Monday, August 9, 2010

Canada's 'addiction to rule-making'

Joseph Brean, National Post · Saturday, Aug. 7, 2010
If a skeptic was to wonder why Canadian authorities seem to respond to every tragedy by proposing intrusive new rules that can have impacts far beyond the problems they purport to be addressing, Frank Furedi has the answer: Canada has a cultural "addiction to rule-making."
It is a world leader in the "intrusification" of everyday life, says Mr. Furedi, a sociologist who likens the impulse to using rules like religion to bring solace from grief and fear.
"Every time a child dies, somebody will say — either the police or the coroner or a lawyer — that the lessons must be learned," said Mr. Furedi, a professor at the University of Kent and author of The Politics of Fear.
"We cannot just accept that this was a death. We've got to give that death meaning, and the way to give it meaning is to pass a law."
Consider the most recent evidence. A law that came into force this week in Ontario bans drivers younger than 22 from having any alcohol in their system. Another forces employers to provide antiharassment training for their staff and watch for signs of domestic violence.
And Ontario's acting chief coroner has responded to what he called a "slight surge" in the number of fatal drownings by announcing a comprehensive review looking for common factors, with an eye to more and better safety rules for beaches and pools.
Each initiative comes at least partly in response to a highly publicized death, such as the murder of a nurse by her doctor lover at the hospital where they both worked, a car crash that killed three young men, and the drowning of a young boy at a backyard pool party.
Mr. Furedi, who grew up and studied in Montreal, said he sees this impulse everywhere. In the U.K., it is mocked by tabloids as "Elf 'n' safety," a make-work project for "clipboard killjoys." But Prof. Furedi thinks it is especially strong in countries of immigrants, such as Canada and Australia, where political structures are newer and more malleable.
"Canadian political elites are confused about their roots and what they are all about," he said, which makes it easy to be seduced by the latest "cosmopolitan" social planning scheme cooked up by policy experts.
"If you leave it to so-called experts, often you are very unpleasantly surprised," he said. "What's really happening here is an attempt in a world where we are morally confused and disoriented, to gain meaning from individual tragedies."
He called it a throwback to medieval times, a belief that nothing happens without somebody causing it, that every natural phenomenon has a moral aspect. Modern safety regulations, like witchcraft or divine retribution, are based on a faulty premise about who is responsible for stuff happening, and what can be done about it. Like religion, they are an effort to bring meaning to a cruel and random universe.
"Backlash comes and goes," Prof. Furedi said. "But the intrusification of everyday life remains a very powerful imperative. We have not reached a limit."
He said the impulse crosses political lines, with the left-wing focus on political correctness matched by the right-wing preoccupation with the sexualization of children.
Much of this rule-creep is driven by the use and abuse of statistics, currently a hot topic in Canada, given the recent resignation of the head of Statistics Canada over the mandatory census scandal, and Treasury Board President Stockwell Day's explanation that Canada needs new prisons because of a spike in "unreported crime."
The review of drownings, for example, in response to 54 deaths since May as compared with 43 in the same period last year, recalls the recent panic in Toronto over pedestrian deaths. In that, a statistically insignificant spike in pedestrian deaths over a two-week period was whipped into a mass delusion, in which police blitzed downtown intersections ticketing jaywalkers, and even Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty weighed in with his fear that there might be "something new that's happening that wasn't there before."
All this, when the city's own manager of Traffic Safety for Transportation Service had data showing that this was clearly a "Poisson burst," a characteristic of random events, which by their nature will not be evenly spaced in time, and so therefore will sooner or later occur in bunches.
Ontario's workplace antiharassment training, while well intentioned, is awkward in practice. Witness one online tutorial offered to help employees comply with the legislation. It starts with a montage of news reports about hostage takings and workplace massacres set to an ominous soundtrack. Then, in a series of questions about harassment, it explains such inappropriate workplace behaviours as: using a "harsh" tone of voice, "suggesting revenge," shaking a fist or pointing a finger in someone's face, carrying a weapon to work, "displaying symbols associated with hostile or violent groups," hitting, shoving, scratching, grabbing, vandalism, rape, robbery and murder.
If this "training" was not already mandatory, it would be satire.
It came in response to, and was partly inspired by, the 2005 death of Lori Dupont, a nurse killed in a Windsor hospital by a doctor with whom she was romantically involved. It is particularly reflected in the new regulation that "employers who are aware, or ought reasonably to be aware, that domestic violence may occur in the workplace must take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect a worker at risk of physical injury."
This desire to wring lessons from tragedy also motivates the many laws named for children, often after an impassioned campaign by a grieving parent.
The alcohol law, for example, marks the successful conclusion of a campaign by Tim Mulcahy, whose son Tyler was killed, along with two friends, in a 2008 crash in Ontario cottage country that police blamed on alcohol and speed.
Prof. Furedi said this law is particularly illegitimate, because it purports to be about drinking and driving, but is really only about drinking, like health advice and social etiquette disguised as traffic law.
He recalled being a teenager in Montreal with a fake ID to get around age restrictions on buying alcohol. "I thought it was stupid, but it's a legitimate law to have," he said. This alcohol driving ban is different. He called it an attempt to modify behaviour opportunistically, like a sexual education course that is motivated by morality.
"They think their job is to save people from themselves," he said of politicians who promote rules designed to send social messages, and that this reveals their "contempt" for "people who cannot be relied on to manage their everyday existence."

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