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Cooking up numbers for political gain

There’s a funny thing about numbers: they often prove a double edged sword.
In the hands of politicians they can be used to confuse issues and add seeming credibility to the most preposterous of ideas. In the hands of an auditor, they can be used to bring a government to account.
That’s exactly what happened in Ottawa this week when the federal environment commissioner released an audit of various government programs put in place to reduce air emissions. Considering transportation’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions (25% of the total contributions) our industry is certain to come under increased scrutiny in the future so environment auditor Scott Vaughn’s scathing audit of existing programs is something in which transportation professionals and stakeholders should take a keen interest.
In a nutshell, Vaughn’s audit found that the Conservative government has no way to track the environmental benefits of two programs it claimed would contribute to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, the Conservatives pushed through a transit tax credit back in 2006 they claimed would cut emissions by 220,000 tonnes per year. Yet Vaughn concludes that in fact this tax credit will in fact lead “lead to negligible reductions” based on the government’s own estimates. From their initial claim of a reduction of 220,000 tonnes each year from 2008 to 2012, the Conservatives had to drastically downgrade their own estimates of average annual reduction to 35,000 tonnes.
Just as bad, the means necessary to properly measure the actual impact of the tax credit have yet to be created.
The environment commissioner’s audit also found “no scientific basis” for the government’s claim that a $1.5 billion climate-change fund for the provinces will result in an 80-megatonne cut in emissions.
How can the government possibly be that far off in their estimates? Can you imagine how safe your job would be if your estimates of future growth or costs or whatever were that far off?
It’s not Vaughn’s job to comment on what he thinks caused such as shameful difference between government estimates and reality. But I’ll take a stab at it. Perhaps accuracy was not a major consideration when the Conservatives began touting the public transit tax credit? Perhaps it was politically expedient for a party that back in 2006 was looking to attract more of the urban vote and recognized spending on transit as a time-proven way to entice urban voters.
But the end result is more government waste and a loss of credibility for the government’s environment plans at a critical time.
Remember, this is the same party that during the debate a couple of years ago over whether Canada should start living up to its Kyoto commitments produced an analysis that claimed that by 2009, over 275,000 Canadians would lose their jobs, electricity bills would jump by 50% after 2010, prices at the pump would shoot up by 60%, and natural gas prices to heat homes would double, if they had to meet their Kyoto Accord targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is a government used to playing loose with numbers when it wants to.
Lest you think this another stab at the Conservatives (a party for which I readily admit to having worked for on a volunteer basis in the past but which I have come to loathe in recent years) I’m not sure the Liberals would have done much better. The reality is that despite three national emission reduction “plans” – “wishful thinking” would be a more appropriate word considering all the effort that went into them – dating all the way back to Jean Chretien’s Liberal government and Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government, all we’ve done over the past 20 years is watch our GHG emissions climb relentlessly. Overall, we are on track to be about 30% above the Kyoto Protocol target for 2010.
Yes, our booming economy (remember those days?) was part of the reason why for the increase in GHG emssions, but Ottawa’s failure to lead was also a significant contributor to the mess we are in. And leadership and accountability go hand in hand.
As the environment commissioner noted in his report: “Canadians expect the government to tackle environmental degradation. The government needs to know what works, what doesn’t and why.”
His comments are only common sense. An issue as important as the environment should not be politicized. Both the public and the transportation industry stakeholders who will be feeling the pain deserve to know the government knows what it’s doing rather than cooking up numbers for political gain.

Lou Smyrlis

Lou Smyrlis

With more than 25 years of experience reporting on transportation issues, Lou is one of the more recognizable personalities in the industry. An award-winning writer well known for his insightful writing and meticulous market analysis, he is a leading authority on industry trends and statistics.
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1 Comment » for Cooking up numbers for political gain
  1. Robert D. Scheper says:

    The sword is truly double edged Lou.
    You stated “… In the hands of politicians they can be used to confuse issues and add seeming credibility to the most preposterous of ideas.”
    Politicians are not the only group who play loose with numbers. Special interest groups and people with agendas and bias’ use them regularly as well. In fact some of their numbers and assumptions are even more ignorant.
    Does anyone really think that speed limiters will save GHG? Where’s the follow up monitoring on that fiasco? A much more logical explanation is that carriers (represented by their lobby group OTA) wished to limit the competition on Ontario freight. The GHG/Safety issue was only a publicity spin to legislate a competitive advantage. But let’s leave that sleeping dog lie for now.
    I remember an “environmentalist” once wrote that Canada was a bigger polluter than China. Gross emissions in tones per square KM, is the only responsible standard to use in gauging global GHG contributions. However the writer used tonnage as it compared to population density. This was a GROSS misrepresentation of the facts. Even though China has 9.6 million square km and Canada has 10 million square km, China has 138 people per square KM compared to Canada’s 3 (a misrepresentation of 4,600%). It just goes to show the writer had no intention to relate truth, only to further their personal bias and stimulate national concern. If a person can’t find truth to their agenda, they fabricate numbers and apply bogus or “politically correct” explanations to the meaningless data. Unfortunately, it too often works on the populous “Lemmings” of society.
    Harvard Business Review had an awesome cartoon in their December 2008 issue. The drawing was irrelevant. The caption said it all “86.4% of people use phony statistics to get their point across.”

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