08.18.2010 08:12 AM

Small shovels

The census decision reminds me of the national anthem decision, which reminds me of the prorogation decision, which reminds me of…I could go on. Others have.

None of those mistakes, in and of themselves, are things that I can realistically picture Joe and Jane Frontporch angrily debating around the kitchen tables of the nation.  Perhaps you can picture Joe sitting up at night, bathed in sweat, and angrily remarking to a worried Jane: “Goddamn! I can’t sleep anymore, because I’m too upset about the fate of the long-form census!” But me, I just don’t see it.  I didn’t even know how to spell “prorogation” at the start of 2010.

That’s not to say that the Harper Reformatories didn’t make mistakes with the communication of their census decision, or the anthem one, or prorogation, or whatever.  They did. Even Conservatives say so.

So if I’m right, and none of those mistakes was, say, as significant of turning a structural surplus into a massive structural deficit, then why did the census decision get so many people so ticked off?

Because of small shovels, that’s why.

Voters are sophisticated enough to know that as much, or more, can be revealed about someone’s character by the little things as with the big things.  They believe that individual governments have virtually no long-term impact on the big files – the stability of economies, markets, regions, and so on.  They also believe that the policy differences between the mainstream political parties are largely negligible.  (They’re wrong about that, but that’s what they think.)

That’s why they attach importance to the smaller issues, the so-called watercooler stuff.  If your neighbour goes to work and makes super-important decisions that affects a company’s bottom line, say, you rarely ever hear about that.  But if he empties out his chlorinated pool into your rose bushes, and kills them off, you’ll be muttering about that for a long, long time over the back fences.  In the same vein, nobody remembers, particularly, what Nixon and Kennedy debated in that crucial presidential debate in 1960.  They do, however, remember how sweaty and swarthy Nixon looked.  It suggested to them that he wasn’t trustworthy.  It wasn’t fair, or even a big deal, but it was enough to affect the outcome.

The Harper regime, ipso facto, is doing what governments always end up doing: it is busily working away at defeating itself.  And, as with the census decision, it’s doing so with the smaller stuff.  To wit, Joe Frontporch: “You know, I don’t really care about the census or whatever, but these Harper guys sure are screwing up a lot, these days.  I think they need to be taught a lesson.”

Political graves are dug by small shovels.  It was ever thus.


  1. CQ says:

    I’ll agree with that.
    What’s further disappointing is that they have never yet shown the determination of using the big shovels as Chrietien with Martin, Harris and Klein finally did in the mid 90s.

  2. Dan F says:

    Also, they are attacking both Veterans and the Police in the same week. Not good moves for anyone trying to hang onto the traditional small-c conservatives in the country.

  3. Anonymously Posted says:

    I think the billion dollars or so blown on the 2-day G20/G8 summits is not a “small shovel.” I think the 40B+ deficit is not a small issue, nor is the widespread unemployment and underemployment in the country. People are upset because a lot of things have turned south.

  4. Ted says:

    It ties into the issue of trust. We are here carrying on with our lives, raising our families, going to work, saving for our future (hopefully!). With our fronts turned to our priorities and our backs turned to Ottawa, we trust that the government is not screwing up the little things. The big things we can see and try to understand and render our own judgment on.

    But we don’t see all the thousands of decisions being made and trust that they are being made in the best interest of the country, not the party, not an ideology, and not deceitfully.

    So on an issue like prorogation or the census, when you are not only making decisions that we don’t like but you are being deceptive and even outright lying about the reasons you are doing so… the trust is gone and is very difficult to get back.

  5. Cath says:

    Interesting suggestion WK but you’d have to apply this same small shovel analogy to the Ignatieff led Liberals too because a missed as the Harper message may be even within their own circles Mr. Ignatieff is digging faster and he’s digging with a dull blade, AND it’s not playing well among LPOC circles either.

    I’m not convinced that it’s even water cooler discussion. In fact, the water cooler discussion around here is more about geese on the beach ruining it, kids heading back to school and who’s going to clean up at the Emmies. Politics is WAY off the grid.

  6. James Smith says:

    Beautiful photo, did you take that? If so I would print it & frame it if I was you.
    If I may, I will do likewise.

  7. Ted says:

    This would also explain why Canadians increasingly think Canada is going in the right direction but also increasingly think the government is going in the wrong direction. You very rarely see those two numbers going in such distinct opposite directions as you do today.

  8. Rick T. says:

    Census form Non issue. G8 & G20, Tamil Refugees and the Veterans treatment fiasco big issues. That what the silent majority is concerned about. I am so pissed at this government that I will not be voting Conservative again as long as Harper is in charge.

    This is called shooting yourself in the foot.

  9. Sean says:

    Longform narative: overeducated, overpaid, do nothing bureaucrat with a big pension and bennefits… gets smacked for trying to get his grubby hands on your personal business… Isn’t that what government is supposed to do?

