.S. president ... and he may well win.

The Harper government have made total disdain for the truth their default public policy. Last week Italian police sources revealed the "tough on crime" approach Harper has been touting does not include paying attention to the resettlement in Toronto of Mafia figures chased out of Italy. 

In dealing with a tainted meat scandal the Harper government claimed they had increased the amount of spending on food inspection, and hired more food inspectors. Publicly available government figures showed these "facts" to be incorrect. 

This past week Brian Mulroney claimed the free trade initiative was about Canada losing its insecurity complex, competing and winning on the American battlefield. More to the point, it was when his government tried to convince Canadians that the Canada-U.S. trade deal would be great for Canada that the culture of misleading the public became an over-riding feature of public policy in this country. 

Reading media accounts of the 25th anniversary of the signing of the trade pact, you would think free trade was a Canadian idea. In fact it was Ronald Reagan who, as a candidate for the U.S. presidency, called for free trade from the Yukon to the Yucatan. While 25 years later Mulroney is still claiming he cleverly outsmarted the Americans, in her work Yankee Doodle Dandy award-winning journalist Marci McDonald showed it was an American idea to ensure they got unfettered access to Canadian resources. 

As a policy initiative taken by the Canadian government, the free trade file was a fiasco. The Canadian Minister of International Trade John Crosbie admitted he had not read the document his government defended in their victorious 1988 election campaign. It did not seem to matter to him what was in the document the Americans wanted Canada to sign.  

Over 100 environmental groups came together to explain that Canada had surrendered powers to control the rate of exploitation of natural resources, endangering efforts to protect the environment. The government replied the agreement did not touch on the environment. Canadians were supposed to believe that a major economic policy had no environmental consequences, as if the economy and the environment were unrelated.

Like all international agreements the Canada-U.S. deal took precedence over domestic legislation. It enshrined a sort of Charter of Business Rights, over-riding constitutional powers of provinces and the federal government. No wonder, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau called the Canada-U.S. free trade deal "a monstrous swindle."

For self-styled conservatives such as Ronald Reagan, Mitt Romney, Brian Mulroney or Stephen Harper the point to politics is to win power, and hold on it. Once in office, open debate is something to be suppressed, controlled or manipulated for partisan advantage. 

There is more to policy-making that collecting hard facts and scientific data. Facts do no speak for themselves. Ideas about what to do next need to be put in context. Drawing policy conclusions depends on understanding the premises of an argument in favour of one policy rather than another.

But, Justin Trudeau is on the right track to insist on more evidence-based policy. With fresh new evidence it is possible to ignite a public debate, and eventually create a new climate of opinion, perhaps even one more respectful of truth. 


Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

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