Friday, August 3, 2012

Manufacturing public opinion

Very often we are asked to have our say on matters of state policy, such as the ongoing consultations with the public by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. All levels of government – federal, provincial and municipal – always stress the importance of feedback to government proposals in changing policies or regulations. Whether useless or effective, duplicitous or sincere, these public consultations create another layer in the decision-making process, in addition to our elected Parliament and local councils, and the army of technocrats in the government bureaucracy.

Canada Immigration, for example, conducts public consultations to “generate greater public understanding of the difficult decisions involved in managing a global immigration system.” According to its recent press release, “There are competing visions and diverging goals for the future of the immigration program, and there are no easy answers. Engaging stakeholders and the broader public is key to CIC’s development of an overall strategy for Canada moving forward.”
According to a press release from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the purpose
of immigration consultations is to "seek feedback on immigration levels, including
the appropriate level of immigration for Canada, and the most suitable mix between
economic, family class and protected persons." Click link to view "Many changes to
immigration under Jason Kenney,"
The purpose of Canada Immigration’s ongoing public consultations is to seek feedback on immigration issues, including the appropriate level of immigration for Canada, and the most suitable mix among economic, family, and refugee and humanitarian classes.

Are we really that ignorant to be duped by the current Conservative government that our input matters in policy decision-making?

Early this year, Canada Immigration Minister Jason Kenney decided to cancel out all immigration applications submitted prior to February 27, 2008. Close to 280,000 applicants are affected by this decision. Minister Kenney rationalized his decision by arguing that the Federal Skilled Worker (FSW) Program is hampering Canada’s ability to respond rapidly to changing labour market needs. Kenney said: “Having to process applications that are as many as eight years out of date reduces our ability to focus on new applicants with skills and talents that our economy needs today.” This was a draconian shift in government policy, yet did Canada Immigration ask for our feedback before they decided to go ahead with their new policy?

Prior to Minister Kenney’s decision to close the door to these early immigration applications under the FSW program, he also imposed a moratorium on the sponsorship of parents and grandparents, thus denying new permanent residents the opportunity to bring their families to Canada. With a stroke of the pen, Kenney is rewriting the objective of family reunification under the existing law and making it even more difficult. Was there a consultation with the public, especially those affected by the change in policy?

Last July, Minister Kenney put a temporary hold on all new applications under the federal skilled worker and investor program until July 0f 2013. Kenney said he needed to “reset the button” in deciding on the moratorium on Canada’s skilled labour program. This decision was necessary, Kenney said, to enable the government to develop an effective backlog elimination strategy. In addition, Minister Kenney also reduced health care benefits – including support, to refugee claimants in Canada. Again, was there public consultation before Kenney made this decision?

Every major policy decision made by Jason Kenney bears the imprint of his impatience to overhaul Canada’s immigration system, which the opposition can only criticize but to no avail. Even these so-called public consultations will amount to nothing but photo ops that the people were consulted and heard before the government decided to change its policies. The obvious truth is: the government has already made up its mind.

The process of public consultations emerges from the basic belief that legitimate governments are those that listen to their citizens. After all, democratic government is tested by the capacity and opportunity for citizens to engage in enlightened debate. But how much information is deliberated in public consultations and what influence do these consultations have over the state are questions which may not be answered directly by the outcome of this process.

Access to the public consultation process by the ordinary citizens may have in fact been limited, whether by design, the targeted audience or ulterior motives. For one, these consultations are politically controlled; as such, they are ultimately used as tools by the ruling government for advertising rather than the medium from which the public gets their information on vital political matters.

Take for example the 2012 Immigration Levels Plan (from the 2011 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration) that is attached supposedly for discussion during the public consultations. This is Canada Immigration’s blueprint for determining immigration levels and mix, prepared by the department’s bureaucrats. One wonders how much can be expected from the public in terms of revisions or additional issues which Canada Immigration bureaucrats may consider in setting the final immigration levels and mix.

But the most important question to ask is how sincere is this government in canvassing public opinion in its policy decision-making?

All the press releases, all background information attached to the public consultations, and several pronouncements by Minister Kenney and his bureaucrats may in the end all sound like junk mail or a telemarketing call, which the ordinary citizen usually sets aside for good. Not that information is unimportant. Too much information is also not very useful because it simply leads the public consultation to a glitzy show of government statistics, not to a substantive debate on the government’s strategic priorities.

Writing about the lost art of political argument, Christopher Lasch wrote in Harper’s Magazine:

“Let us begin with a simple proposition: What democracy requires is public debate, not information. Of course it needs information too, but the kind of information it needs can be generated only by vigorous popular debate. We do not know what we need to know until we ask the right questions, and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy.”

When the process of public consultations becomes an extension of the town meeting, then we can say we truly have created a public forum. Not when the government calls for public consultations to advertise planned policy changes, and not actually to allow the public to debate the substance of the proposed changes. Not when public consultations are held in order to display an appearance of transparency or create the impression that the ruling government also listens.

There seems to be so much preoccupation with publicity nowadays. Publicity in terms of having good public relations or a positive public image. This is the new danger to democracy, less direct but more insidious than that of the tyranny of majority as we have now in Parliament by the ruling Conservative Party. Because it ultimately leads to the decisive influence of certain insistent and powerful minorities – those who are intent in limiting access to the public sphere since this is how they operate and thrive in a competitive political environment.

This public consultation process, the kind embarked by Canada Immigration, may very well be an effort to create public opinion that simulates the existence of a general feeling in favour of a cabinet minister, his policies or his party’s eagerness to disembowel the whole immigration system. It’s clearly ironic that the deference to this kind of manufactured public opinion may be greater than that the ordinary citizens may yield to, one which they believe to be the genuine sentiment of the majority.

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