Why the Silence from Mr. Harper?

It intrigues me that during the entire long-form census controversy Mr. Harper has said nothing. The initial explanation is that he is on vacation at his summer residence at Harrington Lake. The tactical explanation is that on a controversial issue the relevant minister(s) should speak for the government, as Bernier and Clement are doing, and the Prime Minister should only weigh in when the issue is close to resolution. The third explanation is more strategic, and concerns the acceptability of the government’s agenda to Canadians.

We’ve been told that the impetus for the decision to make the long-form census voluntary came from Mr. Harper himself, from his belief that government has become too intrusive. It must be profoundly depressing for him to see 75 percent of the electorate disagreeing with him on this issue, and to see virtually every organized interest group opposing him. The only support he seems to have is from the Fraser Institute and from so-called libertarians like the Globe and Mail’s Neil Reynolds (whom, btw, I plan to diss in a future post).

Canadians seem to recognize – in this information age – that gathering and disseminating information is a legitimate function of government. It hasn’t been discussed in the census controversy, but it is essential to recognize that during the Great Depression of the Thirties, governments had much less economic data than they have now – in particular, there were no GDP numbers. The economic problem was thus exacerbated because government was flying blind.

The Harper Government believes that what it sees as interventionist social policy can be crippled by depriving it of its informational oxygen. The vast majority of Canadians have now realized that information is indeed oxygen, both for public policy and for their own initiatives, and are resisting.

So where does Mr. Harper go from here? He could, as a pragmatist, recognize that yet again his ideological agenda won’t sell, and accept the intelligent compromise that the National Statistics Council has developed.

Or he could tough it out. He has the tactical advantages that Parliament is not in session and the deadline for beginning to print the census forms comes next week. When Parliament meets in the fall, he could say that printing has already started and it’s too late to make changes. And he could dare the Opposition to vote no confidence.

Clearly this is an issue on which the opposition parties are united. The question is whether they are ready for an election. For the opposition, particularly the Liberals, the issue would have to be broadened from the status of the long-form census to the role of government in society. And given his background as political theorist, this could be an issue with which Michael Ignatieff would be comfortable.

In any event, it would be two years since the last election, which is a reasonable length of time for a minority government. It’s no secret that the Conservatives have been considering pulling the plug. Indeed they have been polling about it. (I was polled). Why doesn’t the Opposition seize the high ground and define the issue?

I won’t be posting next week. We’re going to see the baseball hall of fame in Cooperstown. I’ll be back the second week of August.

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