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    Harper government abuse of power

    Excerpt from About Canada. Toronto: Civil Sector Press, 2012. ©Copyright Earle Gray.

    Charges leveled against the Harper government have been limited to abuse of power, rather than financial gain for party, politicians, or supporters. The list of abuses, alleged and established, is daunting: waging war on the civil service; covering up allegations of complicity in the torture (and possibly extrajudicial killings and disappearances) of Afghan war prisoners; contempt of Parliament; silencing critics by coercion, intimidation, firings and character assassination; illegally disclosing private, personal information; illegally withholding public information; promoting export sales of cacogenic Canadian asbestos, in the face of universal condemnation; policies that curb news media reporting of government activity; sponsoring crime legislation for political advantage in the knowledge of evidence that such policies do not work.

    CIVIL SERVICE WAR

    “A series of highly publicized confrontations between the Harper Conservatives and senior government officials, as well as direct intervention in the operation of arms’ length agencies, elimination of advisory bodies and rejection of expert advice have led many observers to conclude that the Harper government is at war with its public service.” Brooke Jeffrey, political science professor.[i]

    The Harper administration is not the first national Conservative (or Progressive Conservative) government to display “suspicion, mistrust and a deep-seated conviction that the public service is biased in favour of the Liberal Party,” as noted by Jeffrey. But the degree of conflict between the Harper administration and the public service seems unprecedented.

    Undoubtedly the Harper administration is frustrated by a conviction that the bureaucracy too often frustrates its philosophy, policy and programs.  Much of the bureaucracy, in turn, is convinced the government employs intimidation, coercion, character assassination, subversion of good governance and democratic practice, and even illegal means, in pursuit of its objectives.

    More than half the federal civil servants surveyed in a Queen’s University study said they had been subjected to “undue political interference” by the political staff of the prime minister, cabinet ministers and other senior politicians. Most felt that the political staffers were not capable of handling their responsibilities, and lacked adequate training for their jobs. [ii]

    Civil servants claim the government has failed to live up to its promise to protect those who report wrongdoing in the government. That promise was a key plank in the 2006 Conservative election platform. “We have worked to protect whistleblowers by passing ironclad protections for those whistleblowers in the Federal Accountability Act,” Pierre Poiliovre, Harper’s parliamentary secretary, told the Commons in 2007.

    But that’s not what’s happening, according to a report released in February 2012 by the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner. Civil servants who participated in 10 focus groups across the country claimed that whistleblowers face reprisals, while wrongdoing is often unreported.

    “Most employees see reprisals for disclosing wrongdoing as a real possibility, primarily because of the subtle form they can take,” the report states. “What this means concretely in the minds of many participants was that the disclosure of wrongdoing would end up being the one punished, not the perpetrator.”

    Lack of advancement, exclusion from meetings, poor performance evaluations, and being ostracized were perceived as forms of reprisal.

    Lack of anonymity and protection for whistleblowers as well as little awareness of how to report wrongdoing, were seen as problems.

    “Show me the stories” of whistleblowers “that have happy endings,” said one civil servant, quoted in the report. “Show me the disclosure who got a promotion and the wrongdoer who lost his job.”

    The career of Canada’s first protector of whistleblowers ended with suggestions of a coverup. Christine Ouimet was officially Canada’s first Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, appointed in 2007. During her 38 months in office, she  found no wrongdoing in the federal public service, despite receiving 228 complaints. When Auditor General Sheila Fraser investigated, Ouimet resigned, with a $530,000 severance package that prohibits her from talking about what went on. Two months later, Fraser’s report concluded that allegations of improper performance by Ouimet “are founded.” Complaints of wrongdoing and reprisals against complainers were said to have been either dismissed, not investigated, or the investigations not completed.

    A further investigation by auditing firm Deloitte and Touche for the Integrity Commission found no less than 114 problems in handling files. David Hutton, executive director of advocacy group Federal Accountability Initiative Reform (FAIR), complained that the investigation was too restrictive, because auditors lacked power to interview either Ouimet’s employees or whistleblowers. “There are mishandled cases” that are four to six years old, Hutton told the Ottawa Citizen May 18, 2011. “Those whistleblowers have been living with this, some suffering reprisals and losing their jobs.”

    THOSE WHO DISASGREED

    The number of senior civil servants who have disagreed with the government and are no longer employed, can be seen as another indicator of the conflict between government and the civil service. The list of some of the more prominent departed was summarized in the Toronto National Post, August 18, 2010:

    “Linda Keen, president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which shut down the nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Ont. over safety concerns. The government, worried about the impact on medical isotopes, said it had lost confidence in her and terminated her appointment…

    “Pat Stogran, a vocal veterans’ ombudsman who complained of bureaucratic obstruction” did not have his term renewed.

    “Steven Sullivan, the victims of crime ombudsman, whose term was not renewed” after criticizing the government’s tough-on-crime agenda.

    “Sheridan Scott, the Competition Bureau head, who ran afoul of the environment minister and quit… after being told her appointment would not be renewed.

    “Paul Kennedy, the head of the RCMP Public Complaints Commission, who lobbied for more power for his commission, and whose term was not renewed.

    “Peter Tinsley, the chair of the Military Complaints Commission, whose appointment was not renewed in December 2009, just as his commission was investigating the controversial issue of Afghan detainee transfers.

    “Adrian Measner, president of the Canadian Wheat Board, whose appointment was terminated in December 2006, after disagreeing with the government on the board’s monopoly over the sale of barley and wheat.

