Long-time Tory pollster and strategist Allan Gregg ripped into the Harper Government on Saturday for what he termed its “systematic attack on evidence-based research.”
But since Gregg was speaking to the annual convention of the Alberta Federation of Labour, his startling comments went completely unremarked by Alberta’s mainstream media — notwithstanding the readily available “local angle” of an Edmonton native who did well in the big cities down east returning to his old stomping ground for a few hours.
Back in the day, Gregg was an influential pollster for the then-still-Progressive Conservatives under prime ministers Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, and a proponent of negative political advertising. He is credited with having devised the cruel images of Liberal Jean Chretien that went so badly awry for the Conservatives in the 1993 federal election. Perhaps that is why by 2001 Gregg had undergone a much-publicized change of heart on that topic.
Nevertheless, Gregg’s harsh view of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, given his history of service to Canada’s Conservatives, was eye-popping — although it is perhaps less so when one considers the fellow has made his money for decades toiling in the field of public opinion research, which inevitably encourages a certain respect for measurable facts.
Indeed, that background no doubt informed his view that “effective solutions can only be generated when they correspond with accurate understanding of they problems they are designed to solve. Evidence, facts and reason, therefore, form the sine qua non not just of good public policy, but of good value.”
Alas, as Gregg told the 500 or so trade unionists at the AFL conference, “it seems as though our government’s use of evidence and facts as the basis of policy is declining, and in their place, dogma, whim and political expediency are on the rise.”
He added: “Even more troubling, especially from the perspective of a public opinion researcher, is that Canadians seem to be, if not buying it, certainly accepting it.”
Gregg cited a long list of evidence-based government activities that have been gutted by the Harper Government — often saving only insignificant amounts of money — since 2010.
The rampage, he noted, began with the notorious abandonment of the mandatory long-form census. “Why would anyone forsake these valuable insights and the chance to make good public policy, rather than bad public policy, under the pretense that rights were being violated when no one ever voiced concern? Was this a crazy one-off move … or was there something larger going on?”
It was pretty quickly clear to Gregg — as it was to many of the rest of us — that there was indeed something larger going on.
The demise of the long-form census was followed by the destruction of the national long-gun registry, despite the pleas of virtually every police chief in Canada that it be saved. After that, under cover of an austerity budget, there were massive cuts to Statistics Canada, Library and Archives Canada, science and social science activities at Parks Canada, the Parliamentary Budget Office, the CBC, the Roundtable on the Environment, the Experimental Lakes Area, the Canadian Foundation for Climate Science and so on.
At the same time, the government proposed multi-billion-dollar spending where the evidence didn’t support it — as in its penitentiary-building spree.
“This flew directly in the face of a mountain of evidence that suggested that crime, far from being on the rise, was on the decline,” noted Gregg. “This struck me as costly, unnecessary. But knowing the government’s intention to define itself as tough on crime before all else, once can see, at least ideologically, why they did it.”
However, he said, “when the specific cuts started to roll out, it became clear that something else was starting to take shape” — something that went beyond mere ideology.
“This was no random act of downsizing, but a deliberate attempt to obliterate certain activities that were previously viewed as a legitimate part of government decision making,” Gregg stated. “Namely, using research, science and evidence as the basis to make public policy decisions.
“It also amounted to an attempt to eliminate anyone who would use science, facts and evidence to challenge government policies,” he added.
Gregg also assailed the Harper Government’s use of intentionally misleading titles for legislation — which often do the opposite of what their names declare, as in the case of the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which will result in more pot smokers being thrown behind bars.
“In George Orwell’s 1984, the abandonment of reason is twinned not simply with unthinking orthodoxy, but also by the willful dissemination of misinformation,” he said. “Today, more and more, we see the same kind of misdirection and Newspeak in the behaviour of our legislators.”
So why does the Harper Government want to disguise the substance of its legislation, Gregg asked, when a “fulsome and rational debate” would help Canadians make the best decisions? The pretty obvious answer: “By obfuscating the true purpose of laws under the gobbledygook of Doublespeak, governments are admitting that their intentions probably lack both respect and support.”
His explanation in the case of the Harperites: “I do believe that this particular government is pursuing a not-so-hidden agenda that few truly understand. It starts from a premise that the Canadian political spectrum has over-swung in a direction of liberalism.”
Harper and his government, the pollster argued, intend to “systematically right what they see as this wrong.”
“Their problem is, notwithstanding the fairly widespread consensus around the orthodoxies of balanced budgets, market economies, open trade which does exist and is embraced by the public today, Canadians by and large still believe in tolerance, compromise and egalitarianism.
“Policy for them should be based on conviction, and not bloodless statistics. Governments should be guided by what they believe is morally right, and not by reason and rational compromise. From this view, science, statistics, reason, and rational compromise are not tools of enlightened public policy, but barriers to the pursuit of swinging that pendulum back to where they believe it belongs.
“So to realize this agenda, given that continued point of view on the part of the public, it becomes necessary to pursue it by stealth and circumvention rather than through transparency and directness. This too explains the apparent obsession with secrecy, message control and misdirection we see every day coming out of Ottawa.”
Instead of reason, he said, the Harper Tories encourage “prejudice, fear and wishful thinking.”
Gregg may be a man who once favoured red shoes, wore a rock ‘n’ roll haircut, and worked for Brian Mulroney, but it’s hard to dispute his scary assessment of the Harper Government.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.