Here’s a question: How is it that Canadians were so blasé about the mass G-20 arrests, but now seem to be intriguingly hot and bothered about Tony Clement and Census-gate? And, as an admittedly tangential follow-up, what can this apparent contradiction in public opinion tell us about Toronto’s mayoral race?
Starting with question one. Think about our national motto, and especially the second two imperatives. Canadians don’t veer towards the authoritarian, as happens in the United States, but we like to keep things tidy, and the scenes of mayhem from the G20 protests certainly cast the die on public opinion.
But the same instinct is apparent in public reaction to the Conservative’s move to scrap the mandatory census long form. The census, apart from all its statistical usefulness, is an institution that imposes quantitative order on government and society, and therefore it supports our apparent craving (frequently unsatisfied) for “good government” (i.e., good = rational).
In a country not given to ideological extremes and starkly shaded political principles, many people intuitively understand the relationship between data and decision-making. The census is, above all, a supremely pragmatic document.
And therein lies Stephen Harper’s miscalculation. In the U.S., where suspicion of government is a permanent fixture of politics, it’s not a stretch to think that many Americans believe the personal information they denote on census forms finds its way into the wrong hands. A Zogby poll released in March 2010 revealed just that: fully 49% of those polled said they weren’t confident that the information would remain confidential (survey of 2,218 Americans, with a 1.5% margin of error).
A result like that all but screams wedge issue, no? I have no idea if Harper’s brain trust [sic] saw this poll (I found it on Time.com), but the question does present itself.
For all of Harper’s efforts, however, Canadians don’t generally despise their governments, nor does our public sector labour under the taint of conspiracy theories and other ideological delusions. Just think of the health care debate: does anyone talk seriously anymore about moving to a multi-payer system?
Which brings me to the Toronto mayoral campaign. In general, big cities depend especially heavily on the census data that supports social program spending geared at urban populations. All the mayoral candidates should be alarmed at Harper’s move, because it will make governing the city much more difficult.
But the extraordinary reaction to Census-gate tells me something else about public opinion at this moment: while the city is in an ugly mood, voters may think twice about embracing disorderly leadership by the time October 25 rolls around.
No surprise that Rob Ford is clearly the most chaotic candidate, confronting weekly bozo eruptions, the latest being The Star’s unflattering revelations about the mess he created during his much-hyped high school football coaching career.
Is there more where that came from? Put money on it. Will it take a toll? I’ll say yes.
Ford, after all, is not a good government candidate but a small government candidate in a city where the work of local government touches a lot of people.
His new website — respectfortaxpayers.com, supported by the inevitable Facebook page with 158 friends — promises to tally up all the waste he unearths.
By my count, his ten items to date only eliminate $25 million in spending (I’ve excluded the once-in-a-generation premium the City paid for the Bombardier subways, which he puts at $200 million.) That leaves $350 million more to cut in order to balance the operating budget, and I suspect Ford will have exhausted his supply of freebee cigarettes, junkets and chicken suits well before Labour Day.
In fact, the site is only days old, and Ford is already resorting to long-shot proposals, like the Gardiner demolition, rather than actual spending. (The website claims the Gardiner takedown is a “plan” and cites, by way of proof – there is none, of course – a 2008 National Post article which is long past its best before date.)
The point is that as the municipal election heads into the crucial fall sprint, Ford’s messy personal life and poor judgment skills, coupled with his inability to connect his cost-cutting mantra with specific proposals, will slam into the same wall of political pragmatism that Harper encountered with his plan to scrap the long form. Ford doesn’t do POGG.
If anything, the prime minister’s unwillingness to budge on this decision will serve to remind Torontonians of what they value about government, and that (surely unintended) dynamic can only be a positive force in our local race.