The Harper government must be getting used to negative report cards from respected international bodies.

The latest comes from the Bertelsmann Foundation, based in Germany.

It says that “a strong case can be made that the quality of governance provided by the government of Canada has deteriorated” since Harper got his majority in 2011.   

Bertelsmann is especially critical of Canada’s environmental performance in the Harper majority era. 

Bertelsmann points to the Conservatives’ omnibus budget bill of 2012, which gutted federal environmental oversight of major projects while, at the same time, announcing Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Accord.

These and other retrograde environmental measures “tarnished the government’s reputation for sustainable governance, both domestically and internationally,” Bertelsmann says.

All of this and much more comes in the third edition of Bertelsmann’s Sustainable Governance Indicators project, which is a cross-national survey of 41 OECD and EU countries.

According to Bertelsmann’s Canadian partner, the Ottawa-based Centre for the Study of Living Standards (CSLS), the Indicators project “analyzes each country’s future viability based on 140 quantitative and qualitative indicators. It ranks countries in terms of policy performance, quality of democracy and governance.”

The 2014 edition of this report finds that Canada has dropped overall since the last one in 2011.

In policy performance, Canada fell from 13th out of 31 countries in 2011 to 18th in 2014. In the category they call quality of democracy, Canada fell from 10th to 13th; while in governance, the fall was only of one place, from 9th to 10th.

That sort of ranking numbers game is probably too-wonky-by-half for most of us who are non-specialists. At this time of year, many Canadians might ask, in the face of such figures: “Yes, but did we still make the playoffs?”

What is more impressive are the clear — and very damning — statements Bertelsmann makes about a number of crucial areas of public policy and Canada’s performance in them.

To begin, the Foundation makes the overarching observation that, historically, Canada has had what it calls “high quality governance structures.”

The term “governance” here refers to the actions of elected political bodies, political parties, the civil service and other public entities (such as the CBC), and the business and voluntary sectors in their relations with government and the public sphere. In other words, this concept of governance is a broad description of how well a country is organized and managed, in all its many dimensions.

In 2014, based on its analysis of those 140 indicators, Bertelsmann says of Canada:

While the government has… implemented effective policies in many areas over many decades, the actions of the Conservative government since winning a majority of the seats in the House of Commons in May 2011 have jeopardized this situation.

Lack of commitment to evidence and economic inequality 

The report looks, for a start, at the methods the Conservatives have used to concoct their policies.

“Good governance requires evidence-based decision-making and such decision-making requires high-quality data,” the report says.

There are numerous examples in which Canada’s government has demonstrated a lack of commitment both to the use of evidence in its decision-making and to the provision of high-quality data. For example, the crime rate has exhibited a strong downward trend in Canada for many years. Yet the government continues to pursue a ‘tough on crime’ agenda, allocating scarce resources to the issue that many feel could be better deployed elsewhere. Political calculations in this case trump evidence.

While the report generally praises Canada’s economic performance and economic governance, on the issue of economic fairness and economic equity, it has this to say:

Canada has seen a substantial rise in income inequality over the past few decades. The share of total income going to the top 1% of earners has increased dramatically since 1980, mirroring trends in the United States and other Western economies.

It then goes on to point to those groups that have least benefitted from economic growth.

[C]ertain groups, such as recent immigrants and Aboriginal Canadians, are to a considerable degree excluded or marginalized from mainstream society. For these groups, social policy has done an inadequate job of preventing social exclusion. For immigrants, social disparities tend to diminish with the second generation. Indeed, second-generation immigrants often outperform the mainstream population on a variety of socioeconomic measures (including education, for example). The same cannot be said of the Aboriginal population, where the young generation often performs significantly worse than the mainstream.

Missing Aboriginal women and access to information

The report also notes that Canada is generally a safe and secure country, without much if any terrorism and relatively little crime.

But there is a big exception, and again it is in Aboriginal Canada. Here is what Bertelsmann says:

“The U.N. Human Rights Council’s recent Universal Periodic Review of Canada expressed concerns about violence against Indigenous women and girls and Canada’s perceived failure to address the problem.”

The report does have a number of good things to say about the practice of democracy in Canada, reserving especially high praise for the way the universal franchise is guaranteed and elections are managed (the report was drafted before the Fair Elections Act). Bertelsmann is, however, highly critical of Canadian performance in one area: access to government information.  

Canada was a world leader, in 1983, when federal access to information legislation was passed; but, Berteslmann now says, it has since slipped badly.  

“Access is often impeded by bureaucratic procedures and delays,” the report notes. “In general, there is reluctance on the part of political and bureaucratic officials to release information that puts the government in a bad light, and the current system of access to information appears to allow such attitudes to influence the release of information.”

Bertelsmann quotes a recent study by the Canadian Centre for Law and Democracy and the Madrid-based Access Info Europe, which compares Canada’s access to information legislation to that of other countries.

That study concludes that Canada’s standing on access policy relative to other countries is in virtual free fall. 

In September 2011, Canada ranked 40th of 89 countries. Less than a year later, in June 2012, it fell to 51st.

By September 2012, Canada’s access to information performance ranking had fallen to 55th out of 93 countries — behind Mongolia and Colombia.

Bertelsmann comments that this apparent lack of openness is especially troubling in that it comes from a government that was originally elected on promises of transparency and accountability, in response to its predecessor’s sponsorship scandal.

Thumbs up for health, down for the environment

There is one Canadian policy area where the Bertelsmann Foundation is almost effusive in its positive comments: the much-maligned, Canadian ‘single-payer’ public health insurance system.

“The inclusiveness of the Canadian health system is impressive, with high-quality health care freely provided for virtually the entire population,” Bertelsmann reports. “Lack of income is not a barrier to treatment. As there is no private health care system, the rich do not receive superior health care to the poor. One effect of the equity in access to health care services is the small gap in perceived health between the top and bottom income quintiles.”

There are, nonetheless, some big gaps in Canadian health coverage, and the report identifies them:

“One access issue is presented by the exclusion from Medicare coverage of dental care, vision care and drugs prescribed for use outside of hospitals, resulting in unequal access across income groups to these types of health-care services.”

In any case, the Conservatives can hardly take credit for the positive ranking on health care. They inherited the system, and have not (yet) destroyed it.

At the other end of the scale, the worst policy performance area for the Harper government is so bad that Canada is now ranked “very poor,” 38th out of 41 countries, in that area.

You know which area that one is.  

Here is a bit more of what Bertelsmann has to say about that particular failing grade for Harper’s majority government:

Environmental policy is the area that has most tarnished the Canadian government’s reputation for sustainable governance, both domestically and internationally. The 2012 budget implementation bill has been criticized both on procedural and substantive grounds. Many feel it was inappropriate to introduce major changes to environmental legislation in a budget bill where these measures could not be adequately analyzed and debated. The changes themselves were also seen as a step backward from the perspective of environmental protection. The government’s skeptical attitude toward global warming and apparent unwillingness to offer an effective strategy for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as manifested by its repeal of the Kyoto Accord, are seen by many as inconsistent with sustainable governance.

The message to the Harper government is simple: the world is watching you and taking careful note of everything you do.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...