Our governments are dumbing down important debates

How do you, as voter, feel about "clear, consistent and competitive" regulations which provide for "sustainable and environmentally responsible development"?

How do you, as voter, feel about “clear, consistent and competitive” regulations which provide for “sustainable and environmentally responsible development”? How about “zero tolerance” for “barbaric cultural practices?

Politicians have a pretty good idea how these words make you feel. That is why they use these types of social-media ready sound bites that reduce complex policy issues to catchy phrases and generic platitudes.

These days even the names of new laws – which have historically been given neutral titles – are designed to provoke an instant reaction. We reached an all new low in this respect when the federal Conservatives recently introduced the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.

After all, who could possibly oppose “zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices”? I know I couldn’t. In fact, why bother even reading the bill? Clearly I support whatever is in it.

Incidentally, the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act does much of what it purports to do – it strengthens pre-existing bans of several patently “barbaric” practices, including honour killings and forced marriages. Critics will, however, rightly question whether the bill’s redundant focus on the practice of polygamy – already criminal under Canadian law – is actual policy or simply a tool to further stigmatize new immigrants.

This past week our own Yukon Party took its own stab at cheapening debate with a resolution in the legislature and accompanying news release that curiously made no mention of the obvious motivation for the same: proposed amendments to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Act, or YESAA.

This is one of the most important laws in the Yukon. Almost all development that occurs in the territory – be it a mine or a road – passes through the YESAA screening process.

The federal government is currently in the process of amending YESAA. Among other things, the changes would empower the federal government to interfere in the process by creating binding policies, and allow the Yukon government to decide if changes warrant a reassessment of a project.

Both the amendments themselves and the process that was followed in creating them are controversial with environmental and aboriginal groups. The latter has threatened lawsuits if the amendments pass.

This past Thursday, the Yukon Party put out a news release patting itself on the back for supporting a resolution introduced in the legislature by one of its members supporting “regulatory strength; responsible resource development.”

The news release notes that the NDP and sole Liberal member voted against the motion. The release finishes by rebuking the same for their “continued resistance to any industry or economic opportunity in the territory.” Several Yukon Party caucus members dutifully tweeted a link to the press release.

The actual text of the resolution reads as follows: “THAT this House urges the Government of Yukon to ensure that Yukon’s regulatory regimes are clear, consistent and competitive with other jurisdictions, while also providing for sustainable and environmentally responsible development of Yukon’s resources.”

Like showing “zero tolerance” for “barbaric cultural practices,” it is hard to imagine how anyone could oppose “clear, consistent and competitive” regulations which provide for “sustainable and environmentally responsible development.”

Opposition leader Liz Hanson pointed out the obvious, noting that the resolution was intended to provide implicit support for controversial amendments to YESAA that are currently before Parliament. The text of the resolution itself bears a striking similarity to the premier’s defence of the YESAA amendments when he spoke before the Senate about a month ago.

Strangely (and clearly by design) neither the resolution nor the news release made any mention whatsoever of YESAA. I can’t be the only person who finds it odd that a resolution so clearly aimed at supporting a particular policy makes absolutely no mention of the same.

The Yukon Party was counting on Yukoners taking its resolution and release at their decontextualized face value. The party used what would be known in the study of propaganda as “glittering generalities” – fluffy yet empty words employed to create the appearance that one is saying something meaningful.

The fact that they were further promulgated on Twitter—the stupefying 140-character social-media venue where reasoned debate goes to die – is further evidence of an intent to mislead.

Technical amendments to a statute with a longwinded name are boring and complicated – not to mention controversial. “Clear, consistent and competitive” regulations which provide for “sustainable and environmentally responsible development,” on the other hand, are something we can get on board with.

This type of political theatre is aimed at today’s low-information voters who are easily swayed, take politicians at their face value, and don’t look behind this type of generic assertions.

This same practice is employed by politicians at all levels of government of all political stripes with depressing regularity. But it is a cynical tactic, and we should demand that our politicians rise above it.

Voters bear much of the blame for this phenomenon. The constant supply of carefully orchestrated catchy sound bites will continue as long as there is demand for “news in a nutshell.” As long as we insist on allocating only a tiny fraction of our day to understanding the world around us, and only skim the headlines for our news, politicians will continue to give us what we want.

This is not a problem that can be legislated away. We can only control our own vulnerability to being misled by taking the time to understand the issues that affect our lives.

Kyle Carruthers is born and raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.