Monday, March 02, 2009

Garbage in, garbage out

Con MP Gary Goodyear's meltdown story has been discussed elsewhere since it came to light this morning. But nobody seems to have yet picked up on a couple of consistent themes from Goodyear which hint at problems far beyond the single incident with representatives from the Canadian Association of University Teachers:
The screaming erupted last Wednesday afternoon, just down the street from Parliament Hill, in the offices of a Conservative cabinet minister.

Two officials with Canadian Association of University Teachers sat on one side of a boardroom table and on the other sat Gary Goodyear, Minister of Science and Technology, his policy adviser Wesley Moore and a civil servant ready to take notes.

CAUT, a lobby group that represents 65,000 staff at 121 colleges and universities, had planned to raise concerns over the government's handling of research funding. But within moments, it became clear they wouldn't get very far.

“The minister was very angry,” said David Robinson, associate executive director of CAUT. “He was raising his voice and pointing his finger … He said everyone loves their [federal budget] and we said, ‘A lot of our members don't love it'… and he said, ‘That's because you're lying to them, misleading them.'”
Mr. Goodyear said he has met university presidents, deans of research, and researchers themselves and believes government critics are few. “You're going to see that one person who didn't get what they wanted,” he said. But “eight out of 10 folks I talk to get it … they are very positive.”

Mr. Goodyear, a chiropractor from Cambridge, Ont., said the government has been steadily investing in science and technology since 2006, with a new emphasis on commercialization and that it has designed an overall strategy to ensure Canada remains a world leader in research.

“We have done everything right,” he said.
CAUT, however, is less confident. It was the position of researchers fretting for the future the lobby group hoped to represent at last week's meeting with Mr. Goodyear.

They had barely begun to state their case, Mr. Robinson said, when the minister accused them of twisting facts.

When CAUT staff said the Conservatives have a spotty record on science and noted they abolished the office of the national science adviser, Mr. Robinson said, the minister's assistant screamed at them to shut up.

“Then the minister said, ‘You've burned all your bridges with us!' and they stormed out.

“In all the meetings I've been in like this, I've never been shouted at and told to shut up,” Mr. Robinson said. The civil servant who escorted them to the elevator suggested it would not even be a good idea to return to the minister's office to collect their coats, he said. Instead, she retrieved them.
Now, my first reaction in seeing the Globe and Mail article excerpted was to figure that CAUT's take must have been at least somewhat exaggerated: surely even the most Kool-Aid-addled Conbot couldn't honestly believe that "everyone loves their [federal budget]", and that the opposite position could only be the result of lies and misinformation.

But if anything, Goodyear's remarks after the fact sound even more self-congratulatory and reality-averse than his position during the CAUT meeting. While at least allowing for the fact that support for the Cons is slightly less than unanimous, Goodyear's response - even having had time to reflect on the CAUT incident - was to claim that "we have done everything right". Which would seem to be the type of absolutist position that could only exist based on a combination of belief in the Cons' infallibility, and a lack of curiosity to try to determine how his department could function better.

And that may also go a long way toward explaining a gap between actual perceptions and those which find their way to Goodyear. After all, if criticism of the Cons' policy gives rise to reactions like the one CAUT received, then it's remarkable if even one in five people meeting with Goodyear dares to speak out rather than patronizing the Cons by pretending to agree more than they do.

Which would tend to suggest that the cabinet minister responsible for research and development is not only downright hostile to reality, but also on the receiving end of a highly selective set of information about how groups actually perceive his government's actions. And that combination looks to cause far more problems for Goodyear's ability to function in cabinet than a single temper tantrum.

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