PM should have tried honesty

From Copenhagen to Kandahar, this country has a problem with certainty. In its absence, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives concoct strategies that fly in the face of reasonable probability.

From Copenhagen to Kandahar, this country has a problem with certainty. In its absence, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives concoct strategies that fly in the face of reasonable probability.

Canada’s response to compelling evidence of climate change is an embarrassing example. By sticking his head in the tar sands, the prime minister is making a country once respected for its leading role in responding to global threats a butt of jokes and victim of spoofs.

Nostalgia for a paragon lost isn’t the most persuasive reason for progressive policies.

While Ottawa waffles, other charter members of the deniers’ club are finding economic opportunity where they first saw only competitive disadvantage.

China, once a favourite Conservative excuse for not seizing the climate nettle, now grasps that green is the new gold.

Beijing is moving fast to reap the fiscal benefits of pioneering environmental technology in the same way the U.S. clipped the coupons of the computer age.

Canada has significant challenges. It’s big, cold and hitched to fossil fuels that, in creating wealth, strain national unity by pitting western producers against eastern consumers.

Those conundrums are made worse by waiting for evidence a radical response is required. Delay makes it harder to hit rising emission targets and ensures Canada will be buying the cutting-edge technology it could be selling.

Close Ottawa observers will spot a pattern. It’s in Conservative nature to dig deeper when in a hole. Their reflex is to reject, refute and rebut rather than rely on the famous decency of Canadians to forgive and forget inevitable political failures.

Honesty would have ended the Afghan prisoner abuse controversy now testing the ruling party’s commitment to accountability and the prime minister’s campaign to neuter Parliament. Instead of candour, Harper hung the Conservative defence on the suspect argument that there is no proof Afghans tortured Canadian prisoners.

That was foolish. It ignored that abuse safeguards rest on rational probability, not absolute certainty, and it left Conservatives exposed when, as is so often the case, “new information” was suddenly provided recently by chief of defence staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk and by diplomat Richard Colvin.

Mistakes that obvious and easily avoided suggest a strategic rather than tactical miscalculation.

A party enjoying considerable success by promoting black-and-white remedies to steeped-in-grey public policy dilemmas doesn’t get what most Canadians know in their gut: Certainty is a hen’s-teeth rarity in the hurly-burly of daily life.

Best bets are made and fickle consequences accepted on the assumption that data is incomplete. Light years from the good-and-evil universe Conservatives prefer, it’s still the place where, judging by, among other things, recent election results, a majority of Canadians live.

Playing to emotion has potent political appeal. It’s seductively simple to obfuscate and point fingers at others when the world is pushing Canada to look in the climate-change mirror. It’s politically attractive to label a civil servant a Taliban dupe and duck ministerial responsibility when it becomes sadly apparent that the government knew, or should have known, that Afghans were beating prisoners.

Demanding certainty works well from time to time for politicians looking for somewhere to hide and for those Canadians predisposed to see complexity through the comforting prism of preconceived notions. But it’s no substitute for creative management of probability.

Jim Travers writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.

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