Ontario Election 2011: Lies, damn lies and statistics

As printed on the Speak Your Mind section of the Toronto Star’s website this morning and reprinted by their kind permission.

The redoubtable Homer Simpson put it best: “You can use statistics to prove anything.  Fourfty percent of all people know that.”

Three weeks into the provincial election and it’s all about the polls. Tim Hudak was up, then it was Dalton McGuinty, then Hudak again, now more or less a statistical tie with Andrea Horwath and the NDP biting at both parties’ heels. Pollsters are even attacking each other over accusations of fudging results to fit editorial opinion. Because there doesn’t seem to be much of a story otherwise.

The degree to which polls have come to drive our national narrative is disappointing but not surprising. Governing is not sexy, so instead the media prints the tale of the tape – columnists fill their required inches analyzing and debating how each mistimed message or on-camera gaffe might shave a few tenths of a percentage point off the support of a random sample of less than a thousand people, plus or minus three or four nineteen times out of twenty. Levels of relative political strength are gauged like box scores and each small aberration is a front page headline. When we start talking about our government in sports metaphors, when it’s no longer about who we are as Canadians or where we’re going as a country, it becomes all about our guys beating your guys. No one is emotionally invested in anything beyond the win. Small wonder then when, consequently, political discourse devolves into hooliganism and necktie-wearing adversaries trash-talking each other like louts in nacho cheese-stained jerseys soaked on their fifth Labatt’s Blue late in the third period. Even the Prime Minister talks about achieving a Conservative “hat trick” if Tim Hudak becomes Premier.

Except in the case of this election, it’s not even like watching the Leafs battle the Canadiens. It’s more like a cricket test match between Argentina and Cameroon.

Drive down New Street in Burlington and you’d barely know an election was happening. A handful of signs each for Karmel Sakran and Jane McKenna, on the lawns of the same diehards who brandish them in every election. Maybe one or two signs for Peggy Russell, but they’re as elusive as four-leaf clovers. “Conservative Corner,” otherwise known as Appleby & Fairview, is lined with blue McKenna placards, just as it was for Conservative MP Mike Wallace in the federal contest back in May. But that’s about it.

We’ve become disengaged because we’ve lost touch with what government is supposed to be – a group of committed citizens working to better the lives of their fellows who have entrusted them with the mantle of leadership. We’ve come to think of government in terms only of the race, of the never-ending popularity contest where every minor shift in the prevailing winds moves forests worth of newsprint. Government has been reduced to a matter of numbers; our “leaders,” glorified bean-counters who usually can’t even count. Who governs us is apparently as of little consequence to the grand scheme as last week’s Jays game. If Tim Hudak becomes Premier it won’t be because he has articulated a compelling vision for the future of Ontario, it will simply be because more of his fans made it to the ballot box on October 6th than did Dalton McGuinty’s.

After your team loses, you curse the ref, shrug your shoulders, sleep off the Blue and forget about it within a few hours. Your government will be with you for the next four years, making crucial decisions that will impact your life beyond that four-year mandate. We owe it to ourselves to ensure that government is more than just a series of tax reforms and malaise about how we can’t really do anything because we won’t even try.

And 100% of the people should know that.