A failure to communicate

Communications is not rocket science, but the Harper government just doesn't seem to get it

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The Gazette, Sunday, August 1, 2010

Only in a country with no problems, namely Canada, could a controversy over census forms become the top news story out of the capital. Which also reminds us of how disconnected Ottawa is from the reality of everyday life in this country.

This isn't to say the census isn't important. It's a portrait in time, a statistical database of how many we are, in which provinces we live, what languages we speak, our ethnic or aboriginal origins, whether we were born here or came here. And not to be forgotten, from the mandatory long form, how many bedrooms we have in our homes.

Invasion of privacy is one of the arguments the Conservative government has made for replacing the mandatory long-form census by 20 per cent of households with a voluntary one with a sample size half again as large -30 per cent. With the sample size being 50 per cent larger, it will of course cost millions more to conduct the census next year.

The blowback from the policy elites has been intense and virtually unanimous. Economists, pollsters, academics, provinces, cities, associations and interest groups have all said it's a really bad idea.

The government hung tough with the privacy argument until the moment that Munir Sheikh, head of Statistics Canada and the country's chief statistician, resigned over the issue of whether a voluntary survey could replace a mandatory one. "It cannot," he wrote. "Under the circumstances, I have tendered my resignation to the prime minister."

So much for Industry Minister Tony Clement's story that StatsCan had signed off on the change. To put it euphemistically, Clement misrepresented the case.

In any event, this was the precise moment the government lost the argument, when it lost StatsCan as a shield. Even the National Statistics Council, a 40-member board appointed by the government, lamented the "serious gap" that would occur in tracking social and economic change in the country. It is gratifying to learn of the council's existence, to say nothing of its concerns.

Not that anyone, outside the policy elites and the media, is excited about this story. Have you heard people talking about it in the subway, or at backyard barbecues? "So, what do you think of the census?" Right.

But having lost the argument, the government should be looking for a way out, for some kind of Canadian compromise that maintains the mandatory questionnaire, but addresses any legitimate privacy concerns.

But obstinacy is an occasional trait of this government, and this leads inevitably to the larger narrative of Stephen Harper being an ideologically driven control freak with a hidden agenda. Aha! Harper has been nowhere to be seen on this story, since he has been on vacation at Harrington Lake, a good place for him.

It's not as if the Conservative base is all riled up over census forms. It's not something the party has ever discussed at a convention, much less run on in an election. This is never going to be a ballot question, and isn't even about pandering to the base.

So then the question arises as to why this government, which does very well in terms of competence, keeps creating trust deficits for itself. And in the command and control culture of Harper's Ottawa, that starts with the Prime Minister's Office.

It was this PMO that nearly blew up a new Parliament by putting poison pills into the fall budget update of 2008. No one was consulted about its bid to end public subsidies of political parties and banning the right to strike in the public sector. This led to the Three Stooges Coalition which would have defeated the government had Harper not come to his senses and prorogued.

Then, the second prorogation at the end of 2009, which was supposed to be about "recalibrating" the government's agenda. The Conservatives got pummelled in the news cycle for six weeks until the Vancouver Olympics became the story.

Then Harper's signature initiative on maternal health was announced in a single paragraph in a strong speech at the Davos Conference in January, but went sideways over the question of funding for therapeutic abortions in developing countries. The PMO never saw that one coming, because it had announced the initiative out of the blue, without a communications plan to back it up.

Finally, the flap over the census, where their supportive storyline about StatsCan collapsed with Sheikh's abrupt resignation.

There's a basic rule of strategic communications. Every policy announcement should have a communications plan covering all bases.

It's not as if they don't have people working on this in the Langevin Block -there are 30 staffers in the PMO communications shop, and dozens more working upstairs in the Privy Council Office.

It's not rocket science, just communications.

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