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see some analysis that Joe and Jane Frontporch actually *like* these silly little fights… Let me be clear that I don’t personally agree with this portrayal above. However, this is exactly how the Tories want to spin it. Joe and Jane Frontporch will eat it up IMHO…

  10. Michael Behiels says:

    Love that picture of shovels! Every garage has or should have a similar line up!!

    A person, group, or society can move mountains with a shovel or shovels simply by digging in one shovel at a time.

    Absolutely, the small stuff matters greatly, especially if the small stuff is in your face night and day. When ones neighbours allow their dogs to yap incessantly, or their teenagers to sponsor an open house every week-end for all their friends and acquaintances then it really wrangles.

    When you wield as much power as a Canadian Prime Minister does, when PM Harper continues to get all the small stuff wrong it has immense and sometimes devastating consequences for every Canadian citizen regardless of his/her political persuasion.

    Harper is PM and his and his government’s behaviour must be judged in this context. He is no longer merely the leader of the official opposition being judged by the all the small stuff he got wrong. He is now PM and citizens can and do make a distinction between his growing small stuff SNAFUS and those of the leader of the Official Opposition Party.

    Ignatieffs screw ups don’t have an immediate impact on citizens. Harper’s ideologically-driven screw ups on all the small but important stuff will have a long term impact on Canadian governance and society.

    Harper’s deconstruction and/or destruction by stealth of the Canadian state, the federal bureaucracy, Parliament, the Governor General’s Office, the police and RCMP etc etc will become his ultimate legacy. He will have accomplished what he came to Ottawa to accomplish.

    Harper will eventually return to Alberta and join the Boards of several Oil and Gas corporations to reap his pecuniary rewards.

  11. Zachary Scott Smith says:

    Speaking about little shovels,

    It would appear that the Liberals are getting it wrong again as they throw their support behind and to quote from the CBC.

    I am sure that this will be playing well off the Island on Montreal with Quebecers as the Liberals find themselves supporting an Anglo who cannot speak French to hold a position that he is not qualified because of that and their reasoning is that he should stay is that he agrees with their position.

    What ever happened to the Liberals position on supporting French language rights? or does this high Liberal standard go out the door for the sake of a bad headline ot the hope of gaining a vote or two.

    Their actions speak speaks volumes

    “In a statement Wednesday, the RCMP said the director general’s job an assistant commissioner’s position and is designated bilingual.”

    “Cheliak, who is on leave before heading to the language training, “does not currently meet the linguistic requirements of the position,” the statement said.”

    Read more: http://www.cbc.ca/politics/story/2010/08/18/rcmp-gun-registry-head-ousted-elliott.html#ixzz0wyUxXj00

    • James Smith says:

      Hey Dr Smith!

      Best attempt at deflection I’ve read yet.


      • Namesake says:

        Well, to be fair, apparently Jane Taber now has it on background that this was a completely apolitical, internal decision to train Mr. Cheliak in French so as to be qualified for a position that he has been removed from, replaced in, and highly unlikely to be reappointed in: so important that he had to be removed from his post immediately and prevented from delivering an important new report and address to the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs Conference scheduled for next Monday,* despite the fact that his language training will not start until some time in the future (presumably September) and he is now bene placed on leave. And the arm’s length bureaucrat who made that decision — one Munir Sheikh — has also apparently reported that there will be no net loss of data quality in or effectiveness of the National Firearms Policing Strategy, even though the new replacement’s background is in the Criminal Intelligence analysis division on drug issues and he has no familiarity with the gun registry file. So, clearly, we should respect their expertise, and there’s nothing to see here, folks, & this is just another would-be manufactured scandal on the part of this outrageously left-wing media and the hysterical opposition.

        * http://cacpconference.ca/page/conference/1


  12. H Holmes says:

    The election will be about two issues.
    Do you believe that Harper has been doing a good job?

    People are happy with the direction of the country and he is also setting up the civil service for the long play which would be an election in April.
    Which means most of the “scandals” are happening when no one is paying attention.

    His control of the messaging of the civil service should be complete by the end of summer.
    Something the media is vastly under reporting.

    This will be his greatest strength in the fall and early spring.
    But I think that he can be beat.

    Do you think Ignatieff would do better?
    The most positive thing for Ignatieff has been his outreach to small town Ontario and the maritimes.
    Now he has to have policies reflect it.
    There is a large suburban vote across the country in play, these people were Liberal voters under Chretien.
    We need to find out why they left and bring them back. My personal belief is that our downtown urban message is dissuading them from voting for us.
    We need more flexible policies that cost less, that benefit both urban and suburban voters.

    The liberals it shouldn’t be running against change, but offering our own.

    If he does this he would have a good chance at a minority government.

  13. Carl says:

    “We need to find out why they left and bring them back.”

    Because Ignatieff never will be what Chretien (and Harper) are……just like you and me……the every man. I’m pretty sure Jean and Steve know how to use a shovel. Ignatieff…not so much.

    Rae doesn’t have it either.

    McGuinty does.

