Column for August 20: Rodney's marriage, and Statscan's goof

The limits of gossip…

the possibilities of statistics

The news that Premier Rodney MacDonald and his wife of 12 years are splitting up is one of those sad, icky stories where, as a journalist, you can’t win. By commenting on it, even to suggest it is a private matter, you help keep it alive in the public prints.

That acknowledged, there are a couple of points worth noting about the media’s reporting of the premier’s marriage breakdown.

It began, as such stories usually do, with a cover piece in the latest issue of Frank magazine. Frank has a long, and mostly healthy tradition, of making the private lives of public figures public — from John Buchanan’s financial problems, and the secret trust fund set up to supplement his salary, to Pierre Trudeau’s love child.

Journalists used to ignore such stories, except, of course, to gossip knowingly about them at parties. But now — thanks in part to Frank as well as the increasing global tabloid-ization of all our media (can you say JonBenet Ramsey?) — we’re no longer nearly so reticent to dirty our hands, and other people’s laundry.

Which, up to a point, is a good thing.

Even the august Globe and Mail — which took six months after Frank’s Trudeau outing to even mention, tepidly and almost in passing, that he had fathered a daughter out of wedlock — was quick to weigh in on MacDonald’s family life, albeit in its own condescendingly Toronto way.

“What would most likely pass for garden-variety personal problems in larger urban centres,” sniffed the Globe, “rates as juicy political gossip among the chattering classes in Halifax and… Inverness.” (The Globe might want to take a look back at its own coverage of then-Ontario Premier Mike Harris’s separation from his wife to see what Ontario’s chattering classes considered garden-variety juicy.)

The simple fact, of course, is that we were all looking for some larger “public interest” justification for our sudden, salacious interest in the premier’s personal affairs.

We found it easily enough (why do politicians make it so easy?) in the Conservative party’s now ironic spring election campaign slogan: “Our home, our families, our future.” Was MacDonald still our “family values” premier, we wanted/needed to know… and, oh by the way, was it true about him and his wife?

MacDonald made the initial mistake of trying to avoid the question — and reporters. Dumb, and dumber. That only increased the media feeding frenzy. After one recent cabinet meeting, two dozen reporters swarmed the premier, all eager to know about his marriage meltdown.

The premier finally said what he should have said at the outset, confirming the basic fact but then adding it was “a personal issue and I won’t be discussing it further.”


The truth is that, at one level — that of transparency — we do have a right to know the basic facts about our political leaders’ personal lives, including the official state of their marriages. Beyond that, it’s nobody’s business but their own. And good luck to them.

Enough said.


Perhaps it’s just the last of the too-little summer heat affecting what passes for my mind, but I couldn’t help but puzzle at the implications of last week’s news that Statistics Canada has been accidentally understating the country’s inflation rate for five years.

Thanks to an error in a computer formula, Statscan reported that the cost of a hotel room in Canada dropped by 16 per cent between early 2001 and March 2006 when, in fact, it increased by 32 per cent. The actual impact of this screw up in one component of the package of goods and services Stascan uses to compile the consumer price index was modest — about 0.1 per cent on average per month. But the fact that the error slipped under the radar of not only the number crunchers at Statscan but also of dozens of bank and government economists, researchers and business reporters for so long makes you wonder. The consumer price index, after all, can affect everything from Bank of Canada lending rates to wage settlements, even government economic policies.

If the powers that be are making their decisions solely on the basis of what the statistics say instead of what their gut tells them — who would really have guessed that the cost of a night in the Sheraton had been going down month after month for five years? — perhaps the best way to control inflation is simply to fudge the numbers.

If we understate the rate of inflation, perhaps we can actually help to keep it in check by reducing wage adjustments in collective agreements, for example, and lowering the increase in pension payouts.

Who knew solving the nation’s problems could be so easy?

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