Conservatives sweat the small stuff too much

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The Gazette, Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Conservative government wins generally high marks from Canadians for competence on big files, but has created a significant trust deficit over small issues like the census.

Competence and trust are the two main attributes that frame voting intention. While competence is ultimately the more important question on the ballot, trust also is important to any party and its leader in closing the deal with voters.

One of the nagging questions about Stephen Harper and his government is why they consistently do well on major policy and management issues, while screwing up on small stuff.

The answer is that they’re very good at process, but occasionally allow their fascination with tactics to get the better of them. When they lose sight of the big picture, and get hung up on wedge issues, that’s when they get in trouble.

There isn’t an important file that hasn’t been well run in the last year – from the GM bailout to the H1N1 vaccine distribution, from the Haitian relief effort to moving $40 billion of stimulus money out the door. The single most important event of the year is the budget, and Jim Flaherty’s last two budgets have steered the country safely through a scary recession to recovery.

Leaving aside the security costs and riots that became the story of the G8 and G20 summits, Harper’s knowledge of the complex economic and financial files was impressive. And as host, he got what Canada wanted out of both meetings – no global bank tax and a commitment to cut deficits in half by 2013, with a return to balance by 2016, a path Canada is already on.

The same prime minister who looks very comfortable on the world stage is then hobbled at home by an issue as inconsequential as whether a long-form mandatory census questionnaire should be replaced by a voluntary one, with a sample size half again as large. Oh, and by the way, the larger voluntary sample, three homes in 10 rather than one in five on the mandatory form, will cost another $35 million. Part of the Conservative brand equity is that they are seen as sound stewards of taxpayer dollars.

The rationale for this, protecting the privacy of Canadians from intrusive questions such as how many bedrooms they had in their house, collapsed when the head of Statistics Canada resigned over the replacement of the mandatory form.

And where was the PM when this summer storm was breaking? On vacation and off the air for three weeks. Where, for that matter, was Industry Minister Tony Clement in the middle of all this? At an air show in Britain. Great communications management. When he got home, he twittered that no one in his riding was asking about the census. He’s not wrong about that, but what is a senior minister doing on Twitter?

When Clement finally blinked on the census last Wednesday, it was because French-language minorities had taken the government to the Federal Court, which was only too happy to hear it. If there’s anyone who wants to be accurately counted, it’s francophones outside Quebec. A lot depends on it, including federal funding.

Clement’s proffered compromise is to move two questions on languages in the home from the voluntary long form to the mandatory short form questionnaire. While he was at it, he announced the government would drop the threat of jail time for people refusing to answer the census. If you think they’re making this up as they go along, you’re right. This is a classic example of policy written on the back of an envelope.

And there’s Treasury Board President Stockwell Day saying the government needs to spend $9 billion on new prisons, in spite of a falling crime rate. Well, the reason, he said, was a spike in the rate of unreported crimes.

We are not making this up. Asked about this again, Day stuck to his story. Well, at least we won’t need more prisons for people refusing to answer the long form census.

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