  14. Namesake says:

    A few points:

    – glad you’re seeing there may be some fallout to the census decision, if only for the trust issue, on how they tried to sneak the change in & proceeded to spin a lot of tall tales about it;

    – sorry you still think of it as a “small shovel” as opposed to, say, an “ice pick” intended to hobble & eventually slay the other political parties, like the plan to kill the vote subsidy (which it’s related to*);

    – sure, it’s still small on the porches, but it’s growing: it’s still gathering steam & hasn’t hit critical mass yet; sure, many people have tuned out & may be physically absent from the news in the summer, but remember, 2 out 3 Cndns belong to some sort of organization — religious, union, nonprofit, or political — and the majority of all those org’s have recognized (some belatedly) the importance of that data to their fundraising, outreach, &/or, yes, govt’-fund-getting capacity, and they will be continuing to reach their constituencies in various newsletters & other forms of contact through the fall, when more & more will realize that this affects causes which are near & dear to them, after all;

    – in contrast, the structural deficit, the big issue you cite that _should_ be engaging Ma & Pa Frontporch hasn’t, and probably never will: both for the reason you gave yourself in your book (many people don’t know how many millions there are in a billion; they just glaze over), and because of the persistent mythology that the Cons are better on the economy (no matter what the evidence!) and that the Libs or Dippers would just tax & spend worse; the little Con-Bots like Zach Brat have even let themselves be conned into ignoring the history & thinking that that deficit was a necessary response to the recession even though it preceded it by over a year.

    _ _ _ _ _ _

    * the utility & importance of the long form data for campaigning purposes should not be overlooked; you’ve probably just taken it for granted & don’t appreciate what would be lost. Take a look at the demographic profiles that are freely available per electoral riding (and even more detailed breakdowns are available for well-populated postal codes) to help a pol. decide whether to target soccer moms, white collar workers, or the Timmies crowd, or to be silent on or play up French language or immigration or ‘Family Values’ issues, etc., or whether to advocate more or less social housing or home renovation credits etc etc, depending on what the actual make-up of their riding is.

    E.g., North Van’s 2006 profile is:


    and the 2001 data, which also has the religious data, is:


    This type of data has apparently been critical to the Cons’ plan to target certain ridings to chip away at the Libs’ taken-for-granted ethnic vote:



    And even O’Bama’s much vaunted database was built in part on Census data


    • H Holmes says:

      A good point.
      Killing the census data and then getting rid of the subsidy would hamstring most parties.
      There is no limit for the amount parties spend out of election and buying data, another point you and i argued about a while back, is an easy way for the Tories to get data while everyone else would be frozen out.
      This would effectively put the tories in the lead for the long game.
      A scary thought indeed.

      I for one think that in the long run it would help the liberals to get rid of the subsidy and could care less about the census, but that’s another topic.
      We need to start playing catch up and with cons in terms of these changes.
      I have been a big advocate for buying data locally outside of the election cycle when there isn’t a spending limit, this would only make it more important.

      We also need to find a way to attract donors. What we are doing isn’t working and will really hamstring us in the next couple of elections, as the subsidy will not cover for the loss of data.
      I was kind f wondering what the tories are spending their money on, seeing that they raised more than the spending limit already.
      My new guess is data.

  15. allegra fortissima says:

    What was that, Carl? Ignatieff doesn’t know how to use a shovel so much? I tell you what – I’ll find out this week! The Liberal Bus will be parked down the road, just a Ten Minute Walk away from my house. I’ll ask Mr. Ignatieff. Got the ticket already, along with a confirmation email and even a Thank You Note – I always appreciate good manners!

    I might even bring my old garden shovel. My bet is: Michael knows how to use a shovel for flower- and veggie – garden beds, just like you and me, not so much for a political grave. Contrary to Gordon and Dalton, who are currently using their shovels for a H eavy S teady T ryout!

    As I said, I’ll find out. “A proof is a proof. And when you have a good proof, it’s because it’s proven.”

  16. tf says:

    I think of myself as Jane Frontporch and I’ll tell you, the first action that got me off my porch and to a demonstration was Harper’s first prorogation. I saw my government derail the process and that is what made me angry.
    As much as I get frustrated over the process of government, I trust it. We have Harper in government because that’s how the votes fell – so we have to grin and bear it.
    But when he locked the doors to Parliament because he was in danger of losing power and called a coalition illegal, that was the straw…the Harper tendencies are merely confirmed by everything that has followed since.

  17. jack ellefson says:

    That garage photograph ‘wall of shovels ‘ must belong to a civil servant. Probably a retired civil servant with the most generous golden taxpayer subsidized and indexed pension plan.

    Ordinary people couldn’t afford all those shovels.


  18. Bill Templeman says:

    Warren: I really like your metaphor of small shovels. One the small shovels that didn’t get as much attention at the time was Stockwell Day’s unbelievable statement that we need to build more prisons in order to fight unreported crime. All this on a week when Stats Can announced that crime is going down in Canada. Let’s not be soft or tough on crime; let’s be smart. Rabble posted a rant of mine on this topic on Aug 25 if you’re interested. Net-Net: Investing in the social-safety net does more to prevent crime than building more prisons.


    Enjoy Maine.

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