Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dark Days for Evidence-Based Democracy

As we know all too well, politics can get bogged down in ideological mud slinging. Each side, prisoner of its own political discourse, slings mud at the opposing side. One way out of this impasse is to look at what the evidence tells us about the issue at hand. That way, we can examine the veracity of the claims made in the presentation of arguments proposing a particular plan of action.

Here in Canada, and particularly in Quebec, we see concerted efforts to reduce the capacity of citizens to engage in informed political debate by either reducing the capacity of government organizations to collect, analyze, and report on pertinent data, or, in the case of Quebec, set ridiculously short time lines for the tabling of an environmental report, thereby preventing valuable studies from interfering with what appears to be the Quebec government's premature decision to go ahead with the exploitation of the province's immense shale gas reserves.

At the federal level, much ink has been spilt in protest of the government's decision to shelve the long form census, a move that triggered the resignation of Statistic Canada's chief statistician. As well, it was revealed that head of the Parliamentary Budget Office, Kevin Page, will not seek to renew his mandate, which is most assuredly related to the fact that his agency's paltry budget has been significantly reduced.

In both instances, these decisions will probably reduce the availability of timely information that could inform the citizenry, but as we would expect having an informed citizenry would actually reduce the capacity of a political/financial elite to impose its political agenda upon the nation. Like many, I find this state affairs unacceptable, but hey my vote never counts for anything other than awarding a pittance to the party I voted for during a federal election, and perhaps even this last remaining incentive for me to go out to vote will disappear.

In Quebec, given the Charest government's pathetic low level of support and its minimal chances of surviving another general election, it appears that the Quebec government has thrown caution to the wind and is proceeding at warp speed to put in place a perfunctory regulatory framework that would allow fortunes to be made at the expense of the health of the population before its term runs out.

Even the most rudimentary environmental scan on the subject of the safety hydraulic fracturing should raise grave concerns. In fact, to date no peer-reviewed scientific study demonstrates that the process does not create substantial health hazards. To learn more, consult a recent report of an 18 month Propublica investigation.

What I find truly deceitful is the behavior of Quebec's Vice-Premier, Natahlie Normandeau, who is now making regular public appearances saying that moving ahead with confidence is just a matter of communicating the facts. As someone who works in the communications field, I can't help asking myself, "what facts is she referring to?". She makes it sound as if there exists a consensus in the scientific community that fracking is safe. This impression that she is so desperately trying to give is unmitigated bullshit.

In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency has been given more than two million dollars to investigate the safety of the fracking process through its entire lifecycle and has until 2012 to complete its report. In Quebec, the Office for Public Audiences on the Protection of the Environment gets chump change and a four month deadline report.

I guess as a citizen it is moments like this that makes me realize that living through a fin de regime the quality of governance often sinks to the level of the banana republic.

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