Stephen Harper’s Love of Uncertainty

“Despite the global economic uncertainty all around us, Canada remains an island of stability and a hope for people the world over.” Thus it was that in his Christmas message at the close of 2012, Stephen Harper gave us all a gift by using one of his favourite words. It’s a word that he seemingly carries in his breast pocket, ready for use whenever the situation arises. It’s a convenient word, because it plays upon our anxieties, our stresses, and our concerns. It’s a post 9/11 word. It’s a word of fear. Stephen Harper’s favourite word is uncertainty.

This wasn’t the first time Harper had invoked the spirit of uncertainty. In his bid for re-election in 2008, Harper urged Canadians not to panic about the economy, as Canada was well-placed to deal with the “period of economic uncertainty.” He won that election, and very soon after noted that his number one job would be protecting Canada’s economy during this time of “global economic uncertainty.” The word has since permeated through the government communications channels; when the Finance Department came under fire for spending millions on ads promoting Canada’s Economic Action Plan, a spokesman said “in an uncertain global economy, it is important that Canadians are aware of the measures and programs in the EAP and how they will lead to jobs, growth and long-term prosperity.”

It should come as no surprise then, that the first words from the Conservatives upon hearing of the coronation of Justin Trudeau as the new leader of the Liberal Party of Canada were “Justin Trudeau may have a famous last name, but in a time of global economic uncertainty, he doesn’t have the judgement or experience to be Prime Minster.” This is certainly not the last time that we will be presented with this message: that nobody but Stephen Harper can safely guide our ship through such turbulent and uncertain waters.

This is not to say that the global economy is in fact stable or that Harper is fundamentally wrong: the Eurozone is still in its state of perpetual collapse, the US is in the midst of its sequester games, and nobody is quite sure what will happen with Canada’s international energy markets. There is something to be said for acknowledging that the global economy is troubled, though one may reasonably ask if there’s ever been a time when that hasn’t been the case. What is objectionable about Harper’s uncertainty messaging is that it seems to consistently be used not as an objective description of the global economy, but rather as a means of shoring up Conservative support and attacking political opponents. It is being used to make the Canadian electorate fearful of change. If this messaging works, then we should feel as if Canada is constantly on the brink of disaster, that the maelstrom of economic turmoil brewing just outside our quiet borders may soon spill over into our simple lives. To borrow another of the Harper Government’s words: it is made to make us fear that the barbarians are indeed at the gates.

Justin Trudeau may very well be inexperienced, though perhaps not any less experienced than Stephen Harper was when he assumed leadership of the Canadian Alliance in 2002, and it is not surprising that this is the first point of attack for the Conservative Party. However when the next election arrives, Justin Trudeau will have been a Member of Parliament for seven years, and the leader of the Liberals for two, not to mention his years of civil society work previous to being elected in Papineau. He will have surrounded himself with a leadership team and potential cabinet that certainly have the experience and policy expertise necessary to support him as a leader. If attacks on his inexperience already ring hollow, imagine how they will sound in 2015.

So as Trudeau gains experience, then all the Conservative communications team has left is the surety that Stephen Harper can keep us safe. How long will the Canadian electorate accept the premise that uncertainty is forever knocking? In a similar country, half a world away, former Prime Minister of Australia John Howard famously invoked the fear of terrorism in countless speeches following 9/11. For a few years, this was undoubtedly helpful, and again was a successful strategy for him leading up to the Iraq war. But by 2007 the Australian people had had enough. They knew that the terrorists weren’t around the corner, and they were tired of being told that they should be in a constant state of fear. If Stephen Harper wants to be Prime Minister after 2015, he may want to take fewer lessons from Howard or Bush, and more from Obama, Layton, and Trudeau. The people are tired of fear and uncertainty. They want hope.

(Feature photo courtesy of World Economic Forum/Flickr)

When Politics Trump Policy: Long-guns & Tories

Canada is about to lose the long-gun registry, and the rhetorical gymnastics being played by those supporting its demise are almost grimly amusing to behold. Candice Hoeppner, Conservative MP from Manitoba, is the champion of scrapping the registry. Her initial efforts during a Conservative minority failed, largely due to expert testimony – including an internal RCMP evaluation from August 2010 that stated the registry was a useful tool for police. With a solid majority government, the Tories now will be able to stack the committee hearings with their own witnesses, who will surely say that the registry is not useful, and punishes ordinary Canadians.

