Rachel Curran in IRPP Policy Options: How do governments come up with good public policy when an issue has polarized the public?
Written by Rachel Curran
Date published October 2, 2017
A summer of discontent: how else to describe the turbulent few months in which Omar Khadr’s lawsuit was settled to the tune of $10.5 million; thousands of asylum-seekers streamed across the US-Canada border into Quebec; Canadian support for the alt-right movement reached the public consciousness with The Rebel’s presence at a white nationalist rally in Virginia; and in which the government announced that it intended to amend long-standing tax rules to extract additional revenue from small businesses and professionals. Across the country, Canadians reacted quickly and vigorously, often expressing seemingly irreconcilable views.
Developing public policy in sensitive areas like immigration, in a way that produces good outcomes and isn’t politically toxic, is a question that democratic governments have long wrestled with. The nature of governing means, of course, that leaders will have to make decisions with which not everyone agrees. And ignoring difficult files is not a reasonable or responsible option, as tempting as it may be. But in a time when information can be shared and dissected, and opinions formed, in the blink of an eye, it is even more important — certainly from a political perspective — for governments to take particular care when policy-making in certain areas.
To that end, there are a few basic guidelines that should be followed:
1) The first job of any government is to know its audience
As a general rule, issues that impact individuals personally and directly are more sensitive than macroeconomic ones. The views of ordinary voters often deviate considerably from media or “elite” opinion, and also differ, depending on the particular issue, by region, age, ethnicity, and gender, among other factors. Files that involve complex numbers or abstract concepts (the deficit, balancing the budget, or innovation, for example) lack an easily understood human component, while files involving people (employment insurance, health care, fishery licensing, even lighthouse preservation) lend themselves to sympathetic human stories, or have an emotive or symbolic importance well beyond their policy parameters. That said, “pocketbook” economic issues that people perceive as affecting them personally (tax increases or changes to benefit entitlements) can provoke major reactions also.
External events can also have an impact on the relative sensitivity of an issue; it will be easier to strengthen laws around national security following a terrorist attack, for instance, or to amend refugee laws in the wake of migrant ship arrivals like the MV Sun Sea.
Members of Parliament are often a valuable source of insight into whether a particular policy file is sensitive or not, and why. Former prime minister Stephen Harper set up caucus advisory committees partly in order to involve all elected members formally in the policy-making process. Governments can also engage in public opinion research, or formal consultation, or policy-by-trial-balloon, but ultimately nothing substitutes for good judgment and a real understanding of the country. Armed with knowledge about what the public’s views truly are, and an appreciation for concerns that exist, a responsive government can shape its messaging and policy direction in a way that addresses those concerns and attempts to minimize them to the extent possible.
2) Ensure the public knows why action is important and understands the government’s motives
In a post-fact era, when reasoned arguments are not always sufficient to secure support, the perception of a government’s presumed motive is critical and sensitive policy changes must be presented without an overtly political agenda. Voters do not always have the time or inclination to study complicated policy frameworks; if they believe the government is acting for good reason, or has good intentions, that trust can provide an effective shortcut to policy acceptance. Acting from an obvious political agenda, by contrast, can sow cynicism and suspicion even if particular policy changes are warranted.
When the global recession hit in 2008-09, the Harper government was forced to deviate temporarily from the agenda on which it had campaigned, and quickly implement a deficit-financed stimulus plan. That action, along with other potentially controversial measures necessitated by the crisis, was accepted by the government’s supporters and Canadians more broadly because they understood its importance, and trusted the government to implement it properly. In a similar vein, changes to citizenship and residency requirements, and reforms in favour of economic immigration, were supported by ethnic communities who understood what then-immigration minister Jason Kenney was trying to achieve, trusted his motives, and worked in close consultation with him.
The Liberal government’s support for the Kinder Morgan pipeline has been positively received in British Columbia, at least in relative terms, not because the facts have changed, but because residents do not perceive the government as having an overtly pro-oil agenda. Fair or not, if the public believes the government has good or balanced intentions, they are far more willing to accept a particular policy direction.
3) Avoid creating sensitivity unnecessarily
Sensitivity around a particular issue can arise in response to bad public policy decisions and a failure to prepare for significant anticipated events. Perhaps the most high-profile current example is the widespread negative sentiment toward trade deals in the US, cultivated by years of decision-making that pursued corporate objectives at the expense of individual jobs and communities. In Canada and elsewhere, as Howard Anglin has pointed out, attitudes towards immigration become markedly more hostile when residents believe that authorities have lost control.
It goes without saying, then, that it is incumbent upon governments to anticipate the longer-term impacts of policy decisions, and to be prepared to respond before an issue becomes a crisis. The influx of asylum-seekers from the US this summer should have come as no surprise, but it was evident from the government’s actions that it was scrambling to respond, and had no apparent plan in place.