    “Bernard Shapiro, the ethics commissioner who clashed repeatedly with Harper and quit suddenly in March 2007.

    “Munir Sheikh, the chief statistician of Statistic Canada, who quit… after the government killed the long-form census and then defended the move by publicly (and inaccurately) suggesting it had the support of Sheikh’s agency.”

    MUZZLED MEDIA

    Add news media to the chorus complaining about politically-slanted government information control, with a media muzzle that extends to illegal denial of public documents.

    “Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the flow of information out of Ottawa has slowed to a trickle,” the presidents of nine national and provincial legislative press galleries advised members of the Canadian Association of Journalists in an open letter, June 2010. “Cabinet ministers and civil servants are muzzled. Access to information requests are stalled and stymied by political interference. Genuine transparency is replaced by slick propaganda and spin designed to manipulate public opinion.”

    Critical journalists are said to be blackballed. Photographers and videographers are barred from public events featuring Conservative politicians. In their place, photos and footage shot by the prime minister’s press staff are blitzed to newsrooms across Canada, so that “Canadians only get a sanitized and staged version of history.” Information sought from government “scientists, doctors, regulators, auditors and policy experts” elicit email responses from “an armada of press officers who know very little or nothing about a reporter’s topic and who answer tough questions” with vetted talking points. [iii]

    Kathryn O’Hara, president of the 500-member Canadian Science Writers’ Association, followed up the CJA letter with an open letter to Harper, urging him to “Take off the muzzle” from government scientists. Scientists, wrote O’Hara, must be allowed to speak for themselves “about state of ice in the Arctic, dangers in the food supply, nanotechnology, salmon viruses, radiation monitoring, or how much the climate will change.[iv]

    O’Hara cited the experience of Fisheries and Oceans scientist Kristia Miller. Miller was denied permission to respond to media inquiries about her groundbreaking studies of West Coast salmon diseases. She was also told not to attend workshops at which scientists were to discuss the issue, because the Department didn’t want the media to hear what she might say.

    Globe and Mail reporter Mark Hume likened the government’s muzzle on scientists to “a paranoid dictatorship.”

    WITHHOLDING INFORMATION

    Complaints about delays, denials and blacked-out (redacted) responses to information requested under the Access to Information Act were given weight by Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, in a March 2011 special report to Parliament.

    On July 28, 2009, a reporter with Canadian Press submitted, under the Act, a request for a 133-page report on the management of the government’s real estate portfolio. Thirty days later, the last date for legal compliance with a request, the document was in the mailroom of the Department of Public Works and Government Services, ready for delivery. It was retrieved from the mailroom and withheld in response to instructions emailed from Sebastein Togneri, a political staffer in the office of Public Works Minister Christian Paradis. Fifty-two days later, 15 pages of the document were released to Canadian Press.

    “Ministerial staff members have no authority to make any decisions under the Act or give any directions to institution officials,” Legault ruled in her report to Parliament about the incident. “There are serious consequences for the rights of requesters when political staff members overstep their mandate and compromise a process that was designed to be objective and non-partisan.”

    Legault also expressed concern about officials who fail to say “no” to unauthorized requests from political staffers, and about provisions of the Act that make it impossible for her to refer “interference involving political staff members to law enforcement agencies.”

    EXPORTING CANCER

    Promoting exports of Canadian asbestos promotes sales of a toxic substance more deadly than cigarettes. Its use in Canada is virtually prohibited, millions of dollars have been spent to remove asbestos installation in buildings, its use is banned in scores of countries, including the Europe Union and the United States. Yet the Canadian and Quebec governments continued to support sales of Canadian asbestos to those impoverished countries that have not yet banned its use. Canada’s action is opposed by the World Health Organization; the International Labour Organization; 137 of the 143 member nations of the Rotterdam Convention on hazardous substances; 26 Canadian health and environmental organization; the federal government’s own Department of Health,[v] and more than 100 scientists from 28 countries, who wrote an open letter to Quebec Premier Jean Charest.[vi] “In Quebec itself, exposure to asbestos is the single biggest cause of worker deaths,” the scientists wrote. “Your government is spending millions of dollars to remove asbestos while at the same time exporting it to developing countries and telling them it is safe.”

    Hope of resuscitating Canada’s 130-year old asbestos mining industry—shut in for more than a year—died September 4, 2012, with the new government of Premier Pauline Marois Quebec committed to cancelling a $58 million loan to reopen the Jeffrey mine in the town of Asbestos.

    “The Harper government has this weird contempt for solid evidence,” Jeffrey Simpson wrote in the Globe and Mail. “Some day, many years and many failures from now, it will fall to some other government to undo these matters.”

    Endnotes



    [i] Brooke Jeffrey, Concordia University, Department of Political Science,  Canadian Political Science Association, May 17, 2011.

    [ii] Birch, Julie and Thomas Axworthy, Closing the Implementation Gap: Improving capacity, accountability, performance and human resource quality in the Canadian and Ontario public service.” Centre for the Study of Democracy, Queen’s University, 2010.

    [iii] Buzzetti, Hélèn et al, “An Open Letter to Canadian Journalists, Canadian Journalist Association, http://www.caj.ca/?p=692by, accessed February 5, 2012.

    [v] CBC, June 13, 2011. CBC reported that the federal government rejected the department’s advice that Canada join more than 100 other nations in approving listing asbestos as a hazardous substance under the Rotterdam convention.

    [vi] Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, April 10, 2010.

    TAGS: Democracy. Power. Abuse. Canada. Government. Parliament. Stephen Harper. Authoritarianism. Civil Service. News media.

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