Just how much freedom should federal civil servants have to speak their minds during a national election campaign?
It’s a question worth raising after a pair of stories this week that have suggested the governing Conservative party isn’t taking too kindly to civil servants and federal scientists straying off message — or having any message whatsoever.
A story published Thursday by the National Post reported that a “cone of silence” had been placed over Banff National Park that prevents any federal employee from speaking to media, “even on operation issues such as wolves chasing deer through the townsite, bears being killed and rescues by the public safety team.”
The restriction, which is believed to have started on Aug. 2 when the election campaign began, is based on Parks Canada’s interpretation of the rules surrounding the campaign period. This has apparently been confirmed by several park sources who told the newspaper off the record that they aren’t allowed to talk publicly during the campaign.
Only a week earlier, public service unions were up in arms after employees in several government departments, including Justice, Shared Services and National Defence, received memos reminding them of their obligations regarding outside activity with the fall federal election approaching.
“It suggests that if you participate, that if you get politically active, that that’s going to have an impact on your job, that you might be terminated or otherwise disciplined,” Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, told Ottawa Metro News.
Then just yesterday, the National Post reported that a federal scientist ran afoul of the federal government’s edict by writing and performing a highly political protest song that called for voters to get rid of the Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.
Tony Turner, an Environment Canada scientist in habitat planning, was recently placed on leave with pay while the government investigates his song — called “Harperman” — for which a music video was posed on YouTube last June and had received about 48,000 hits before the Post story ran.
The official line is that Mr. Turner has breached the public service’s ethics code that lays out expected behaviours for civil servants when they join the government.
The Harper government has become well known for the heavy-handed message control it has exerted upon the civil service over the last decade. And for years the Tories have been accused of muzzling federal scientists by controlling who they’re allowed to talk to, what they’re allowed to talk about, and how much information they’re allowed to release.
Earlier this year, former Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologist Steve Campana went to the CBC with his own experiences of strict directives, cumbersome approval procedures and arbitrary media rejections while working with the agency. He said the government had created a toxic atmosphere.
All Canadians have the right to speak their minds. Preventing Canadian citizens, whether they be scientists or office workers, from exercising their right to talk to media or restricting their social media habits because of some nebulous concerns of partisan messaging is an oppressive action by this government.
Surely scientists should be trusted to speak to media about their findings or comment on the latest available science regarding the environment, natural habitats, health and medicine, or wildlife. Unfortunately, the reality is that those findings would likely conflict with Conservative rhetoric and stated policies. And that’s the fear, of course.
But to be fair to the Conservatives, any civil servant who does speak his or her mind — or who writes protest songs — should be wary of the consequences of their actions. What business owner would be expected to simply ignore the actions of an employee who badmouths his own company — especially in a highly public way? As we’ve said before, freedom of expression doesn’t mean freedom from consequence.
The problem here is that in the government’s haste to avoid embarrassing comments from federal public servants, it has made itself look foolish and overly paranoid by preventing scientists and public officials from doing their jobs.