Monday, August 20, 2007

Government by Logical Fallacy

Teachers of rhetoric are fond of enumerating and explaining several logical fallacies, which have become the stock and trade of those who practice mass communication. A favourite example is the loaded or trick question, best illustrated by the query, "Do you still beat your wife?" Anyone who attempts to answer the question puts himself in a double bind. If he answers yes, he admits to being a sadistic monster in the present; if he answers no, he admits that he was such a creature in a past life. Either way, he makes an unflattering comment on his character.

When Stephen Harper shuffled his cabinet last week, he once again put himself in a double bind -- something which he has done since he came to office. Ostensibly, the shuffle was necessitated by Gordon Connor's poor performance as the Minister of Defense. Mr. O'Connor has displayed an ongoing failure to master the facts surrounding the commitment and performance of Canadian forces in Afghanistan -- to the point where he has had to admit that in recent pronouncements he has "misled the house."

Clearly, Mr. Harper needed to make a change. But by placing Peter McKay -- his Minister of Foreign Affairs -- in the defense portfolio, he opened up the foreign affairs post for Maxime Bernier, a man with little political experience and no expertise in foreign affairs. Both men possess the virtue of being bilingual, which will make it easier to communicate with French Quebecers, who are historically adverse to foreign military entanglements -- something which the unilingual O'Connor could not do. But the move underlined what James Travers, in The Toronto Star, and Josee Legault, in The Montreal Gazette, have noted: the downgrading of the Ministry which, in Ottawa, is referred to as Fort Pearson, in memory of former Prime Minister Lester Pearson who, as Canada's Ambassador to the United Nations, helped defuse the Suez Crisis in 1956 -- and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

These two changes necessitated other changes. Jim Prentice, for instance, moved to Bernier's post as Minister of Industry; and by the time Mr. Harper had finished, there were eight cabinet changes. The official reason given for the changes was, of course, to" better communicate" with the people. However, Canadians are well aware by now that all policy announcements are made by Mr. Harper himself, with his ministers standing in the background. If the government does a poor job of communicating with its citizens, the fault lies with Mr. Harper, not his cabinet.

Indeed, that is the point. The problem is Mr. Harper. Canadians have come to understand that he is a logical contradiction. He espouses policies -- such as the recognition of Quebec as a "nation within a nation;" and he attempts to proscribe federal authority with regard to the provinces. But he also centralizes all authority in his office and in himself. He does not trust his ministers to handle their own affairs; yet he claims that the provinces should handle theirs.

He tries to smooth over this contradiction with the firm conviction that his vision is superior to those underneath him. Unfortunately, such faith based administration ignores facts on the ground and, ultimately, leads to broken promises and reversals in policy. Thus, the Tory Clean Air Act was replaced with recycled Liberal environment policy. Harper's promise to not tax income trusts led to his decision to reverse that policy; and his promise to stand four square with his NATO partners by extending the deployment of Canadian forces to Afghanistan for two more years has run smack up against public skepticism about a mission which was poorly executed from the beginning.

Simply put, Mr. Harper and Mr. O'Connor suffer from the same disease. The facts always get in their way. The difference is that Mr.O'Connor has paid for his mistakes. Mr. Harper has not. But Mr. Harper and his party are still mired in the low thirty percent range in the polls. Canadians are not ready to hand the estate over to them. They recognize a logical fallacy when they see and hear it.

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