Stephen Harper and the Politics of Lying

Lying is sometimes a criminal offense (fraud) and sometimes not (white lies). There are many types of lies in the managerial and political world, some more acceptable than others. Steve Job’s reality distortion field was a tactic to stimulate innovation on the technological frontier: minimizing the challenges in developing a new technology and overstating the capacity of your team to overcome them. Government lying is used in wartime to defeat your enemy by means of misinformation about your strategy, tactics, and capabilities. It is a commonplace in political campaigning to exaggerate the benefits of your proposals and exaggerate the costs of your opponents’.

In this election campaign, Stephen Harper appears to be going much farther than typical political lying. When he called the election in early August, he maintained that he was avoiding having taxpayers pay for the unusually long campaign; numerous journalists pointed out that governmental subsidization of both political parties and candidates meant that indeed taxpayers were footing half the bill. In the first leaders’ debate, Harper claimed that a carbon tax would have no impact on energy demand, despite a body of research to the contrary. He also claimed that a carbon tax would increase tax revenue, ignoring the well-understood option of a revenue-neutral carbon tax. He concluded that, after barely four months in office, Alberta’s NDP government was “a disaster.”

Finally, and most tellingly, he continues to claim that he had no knowledge Nigel Wright was personally covering the cost of Senator Mike Duffy’s illegitimate expense claims, despite mounting evidence that this was widely known in the PMO. For a micromanager like Harper to be unaware of his staff’s actions on so crucial a file strains credibility.

Why does political lying matter? Why does Harper’s lying matter?

When the election campaign is over, someone will be chosen prime minister and will have to govern the country. Governing is about facing problems and taking decisions. Doing this effectively means gathering the best possible information. It also means communicating with the public to help them understand the issues and their consequences. Governing effectively demands a commitment to honesty.

The Conservatives’ “permanent election campaign” involves ongoing distortion of the issues, calculated to support decisions taken to satisfy the biases and misunderstandings of the voters who comprise the Conservatives’ base. What writer Stephen Marche called Harper’s “active promotion of ignorance” in an op-ed in the Sunday, August 16 New York Times facilitates lying. If the government isn’t producing information or supporting research about the environment and isn’t producing information about Canadian society (by cancelling the long form census) it makes it harder to do serious policy analysis and evaluation. And easier to enact policies that the conservative base favours. The American Republicans, as Paul Krugman tirelessly points out, promote policies without regard to evidence. The Canadian Conservatives go farther, ensuring that there will be as little evidence as possible to judge their policies.

I looked at Harper’s 1991 master’s thesis. It attempts to test hypotheses based on public choice theory about the political business cycle using econometric methodology. It’s amazing, in a sad way, how far Harper has traveled in two and a half decades from participating in a serious search for the truth to telling whatever lies he considers necessary to achieve his political ends. Ironically, he has come to epitomize public choice theory’s cynical interpretation of politicians.

I conclude with yet another Harper lie. On election night in 2011 Harper acknowledged that he had been elected with the support of only 40 percent of the electorate and would govern taking into account the interests of all Canadians. That may not have been an intentional lie at the time he said it, but it has turned out to be a lie. And it is also turning out that, as a result of his decisions, the conservative base has shrunk to closer to 30 percent of the electorate.

Canadians deserve honesty and integrity in government. Stephen Harper’s campaign-based politics of lying have undercut effective governing. That’s why I’m working to end the Harper Government.

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