Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, Macdonald-Laurier Institute Managing Director Brian Lee Brian Lee CrowleyCrowley says it’s not just the current government – politicians of every stripe tend to ignore expert opinion when it is politically expedient.

By Brian Lee Crowley, Feb. 27, 2015

Few things enrage the critics of the government of Stephen Harper more than its supposed tendency to make policy in the teeth of contrary evidence provided by experts. Not only is this treated as shameful in itself, but the sin is apparently compounded by the idea that the government might ignore “evidence” in order to cater to its “base.”

Far be it from me to deny that government policy occasionally flies in the face of expert opinion. An appalling recent example saw the government force the railways to discriminate against all their other clients by forcing the rail companies to carry specific amounts of grain or pay a fine. This was despite a lack of evidence that the railways were doing anything wrong. But you could add to the list, say, some of their criminal justice policy, the elimination of the long form census and the GST cuts.

But the outrage that is attached in opposition circles to this alleged misbehaviour is out of all proportion to the crime. Politicians will never stop being politicians. Moreover the outrage implies that the Tories are uniquely guilty of this offence and that a change of government would somehow usher in an era of enlightened policymaking sagely guided by disinterested scientific experts.

That’s an idea we can test. Based on past performance, for example, do the Liberals always follow expert advice even when it flies in the face of the party’s political interests? Well, here are just a few examples where they demonstrably failed this test.

Missile defence: Canada was ready to partner with the US on the development of a system to defend against ballistic missile attack, a system that has the strong support of the scientific experts in the field. Then the Liberals’ Quebec youth wing objected and the government caved to this pressure from their base.

Supply management: despite a widespread consensus among policy experts (including former Liberal MP Martha Hall Findlay) that this policy unnecessarily enriches a tiny number of farmers at the expense of poor consumers of milk, cheese and chicken, the Liberals (along with the other parties, of course) found while in office that its political benefits outweighed inconveniently contrary expert advice.

Climate change: The Grits claimed to have signed on to the Kyoto Accord for evidence-based reasons, but then failed to enact any credible policy to make good on their commitment. In a sense this is worse than rejecting scientific evidence. They accepted the evidence and then knowingly failed to do anything serious about it. Surely this could not have been for so base a reason as that such action would have been politically unpopular?

Space prevents me from going into detail about the Wheat Board, the National Energy Policy, employment insurance, regional development spending, the gun registry, east coast fisheries policy and many more I could mention. In every case the Liberals preferred pandering to their base to accepting expert opinion.

Now the Liberals might make the case that that’s all in the past and that they are going to behave better in the future. We can test that too. Take the Liberals’ opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline in BC.

Pipelines are subject in Canada to a rigorous evidence-based approval process. After exhaustive examination, the NEB approved the project subject to 209 conditions, but the Liberals have rejected it without even seeing whether the conditions can be met. It couldn’t be because the pipeline is politically unpopular in BC, where several parliamentary seats are at stake. By contrast the Energy East pipeline project, on which the experts at the NEB have not yet ruled, has already met with the Grits’ approval.

This is not to say that the Liberals are worse or better than the Tories. In fact they’re probably pretty much on a par. But that’s the point: politicians of all stripes generally prefer the approval of voters to that of experts. Who knew?

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.

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