This is where the logic starts to get lost in the rhetoric. What Hoeppner and her party are trying to convince us of is that, all things being equal, convenience is more of a concern than safety. That is, the difficulty in registering a firearm outweighs any potential safety gains. To bolster this, they have cited a recent Statscan report that claims that out of 179 fatal shootings in 2009, only 24 percent involved long guns. Therefore (so goes the Tory logic) it is not worth the cost to maintain a registry; to reinforce the waste, they continually cite the estimated $2 billion price tag.

Such arguments are flawed and disingenuous. To begin with, the price of starting up such a registry was always going to be large, and arguing start-up costs does not negate its usefulness. While there is no doubt that there was waste and needless bureaucracy, and the price could have been significantly smaller, that is a mistake that has been made and cannot be corrected. Surely if the Liberal government could reverse time and implement a less costly, more streamlined registry, then they would. That $2 billion initial investment is gone and it’s not getting any larger. So to speak of actual costs, and to put things in perspective, the operating cost of the registry for 2010-2011 was about $64 million. While still large, this represents only about 0.2% of the total federal budget for that year. If the registry continued, with appropriate auditing and oversight there’s no reason to believe the annual cost would not eventually level off at a reasonable, agreeable, and federally negligible amount.

On top of this, the Conservatives are in no position to argue fiscal responsibility when it comes to crime prevention. The current government has plans to build new prisons over the coming 5 years at a price tag of over $2 billion, a number the Liberals have said could realistically balloon to as much at $9.5 billion. This plan has been widely criticized as wasteful and regressive, even by our tough-on-crime neighbours to the south. If evidence shows more prisons and harsher sentencing will not reduce crime (crime that has been in continual decline since the 1970s), yet the government will happily throw that money away, why is the same not being said of the long-gun registry?

Next is the argument that the registry punishes ordinary Canadians by treating them like criminals. We require licensing, registration, and insurance for automobiles – does this make the average driver feel like a criminal? It’s inconvenient and time-consuming to renew a driver’s license every number of years, but we accept that as what’s required in order to exercise our right to use public roads. When hunters and farmers argue that my guns aren’t the guns being used in gang violence it sounds to me like my car isn’t the one being driven by a drunk driver. The public is inevitably safer when the police have information on who has access to a potentially lethal weapon – be that a gun, an automobile, or otherwise. With oversight to ensure such information isn’t being abused, it is a potentially powerful tool in law enforcement. There are times when convenience must be set aside for the public good.

Finally, the evidence being cited generally misses the point. The same RCMP evaluation that found the registry was a useful tool also noted that the majority of firearms in Canada are long guns and the majority of firearm deaths in Canada are caused by long guns; this is at odds with the Statscan report noted earlier. If we are to assume that reality sits somewhere in between, then perhaps approximately half of all firearms fatalities in Canada are by long guns. But does it even matter? If we invest in, for example, airport security screening or HPV vaccination – both which also show small gains in health and safety for large price tags – then why not gun registration? Preventing even a handful of deaths by firearms is worth a few tenths of a percent of our federal budget.

But Hoeppner’s rhetoric is lacking in logical argument. For instance, when she says that “[t]he majority of homicides committed in Canada, for example, do not involve long-guns at all … [they] are not the problem” she deliberately ignores those homicides that are committed by long guns. Should we not require licensing for a certain class of automobile that is statistically involved in fewer road fatalities? Further she ignores those homicides that were potentially not committed because the police had information that led to crime prevention, rather than punishment – the darling of the current Conservative government.

Unfortunately, all these arguments are for naught. The registry will be scrapped, despite evidence supporting it, and even more inexplicably the 6.6 million records on non-restricted firearms are going to be destroyed. The Tories don’t want to assist any of the provinces (notably Quebec) in creating their own registries, so like a selfish child, they would rather break their old toys than have anyone else make good use of them.

At the end of the day, the long-gun registry may or may not have saved lives. Without a control group, or wildly imaginative counterfactuals, we will never know. But the fact that we are willing to sacrifice potential safety for concerns over convenience shows that for the Harper government, politics continues to trump policy. Asbestos, prisons, the census, long guns; How much longer will we let this list become before we realize that the only people we are hurting are ourselves?

(Feature photo courtesy of Dunechaser/Flickr)