Talking Trash: the Harper Regime’s Transformation of Canadian Priorities

Sourcing the Truth
Writing the story about the Experimental Lakes Area  (ELA) was an education in itself of the way the Federal government is shaping the ability of bureaucrats and scientists to inform the public about science and good policy.

Scientists are dramatically curtailed in their ability to answer questions about science to the public through the media.

Communications branches and media advisers are monitoring and deciding on what messages the public gets to hear and who the media gets to talk to.

I emailed directly four ELA scientists, two of which replied they were happy to talk and seeking department approval and cc’ed me on their requests to be able to discuss the ELA.

In one request the scientist reminded the communications staff they had taken media training. I understood this as subtle communication these scientists are being muzzled by the communications policy set out by the PMO and department staff.

Instead of being able to talk with the scientists who actually work at and manage the ELA, Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) media advisor Melanie Carkner in Ottawa arranged for me to speak with the Director-General of Ecosystems and Ocean Science David Gillis.

Gillis is an accomplished researcher but he has never used the ELA to my knowledge nor is he in expert in any research projects associated with limnology, instead he is a Marine expert.  He is also a top level bureaucrat now tasked with representing the position of the government.

At the start of our interview Gillis made a point to mention he was on the line with Carkner, and me. I have to wonder why in the first place my request was pushed up the chain and secondly why communication staff needed to be on the line with us.

My later requests to speak with scientists at the ELA through Carkner were denied because I was already provided with Gillis.

Scientific sources inside DFO told me that when they joined the department their code of ethics requires they seek permission before talking to media. They cannot publicly oppose the department’s policies and are muzzled under threat of termination for speaking to the media.

I’m not the first journalist to accuse the Federal government of muzzling scientists; I’m confirming what I’ve heard from the lips of DFO sources.

The Shift to Commercialization

I take it seriously because I myself have worked in the public service. I’ve been told of the decline experienced under the Harper regime.

This charge would also be less serious if the Conservatives had not just cut thousands of scientific jobs across departments in the last year.

When I worked in Western Economic Diversification Canada, we had recently experienced a shift in priorities and strategy under Harper. Veterans explained sustainability and community economic development had once been pillars of their agency’s mandate.

Since takeover by the conservatives those objectives had been stripped. In their place emphasis was put on commercialization and knowledge transfer to industry.

It is no longer direct subsidies anymore though. WD provided money to these centres and associations to develop technology for the entire industry. Instead of favoured companies we have favoured industries. Like hydrocarbons such as the tar sands.

Commercialization of research is a driving force behind much of the government’s policies. Scientists involving themselves in research for the public good who are not able to produce something to turn a profit may be in trouble. Harper considers them his opponents.

Ask yourself what do we do when the right decision does not have an economic benefit for industry?

I’ve sat in a conference where the goal was to save Lake Winnipeg while maximizing economic benefit. A conference hosted by the International Institute for Sustainable Development. I sat wondering the whole time, “Why we just can’t do the right thing without worrying about turning a profit.”

The reason is the economic system rewards bad decisions.

I think DFO is experiencing that same crisis. DFO’s mandate and vision is clearly tied to commercial marine fisheries and developing the technology and research to benefit those industries. When promoting economic prosperity is listed above sustainable aquatic ecosystems in your vision statement and strategic outcomes, you know your priorities are skewed not to science but industry.

The Tension Between the Truth and Politics

An experience I look back on during my internship with WD was how truth was covered up for the sake of appearances.

One of my tasks was to quantitatively evaluate projects based on performance targets established before I had arrived. I more than once experienced my supervisors coming to me and asking me to use more positive language in my evaluations of projects, especially ones deemed “political” because poor ratings could in their words embarrass the minister. I recall finding out a project had been fudging the numbers by inflating them incorrectly to maintain their funding. However, because the project was sensitive I was told I was using too much judgment in my evaluations.

Politicians are scared of the truth because it can embarrass them. There is absolutely no room for humility in our political culture anymore. Politicians who admit they were wrong lose elections. We cut off their heads at the guillotine of public opinion

I think about it this way: Harper and the rest of the Conservative party are scared of reveal the cost of growth and so-called prosperity driven by hydrocarbons to the Canadian public. If the Canadian public was certain of the detrimental consequences of the production of fossil fuels in this country, things would change. The conservatives would not be in power. So Harper must hide the truth to maintain his party’s advantage. Or maybe at the very root they fight to maintain the power of the hydrocarbon industries.

What I’m trying to draw out is the fact our politicians are being required to be afraid of failure, embarrassment, and new information. Winning the next election is so important it is inconceivable for a politician to admit their project failed or they made a mistake.

In the same way when you have staked your political capital on the tar sands you will muzzle scientists from revealing the facts about pollution. You will cut science programs. What matters is staying in power. Your decisions from small to large orient towards that goal, and your humility feigns very quickly.

We need to allow our leaders to admit they were wrong and actually chart a new direction. But this is what liberal democracy has done for us.