When it comes to issues that provoke strongly held feelings, a government can also create unnecessary sensitivity by trying to lead people in a direction they are not already heading. Public policy is not well suited to breaking new ground, and governments are never elected to “lead the way” on social, moral or cultural issues around which there is no general consensus.
4) Lay the groundwork, don’t take people by surprise, and be aware of every impact
One key rule when dealing with policy-making in sensitive areas is never to take people by surprise. The day a new policy direction is announced is the wrong time to be telling Canadians what they should think or believe. Voters — particularly those directly affected — should know ahead of time that a government intends on acting in a particular area, and should be actively engaged in the policy discussion well before anything is publicly released or finalized.
Another key imperative is to know the issue inside and out before finalizing policy direction, and to understand what the impacts will be on every group of Canadians. This isn’t always an easy task, especially with complicated tax policy changes or amendments to large benefit programs. However, it is incumbent upon political leaders to thoroughly comprehend the complexities of policy (re)design before making decisions.
When the Harper government raised the age of eligibility for OAS benefits in 2012, the intricacies involved in amending a long-standing program affecting millions of Canadians in a way that was fair and reasonable required months of meetings with senior bureaucrats, retirement income experts and stakeholder groups, and multiple trips to caucus and Cabinet as the policy details were considered and refined. (How the initial announcement of that policy was handled, as part of a speech at an overseas event, is another matter). A similar process took place around the addition of seats to the House of Commons, to ensure representation by population for each province.
The Liberal government has arguably violated both these rules in its midsummer announcement about intended changes to the taxation of Canadian private corporations and business structures. Despite an oblique reference to the issue in the government’s campaign platform, the scope of the proposals went well beyond the expectations of many observers and, contrary to the government’s claims, the changes will affect most Canadian business owners who carry on business through a private corporation.
Similarly, when the former Harper government introduced Bill C-30 to permit warrantless mandatory disclosure of basic subscriber information, and to require telecommunications providers to build intercept capability to collect and store data on digital activity, the span of the bill came as a surprise to telecommunications companies and consumers alike and the potential impacts on privacy rights were not well understood. The bill was ultimately withdrawn in the face of strongly negative public reaction.
If a government has not laid the groundwork for policy action, or if it has not truly grasped the impact of its proposed direction, public backlash will force at least some degree of retreat, the government will lose valuable political capital, and the policy well will be poisoned for perhaps years to come.
5) Communicate a clear and factual case, secure third-party support, and have a comprehensive rollout plan
A good communications plan can make the difference between policy success and political disaster. When communicating planned or potential changes in sensitive policy areas, it is critical that governments present a clear, factual and well-researched case on the need for reform.
It goes without saying that a communications plan must be robust and comprehensive: that is, positioned across the country via as many outlets as possible, and involving government members and ministers in a synchronized effort using consistent messaging. No government can communicate sensitive or complicated policy in isolation. It needs to assemble third-party and stakeholder support as part of a large-scale, coordinated plan, and supportive groups and individuals must be prepared with the relevant facts and arguments well in advance. The success of the Harper government’s rollout of trade agreements like the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) can in part be attributed to a broad network of organizations in an array of sectors that were mobilized to talk in detail about the benefits of the agreement to their members and to the Canadian economy.
6) Embrace debate
The most important lesson from our summer of discontent, however, is this: we should not shy away from the necessary and inevitable debates around policy-making in sensitive areas. Too often in Canada, governments avoid so-called “third rail” policy issues because they are afraid of the political consequences. That doesn’t serve our country or its citizens well.
The Harper government never returned to the problems it was attempting to address in Bill C-30, and our police forces still don’t have the tools they need to fight online crime effectively. Our employment insurance system continues to perpetuate a widespread system of part-time employment in some regions, while leaving full-time workers without needed coverage in others. Jurisdictions elsewhere in the world with mixed public/private healthcare systems achieve notably better outcomes, spending less money per capita, than we do. But we are not talking — really talking — about any of these issues. In that sense, it is a blessing when internal and external events coincide to force a public conversation on an issue like immigration or our refugee system.
Government aside, as a society we should not be afraid of public debate, or differences in outlook. Elite Canadian opinion, whether represented in the media, academia, think tanks, or even the business world, is often reluctant to tolerate and accommodate dissent, or to provide space for alternate views. Suppressing freedom of thought and speech does not suppress or eliminate opinions we find uncomfortable or unpleasant; in fact, the opposite is true. Shutting down the expression of alternate views simply encourages individuals to seek out less productive outlets, because there is no space or voice for them in mainstream discussion.
We need to actively embrace difference. Diversity does not just encompass ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation; it also includes political and cultural views. This does not mean tolerating hate speech or exhortations to violence, but it does mean accommodating opinions and concerns without painting them as de facto racist, for example. Vigorous disagreements on matters of policy and politics are not cause for hand-wringing, but are indicative of a dynamic and thriving democracy. Only when our public discussion is fully open and honest will we also have public policy that is truly representative and informed.